Roman names

Hold onto your hats, especially if you are female…

By Lucius Sestius Quirinalis’ time, most Roman male citizens had three names-

  1. the praenomen – Lucius
  2. the nomen – Sestius
  3. the cognomen – Quirinalis

Unless, of course he had only two, such as Gaius Maecenas….

The praenomen

This was the name chosen for a baby boy by his parents, and there was little choice or opportunity for imagination. Often, the eldest son was named after father or grandfather. The pool of names available was limited too: Lucius, Publius, Marcus, Gaius, Gnaius, Quintus, Sextus and Titus were popular. Less commonly, we find Aulus, Manius, Decimus and Tiberius.

The nomen

This was the main “family” name. Girls were given the feminized form of this name.

The cognomen

At first, it seems that cognomina were given to individuals for a personal reason – maybe a head of striking red hair resulted in a cognomen of “Rufus”. The cognomen “Cicero” means “chickpea” and some people have suggested that an ancestor of the orator Cicero may have had a peculiarly-shaped nose to be awarded this cognomen! Names could also be awarded as an honour after a military victory, such as Publius Scipio Africanus. Pompey the Great was given the cognomen “Magnus” after his meteoric rise under the Dictator Sulla, and used this rather than his father’s cognomen, Strabo. This shows the fluidity and usefulness of cognomina: in a world of almost identical names between the generations, it could be very useful to have a cognomen that made one stand out. The Caecilius Metellus family were numerous and nearly all called Quintus: so we find it useful that so many of them gained cognomina – Pius, Creticus, Dalmaticus, Nepos, Celer….

Female names

A Roman girl was given the feminine form of her father’s nomen – Tullia, Sestia and so on. But where there was a need, you could add names to make it clear which of your daughters called Tullia you meant. If you had two daughters for example you could add “Major ” and “Minor”. If you had three or more, you could add “Prima” (the first one), “Secunda” (the second one) and “Tertia” (the third one). Sometimes a woman could add her father’s cognomen – Livia Drusilla, Caecilia Metella. You could always make it clear which of the Clodia sisters you were referring to by adding her husband’s name – so “Clodia Metelli” would mean “Clodia, the wife of Metellus”. We know diminutives were used, particularly within a family – Cicero often refers to his daughter Tullia as “Tulliola” (“little Tullia”), and Junia Tertia could be known as “Tertulla” (“little Tertia”). I have yet to find an example of a woman taking her mother’s name, though there are hints. When I have tracked one down, I shall add it!


On the grounds that they were human beings, I have assumed that the Romans used nicknames. Apart from anything else the lack of variety in praenomina must have made this widespread.

So why did Gaius Maecenas only have two names? He was a Roman citizen, after all, living at a time when everybody used at least three names. Some later sources have bestowed an extra name upon him, “Cilnius” but this has been questioned. In the end, as with so much about the Roman world, we don’t really know.

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