Roman names

I have a problem; Roman names.
I am writing a novel in which there appears a young man who started life as Gaius Octavius but under the will of his great-uncle he was adopted. He took his great-uncle’s name and from the age of nineteen he insisted on being called Gaius Julius Caesar.
The problem is that to practically everyone “Gaius Julius Caesar” is the man who was the conqueror of Gaul, Dictator of Rome, assassinated in 44 BCE. We call his heir and great-nephew “Octavian” to distinguish him from the previous Julius Caesar. But it is very unlikely that his contemporaries called him Octavian.
So what is a historical novelist to do? Stick to history and force every reader to remember that the person being called Julius Caesar isn’t THAT Julius Caesar, he is the great-nephew of THAT Julius Caesar… oh drat. You see my problem. If I stick to the facts, nobody will know who he is. I have to call him Octavian, don’t I? And risk offending his shade for evermore.
Oh, and later he will drop that name anyway and become the Emperor Augustus, damn his grey-blue eyes.
This is just one problem with Roman names. Here is another. If a Roman family have a daughter she is named after her father – Marcus Tullius Cicero has Tullia, Decimus Junius Silanus has Junia and so on. And when Decimus Junius Silanus has another daughter ? She is Junia as well. And when he has a third daughter? Guess what… Well, two daughters is fine, you call the older one Junia Major and the younger one Junia Minor. But a third daughter? Well you use the Latin for “third”, and call her Junia Tertia. And if, like Mr Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” you have five daughters? Well, try not to.
And don’t get me started on first names… Roman men have (usually) three names and there is a pool of about a dozen first names (so try not to have more than twelve male characters or you will have to come up with a way of not referring to them by first names). Fathers would often give their eldest sons the same first name as themselves. This means that if you are writing a novel, don’t have any families with a father and son.
In addition, Roman men would have another name, the nomen. And usually a third name, the cognomen. And sometimes a fourth name, an extra cognomen. (this came in handy if you were one of the many named Quintus Caecilius Metellus. If you added a fourth name it gave people a chance to distinguish you from all your cousins). Of course some people like Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) stuck with just two names…
Nicknames? Yes, thank goodness. Ever heard of the Emperor Gaius? If not, how about the Emperor Caligula? Even today, one of Rome’s most famous mad emperors is known by his childhood nickname, “Little Boots”. This is where the novelist may have a chance. Just as you realise that you have introduced a fifth character called Quintus Caecilius Metellus, let inspiration strike and give a beautiful back-story explaining why, all his life, everyone called him “Stinker” – and ecce! Problem solved!

One Response

  1. Lovely! I try not to let this problem overwhelm me. I saddle my (much later) Romans with names from their other heritage – Greek, British, Pannonian, Gaulish, whatever. By the third century, there’s always mixed heritage to come to the rescue. Plus many people have dropped the trinomen thing, thank goodness.

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