In the Indogermanic area it was quite normal to have only one name in the early times and the Romans did not make an exception in this case. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome in 753 BC and his brother Remus, the sons of Mars (the god of war), are an example for that. In the following time, single names were decorated with additional expressions because they did not offer enough potentialities of differentiation. The father's name, the background or a nickname were added. The father's name envolved to a regular surname (nomen gentile) for all members of a family or clan. After some time this was not enough for precise naming, too. At least for men a nickname (cognomen) was added as a third part of the full name. It is supposed that the Romans adopted the three-name system from the Etruscians, like they did with a lot of other things. Catilina and Caenica, names ending with -na, -erna, -enna in general, seem to have their origins in Etruscian language.
A closer examination of the whole name "Scipio, the younger", leads us to the following system for Roman names:
- First name (praenomen): Publius
- Surname (nomen gentile): Cornelius
- Nickname (cognomen): Scipio
- Supplement: Minor (= "the younger")
- Honorary name: Africanus (for military achievments in Africa)
- Adoption name: Aemilianus (Reference to this origin from the clan "Aemilia", before he was adopted to a member of the clan "Cornelier")
Above all the surname (nomen gentile) took a special position. The descent of a special clan and the glorious deeds of them was held in special honour by the descendants. Iulius Caesar was descended from the clan of Iulians, who supposed to have their origins from Iulus, son of Aeneas. Always worth to notice are nicknames and honorary names (awarded by senate or emporer), because Romans liked to decorate themselves with them. The great sovereigns of the Roman empire liked to add the names of defeated nations to their own ones pointing out their glorious deeds they did for the empire. So the nichnames of Traianus "Germanicus Dacicus Pharticus" pointed to the military campaigns he led against the Germanic, Dacian and Phartian peoples.
The whole dimensions of the Roman "cult of names" is perfectly shown by the name of the first Roman emporer "Augustus".
Augustus was originally born as "Gaius Octavius". Through adoption by Iulius Caesar he earned this name. After the death of Iulius Caesar, Augustus added "Divi filius" (son of the godlike) because Caesar was "made" to a god. The Roman senate awarded Imperator (title for a general) and Augustus (honorary name) to him, so in the end Augustus bore the name "Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius Octavianus Augustus".
In Roman society first names were not as significant as nowadays. Most of the Romans were known by their nicknames, so a great variety of first names was not present like today. Nicknames were much more important than the others, so many well known Roman personalities are known by them (e.g. "Scipio"),
Abbreviations of first names
The well known abbreviations of Roman first names, posted on tombstones and documents do not remind of Roman laziness but they rather point to the superstition of "the evil eye" the Romans had. By using the abbreviations (hiding their full name) Romans hoped to escape from.
|A. - Aulus||L. - Lucius||Ser. - Servius|
|App. - Appius||M. - Marcus||Sex. - Sextus|
|C. - Gaius||M'. - Manius||Sp. - Spurius|
|Cn. - Gnaeus||P. - Publius||T. - Titus|
|D. - Decimus||Q. - Quintus||Ti(b). - Tiberius|
To simplify giving names it was quiet normal to use numbers instead of "real" names. This is a little bit strange from our point of view, but it is intelligible because of the low importance of first names. In many cases, numbers did not refer to the number of children in a family, but to the month of birth of the respective child.
|Primus (I.)||Sext(i)us, Sestius (VI.)|
|Secundus (II.)||Septimus (VII.)|
|Tertius (III.)||Octavi(an)us (VIII.)|
|Quartus (IV.)||Non(i)us (IX.)|
|Quintus (V.)||Decimus (X.)|
In most cases female names were composed of the nomen gentile and a number, if there were more than one daughter in the family.
|Cornelia Prima (I.)||Cornelia Secunda (II.)|
|Cornelia Tertia (III.)||Cornelia Quarta (IV.)|
Meaning of names
Like in many other cultures, giving names in Roman society give further details about mind, world of ideas and customs and way of life. Although some names have their origin in gods (Marcus ~ Mars; Tiberius ~ god of river Tiber) or strength and honor, the Romans prefered to use the sense of reality, powers of observation and nasty nicknames sometimes to characterize a person.
Special circumstances at birth
- Agrippa (born with feet in front)
- Manius (born in the morning)
- Servius (saved after death of mother)
- Postumus (born after death of father)
- Lucius (born at day/light)
- Luscus (the one-eyed)
- Capito (big head)
- Tuditanus (hammer head)
- Cincinnatus (curley head)
- Strabo (the cross-eyed)
Color of hair or skin
- Albi(n)us (the white)
- Flavus (the blonde)
- Niger, Nigrinus (the black)
- Rufus (the red)
- Canus (the grey)
- Brutus (idiot)
- Cato (the smart one)
- Lucro (who scoffs)
- Bibulus (who boozes)
- Frugi (the thrifty)