What’s in a name?

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From the Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

One of the biggest barriers to entry into ancient Rome — both reading about it, and writing about it — has to be the very complicated naming conventions. In a status-obsessed society like ancient Rome, a name functioned like an identity card. One’s social status was immediately apparent in the structure of the name itself. The triple-barreled name we are familiar with — Gaius Julius Caesar, for example — was the privilege of Roman citizens only. Slaves were permitted just one name.

Another problem: everyone was named after his or her father. This tradition goes on to the point of absurdity: when Marcus had a son, he was also Marcus. When Marcus had a daughter, she was Marcia. If he had two daughters, they would be called Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger. There were surprisingly few first names (praenomen) for the upper classes, who recycled the names of previous generations. In the darkest moments of my research, it seemed that everyone was named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

And there weren’t enough family names (nomen) to go around. Hence the need for a third name, the cognomen, to distinguish one branch of the family from another. The cognomen was often given to a child by his parents, or by general consensus from the community. The name could be descriptive of someone’s appearance, occupation or origin. Marcus Tullius Cicero, for example — Cicero means “chickpea.” Perhaps this branch of the family farmed chickpeas, or perhaps the original patriarch had a wart at the end of his nose that looked like a chickpea; by the time Cicero was practicing law, the original meaning of the chickpea had been forgotten. Cicero’s good friend and Grecophile Titus Pomponius Atticus gave himself his cognomen, Atticus (“Man of Attica,”) after the Greek region where Athens is located.

These third names are often descriptive, amusing or uncomplimentary: Brutus (Stupid), Dentatus (Toothy), Bibulus (Drunkard), Cincinattus (Curly Haired). Does the Sicilian Mafia nickname custom (Vinny “the Chin” Gigante) spring from this ancient Roman tradition? Sometimes the general community would give a man a third name to recognize a military victory, i.e. when Nero Claudius Drusus was nicknamed Germanicus (Victor over the Germans), or a particular virtue, such as Pompey Magnus (the Great). Eventually, these third names became hereditary.

Slaves were given names by their owners. Sometimes, they were named after their geographical origin; many slaves were called Delos, for example, a major slave trading port in Greece. However, most of the funerary inscriptions that we know of come from imperial times, when few slaves were being imported, and the epitaphs of slaves show that even in imperial times, they were still carrying Greek names. “One theory holds that the Greek names emphasize the slave’s outsider status,” writes Christopher Francese, author of Ancient Rome in So Many Words. “These foreign, non-Roman names reinforce the social isolation and marginality of the slave in Roman society. Perhaps, but we need to keep in mind that Greece had also long been known to the Romans as the land of luxury, home of high culture, fine consumer goods, art, tapestries, food, and the good life in general. It was pleasing somehow to see this soft, luxurious stuff as non-Italian, an imported self-indulgence.”


Hermes, god of trade, athletes, travel and communication.

Some slaves were named after Greek gods. Hermes — the god of trade, athletes, travel and messenger with wings on his sandals — was a popular name. What a cruel irony for someone whose power was so limited! When a slave was freed, he took on his master’s name. So, hypothetically, if Hermes the slave were freed by his master, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, his name would be Gnaeus Domitius Hermes, written in documents G. Domitius l. Hermes, the “l” standing for “libertus,” freedman. The freedman’s children would add their own, probably Roman names, to their father’s new name, omitting the Greek slave name, the better to erase their history of slavery. Thus, the child of this hypothetical freedman would be Gnaeus Domitius Marcus. If a woman freed a slave, he would take on her father’s first and second name, plus his slave name. Freedwomen took the feminine form of their master’s (or mistress’s) second name plus their slave name.

If all this is confusing, remember that the ancient Romans didn’t have thousands of entertainment choices to distract them, and that everyone’s life depended on treating powerful people with the proper deference. An aristocrat out for a walk would have had heralds who cleared the road and announced his name as he and his entourage entered a public space. A slave called a nomenclator would stand behind the host at a banquet, and whisper the names of the guests to him as they arrived, so that the host could greet everyone properly, according to their status.

Because I wanted everything in my epistolary novel Quid Pro Quo to be historically correct, I originally insisted on using my characters’ full names. It would have been a tremendous faux pas to refer to an ancient Roman noble by just his first name, especially in correspondence. However, I soon saw that my early readers were getting bogged down in the names, no doubt because there wasn’t a nomenclator to identify the characters. So after the first mention of a character in the book, I referred to him or her by the name the character was known by informally. I did include a lengthy Dramatis Personae in the beginning of the book, to help people keep track. One hopes that the reader dives directly into the book, and doesn’t get discouraged by all the names up front.

Originally, I had a Maximus, a Marius, a Marcia and a Maxima in one family. I changed Marcia’s name to Patricia, even though she would have been a Marcia, named after her father, Marcus Cluvius Rufus. Her brother, also named Marcus Cluvius Rufus, was a real person, an historian, magistrate, and an eyewitness who played a small role in the events surrounding the assassination of Caligula. His work was cited by later historians, Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Flavius Josephus. Marcus Cluvius Rufus existed; his sisters are my own invention. Therefore, I changed their names to Patricia the Elder and Patricia the Younger, and have to assume the reader will be grateful to have one fewer “M” name to keep track of in the Trebellius family. I still think of them as Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger, but never mind.


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