Roman Family Names

The names of Roman citizens are quite simple to remark, remember and construct. The majority of the Roman citizens didn't have many or beautiful names, only the noblest and richest families were adorned with "quite a few" names.

To begin with, most male citizens had two names, a family name, nomen gentile and a personal name or first name, nomen personale. Thus, the majority of Roman males were called f.e. Gaius Marius: Gaius is the first name, Marius is the family name. For Romans, family names were very important. Basically, females had only one name, the family name (nomen gentile). Thus, a Roman woman was simply called Maria (i.e. belonging to the family of Marius).

Generally spoken, all Romans could have surnames, nicknames (cognomen), etc., especially within family life. Only the noblest and richest families could afford/were allowed to carry these surnames and nicknames with their family names. The nobler or richer (or both) a Roman got, the more names he carried or could carry. Especially during the development of time and career of a family, the names could expand, but some families never followed the fashion.

Basically, it is believed that the structure of Roman names are Italic and that the Etruscans seemed to have followed the same pattern, not really setting a trend, but following the Italic trend. The Etruscans, however, never really got to officially take on surnames or nicknames, like rich, noble and influential Romans did. I am referring to real Etruscan names now, not latinized ones. F.e. the Etruscan name Avle (first name) Velimna (family name) stayed as it was, even if the latinized version, Aulus Volumnius, could get a surname/nickname, like f.e. Miles (i.e. "the soldier").

Surnames/nicknames, cognomina, tell people about a man's personality or what he looks like. F.e. Marcus Tullius Cicero ("cicero" is a surname meaning "like a pea") apparently had, or his father/ancestor had, a wart like a pea on a visible part of his body, like his face. F.e. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus earned his surname/nickname by freeing the Roman Seas of the thread of the pirates and the adversary king Mithridates of Pontus."Magnus" means "the great" and we can assume that the man was proud of that name. But, as we have seen in Cicero's example, a surname/nickname didn't always point out someting nice or flattering.

In Rome, as the social and political structure became more and more complicated, people could be adopted by other people, who didn't have an heir, and inherit their name too. But they would always like to refer to the family were they orginally came from. Example: Publius Cornelius Scipio (the victor of Hannbal at Zama in 202 B.C.) didn't have a male heir. He came to an understanding with the family of the Aemilii, to of which Lucius Aemilius Paullus was a member, to adopt one of their sons. This young man Aemilius got adopted and got the new name P.Cornelius Scipio. To remember his origins he also took on his old family name and changed it a little: P.Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the last name meaning "of the Aemilius family"). After this young adopted Scipio had made the final victory over Carthage and devastated this city, he was given the surname "Minor" (i.e. the Younger) and his adoptive father got the surname "Maior" (i.e the Older). By the way, "Scipio" is a surname/nickname too. It means "the stick". Some ancestor apparently had been either very thin, like a wooden stick, or very mean and hard, beating his children and slaves up with a stick. Nothing, however, of this has been written down by the Roman history analists and later historians, so we will probably never know how that branch of the Cornelius family got its surname/nickname.

Another matter: family branches. Very noble and rich families consisted of huge numbers and branches were likely to appear. The surnames/nicknames also functioned as branch dividers. F.e. the Cornelius family had quite a few branches: the Cornelius Scipio, Cornelius Cinna and Cornelius Sulla branches are three examples of them.

By special assignment, Roman females, who usually never took on the family name of their husband, could inherit the family name of their deceased husband and one or more surnames/nicknames and the status that came with it. In his will, Augustus Caesar bestowed his family name and title upon his widow. She was called Livia Drusilla (i.e. "from the Livius family and the daughter of Livius Drusus) and after her husbands death, she took on the names Julia Augusta (i.e. of the Julius family, the feminin Augustus). By the way, Augustus, as everyone may well know, had been adopted and thus given another family name as well.

Thus, the Roman name system is basically quite simple, it gets more complicated in its structure with the development of Rome into a more complicated society, where family and political power go hand in hand.


Post a Comment

Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Copyright 2007 Melita Insula