Below we provide an insight of ancient Roman names, lists of plebeian and upper class names and common names found in graffiti. The ancient Roman naming system is outlined. We also discuss how newborn infants and Roman children were given their names as part of the process of becoming registered Roman citizens.
Naming newborn children
Newborn children, if and when recognized by their father, would receive their name after more than a week from birth. ie once they had lost their umbilical cord. The writer Macrobius (sat.) tells us this was traditionally 9 days for boys and 8 for girls. An event called the “nominalia” would be celebrated for the occasion. Family members and friends were invited to a banquet, at the end of which the baby would be officially recognized and its name would be announced.
The event occurred on a day generally known as the “dies lustricus” – a ritual of washing and presentation in front of the altar of the family gods, the “lararium”. Sacrifices would be made to the gods more closely associated with children such as Apollo and Minerva.
During the period of the Empire, all newborn Roman citizens had to be registered at the local council within a month of birth. The father would be given a copy of the birth registration certificate which contained the baby’s details, counter-signed by witnesses.
The system of ancient Roman names: first names and last names…
Ancient Roman names varied over time. As Roman civilization grew in size, population, and social complexity, so too did the way in which people were named: During the archaic period one name such as “Romulus” was sufficient. Each individual was essentially a member of one of the three constituent tribes (hence the name “tri-be”).
The tradition developed to three names, particularly so for the upper classes (Equestrian and Patrician) although plebeians and liberti also had access to a similar array of names: praenomen -nomen- cognomen and also a nickname could be tagged onto the end to enable a further differentiation – a “signum”. The complexity of men’s names developed and enabled differentiation more readily than that of women – presumably an indication of the social imbalance between men and women, even though through time women were to gain some ground.
The number and complexity of names varied through time as well as social position. Inscriptions have shown us the great variety of naming standards which could be adopted. Sometimes as many as 7 names were reached, by the inclusion of the father/parentage, tribe, and country of provenance.
Plebeians could also have a praenomen and nomen although recognisably of lower ranking families. Freed slaves, liberti, would also have Roman names: borrowed from the master who had set them free.
A relatively simple list of first names such as Caius, Titus etc (see list below)
Womens’ names were generally taken straight from their gens (but turned into a feminine form). So a “Flavia” was a woman born of the Flavii gens (clan).
The family root you came from, rather like a Scottish clan. So Caius Julius Caesar was of the gens “Iulia”. This name would be common to your whole family.
Could give a good indication of social status. “Scipio” or “Caesar” are examples.
A nickname which enabled a little further differentiation. For example, Marcus Porcius Cato has been known under a variety of signums: “the elder”, “the censor” (censorious), “the wise” (sapiens)
Some common Roman first names (praenomen)
The praenomen was a simple first name. There was a relatively simple list of names parents could choose from. We give a sample list below:
Gaius, Lucius, Titus, Caius, Gneus, Appius, Aulus, Marcus, Publius, Spurius, Tiberius are a few.
These names reduced to a single letter abbreviation on roman inscriptions, for example,
L. = Lucius, Gn. = Gneus, C. = Caius…
It is interesting to see the names in Pompeii’s graffiti, listed at the bottom of the page.
Some Roman patrician names (gens)
A number of very important patrician families and dynasties survived for many hundreds of years. Some claimed extremely ancient origins and indeed divine provenance: for example Julius Caesar and Augustus, being of the gens Iulia, claimed descendency from the goddess Venus. Claims of divine descendency or relationship weren’t unusual for the ancient Roman rulers. This wasn’t unique to Rome of course, divine status was very much a favourite ploy of oriental rulers. Royal links with the divine are a relatively obvious requirement for a leader wishing to justify and set in stone his or her nomination.
Some Patrician family names: Iulii, Fabii, Cornelii, Tarquinii, Valerii, Claudii, Metellii, Antonines, Severi, Emilii, Acilii.
As in our modern languages, some names could be associated with a trade, perhaps the trade which that family was involved in. Rather like being called “smith” or “baker” or “miller” in English. In Latin there are a number of important Patrician names which are actually linked to farming products which the ancient Romans were so fond of.
Cicero came from “cicer” – a chick pea – it seems the ancestors of this great orator were linked to the culture of chickpeas. The Fabii from “faba” – broad bean and Lentuli came from the word, surprise surprise, lentils!
Lists of ancient Roman names.
For a list of Roman surnames, see the image list below which includes famous families, Roman last names (surnames) subdivided into the Patrician and Plebeian social classes.
(name extracts from Glucklich ist dieser Ort! by Vincent Hunink – A great collection of Pompeii graffiti.)
These names and graffiti raise interesting questions…
It’s interesting to notice a few names in the graffiti which allude to an actual geographical region, are possibly nicknames referring to a person who was native of that region eg Africanus, Aegyptus, Helenus.
It would be very interesting to do a complete statistical analysis of the names to attempt to determine if the graffiti might be ascribed to slaves/foreigners or even across the populations.
Does writing graffiti qualify for a suitable level of literacy in ancient Rome? and
Can it help us determine the proportion of population who could write? There are over 10,000 graffiti in Pompeii… there was a population of circa 11,000 in Pompeii…