Roman Names (Nomenclature)

By clicking the links below or in the text you can see examples of
praenomen,     nomen,     cognomen,     tribe.

In its most fully developed form the name or nomenclature of a male Roman citizen contained six elements. First came the praenomen or forename, such as Aulus, Gaius or Lucius, generally abbreviated to the first letter only, or to two or three letters in the case of Sex(tus) and Ti(berius). Then came the nomen gentilicum this was the 'Clan' or Family name, (equivalent to our surname). Most nomen ended in -ius, like Iulius or Valerius, although there were a few rarer forms, ending in -anus or -enus. The third element was the filiation, that is, the father's name praenomen in the genitive case and filius, son, eg  L.f, Luci filius, 'son of Lucius'. This was followed by the tribe or 'voting district', of which there were 35. This too was generally abbreviated, Cl. or Cla. for Claudia, Fab. for Fabia, and so on. After the tribe came the third personal name, the cognomen, originally a private, unofficial name, or nickname. In the final place came the man's place of origin (origo), or domicile (dous), for example Celeia. The full title of say Caius Julius Quartus a legionary of the British garrison, would have been C(aius) Iulius C.(aius)f.(ilius) Cla[udia] Quartus Celeia. While men of humbler status, like Quartus and the other common soldiers in the legions, for whom possession of Roman citizenship was one of their few assets, regularly set out their full title, members of the ruling elite did not and were not normally expected to.

For several centuries in the early Roman history the first four elements had sufficed for registration or other official purposes, and in everyday usage the fisrt two alone, praenomen and nomen, were enough. But the cognomen were starting to become increasingly more common during the first century BC. There were barely a dozen common praenomen, and with the great spread of Roman Citizenship there must have been literally hundreds of men called Marcus Aemilius or Publius Aelius in many communities. The use of a cognomen to disinguish Marcus Valerius Papus from other Marci Valerii was a practical necessity. In the meantime certain old-established noble families had used cognomen for centuries to distinguish themselves from humbler bearers of their nomen; only the patrician Julii used the cognomen Caesar. In the mid-first century BC some men, like Caesar, were generally referred to either by praenomen and cognomen, Gaius Caesar, or nomen and cognomen, Julius Caesar, but never by praenomen and nomen, Gaius Julius. But a number of Caesar's contemporaries, such as Marcus Antonius, were still content to do without a cognomen.

The use of a cognomen had still not become widely universal by the time of the invasion of Britain, as we can see from the first governor who was Aulus Plautius, nor the later governor in the late 50's Quintus Veranius, as both had only two names, but after the reign of Claudius onwards the use of three names, praenomen, nomen and cognomen, was regarded as the norm for a Roman male.

Roman women for centuries had to be content with a single name the nomen with filiation, eg Julia M.f, Julia daughter of Marcus. On their marriage they took their husbands name, in the genitive form, Julia Valerii, Julia wife of Valerius. In some instances in the aristocratic families, daughters were given cognomina but it is not until during the first century AD that we see it gradually becoming the norm for women to have cognomina.