In Ancient Greece having a baby was a time for great celebration. However, like in much of the ancient world it was common for babies to die within the first few days of life. For this reason the Ancient Greeks would not name infants until they were somewhere between seven and ten days old. At this point the baby officially became part of the family.
Everybody was given a personal name, and this was the only name that a person was guaranteed to have, although people could be given up to a maximum of three name.
The Ancient Greek naming system consisted of a First, or personal name, followed by a patronym (like our modern surnames) and in some cases a third ‘tribe’ name.
There are an abundant number of different names that could be used by the Ancient Greeks, which are documented in resources such as literary texts, on coins, on pottery and other inscriptions.
Every person in Ancient Greece was given a personal name which was the sole name that would be used by the majority of people, most of the time. The list of names available for parents in Ancient Greece was extensive and there was a variety of different types and traditions used when naming a child.
The first type of name used in Ancient Greece as personal names were ‘compound names’, these names were made up from two recognisable elements which were put together to create a name. The elements used to create these names were typically made up from positive ideas such as bravery, beauty, glory etc. Parents may have included traits that they hoped their child would develop when choosing a name in this way.
There were also shortened versions of these longer compounded names. It is likely that these names started out as a kind of nickname, much like we do with names today, shortening names such as Thomas to Tom or Elizabeth to Liz. As time went on, they became popular names in their own right, much like shortened names today. There were various formations of these short names and some of them had many different versions. For instance, there have been more than 250 shortened names containing ‘Phil’ which means love.
Words found in everyday language could be given as first names in Ancient Greece. Sometimes the names would be used as they were found in the language and sometimes they would have a variety of different endings added to them. The most common types of words used for names included colours, animals, physical characteristics and parts if the body.
A lot of Ancient Greeks had names which were derived from the names of the gods. People were not usually given the exact name of a god, but would be given a name which included part of the god name with a variety of different suffixes. For example, two popular names in Ancient Greece were Demetrios (male) and Demetria (female), both of these names were variants based on the Ancient Greek Goddess Demeter, who was the Goddess of the harvest, agriculture and fertility.
It was also common for names to run in families during the time of the Ancient Greeks, especially with males. However, it was not usual for a child to be given the same name as a parent. Instead, names would skip a generation, for instance if Kleitos had a son called Agathinos then Agathinos may decide to name his son Kleitos. Children, especially subsequent children may be names after other relatives, such as a maternal grandfather or a great uncle.
The Ancient Greeks did not have surnames, like we do today. it was common for Ancient Greeks to only use one name, which would be their personal name. However, sometimes it was necessary to distinguish between two people with the same personal name. In these cases, they would use patronyms.
A Patronym is simply a name that comes from the child’s father and would mean son-of (-ion) or daughter-of (-ione). For instance, Demophon the son of Kadmos would be known as Demophon Kadmos's son, or Demophon Kadmion. If Kadmos had a daughter named Euphemia then she would be known as Euphemia Kadmos’s daughter, or Euphemia Kadmione.
In occasional circumstances an additional, third name may be used for a person. These additional names were generally added to indicate that a person belonged to a particular, deme (tribe), family, or came from a specific city (if they were travelling away from home).
In Athens there were ten tribes which were named after ten mythical heroes. Tribes had their own officials, sanctuaries, and religious calendars. Therefore, membership in a tribe was very important for Ancient Greeks as it allowed them to vote, gave them security and a sense of belonging.