Updated: May 18, 2020
In the late Roman society typically, citizens would be named using a three name system known as the tria nomina. This system distinguished Roman citizens from foreigners. The three types of name associated with this naming system are the praenomen, nomen and cognomen. These names would tell you a lot about the social status of a person. Not all Romans had three names; at the beginning of the Roman Republic only the patricians would use this three-name system, but as time went on more and more people in lower classes adopted the tria nomina system.
The first part of a Roman name is the praenomen. This is a personal name and is the closest thing that the Romans had to the first names we have today.
A child would be officially given their praenomen at a purification ceremony known as a Lustratio. This ceremony took place when the child was eight days old if they were a girl and nine days old if they were a boy. The purpose of this ceremony was to remove any harmful spirits that may have entered the child during birth. At this ceremony boys would be presented with a bulla, which they would wear around their neck until they became a man.
The praenomen was chosen by the parents of the child. However, the name chosen by them would be governed by social customs and family traditions. For instance, the first-born son was almost always named after his father and younger sons would be named after their fathers brothers or other male ancestors. This meant that names were commonly recycled throughout the families. Occasionally a son may be named after a male relative on his mother’s side, but this was more uncommon.
Girls would be named the feminine version of their fathers name. For instance, if a man was named Lucius, it is likely that his daughter would be named Lucia. If Lucius was to have numerous daughters then they would be numbered so the eldest would be Lucia Prima, followed by Lucia Seconda, Lucia Tertia and so on.
At the beginning of the Roman Republic there were around 30 praenomen in regular use. As time progressed the number of these names that were commonly used dropped to about a dozen, especially with the patricians.
The next part of the name in Ancient Rome is the nomen, also known as the nomen gentile. The nomen is the part of the name that indicates the gens that a person belongs to. Gens roughly translates to clan or family. The nomen is passed down from generation to generation and would be shared by a large group of people who would all descend from a common ancestor. This part of the name is most like the surname that we have today.
As well as being inherited this was the part of a Roman name that told other members of the republic where the person stood in the structure of society. Some Romans had a huge amount of pride in their lineage. Some nomen were more respected than others, having a well-known nomen, associated with ancestors who accomplished great things could give a person a better social standing, even if they were not particularly wealthy. Also, different nomen could sometimes be associated with the presence of different characteristics. For instance, members of the Claudii nomen were often thought to be quite hot-headed.
Women would have the feminised version of the nomen as part of their name. For example, if somebody was part of the Cassii gens their sons would take the nomen Cassius and their daughters would take the nomen Cassia. Women did not change their nomen when they married. Sometimes the husbands nomen would be added to the woman’s name as an extra name, but this was not common. In most cases the nomen would be passed down the paternal line, so children would take their fathers nomen and not their mothers.
The final part of the Roman tria nomina naming system was the cognomen. This part of the name was not chosen by parents and an individual could have a number of different cognomen that they used at different times in their lives. Sometimes, especially in more important patrician families, a cognomen could be inherited and was used as a way of identifying different branches within a larger nomen. Not all Romans would have a cognomen; initially rich people were more likely to have a cognomen than poor people, but as the Roman republic grew more and more of the poorer citizens took on cognomen.
In many cases the cognomen has similarities to nick names that we sometimes use today. A person could be given a cognomen based on a huge variety of factors including personal characteristics, habits, their occupation or where they are from. Often cognomen were not flattering and could sometimes be ironic. For instance, Caesar meant hairy, Calvus meant bald and Nasica meant pointed nose.
As praenomen and nomen could be quite similar from person to person cognomen were commonly used to distinguish one individual from another in everyday life.
Whilst some men are noted to have had up to three cognomen, some hereditary and some earned, it was very rare for women to have a cognomen.
The senate may officially give a cognomen to a person as an acknowledgment to great accomplishments. This was known as a cognomen ex virtute and was a great honour for the person receiving the name. Often the name given would be related to the great deed that the person was being recognised for. For instance, the name Britannicus could be given to someone who had achieved great victory in Britain. One person named Gnaeus Pompeius was given the cognomen ex virtute Magnus in recognition of all his military exploits.