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date: 17 September 2021

(p. 799) Roman Onomastics

(p. 799) Appendix III Roman Onomastics

Almost every Roman inscription contains one or more personal names. These names are crucial for the historical understanding of the text, and they can also play a useful role in dating the inscription. The importance of onomastics, i.e., the study of names, in Roman epigraphy is emphasized by the fact that the Romans developed a much more sophisticated system of personal naming than did the Greeks or most other civilizations of the classical period.

The use by free individuals of a family name, the gentilicium or nomen gentile, is a feature which the Romans apparently borrowed from the Etruscans and which other peoples of the classical world lacked. The gentilicium allows scholars to study many central issues, such as family formations and structures, inheritance of property, or the freeing of slaves and the social advancement of freed slaves. For this reason specific onomastic matters are discussed in several chapters above (Chs. 9, 11, 18, 26, 28); the purpose of this Appendix is to present a general survey.

Onomastic Elements

Onomastic Elements

The term tria nomina is a common concept in Roman onomastics. It denotes the three fundamental parts of the full Roman name as used by free males during the late Republic and the first centuries of the Principate: the praenomen, the gentilicium, and the cognomen.

While in earlier times there was more variation, from the late Republic onwards the range of praenomina became relatively narrow. This fact, as well as the need to save space in official records (and, perhaps, in inscriptions), prompted the introduction and ongoing use of a set of standard abbreviations (Table III.1). As a result, praenomina are practically never written out in full in inscriptions.

Table III.1 The most common Roman male praenomina with their standard abbreviations



























Ti. or Tib.




(p. 800) The fact that the names Gaius and Gnaeus were abbreviated using the hard consonant “C” instead of the soft “G” shows that these abbreviations appeared in an early period of Roman history, before the letter G had been introduced into the Roman alphabet. Overall, the names Gaius, Lucius, and Marcus were the most common ones. Women carried praenomina only very rarely. Some regional differences developed, so that, for instance, Sextus was more than usually popular in the Gallic provinces. During the Principate, praenomina in practice became increasingly hereditary: the praenomen of a son rarely differed from that of his father by the late second century CE.

In a free individual’s name, the praenomen was followed by the gentilicium, the family name that was inherited from their father by sons and daughters alike. In contrast to many modern societies, it was not taken over by a man’s wife, who after marriage kept the gentilicium she had acquired at birth. Children acquired their father’s family name, so that M. Tullius Cicero’s son became a Tullius, his daughter a Tullia (the feminine form of the name).

Roman gentilicia originated in a manner similar to what is found in most cultures. Etymologically, these names are normally derived from Latin words relating to various natural and other phenomena, or to other names. So, for instance, the name Octavius derives from octo (eight), Claudius from the archaic Sabine name Clausus, while Flavius points to the colour flavus (yellow). From the first century CE onwards, in the provinces many non-Latin gentilicia, derived from Germanic, Gallic, Hispanic, Libyco-Punic, and several other languages, started to appear. When attempting to reconstruct a partially preserved name in an inscription, the onomastic Repertorium of Solin and Salomies is of great help.

A third name, the cognomen, eventually entered the Roman onomastic system. The range of cognomina is vast, since numerous features in the natural world and in human society inspired the creation of these names, which originally had the function of distinguishing individuals who carried the same praenomen and gentilicium. Such homonymous groups could include fathers and sons, brothers, and even cousins or more distant relatives, which must have been potentially very confusing. Thus the cognomen initially was the truly individual part of a person’s tria nomina. Yet the system was soon watered down because of the Romans’ inherent reverence for tradition and the social prestige derived from a renowned ancestry, so that cognomina also began to be inherited. As a case in point, Cicero’s brother was likewise called Tullius Cicero, and in the following generation, each man had a son called Tullius Cicero (although on the orator’s side the praenomen was Marcus instead of Quintus, the praenomen of the orator’s brother). Yet the number of possible cognomina was almost limitless, since among Roman cognomina one finds a very large number of names of Greek etymology, as well as a number of other names, for instance, of Semitic, Gallic, Germanic, Hispanic, African, Illyrian, or Thracian origin.

Cognomina appear throughout Greek and Latin literature of the Roman period, but only in relatively small numbers compared with the tens of thousands of instances to be found in inscriptions. In order to analyze what possible significance Roman authors may have attributed to the names they chose, it is necessary to evaluate everyday practices as they appear in the epigraphic record.

The form of most gentilicia differs from that of cognomina, in that the former normally, but not always, end in -ius.1 Distinguishing between what is the gentilicum and what is the cognomen in a name is sometimes complicated by the fact that individuals could use a gentilicium (p. 801) in the place usually reserved for a cognomen. For instance, Volusia Cornelia (PIR1 V 667) of senatorial rank used two gentilicia but no cognomen.

As the Principate progressed and the potential of an inherited cognomen to distinguish individuals decreased, some Romans acquired a fourth name which in its type is identical to a cognomen but is known as an agnomen. This truly personal name is sometimes identified by the phrase qui et or sive (or, in Greek, ὁ καὶ), corresponding to the common English phrase “a.k.a.” (“also known as”). Agnomina were not inherited. So-called signa functioned as additional marks of identity in Late Antiquity (Ch. 18).

Thus it came about that Romans could bear more than three names, and even four was by no means the limit. This process is known as “polyonymy” (a term meaning “with many names”), and we shall return to it in more detail below.

Social Distinctions

Social Distinctions

Throughout history, personal names have served not only to distinguish individuals but also to establish social hierarchies; the Romans were no different in this. First of all, full Roman onomastic formulae clearly identified freeborn Romans, slaves, and ex-slaves:

  • A freeborn Roman could emphasize his/her status by adding the father’s name and the voting-tribe (for men only) to the full onomastic formula, as in M. Tullius M(arci) f(ilius) Cor(nelia tribu) Cicero.

  • Some individuals were free but were not Roman citizens. The tria nomina formula without filiation and mention of tribe was used by slaves who had been manumitted without following the proper legal procedure; they were Junian Latin citizens. So were those provincials who lived in towns (municipia) that merely had Latin status, a common feature in the Hispanic provinces.

  • Until 212 CE many provincials were free but only had the citizenship of their local community. They used a name formula which is best known from traditional Greek practice: personal name + personal name of the father, as in Mucatrio Seutonis f(ilius) (AE 1984, 801, Histria). In some areas names included an element indicating membership in a broader kinship group or clan (cognatio), such as Dobiterus Caburoniq(um) Equasi f(ilius) and Arena Mentovieq(um) Aelci f(ilia) (Fig. 26.2).

  • A Roman slave had only one name, and the slave’s servile status was, in the simplest form, indicated by a reference to the owner’s praenomen, as in Tiro Marci s(ervus). Sometimes, when a slave could bask in the glory of a prominent master, the owner was singled out with a more explicit reference, as in Sophrus Sisennae Statili ser(vus) (Ch. 28). When women, who did not carry a praenomen, were owners of slaves, as frequently happened, this was indicated in inscriptions in a curiously impersonal way by the use of a sign, a retrograde C or, much less commonly, an inverted M, which gave no clear indication of the owner’s identity.2

  • (p. 802) Roman ex-slaves used the term libertus/a to indicate their status, as in M. Tullius M(arci) lib(ertus) Tiro. Freedmen and freedwomen were free individuals and so had the right to use the tria nomina, in which the single name they had borne as slaves became their cognomen after manumission, while they took on their master’s praenomen and his/her gentilicium as their own. When manumitted by a female owner, an ex-slave took the praenomen of the owner’s father.

  • In order to emphasize their distinguished ancestry, some citizens were not content with citing just their father’s name. They might trace their origin as free citizens back several generations through the addition of the terms M(arci) n(epos), M(arci) pron(epos), and even beyond (cf. Appendix IV).

  • During the Principate, it was more common for members of the senatorial and equestrian elite to expand other onomastic elements. Such a person could easily carry four names (often two gentilicia and two cognomina), of which some might be derived from the mother’s or paternal grandmother’s side. There were no clear rules for this, which makes imperial prosopography and genealogy such a treacherous field. The main idea seems to have been to list prestigious names that would set a senator apart from any Roman of lesser rank or even from his peers. This feature is called “polyonymy,” and blood relationship was not the only way to generate these long strings of gentilicia and cognomina. Adoptions account for an important number of cases of polyonymous names (cf. Ch. 26).

  • In a proper adoption, the adoptee would normally continue to use part of his original name, as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (today known as Scipio Aemilianus or the younger Scipio Africanus) did during the Republic. The cognomen ending in -anus was formed from the gentilicium Aemilius and literally meant “the Aemilian Scipio Africanus,” thus revealing the adoption that had occurred. During the Principate, however, such cognomina ending in -anus often originated within agnatic families and referred to an ancestor, and so rarely prove adoptions.

  • So-called testamentary adoption was the most common cause of polyonymy. A Roman could bequeath part of his property to someone on the condition that the recipient add the donor’s name to his existing tria nomina. In the simplest case, this created a name consisting of praenomen + gentilicium + cognomen + gentilicium + cognomen, as in the case of Pliny the Younger (cf. Ch. 24), C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born a Caecilius Secundus and adopted in the will of his maternal uncle, C. Plinius Secundus. It is now the general view that the testator’s name appeared first, and the beneficiary’s stood in second place. Even so, unfortunately for us there were many ways in which the tria nomina of the testator and adoptee might be combined. Such acquisitions of names may also have been due simply to friendship, and the situation was further complicated by the already mentioned tendency to preserve names derived from female ancestors. For instance, in the most famous case of polyonymy the name “Sex. Iulius Frontinus” (cf. Ch. 14) appears within the long string of names of Q. Pompeius… Sosius Priscus (cf. Table III.3), but the precise nature of his relationship to the senator of 169 CE is unclear.

  • Beginning in the early second century CE, an epithet marking their rank (sometimes referred to by the German term “Rangtitel”) was added to the names of senators. Members of the senatorial order were identified by the epithet clarissimus vir (or femina, puer, puella), while an eques Romanus was distinguished by the formula egregius vir (from the later third century vir perfectissimus). Other epithets with similar functions appeared in Late Antiquity (cf. Table 18.1).

Considering the important function that names had in establishing Roman social hierarchies, it is somewhat surprising that inscriptions often do not make clear what the precise social (p. 803) status of a person was. Some individuals have only one name, as if they were slaves, although at least some of these were certainly not; scholars often use the German term “Einnamig” (“having one name”) for them. A more common practice was to use the simple tria nomina, without filiation or indication of freedman status. It is thus uncertain whether such a person was freeborn or an ex-slave (or a Roman or Latin citizen); scholars refer to them with the term “incertus.” The lively debate about what social status to attribute to such individuals, a debate which also relies heavily on the notion that a Greek cognomen in the West is proof of “servile origin” (a vague concept), cannot concern us here (cf. Ch. 28).

Historical Development

Historical Development

The history of Roman naming practices reveals the social dimensions of this phenomenon, while the many changes in the use of names over time make Roman onomastics a useful tool for dating purposes.

Originally, Romans used a one-name system, of which practically no epigraphic traces remain. Already by the early fifth century BCE the gentilicium appears, as in the Lapis Satricanus (Fig. 34.4). Cognomina begin to occur in inscriptions concerning senators around 300 BCE (Cover image: L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus; cf. Fig. 35.2: L. Cornelius Scipio Barbati filius). Freeborn individuals of lower rank are not found using cognomina in inscriptions for a long time, while cognomina are consistently found in the onomastic formulae of freedmen from the last decades of the second century BCE onwards. Some freeborn persons avoided using cognomina for quite some time after this, although to an ever lesser extent as the Principate began. T. Vinius, the last consul not bearing a cognomen, held office in 69 CE.

In the provinces non-citizens (peregrini) continued to use native names, usually in the form of a single name plus patronymic: for example, Dolanus Esbeni f(ilius) (CIL XIII 7585) or Reburrus Tangini (AE 1977, 379), the latter case showing that sometimes the Latin f(ilius, -a) was omitted. With grants of Roman citizenship, bicultural names such as Fabia Bira Izeltae f. (IAM II 448 = ILAfr 634) started to make their appearance.

As the tria nomina became standard, during the second century CE the elite developed the new feature now known as polyonymy. The praenomen tended to be omitted to an ever higher degree, since it had by now lost most of its role as an individual identifier. The last praenomina are found in North African inscriptions dating to the first decades of the fifth century; by then their use had become a rarity. Some gentilicia became particularly common through the influence of the emperor and his family. New citizens usually took the gentilicium of the ruler during whose reign they acquired the Roman franchise, and the numerous manumitted imperial slaves contributed to the spread of the imperial names. The most common names could be abbreviated in inscriptions without risk of confusion (Table III.2).

Table III.2 Commonly abbreviated gentilicia in inscriptions













(p. 804) Such abbreviated gentilicia provide a convenient terminus post quem, as they are not found until after a particular dynasty had come to power. Sometimes, as in the case of the name Flavius, abbreviations may occur quite soon after.

Agnomina, characterized by the qui et-formula, and signa, which characterized a collective to which an individual belonged, are onomastic phenomena which began in the second century and became progressively more common thereafter.

Roman onomastics in Late Antiquity underwent other changes as well. On the one hand, Christianity made popular a new set of names (cf. Ch. 21), although by no means all older cognomina disappeared. Of greater consequence in some ways was the disintegration of the old tria nomina system. The praenomen had already practically disappeared, but now the gentilicium also began to fall out of use among the vast majority of individuals outside a restricted circle of aristocrats. The proliferation of a few imperial names, especially Aurelius, following the grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 CE (the constitutio Antoniniana) may have contributed to this, as probably did changes in society. By the fifth century, Roman society had largely reverted to a one-name system, which was to remain the European practice until the aristocracy around the year 1000 again began to use family names. For the convenience of readers, the most salient features of Roman naming practices are summarized in Table III.3.

Table III.3 The most common Roman onomastic formulae

simple tria nomina (duo nomina for women)

  • M. Tullius Cicero

  • Caecilia Metella

a Roman citizen with tria (duo) nomina in the censor’s roll or in official contexts

  • M. Tullius M(arci) f(ilius) Cor(nelia tribu) Cicero

  • Caecilia Q(uinti) f(ilia) Metella

  • Caecilia Crassi (uxor) (Ch. 29)

an individual with a single name (often termed “Einnamig” in modern scholarship)

  • Felix

  • Hermione

an individual of unclear status labelled “incertus” (or “incerta”) in modern scholarship

  • Tullius Tiro

  • M. Tullius Tiro

  • Tullia Fortunata

a Roman slave

  • Felix M(arci) s(ervus)

  • Eutychus M(arci) Tulli (servus)

a Roman freedman / ex-slave

  • M. Tullius M(arci) l(ibertus) Tiro

  • Tullia M(arci) lib(erta) Fortunata

a Roman with a clearly distinguished agnomen or signum

  • Atilia Tyche quae et Athenais (CIL VI 12640)

  • Valeria Attica signo Amantia (CIL XII 2021)

adoptive nomenclature: the son of an Aemilius adopted by a Cornelius

P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus

adoptive nomenclature: the adoptee’s original name is transferred in whole and placed last

C. Plinius L.f. Ouf(entina tribu) Caecilius Secundus

a polyonymous Roman citizen and member of the imperial elite

Q. Pompeius Q.f. Quir(ina tribu) Senecio Roscius Murena Coelius Sex. Iulius Frontinus Silius Decianus C. Iulius Eurycles Herculaneus L. Vibullius Pius Augustanus Alpinus Bellicius Sollers Iulius Aper Ducenius Proculus Rutilianus Rufinus Silius Valens Valerius Niger Cl(audius) Fuscus Saxa Amyntianus Sosius Priscus (CIL XIV 3609 = ILS 1104), the man commonly known as Q. Pompeius Sosius Priscus, consul in 169 CE.

a free non-citizen in the Roman world

  • Hebrenus Bithi f. (natione) Bessus (AE 2009, 1803)

  • Ammilla Lotiusi f. (CIL XIII 2960)

  • Δημήτριος Κώκου (υἱὸς) Ἄνδρων (AE 2009, 1401)

a free non-citizen with kinship group affiliation (cognatio)

Albanus Melmaniq(um) (CIL II 3100)

a provincial granted Roman citizenship

M. Valerius Bostaris f. Gal(eria tribu) Severus (IAM II 448 = ILAfr 634)

a Roman with one name only in Late Antiquity

  • Quodvultdeus (“what God wishes”)

  • Paschasius (a reference to Easter)


(1) Other types include the gentilicium Caecina, borne by a senatorial family of Etruscan descent during the Principate, and some gentilicia ending in -us, as Funisulanus (Ch. 11, esp. Fig. 11.2).

(2) This sign derives from Gaia, which was used as a general designator for a Roman women (cf. Quint. Inst. 1.28). An inverted M designated mulieris (“of a woman”) (Isid. Orig. 1.23). When citing inscriptions containing this sign, it is customary to use the word (mulieris), as in Fortunata (mulieris) s(erva).