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A Note on Roman Nomenclature
Adapted from the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd edition, 1970) / "Letters To Atticus" by Cicero, Translated by Shackleton Bailey, 1978, Appendix I.
The people of Rome, and the Italian peoples in general, used a system of names known as the tria nomina (or three names):
- The praenomen, the person's individual name;
- The nomen, or gentilical name (indicating the gens,or family, to which the person belonged);
- And the cognomen, an added name indicating an individual characteristic or achievement.
There are only around one hundred known Italian nomen altogether, and the upper classes of the Roman Republic restricted themselves to about fifteen possible choices. These names tend to be shortened to only their first letter on inscriptions (and by modern scholars), hence:
A.-Aulus; Ap.-Appius; C.-Gaius; Cn.-Gnaeus; D.-Decimus; L.-Lucius; M.-Marcus; M'-Manius; N.-Numerius; P.-Publius; Q.-Quintus; Ser.-Servius; Sex.-Sextus; Sp.-Spurius; T.-Titus; Ti.-Tiberius.
These praenomen would have originally indicated characteristics or peculiarities of birth.
The nomen indicated the individuals family, and was taken from the individual's father- Roman women did not take their husband's family name on marriage. Some of these were adapted from an ancestor's praenomen, for example the Marcii family came from an individual Marcus (which itself may be adapted from the name of the god Mars).
The cognomen distinguished an individual from fellow family members or relatives who may have had the same praenomen and nomen. It could again indicate a personal characteristic, achievement, place of birth, etc. Thus, for example, Q. Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was distinguished from his son Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius. Furthermore, an individual's cognomen could be passed on to his heirs to indicate a branch or sub-branch of the nomen, hence C. Julius Caesar belonged to the Caesarian branch of the Julii.
Women took only a feminine form of their own gens' nomen, so any daughter of the Julii would be named Julia, of the Claudii, Claudia, etc. In the case of more than one daughter, the simple expedient of referring to the elder as (for example) Julia Maior and the younger as Julia Minor was used.