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...nomen est, quod uni cuique personae datur, quo suo quaeque proprio et certo vocabulo appellatur. Ė
Cicero De inventione 1.24
Roman naming practices varied greatly over the centuries from the founding of Rome to the early Middle Ages. However, the practice of the elite during the period between the mid-Republic and the early Empire has come to be seen as the classical Roman naming convention. This is likely to be because this period provides good evidence of naming practices of the best documented class in the best documented Roman period.
By the end of the Republican era, a name for an aristocratic male citizen comprised three parts (tria nomina): praenomen (given name), nomen (or nomen gentile or simply gentilicium, being the name of the gens or clan) and cognomen (name of a family line within the gens). Sometimes a second or third cognomen, called agnomen, was added. The nomen, and later, cognomen were virtually always hereditary. During the Imperial period, the number and options for elements within a name considerably increased. The naming conventions for the later period grew out of a desire to indicate status, connections and ancestry, in a way that was much more wide-ranging than could be shown by the tria nomina.
During the Empire, superficially the naming conventions appear to dissolve into anarchy. In fact, this was not the case as new conventions developed, which were themselves internally coherent. A wide range of naming models developed.
Females were officially known by the feminine form of their father's nomen gentile, followed by the genitive case of their father's (husband's if married) cognomen and an indication of order among sisters. By the late Roman Republic, women sometimes also adopted the feminine of their father's cognomen. A woman usually did not have the praenomen and agnomen, unless the parents chose to give her those.
The second name, or nomen gentile (usually simply nomen), rarely gentilicium, is the name of the gens (the family clan), in masculine form for men. The original gentes were descended from the family groups that settled Rome. These eventually developed into entire clans, which covered specific geographic regions. As the area of Rome expanded, the number of tribes also expanded. This meant that not all tribes were from original settlers. Some were named for Etruscan or Sabine families, while others were from local tribes or from major geographical features, such as rivers. Well-known nomina include many of the familiar names of ancient Rome, such as Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius, Domitius, Julius, Junius, Pompeius, Antonius, Didius and Valerius.
The third name, or cognomen, began as a nickname or personal name that distinguished individuals with the same names. Cognomina do not appear in official documents until around 100 BC. Often the cognomen was chosen based on some physical or personality trait, sometimes with ironic results: Julius Caesar's cognomen, in one interpretation, meant hairy (cf. etymology of the name of Julius Caesar) although he was balding, and Tacitus' cognomen meant silent, while he was a well-known orator. However, from the Republican era, many cognomina were no longer nicknames, but instead were passed from father to son, serving to distinguish a family within a gens (and frequently requiring an agnomen to distinguish people of the same family if they shared praenomen as well as nomen and cognomen). Some males had a cognomen that ends in -anus, which was adapted from and commemorated a nomen, sometimes their maternal family oróif they were adoptedótheir original paternal family. For instance, Vespasian's nomen (Flavius) came from his father's nomen. His cognomen (Vespasianus), on the other hand, was derived from his mother's nomen, Vespasia. Others had cognomina that were derived not from the nomen, but the cognomen of their mothers' families. For instance, Caracalla's maternal grandfather was Julius Bassianus, but Caracalla's cognomen was not Julianus, but rather Bassianus as well.
To these a fourth name, or agnomen, was sometimes added, either on account of adoption, or in reward of some great exploit, and even for some personal defect or peculiarity. For example, Publius Cornelius Scipio, for his conquests was conferred the agnomen, or additional appellative, Africanus. When a man was adopted into another family, he would take on his adoptive father's names (excluding the praenomen). If he chose to, he could turn his original nomen into an additional cognomen that followed his newly gained names. For example, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus was adopted into the Cornelii Scipiones, but was born an Aemilius. Not all adoptees chose to identify their birth families. For instance, as an adult, Augustus did not use his cognomen Octavianus (shortened to Octavian), since the gens Octavia was not nearly as esteemed as the Julii.
In the early centuries of the Roman Republic, about three dozen praenomina seem to have been in general use at Rome, of which about half were common. This number gradually dwindled to about eighteen praenomina by the 1st century B.C., of which perhaps a dozen were common. So, they could generally be identified by initials or abbreviations alone: C = Gaius, Cn = Gnaeus, L = Lucius, M = Marcus, T = Titus, Ti = Tiberius etc. F and N are patronymics, F, filius, for "son of" N, nepos for "grandson of." So A. Postumius A.F. Sp. N. Albinus = Aulus Postumius Albinus, son of Aulus, grandson of Spurius. M. Fannius C.f = Marcus Fannius, son of Gaius. C. & Cn. were used for Gaius/Gnaeus because their use as abbreviations predated the addition of the letter G to the alphabet.
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Nomina Romanorum. The proper names of Romans. Cicero thus defines the word nomen; it is, he says, quod unicuique personae datur quo suo quaeque proprio et certo vocabulo appellatur (the nomen is, that proper appellation which is given to each person). Amongst the Romans there were gentes and familiae. Each gens or race was made up of many families or branches. Thus the gens Cornelia had for its families the Blasiones, Cethegi, Dolabellae, Lentuli, Scipiones, etc.
While the Greeks assigned to each individual but one name, the Romans, who allowed only one name to their slaves, gave each citizen three and even four, especially when he was adopted, viz., praenomen, nomen, and cognomen - as Publius Cornelius Scipio. The praenomen served to distinguish each person such as that of Publius; the nomen designated the race from which he sprang, such as that of Cornelius; and the surname marked the family to which he immediately belonged, such as that of Scipio. To these was sometimes added a fourth, called agnomen, which was given, either on account of adoption, or in reward of some great exploit, and even for some personal defect or peculiarity. Thus, on Publius Cornelius Scipio, for his conquests and services to the republic, was conferred the agnomen, or additional appellative, of Africanus.
An ancient grammarian, whose authority Eckhel quotes from Sigonius, thus succinctly defines the appellative words by which the heads of Roman families were distinguished, and which were of four kinds - viz., the Praenomen, which was prefixed to mark the difference in the ancestral name (Nomini getilitio): the Nomen, which was designed to show the origin of the gens or race: the Cognomen, which was subjoined to the ancestral names: and the Agnomen, which was an extrinsic designation constantly added, for some particular reason, or on account of some public incident. Valerius expresses himself of a similar opinion on these points.
During the Republic, it was the sedulous care of the Romans to preserve and hand down their nomen gentilitium, the name which came to them by descent from their ancestors. The eldest son usually took the proper name of the father, as in Claudia, Fabia, and Cornelia families. Younger sons, it appears, assumed indifferently other names. During the Empire, attention to this rule was gradually relaxed. When the Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all subjects of the Empire, the ancient naming customs were entirely forgotten and everyone called himself whatever he pleased.