Practically even before a child of Roman parents was conceived, during the period of the Republic his or her name was already prescribed by a rigid system of personal identification. During the Principate, however, naming practices began to change, making this period a particularly interesting one for Roman onomastics.
Of the tria nomina, the three-part name borne by most freeborn male Roman citizens, the Roman praenomen came first and was the only one of the three names that offered parents some choice in naming their son. Even so, there had always been for Roman parents a limited number of praenomina from which to choose when naming a son and, of these, a mere seventeen constituted 98% of all praenomina in use by Roman males during the Regal and Republican periods.
A study by Dr. George Davis Chase (Head of Classics, University of Maine, 1905-1938) of praenomina found in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum shows that these seventeen most common praenomina were (in descending order): Lucius, Gaius, Marcus, Quintus, Publius, Gnaeus, Aulus, Titus, Sextus, Manius, Numerius, Decimus, Servius, Tiberius, Spurius, Appius, and Vibius. Of these praenomina, the most common, Lucius, Gaius, and Marcus, constituted 59% of the total. Additionally some Roman families, through tradition, further limited their choice of praenomina for their sons. The Cornelii, for example, rarely named their sons anything other than Gnaeus, Lucius, and Publius (unless a fourth son happened to be born to a father).
Second in the tria nomina came the nomen gentilicium, the name indicating the gens to which the individual belonged, and this was passed down unchanged from a father to each of his sons. Third in the tria nomina was the cognomen -- the nickname used to distinguish the stirps (branch) of the particular gens -- and this was more often than not also a hereditary name. The patrician families were the first to add cognomina (as well as honorary agnomina) to their names, with many -- although not all -- plebian families following suit later on.
Roman women during the Republic had even less variation in their names, with every daughter in the same household being limited to the feminine form of her father's nomen gentilicium, which might be enhanced with "Prima", "Secunda", Tertia" ("First", "Second", "Third"), etc. merely to indicate a daughter's position of birth among her sisters.
It was, however, during the tail end of the Republic and into the Principate that the fashion began (particularly among the aristocracy) of Roman males being given distinguished cognomina for use in place of the limited praenomina available. This can be seen in the family of Livia (wife of Augustus Caesar). Born of Livia's first marriage to her cousin Tiberius Claudius Nero, Livia's elder son inherited the tria nomina of his father. The younger son, however, came to be called "Drusus" -- a cognomen of the Livii which commemorated how an ancestor killed in single combat an enemy chieftain named "Drausus" (as related by Suetonius in his writing on the emperor Tiberius). At birth, Drusus had been given the conventional praenomen of "Decimus" (Decimus Claudius Drusus), but this was later changed to "Nero", the cognomen of his father, presumably to honor the father's memory (also as related by Suetonius, in his writing on the emperor Claudius).
Not only were cognomina being substituted more and more for the previously standard and limited praenomina, the cognomen was also becoming the simple and accepted name by which a Roman was addressed, rather than the more formal praenomen + nomen gentilicium form of address. Praenomina were falling into disuse, even becoming "fossilized" -- a term applied by historian Dr. Benet Salway (University College, London) to describe how praenomina were becoming "less individuating and less of a consciously given name". Of such little importance now was the praenomen, that it was not unusual or bizarre to find two brothers of the same family bearing the same first name, as in the case of the sons of the emperor Vespasianus, who were both given the praenomen of "Titus".
The imperial family of Vespasianus illustrates another fashion in naming during this period - and that was the practice of giving a second-born son a name derived from the mother's side of the family, to distinguish him from his elder brother who would be given the father's name. The name of the emperor Vespasianus had been derived from his mother's name, Vespasia, rather than from his father's cognomen of Sabinus (which had been given to Vespasian's elder brother, while both brothers bore the same praenomen of "Titus", after their father). And, in turn, when Vespasianus had sons of his own, both were also given the same praenomen of "Titus", with the elder Titus receiving the name Vespasianus after his father, but his younger brother receiving the name Domitianus, after his mother Domitilla.
Although naming practices were changing as Rome changed from Republic to Principate, this isn't to say that such change might not have been met with some resistance by the more conservative members of Roman society. Plutarch described Cato the Younger, for example, as being of such a contrary and purist nature that he would automatically oppose such trends and fashions, even to the point of wearing colors of a shade opposite to the current fad. Reflecting this, modern-day author Colleen McCullough, who has been lauded for her care taken to historical detail written into her "Masters of Rome" historical fiction series, offers us an amusing passage from her novel Caesar's Women. In her novel, McCullough has Cato the Younger asking after his nephew, whom he refers to by praenomen and nomen gentilicium: "Marcus Junius." Cato's half-sister, Servilia, irritably insists that Cato call her son "Brutus, like everyone else!" For this, Servilia is sternly admonished by Cato: "I do not approve of the change this past decade has brought to our names," he said, growing louder. "A man may have one or two or even three nicknames, but tradition demands that he be referred to by his first and family names alone, not by a nickname." Perhaps we can imagine Cato being mollified by the fact that, over a century later Roman senators would still be formally addressed on the Senate floor (if not always elsewhere) by their praenomen and nomen gentilicium together, although the practice was by then considered archaic.
Another notable change in Roman names occurring during the Principate was that Roman women, previously limited in their names, were now adopting distinctive, feminine cognomina of their own. While Roman women might have been found in the late Republic bearing cognomina of their own (such as the 1st century B.C.E. Aurelia Orestilla, the beautiful object of illicit passion as recorded by Sallust in "The War with Catiline"), it was during the Principate that this practice increased significantly.
This fashion for greater variety in names for Roman women was indicative of the greater social freedom that Roman women were also enjoying by the time of the Principate. As Dr. William Stearns Davis (Professor of History, University of Minnesota, 1909-1927) affirmed in his book A Day in Old Rome (describing what "an intelligent person would have witnessed" if he were to spend a day in Rome in the year 134 C.E.), high-spirited Roman women were by this time asserting their personality in numerous ways, not the least of which being the way in which they now publicly chose to identify themselves.
Towards the end of the Republic and moving into the Principate, daughters were less and less being given impersonal numerals to distinguish them from their sisters. Now they might be distinguished from their sisters by having received cognomina from either paternal or maternal sides of their family, present or past generations, often in the feminine diminutive and formed with the suffix "-ina" or "-illa" attached. As for example Livia Drusilla (born on the threshold of the Principate and having received the feminine diminutive of a cognomen of her father, Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus), Vipsania Agrippina (having received a feminine diminutive of the cognomen of her father, Agrippa), and Plautia Urgulanilla (whose cognomen was a diminutive derived from her paternal grandmother's name, Urgulania).
Other possibilities for distinctive feminine cognomina included the addition of complimentary names such as "Pulchra" ("beautiful"), or romantic names of Greek origin, as illustrated by the name of "Cominia Tyche" on a marble funerary altar (circa 90 - 100 C.E.) exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "Cominia" being the name of a Roman plebian gens, indicating that the lady's father's name may have been "Cominius", while "Tyche" is the name of the Greek goddess of good fortune. Alternately, Cominia Tyche may have been a freedwoman of Cominius, having adopted his nomen gentilicium for her own and having retained her original name of Tyche for her cognomen, as was the custom of male freed slaves. In either case, the lady Cominia Tyche, having died just a few days short of her 28th birthday and having been the "most chaste and loving wife" of Lucius Annius Festus (as her husband had poignantly inscribed upon her funerary altar), remains representative of those Roman matrons who were now publicly sporting both nomina gentilicia and distinctive cognomina to express their individuality. In the past such a lady might have been known simply as Cominia Festi (taking her husband's cognomen in the genitive form and often followed by the word uxor, to show her relationship to him).
One Roman tradition regarding names that happily seems to have diminished during the Principate was that of Senatorial decrees outlawing certain families from using certain praenomina. Instances of this date back to the 4th century B.C.E., as Livy relates in Book 6 of his History of Rome how Marcus Manlius Capitolinus was tried and condemned for the capital offense of treason. Not merely content to cast Marcus Manlius from the Tarpeian rock, it was also decreed that no member of the Manlia gens might thereafter bear the praenomen of "Marcus", so that there might never be another "Marcus Manlius" to preserve the memory of the once heroic but now infamous Marcus Manlius. This means of further punishing the condemned through the outlawing of his very name continued to the 1st century C.E., with perhaps one of the last instances of such a decree being the one made against the rebellious Marcus Antonius after his defeat. As related by both Plutarch and Dio Cassius, it was decreed that no member of the Antonia gens could ever again bear the praenomen of "Marcus". Perhaps the gradual discontinuation of the practice of outlawing praenomina as a punitive measure was due to the fact that praenomia were becoming of less and less importance as the Principate era wore on, and because men were being more commonly recognized by their cognomina or "nicknames".
It was towards the end of the Principate in 212. when the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known by his nickname of "Caracalla" for the Gaullish style of cloak that he wore) issued the Constitutio Antoniniana that granted universal Roman citizenship to all freeborn subjects throughout the Empire, that the name "Aurelius" suddenly became one of the most common nomina gentilicia in the Empire. This was due to so many of these newly enfranchised Roman citizens adopting the name of their emperor in gratitude.
The epigraphic evidence for this 3rd century increase in the ocurrence of the name "Aurelius" has been noted by Professor Konstantinos Bourazelis (University of Athens). Indeed, one such example of epigraphic evidence can be found on display in the Jewish Museum of New York City, showing how Italy's Jews and their descendants adopted the name of the emperor who had granted them protective Roman citizenship. In the antiquities collection of The Jewish Museum one may view the burial plaque of Aurelia Quintilla, erected by her daughter Aurelia Progenia.
In conclusion, during the period of the Principate personal naming styles were, to some degree, no longer being sternly dictated by the mos maiorum, the unwritten code of Roman behavior. While many conservatives may have viewed this as being indicative of a general breakdown in traditional Roman values following the fall of the Republic, others -- particularly Roman women -- no doubt viewed this as a refreshing breath of personal freedom.
This article was written by forum member Nephele
Burial Plaque of Aurelia Quintilla c. 4th century. The Jewish Museum, New York.
Chase, George Davis. "Origin of the Roman Praenomina." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 8 (1897), pp. 103-184.
Davis, William Stearns. A Day in Old Rome: A Picture of Roman Life. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972 (originally published in 1925).
Dio Cassius. Roman History: Books 51-55. Trans. Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917.
Livy. History of Rome: Books 5-7. Trans. B. O. Foster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924.
Marble funerary altar of Cominia Tyche c. 90 - 100. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
McCullough, Colleen. Caesar's Women. Scranton: William Morrow & Co., 1996.
Plutarch. Lives: Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Caesar. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919.
Plutarch. Lives: Sertorius and Eumenes, Phocion and Cato. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919.
Sallust. Trans. J.C. Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921.
Salway, Benet. "What's in a Name? A Survey of Roman Onomastic Practice from c. 700 B.C. to A.D. 700." The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84 (1994), pp. 124-145.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.