Article by Nephele
The Sempronii Atratini (the only patrician branch of the otherwise plebeian Sempronii) were among the earliest of Rome's founding fathers, for scarcely a dozen years had passed since the founding of the Roman Republic by the time a member of this family was made consul (in 497 BCE). But the patrician Sempronii Atratini of the earliest years of the Republic vanished after the 5th century BCE, and the first plebeian Sempronius to attain the consulship (in 304 BCE) was Publius Sempronius Sophus.
I have attempted here to list and define the various surnames used by the Sempronii of the Republic, particularly those who served in magisterial positions during the time of the Republic as noted in Broughton's Magistrates of the Roman Republic. For the purpose of this list, I have included cognomina, adoptive cognomina, and agnomina under the collective term of "surnames."
Surnames of the Sempronii
Asellio - Derived from asellus (a diminutive of asinus), which means "a little ass; an ass's colt." In this case, the surname "Asellio" most likely pertains to a keeper of asses, donkeys. (See Asina in "Surnames of the Cornelii".)
Atratinus - The surname of the early patrician branch of the Sempronia gens, and referring to the Atratus, a river in the vicinity of Rome which likely marked the boundaries of this family's original home. The Latin word atratus means "clothed in black for mourning." Atratus is also a poetical name for the horses of the chariot of the sun when darkened in an eclipse.
Not all the Sempronii Atratini of the Republic were patrician. As stated in my introduction to "Surnames of the Sempronii," the patrician line of the Sempronii Atratini vanished after the 5th century BCE. It wasn't until the final years of the Republic that the family of the Sempronii Atratini was revived -- but in a plebeian incarnation.
As with the plebeian Junii Bruti who claimed descent from the Republic's noble founder, Lucius Junius Brutus, so also the plebeian Sempronii Atratini claimed descent from those patrician Atratini of Rome's earliest years.
It is thought that the plebeian consul suffectus of 34 BCE, Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, was the natural son of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia, and the adopted son of Lucius Sempronius Asellio who revived the ancient patrician cognomen of "Atratinus" (ref. D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Two Studies in Roman Nomenclature, "Adoptive Nomenclature in the Late Roman Republic").
Blaesus - Meaning "one who stammers; who hesitates in utterance; who speaks indistinctly."
Gracchus - Meaning "jackdaw" (a small species of raven). It is interesting to note the onomatopoeia of this surname, as one can easily imagine the raucous call of a raven sounding much like the Latin word which describes the bird. This surname is perhaps the most recognizable of all the surnames of the Sempronii, due to the celebrated Gracchi brothers, social and political reformers Tiberius and Gaius. They were sons of twice-consul Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia (who became a symbol of Roman motherly virtue and was herself the daughter of the great general of the Second Punic War, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus).
Longus - Meaning "tall." This was a common surname found in other gentes, such as the Servilii and the Manlii.
Musca - Literally meaning "a fly," but figuratively this surname could refer to a troublesome, inquisitive, prying individual, one who might also be an obtrusive and unwelcome guest in another's home.
Pitio - This surname is actually of Greek origin, and appears to have been derived from an epithet of the god Apollo ("Pition"), referring to the story of how Apollo slew the monstrous Python in Delphi when Apollo was but four days old. It was this story of the ferocity of the infant Apollo (in protecting his mother from the wrath of the goddess Hera who had sent the Python) that led to the god's association with battle and victory.
Rufus - Meaning "red-haired; hair of a reddish color," or possibly referring to a ruddy complexion. This was one of the most ancient and venerable cognomina to be found in a number of different gentes of the nobility.
Rutilus - Meaning "reddish" (like Rufus) but referring more to a shade of red that inclines towards golden yellow, as in auburn-colored hair.
Sophus - Of Greek origin, and referring to a wise, shrewd individual.
Tuditanus - This name shares its root with the Latin word for a "hammer" or "mallet," and it was said that the original member of this branch of the Sempronii to bear this surname had been given this surname because he had a head shaped like a mallet. A modern-day English nickname for such an individual might be "Hammerhead."
Bailey, D.R. Shackleton. Two Studies in Roman Nomenclature. American Philological Association. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1991.
Chase, George Davis. "The Origin of the Roman Praenomina." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 8. (1897), pp. 103-184.
Kajanto, Iiro. The Latin Cognomina. Helsinki: Keskuskirjapaino, 1965.
Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary: Founded on Andrews' Edition of Freund's Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879
Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1867.