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Surnames of the Valerii

Article by Nephele

The Valeria gens was third in producing the greatest number of magistrates for the Roman Republic, following the Cornelia gens (first) and the Claudia gens (second).

I have attempted here to list and define the various surnames used by the Valerii 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 Valerii

Acisculus - Meaning "a little adze."

Antias - Meaning "from Antium," a coastal Italian city which is today known as Anzio.

Cato - Meaning "skillful; prudent; experienced." Broughton does not mention any Valerian with the surname of "Cato" as having held a magisterial position during the time of the Republic, but I include this surname here in recognition of the 1st century BCE Roman poet and grammarian, Publius Valerius Cato. This surname was also found in the Porcia gens.

Catullus - Broughton does not mention any Valerian with the surname of "Catullus" as having held a magisterial position during the time of the Republic, but I include this name here in recognition of the great 1st century BCE Roman poet. The surname of "Catullus" is believed to be a diminutive of "Cato," meaning "skillful; prudent; experienced." (See Cato above.) Because the families of the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus and another 1st century BCE poet, Publius Valerius Cato (born abour 14 years earlier), both came from the same region of Upper Italy, it has been suggested by cognomina scholar Iiro Kajanto that the Valerii Catones may have preceded the Valerii Catulli, and that the name of the later was derived from the former.

Corvinus - This surname, derived from "Corvus," was borne by the son of the patrician Marcus Valerius who fought the legendary battle against the giant Gaul (see Corvus below). It was not unusual for Roman sons and grandsons to adopt a surname derived from their notable fathers' and grandfathers' cognomina, with the diminutive -inus ending added to the name. (See Lactucinus.)

Corvus- Meaning "raven; crow. This surname is found also in the Aquillia gens, but it had a legendary origin for the patrician Valerii. Livy tells the story in Book VII, Chapter 26 of his History of Rome, that in 349 BCE, when a Gaul of remarkable physique challenged the Romans to provide a champion of their own for single combat by sword, the military tribune Marcus Valerius stepped forward to accept. But just as the Gaul and Valerius were about to engage in battle, a crow flew down and settled on the helmet of Valerius. Valerius prayed to whichever god or goddess had sent the sign, requesting aid, whereupon the crow remained with Valerius throughout the battle, attacking the face and eyes of the enemy Gaul with its beak and talons. Valerius was thereby able to slay his terrified opponent. From thenceforth the victorius Valerius was known by the surname of "Corvus," and the following year he was elected consul.

Falco - See Falto.

Falto - This surname of a patrician branch of the Valerii is sometimes rendered "Falco." While both Falco and Falto literally mean "falcon," the surname generally referred to a person who walked with his toes turned inwards -- the equivalent of our modern-day English expression of "pigeon-toed."

Flaccus - Referring to a defect in the physical appearance of the ears; "flap-eared"; having broad ears that stick out. This was a very common surname found in numerous gentes, as well as a patrician branch of the Valerii.

Lactuca - Meaning "lettuce." (See Lactucinus below.)

Lactucinus - A surname borne by the descendants of the consul of 456 BCE named Marcus Valerius Maximus Lactuca. Both Lactuca and Lactucinus mean "lettuce," but these surnames of the patrician Valerii were by no means cognomina to be laughed at. At least, Pliny the Elder would correct us on that account. Not only did Pliny remind us in Book XIX, Chapter 19 of his Natural History that Cato spoke in high praise of garden cabbages, but Pliny also gave the example of the Valerii Lactucini as being "men of the very highest rank" who "have not thought themselves disgraced by taking their name from the lettuce."

Laevinus - Meaning "left-handed." A surname of a patrician branch of the Valerii.

Maximus - One of the oldest and most common surnames of the ancient Romans, referring either to order of birth among siblings ("eldest") or to an individual's virtue ("great, distinguished, etc."). The first of the patrician Valerii to bear the surname of "Maximus" was Manius (or Marcus, in some other sources) Valerius Maximus, who held the magisterial positions of both dictator and augur in the same year of 494 BCE.

Messala - A frequent rendering of "Messalla." (See Messalla below.)

Messalla - A victory surname received by the patrician Manius (or Marcus, in some other sources) Valerius Maximus Messalla (consul of 263 BCE) upon capturing the Sicilian city of Messana from the Carthaginians in the first Punic war. This victory surname subsequently became hereditary for the Valerii.

Niger - Meaning "black, dark, dusky" and referring to the color of the individual's hair, or to a dark complexion. This was a common surname found in other gentes, and was given as an agnomen/nickname to Marcus Valerius Messalla Niger (consul of 61 BCE) to distinguish him from his cousin of the same name. (See Rufus.)

Orca - Literally meaning "a kind of whale," but also referring to a type of large-bellied sea vessel.

Poplicola - This is a compound surname, combining the Latin words populus ("the people") and colo ("to cultivate; tend; take care of"). Livy tells us (in Book II, Chapter 8 of his History of Rome) that the surname was given as a cognomen ex virtute to the patrician Publius Valerius, suffect consul of 509 BCE, due not only to his decision to humbly build his house at the foot of Mount Velian in assurance that he had no plans of using the summit of Velia as a fortress from which to rule, but also due to the popular legislation which he enacted that admitted the right of appeal to the people against the magistrates. However, cognomina scholar Iiro Kajanto holds that this surname was actually first given to the consul of 460 BCE, and retroactively to his ancestor, the consul of 509.

Potitus - This surname of the patrician Valerii (not to be confused with the gens Potitia) is believed either to have been derived from the past participle of potio, signifying the bearer as being a "boss," or alternately it was derived from an ancient and obscure praenomen of an entirely different etymology, combined with a past participle. The argument for the combining form that included the ancient praenomen appears to be backed up by the fact that cognomina derived entirely from past participles were otherwise unknown among the nobility of the Republican era. The Potitus branch of the Valerii eventually died out ("about the time of the Samnite wars," as noted in Smith's Dictionary), but the name was later revived by the Valerii (by the end of the Republic when naming customs were changing) for use as a praenomen.

Praeconinus - From the Latin word praeconius, meaning "that which belongs to or pertains to a praeco (being the Latin word for "crier; herald," particularly in courts of justice and popular assemblies)." While the surname of "Praeconinus" was known in the Valeria gens, the related surname of "Praeconius" belonged to the highly sought-after grammarian, Lucius Aelius, mentioned by Suetonius in his Lives Of Eminent Grammarians And Rhetoricians. Suetonius attributed the origin of Aelius' surname to the fact that Aelius' father was a herald. It is possible that the Valerian magistrate (a legate in Transalpine Gaul sometime before 78 BCE) who bore the surname of "Praeconinus" may have been the grandson of a praeco.

Procillus - This was originally an ancient praenomen which became the basis for the nomen gentilicium of "Procilius." There was one Republican magistrate among the Valerii who bore the name of "Procillus" as his surname, and he was a plebeian legate in the year 58 BCE. The name is comparable to "Proculus," which is a diminutive of the Latin word procus, meaning "a suitor."

Publicola - A later rendering of the earlier "Poplicola" (see Poplicola). The later form is attributed to a wrong etymology from the Latin word publicus ("belonging to the people; public").

Rufus - Meaning "red-haired; hair of a reddish color," or possibly referring to a ruddy complextion. This was one of the most ancient and venerable cognomina to be found in a number of different gentes of the nobility. It was an agnomen/nickname given to Marcus Valerius Messalla Rufus (consul of 53 BCE) to distinguish him from his cousin of the same name. (See Niger.)

Soranus - While "Soranus" is the name of a Sabine divinity of the lower world, the origin of this surname of the Valerii most likely has more to do with this branch of the Valerii's association with the mountain of Soracte (today known in Italy as Monte Soratte), which derived its name from that of the god.

Tappo - Meaning "tippler."

Triarius - A surname taken from the name given to the class of Roman soldiers who formed the third rank from the front in battle.

Volusus - Originally a praenomen which became rare and obsolete, sometimes rendered as Volesus, Volero, and Valesus. This was said to have been the name of the Sabine ancestor of the Valeria gens who first settled at Rome. The name became a cognomen of the patrician Valerii, and is most likely a compound name, part of which was derived from the Latin volo ("to wish; want; intend"). Compare with the names of the Roman tutelary divinities of newborn infants: Volumnus and Volumna, called "The Well-wishers."

Broughton, T. Robert S. The Magistrates of the Roman Republic.. 2 vols. New York: The American Philological Association, 1952.
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.
Livius, Titus. The History of Rome: The First Eight Books.. Trans. D. Spillan. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
Macrobius, Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius. Saturnalia.. Trans. Percival Vaughan Davies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Pliny the Elder [Gaius Plinius Secundus]. Natural History. . Trans. John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855.
Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: To Which Are Added the Lives of the Grammarians, Rhetoricians, and Poets.. Trans. Alexander Thomson. Rev. and corrected by T. Forester. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855.
Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1867.

Did you know?

There was no direct Roman equivalent of "sir" or "madam".


Surnames of the Valerii - Related Topic: Pescennius Niger


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