By Maria Luisa De Seta, Ph.D.
Every time I start a new Latin class, I ask my students to choose a Latin name, which they will continue to use throughout their learning journey. After a few classes, I introduce the Roman name system, called tria nomina, “three names”: praenomen, nomen, cognomen. It’s something like a first, middle, and last name.
When a male child (who was a citizen) was born in Rome, he was given the three names. His given name was the praenomen, while his nomen and cognomen were handed down from his father, relating to the family and clan to which the newborn belonged.
Nine days after birth, on the so-called dies lustricus, the newborn would receive his name. Once the father had announced the name of the child, family and friends would present the baby with tiny metal trinkets, crepundia, which, strung together and hung around his neck, would be amusing to an infant. On the same day, the child would receive a bulla, a locket (of gold, some other metal, or leather) containing charms against evil numina. The child would wear this (never removing it) until the day when he assumed the toga virilis.
In the earliest days of the use of praenomina, they were chosen with due regard to their etymological meaning and had some relation to the circumstances attending the birth of the child, but this method of choosing names disappeared with the passing of the centuries. So, Lūcius, for example, meant originally “born by day,” Mānius “born in the morning”; Quīntus, Sextus, Decimus, Postumus, etc., indicated succession within the family. In documents, the praenomen was usually abbreviated to its first letter. In latter centuries fathers would choose praenomina for their children that had no specific link to the birth of the child but were common within the family. As a result, identifying individuals by their names was sometimes rather difficult.
The nomen was the name of the gens, the Roman clan to which the child belonged. The cognomen indicated the particular family within the clan to which the father of the newborn, and now the child himself, belonged. It is also generally believed that the cognōmen was originally a nickname, bestowed on account of some personal peculiarity or physical of an ancestor, such as Albus, Barbātus, Cincinnātus, Claudus, Longus.
The cognōmen came eventually to be prized as an indicator of ancient lineage, and those who had only recently joined the nobility were anxious to acquire one. Many plebeians, who had had only praenomen and nomen, would adopt cognomina of their own choosing. Sometimes a fourth name, known as a cognōmen ex virtūte, was given to a great statesman or victorious general, and was put after his cognōmen. A well-known example is the general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the title Āfricānus having been granted him after his defeat of Hannibal. Adopted children and freed slaves would receive the same system of names.
Girls were named following the same system and would usually be given a praenomen that was the female version of the father’s.
Check out the following site, where you can assemble a Latin name of your own!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Maria Luisa De Seta is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Literary Criticism from the University of Calabria in Cosenza, Italy. She has considerable experience teaching both ancient (Latin and Greek) and modern (Italian and German) languages, with numerous degrees and certifications for both. Dr. De Seta is currently teaching Italian as a Second Language in an Italian immersion school in San Francisco and teaches Latin, Latin Conversation, Ancient Greek, Italian, and German for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.
Click here to see Dr. De Seta’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.