WTF Roman Women’s Names

in the real world

Sculpture of a Modest Roman Matron 1st century BCE

I’ve been thinking about Roman names.  Really, I’ve been puzzling over them on and off for years, since I studied Latin in high school and Roman history in college.  Before I can ask my question, I think I need to explain their naming structure first.

Ok, so the first thing is that Romans had up to three names.  Praenomen – the first name; Nomen – the name, or family name; and Cognomen – the extra name.  Extra names were given to people who were special, and then their descendants would keep that third name.  So it ended up indicating which branch of a particular family you were from.  So, for example, everyone knows about Julius Caesar.  But we always just call him Julius Caesar, as though his first name is Julius and his family name is Caesar.  His name was actually Gaius Julius Caesar.  Gaius was his personal name, Julius was his family name, and Caesar was the name of his branch of the Julii.  Mark Antony, whom everyone also knows about because he had a long relationship with Cleopatra, was actually Marcus Antonius.  Personal name Marcus, family name Antonius, and he didn’t have a cognomen.

So far, so good.  If I were Caesar’s best friend, and I wanted to say hi, I might say, “Salve, Gaio!”  “Salve” means “hello”, or more accurately “be of good health”.  And when I tell someone else about Gaius, I’d call him Gaius, but because of the way Latin endings work, when you talk to someone you use the vocative ending, which for names ending in -us is -o.  So, Gaio.  No problem.

Where it gets really weird, though, is with women.  All women were called the feminine form of their family name.  They didn’t have first names.  So Gaius Julius Caesar’s daughter was named Julia.  If he’d had a sister (and I honestly don’t know if he did), she would’ve been named Julia, also.  If he’d had three daughters, they all would’ve been called Julia.  WTF?

So how did they tell each other apart?  My teachers have told me they’d be called Julia Maior and Julia Minor, Big Julia and Little Julia.  But seriously, that only works if there are two of you.  What if there are three girls, and a couple of aunts, and oh by the way cousins?  Not to mention that there were only about a hundred family names in Rome, so you’d have extended family up the wazoo, people you really couldn’t claim to be related to but who have the same name as you.  And every single daughter of every single Aurelius family would’ve been named Aurelia.  Marcus Antonius’ sisters?  All named Antonia.  Big and Little only get you so far.

So what I’m seriously curious about is what they really called each other.  Cuz you figure, you’re bored one Saturday afternoon, so you and all of your closest friends go to the Coliseum to watch some gladiators fight, and guess what so did half the town, it was a popular thing.  So you all get there, and you meet a bunch of your neighbors and some people from across town, in other words you mingle in society.  And how many other Aurelias are there that you encounter?  Your friend says, “Hey, Aurelia, I was wondering…” and ten people turn around?

And in a household you might have unmarried aunts and cousins and things, so within the house they must’ve called each other familiar names.  Do you think they gave each other silly nicknames like Pumpkin, Flower, or Cupcake?  My friends have suggested it’s probably more like “Red” or “Bird Painter” or “Blonde”.  Or in Chile you might be called “Black” or “Telephone”, because telephones used to be black.

The problem comes because no one kept familiar writing.  And people didn’t write about family life.  And the times we know more about, the later Imperial period through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, naming had changed from the period I learned about.  It could be that I’ll never know what they really called each other.  I might die of curiosity.

Don’t worry, I’ll let you know if I do*.


* Die of curiosity, I mean.  And also if I learn the answer.  :)

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

DF Lickiss September 1, 2013 at 10:13 am

just an arm-chair hobbyist when it comes to things Roman but it is my understanding that Romans were great fans of nicknames. While the name used to introduce Julia to someone else outside the family and the one used among friends would be very different. My guess is that the women had their own list of cognomen that simply did not survive b/c they were usually too busy cleaning up the mess the guys made to worry about trivial things like leaving written records.


Liza September 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Hi DF!

I bet you’re right.

I think my interests tend to gravitate toward the stories of the people who *didn’t* leave written history. Roman women, daily lives of barbarians (or barbarian women!), and who *were* those people who built stone circles all over the British Isles? You can only ever get at the stories by poking around the edges of written history, and by studying archaeology. (Tho even then, it seems like archaeologists produce an awful lot of “huh, they buried people here, so it must be about worshiping ancestors”, and nevermind the fact that lots of cathedrals have people buried beneath them, but they really *aren’t* focused on ancestor worship or some weird communion with the dead.)

And so the end result is me looking at whatever we know, or think we know, and saying, “Gah, that doesn’t make sense.” :)


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