WTF Roman Women’s Names

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*.

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

My current obsession: the Supreme Court

SCOTUS seal, source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Court.svgI’ve been having fun digging into Supreme Court cases lately.  It started with listening to the oral arguments for the DOMA case in April, and then reading the full texts of the opinions and dissents about DOMA and Prop 8 in June.  But then it branched out.  I read the petition for writ of certiorari (that’s the document asking the Supreme Court to take the case) for a case about a murderer/rapist who pled guilty, but then the jury deciding his sentence were told they could take into account the fact that he didn’t testify as indication that he didn’t feel remorse, so they gave him a more harsh sentence than they otherwise might have (though honestly, it was probably going to be harsh regardless).  He’s arguing that the fifth amendment gives him the right not to testify against himself, but the other side is arguing that that only applies during the trial, not during the sentencing.  FASCINATING, I tell you.

One thing that surprises me is that the court documents are remarkably easy to read.  They’re very very long, but each document (at least, the petitions and the opinions) clearly explains what the issue is at the beginning and why it’s before the court.  So you can really start at any end and understand enough to keep going.  And when the opinions and dissents cite precedent, they (almost) always explain what the relevant aspects are and why they apply here, so you don’t have to already know the cases in order to understand the point they’re trying to make.  You just need to have a few hours.  🙂

One thing I love about the oral arguments is how the justices are often funny or snarky.  And they’re all clearly smart*, so they don’t waste time discussing things they already understand.  You have to have a strong constitution to be an attorney in front of them**, because the justices interrupt all the time and then expect you to be able to pick up right where you left off, almost mid-sentence***.  Just today I was listening to a case about whether Maryland police (and therefore any police) should be allowed to take DNA samples of arrestees before they’re convicted, and after answering several questions in a row the lawyer said, “and to answer the question Justice Breyer asked a few minutes ago…“.  Because he was able to keep up with 9 justices, and remember to get back to previous questions.  Impressive!

Another thing that surprised and pleased me is just how hard the Justices work to keep their hands out of the decision-making unless they absolutely must. They want to tell us what the constitutions and laws say, not to decide what they ought to say.  In DOMA they tried incredibly hard to conclude that they shouldn’t make any ruling, and in the Prop 8 case they did conclude that they shouldn’t make any ruling.  Not because the issue wasn’t valid, but because the petitioners, who were defending Prop 8, don’t have standing to bring the case before a federal court.  This ends up being more interesting than the debate about same-sex marriage, in the long run.  California has a ballot initiative system so that the people can create laws even when we don’t trust elected officials to get it right.  For any law, it’s the responsibility of the Governor and the State Attorney General to defend the law in court.  In this case, they opted not to defend the law, so the people who put Prop 8 on the ballot were allowed to defend the law.  Because the Supreme Court decided that those people don’t have standing to defend the law, it means that no one seems to have standing except the governor and attorney general, who are elected officials.  So if the people don’t trust the elected officials, so they propose and vote for a ballot initiative, but then the elected officials choose not to defend the initiative, then the people don’t really have power over the elected officials after all.  Uh oh.

And this is why the supreme court tries to be very careful about which cases it makes any decisions about.  The Prop 8 decision seems like a non-decision, except it has huge implications for all other ballot initiatives being challenged in court.  Every decision they make has implications.  Woah.

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*  Although who can tell with Clarence Thomas, he never talks…

** I’m almost certain there’s a specific phrase for this, but I can’t think of it.

*** One of my CS profs had this ability.  In class he’d be lecturing, stop mid-sentence or mid-thought to answer a question, or sometimes several, and then would pop the last idea off the stack and resume as though there had been no interruption.  Since he taught me about stacks, I thought that was pretty cool.

 

Wrote…

Have you noticed what a weird word “wrote” is?  Write becomes written pretty obviously.  And lots of words in English transform the vowel to indicate past tense instead of changing the ending.  Sing Sang Sung*.

I must use the word “wrote” pretty often… “I wrote a lot at my last writing group,” or “I wrote 5 pages last week”, or whatever.  And in that sentence it sounds fine, but … Have you looked at the word?  Wrote.  It’s sorta like rote, sorta like wrought.  But of course, it doesn’t mean either of those things, so it’s not like them at all.

And if you repeat it enough times, you’ll become convinced it’s not really a word and need to look it up to make sure you’re not crazy.  Ask me how I know.

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*  Though apparently English does this to a larger degree, and with less regularity, than most other European languages.  Which *could* (maybe, or at least according to John McWhorter) be explained by a group of people with a native language that changes grammatical meanings of words by replacing vowels (e.g. the Semitic languages, including Arabic and Hebrew) having come to Northern Europe and learned Proto-German imperfectly, bringing their own grammatical structures into the language.  Which is an *awesome* theory, and even if it’s not true, I like it a lot.  Um… there’s a better summary of this theory in this review of one of McWhorter’s books: http://heliologue.com/2011/04/30/our-magnificent-bastard-tongue/.

Ahenobarbus

I’ve decided I need to name something Ahenobarbus.  It means golden-beard, it’s a Roman name (in fact, anyone named Domitius Ahenobarbus was known to be of a noble family, during the Roman Empire), and it was one of Nero’s names.  He was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus.  Not to be confused with his dad, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.  Nor to be confused with the name he was given when his mom remarried (she married the emperor, after he executed his third wife, who was Lucius’ cousin, for adultery, and then she arranged to have his aunt, her sister-in-law, the third wife’s mother, killed, too.  Oh and before all that, she [the mom, Agrippina the Younger] had been exiled for having an affair after her husband, Nero’s dad, died [cuz he was quite a bit older than her].  But she still managed to marry the emperor, and have him adopt her son.  And somehow her son became the next emperor, not the emperor’s son.  And then he, Nero, aka Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, had his adopted brother, the emperor’s actual son, killed.  And then, supposedly, he might’ve had an affair with his mom [ooh creepy], and later had her executed.  Or maybe he didn’t.), which wikipedia claims is Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus, but I swear the teacher said it was Tiberius Claudius something Nero Caesar something else.  :-/  I’m a little confused* now.

Anyway, doesn’t Ahenobarbus sound like a great name?  A-HEE-no-bar-bus.  I can’t decide what it should be.  Maybe my new climbing rose**?  No, it’s a little too manly for a pretty climbing rose.  Umm.  My cell phone?  I dunno, calling it “Ahenobarbus” would take longer than calling it “my phone”.  :-/  Any suggestions?

But anyway, you should totally listen to this fabulous class I’ve been listening to, from UC Berkeley.  It’s a history class about the Roman Empire from several years ago, and the teacher, Isabelle Pafford, is funny and tells a great story.  And you know how I like a good story.  http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978539 Have I mentioned how Berkeley podcasts classes?  I’ve listened to several now, and it’s better than actually taking the class.  Mostly because I get to hear the cool stories, don’t have to do any homework, and I can follow along at my own pace.  Go check it out!

* You aren’t confused, are you?

** I got an Autumn Sunset.  I thought the flowers looked like pretty skirts.  http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/66645-product.html I’ll post a picture as soon as I remember to take one.