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*.


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


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.


*  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:


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. 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. I’ll post a picture as soon as I remember to take one.

Name that car!