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How the Romans named their kids

Roman names are a bit of a puzzle, and it took me quite a while to work out how to name my characters correctly for the time they lived in. Part of the reason was that the Roman Republic (from 509BC until 27BC) and the Roman Empire which followed (from 27BC to 476AD) spanned between them a period of almost 1000 years. During this time, not surprisingly, a lot of things changed, including the way people were named. It was also tricky because the system was rather complicated.

 

After you've read the explanations below, see if you can work out what your name would have been in Lucy's time!

Boys

The Leopard in the Golden Cage is set in AD82, just over 100 years after the Roman Empire is said to have begun. At around this time, boys born into the highest level of society were given three names:

praenomen - nomen - cognomen

 

When Joe travels back in time to Lucy's world the second time, she invents an identity for him as Marcus Placidius Valentinian.

This means that Joe's praenomen is Marcus. The praenomen was a little bit like the forename or first name given to a baby today. It was chosen by the parents and only used by people who knew the person well.

 

However, unlike first names today, there was a very limited selection of praenomina, such as Gaius, Gnaeus, Marcus, Quintus, Publius, Tiberius, and Titus. Because there weren't many to choose from, men from the same family often had the same names for generations, especially since the eldest son was usually given the same praenomen as his father, and younger sons were often named after their grandfathers or uncles.

 

scar gatherer series time travel children adventure fiction history shimmer glass slaves isabella demon embers falconer's quarry saving unicorn's horn leopard golden cage Julia Edwards

The second name, the nomen, was the family name, equivalent to a surname today. Well-known nomina include Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius, Domitius, Julius, Junius, Pompeius, Antonius, Didius and Valerius. When Tiberius asks Joe what his name is the first time he's in Lucy's world (at the end of chapter 4), Joe answers that it's Claudius Maximus Antonius. Tiberius spots straight away that Joe has made the name up, because Claudius is a nomen and always comes second. When Joe time-travels the second time, the nomen of his new identity as Valentinian is Placidius. Lucy comments that his first two names, Marcus Placidius, are the same as his father's.

scar gatherer series time travel children adventure fiction history shimmer glass slaves isabella demon embers falconer's quarry saving unicorn's horn leopard golden cage Julia Edwards

You can see from this that if you were talking about someone, it might not be clear from the first two names which member of the family you were talking about. That's why the cognomen was added as a third name. In Lucy's time, it was a nickname or personal name. Joe's cognomen is Valentinian, and that's the name he is known by when he's introduced to Lucy's family.

Sometimes the cognomen was based on some physical characteristic or personality trait, which could turn out to be unsuitable or even funny. Julius Caesar's full name was actually Gaius Julius Caesar, and the cognomen Caesar may have meant 'hairy'. However, statues of Julius Caesar usually show him as going bald!

Another famous Roman was Tacitus. This cognomen meant 'silent', although Tacitus was a well-known orator. And one of the Roman emperors was known as Caligula, although his real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. 'Caligula' means 'little boots', which sounds like a rather disrespectful name for an emperor!

Julius Caesar.

Who needs hair anyway?

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