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What's in a Name?
Michael Veprauskas discusses 'Roman Name Forms & their Survival'

Among the institutions that developed during the Roman Republic and later Empire was that of a formalized system for naming its citizens. A male Roman citizen had at least 3 name parts, and could have as many as 6.

praenomen - (pre-name) a given or personal name that was used only by family members. Of the 20 or so male praenomens, only a dozen were in common use. When written, a praenomen was often abbreviated, e.g.: L. = Lucius, Q. = Quintus, M. = Marcus.

nomen - (name) the tribal or clan name. Old Patrician families had a select group of nomens.

cognomen - (surname) originally a nickname, in time they became family names used to distinguish different family groups within a given nomen. An individual could also have more than one nomen, to distinguish between different members of the immediate family; e.g. father and son. Cognomens became especially important as Roman citizenship spread, and many people acquired similar names.

honorific - an additional cognomen or nickname bestowed during life. Often acquired during a successful military career, and frequently representing a particular country or region; e.g. Africanus, Britannicus. The Celtic usage of epithets served a similar function.

Example: Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus - often written as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.

praenomen - Publius or P.

nomen - Cornelius, a tribal name that indicates patrician origin.

cognomen - Scipio.

honorific - Africanus, from Africa. This commemorates Scipio's victory over Hannibal and conquest of Carthage during the Second Punic War.

Other examples:

Artorius, the latin form of Arthur, is also a nomen, e.g.: L. (Lucius) Artorius Castus. He was the 2nd century Dalmatian commander who was stationed in Britain and commanded auxiliary troops.

praenomen - Lucius (L.)

nomen - Artorius

cognomen - Castus

St. Ambrose's father was Aurelius Ambrosius, he was prefect of Gallia and a patrician of the old Roman senatorial class. The cognomen Ambrosius was a family name that was also given to his son, St. Ambrosius. A leading opponent of St. Ambrose in the roman senate, a pagan and also a relative, was one Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. It can be seen that they had the same nomen "Aurelius" indicating descent from the same tribe, but different family names or cognomens.

How about our friend Ambrosius? Ambrosius itself is a cognomen that became a family name, i.e. passed on from father to son. Aurelianus is also a cognomen that would be used to distinguish between Ambrosii in the same family. Aurelius can also be used as a cognomen, but it is also a nomen used by old patrician families of the senatorial class. Hence Aurelius Ambrosius was of patrician descent, qualified for senatorial status, and of the family Ambrosius. Common praenomens used with the nomen Aurelius include: Marcus (M.), Quintus (Q.), Julius (J.), Lucius (L.), Titus (T.) Perhaps Ambrosius the Elders' full name was something like: M. Aurelius Ambrosius. The initial letter M. for Marcus (or whatever it may have been) would soon have been forgotten and dropped, leaving only Aurelius Ambrosius.

The British King Aurelius Caninus, mentioned by Gildas, could conceivably be related to Aurelius Ambrosius, with a new family name started.

The son of M. Aurelius Ambrosius: M. Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus would have been distinguished from his father by the additional cognomen Aurelianus. After a successful career as leader of the British counter offensive against the saxons, and as High-King, he may have acquired an honorific name as well: M. Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus Saxonicus or M. Aurelius Ambrosius Aurelianus Britannicus. Or simply Ambrosius for short!


    Michael Veprauskas 2001. All Rights Reserved.