Most of the Roman Empire probably spoke Greek or one of its variants rather than Latin, the language traditionally associated with the Romans. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, most people in Naples and Pompeii still spoke Greek as their first language. The four Gospels, which were written in the A.D. 1st century, and many famous Roman texts were written in Greek. In A.D. AD when the Roman Empire split into western and eastern (Byzantine) parts, Latin continued to be used as the official language but in time it was replaced by Greek as that language was already widely spoken among the Eastern Mediterranean nations as the main trade language.

Even Latin-speakers didn’t speak the what we regard as Latin today. Jamie Frater wrote for Listverse: “While it is true that the Romans did speak a form of Latin known as vulgar Latin, it was quite different from the Classical Latin that we generally think of them speaking (Classical Latin is what we usually learn at University). Vulgar Latin is the language that the Romance languages (Italian, French, etc.) developed from. Classical Latin was used as an official language only. In addition, members of the Eastern Roman Empire were speaking Greek exclusively by the 4th century, and Greek had replaced Latin as the official language. [Source: Jamie Frater, Listverse, May 5, 2008 ]

There were phrase books and learning materials for those who wished to learn Latin and use some phrases of it in particular situations. Gordon Gora wrote: “If one wished to speak Latin, there were tools to do so: colliquia. These text books not only taught Greek speakers Latin, they taught about a wide variety of situations and how to deal with them in a proper manner.” A few examples of these texts have survived. “There are two portions remaining from the original manuscripts that date from the second and sixth centuries. Some of these situations include one’s first visit to the public baths, what one should do if they arrive at school late, and how to deal with a drunk close relative. The texts were incredibly common and widely available to rich and poor alike. It is believed that the situations described were for role playing, which students would act out to get a feel for the material and speech.” [Source: Gordon Gora September 16, 2016]

On why Latin largely died out along the western Roman Empire, Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy. The end of taxation meant that these careers disappeared in the post-Roman west, and elite parents quickly realised that spending so much money on learning Latin was now a waste of time. As a result, advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years.” [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Latin, the Roman Language

Yotvata inscription from the AD 3rd century

Latin was the language of the ancient Romans. A good portion of the words found in English and many other languages are Latin in origin. "The Latin language," wrote T.R. Reid in National Geographic, "was thoroughly rational and pragmatic, a product of careful engineering. For that reason educators throughout the Western world have taught Latin for 2,000 years to help students learn the basic machinery of language." Latin structures such as ablative absolute are even helpful in learning Japanese.

The Roman spoke a language like Latin. Like other ancient languages, although we can read it we don’t known exactly what it sounded like. Up until the early 1960s, most American children were taught at least a little Latin in school.

Latin words, abbreviations and expression found in English today include: alma mater, alter ego, antebellum, habeas corpus, ignoramuns, in extremis, ipso facto, persona non grata, per capita, prima facie, quid pro quo, sub rosa, vice versa, a.m., p.m., i.e., A.D., R.I.P., e.g., et al, ad infinitum, etc., etc.

Latin was less expressive and more use for creative writing difficult to play with than Greek. With its long monotonous syllables it required a special skill to produce poetry with life. Latin was better for expressing clear, precise thoughts rather than shades of meaning.

Indo-Europeans in Italy

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “All of the languages spoken in prehistoric Italy, with the exception of Etruscan, are members of the Indo-European language family. Working backwards on the basis of similarities among words from different languages and dialects (the comparative method), scholars are able to reconstruct the bare bones of a language they call Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The people who spoke this language were on the move in the latter part of the third and the first half of the second millennia BC. These people, these speakers of PIE, come to us loaded with ideological signification. They are wrapped in the now discredited racist efforts of the Nazis and other groups who sought to make them the archetypal civilizers, the so-called Aryan people from whose bloodline the pure stock of Germany was supposed to descend. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Hence, when we find that leading scholars such as Massimo Pallottino, the dean of Italic prehistory, are more than a little wary about admitting to a massive influx of more advanced PIE-speaking people across the Alps in the Early to Middle Italic Bronze Age, we may suspect that (even if unconsciously) there is more involved in the decision than an impartial assessment of the evidence. Whenever the evidence can bear it, in fact, Pallottino and his school tend to favor a hypothesis of native development to explain and account for major innovations traceable in the archaeological record, as opposed to the influx of new and ethnically different kinds of people. Of course, even Pallottino, with his nativist bent, admits that prior to the Early Bronze Age the people of Italy were in all probability not speaking a dialect of Indo-European, and that the Indo-European language must have come into Italy from outside. ^*^

“The standard line posits a single large ingression of warlike Indo-European speakers, who both tamed and advanced the indigenous population, and whose language and cultural practices spread throughout the peninsula. Pallottino prefers a messier model. He argues that the various Italic dialects, Latin, Osco-Umbrian, and the rest, can not be direct descendants of a single Proto-Italic dialect of PIE. In other words, that Indo-European was introduced into Italy at various times and in various guises, by various different groups of people, who were not conquerors en masse but rather smaller groups who were peacefully absorbed into the existing culture. Burial practice is extremely important for deciding on this question.” ^

languages spoken in the Roman Empire

Etruscan Language

Theresa Huntsman of Washington University in St. Louis wrote: “The Etruscan language is a unique, non-Indo-European outlier in the ancient Greco-Roman world. There are no known parent languages to Etruscan, nor are there any modern descendants, as Latin gradually replaced it, along with other Italic languages, as the Romans gradually took control of the Italian peninsula. The Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 A.D.), however, took a great interest in Etruscan language and history. He knew how to speak and write the language, and even compiled a twenty-volume history of the people that, unfortunately, no longer exists today. [Source: Theresa Huntsman, Washington University in St. Louis, "Etruscan Language and Inscriptions", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2013, \^/]

The Etruscans had a written languages but only fragments have been discovered. It was unlike any other language and to this day it remains undeciphered. About 10,000 Etruscans inscriptions have been found, most of them are tomb inscriptions related to funerals or dedicated to gods. They can be "read" in the sense that scholar can make out the specific letters, derived from Greek, but apart from about a few hundred names for places and gods they can not figure out what the inscriptions say.

In 1885 a stele carrying an inscription in a pre-Greek language was found on the island of Lemnos, and dated to about the 6th century B.C. Philologists agree that this has many similarities with the Etruscan language both in its form and structure and its vocabulary.

In 1964, archaeologists found three Rosseta-stone-like gold sheets with Etruscan writing and Phoenician writing in Pygi, Italy. The texts were determined to related to rituals but they failed to add much to the understanding of the Etruscan language. As of 2010, about 300 Etruscan words were known.

Evolution of the Latin Alphabet

The Romans devised the most widely used alphabet in the world today. Romans were reading the same upper case letters that we read today in 600 B.C. and developed lower case forms around A.D. 300. The only changes were made in the Middle Ages when the letter "J" (a consonant version of the letter "I") was added "V" was divided into "U," "V" and "W."

The Phoenician alphabet provided the basis for the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet as well as the Greek alphabet which gave birth to the Latin alphabet which beget the modern alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters, each for sound rather than a word or phrase. The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of all European and Middle Eastern alphabets as well as ones in India, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia and Korea. The English alphabet evolved from the Latin, Roman, Greek and ultimately the Phoenician alphabets. The letter "O" has not changed since it was adopted into the Phoenician alphabet in 1300 B.C.

Greek writing was passed on to the Etruscans who passed their writing on to the Romans. By the time the Romans were through little of the Greek alphabet was left. Like the Greek alphabet, the Latin alphabet had 24 letters, or signs. The Greek signs “z,” and “x” were dropped and then later placed at the end of the Latin alphabet. Some signs were added. Other signs were given different sounds. Others signs were changed. By the time all the changing was done the Latin alphabet had 26 letters and only about a half dozen vowels.

Initially there were no small letters, only capitals. There was a formal writing used for documents and flowing, cursive style used for informal writing.

Writing in Ancient Rome

Letters were written on a wax-coated surface with a bone or metal stylus. Preserved items were written on parchment. Writing was done on papyrus or vellum with chiseled reed pens in the Mediterranean areas. In Britain it was done on wooden tablets with ink or carved with styluses. On other places people wrote on thin sheets of sapwood with styluses.

Roman books included picture puzzle books, military training manuals and wooden notebooks. The idea of pages didn't really take shape until the invention of parchment in the 2nd century.

The Romans built great libraries with books they took from conquered territory and works they added themselves. By A.D. 350 there were 29 libraries in Rome. Literacy spread. The English historian Peter Salway has noted that England under Roman rule had a higher rate of literacy than any period until the 19th century.

Latin was less expressive and more difficult to play with than Greek. With its long monotonous syllables it required a special skill to produce poetry with life. Latin was better for expressing clear, precise thoughts rather than shades of meaning.

Etruscan Writing

Etruscan writing

Theresa Huntsman of Washington University in St. Louis wrote: “Etruscan did not appear in written form until the seventh century B.C., after contact with Euboean Greek traders and colonists, and it is the Euboean Greek alphabet that the Etruscans adopted and adapted to fulfill the phonological and grammatical needs of their native tongue. The Etruscans wrote right to left, and many of the Greek letters are reversed in orientation. Some early Greek inscriptions are also written from right to left, or in a continuous string of lines running first right to left, then left to right. [Source: Theresa Huntsman, Washington University in St. Louis, "Etruscan Language and Inscriptions", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2013, \^/]

“We have no surviving histories or literature in Etruscan, and the only extant writing that can be considered a text, as opposed to an inscription, was painted in ink on linen, preserved through the fortuitous reuse of the linen as wrappings for an Egyptian mummy now in Zagreb. The existence of such objects like an Etruscan abecedarium in the form of an inkwell, as well as artistic representations of books or scrolls, confirms a written tradition on perishable materials. Despite the lack of preserved texts, the corpus of more than 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions on local and imported goods for daily, religious, and funerary use give us insight into the importance of language in Etruscan life and afterlife. \^/

The Phoenician alphabet was a forerunner of the Etruscan, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac scripts. Etruscan writing in turn influenced the Greek and Latin (Roman) alphabets. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas wrote: “Because the alphabet was invented only once, all the many alphabets of the world, including Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Brahmani and Cyrillic, derive from Proto-Sinaitic. The Latin alphabet used in the western world is the direct descendant of the Etruscan alphabet (Bonfante 2002). The Etruscans, who occupied the present province of Tuscany in Italy, adopted the Greek alphabet, slightly modifying the shape of letters. In turn, the Etruscan alphabet became that of the Romans, when Rome conquered Etruria in the first century BC. The alphabet followed the Roman armies. All the nations that fell under the rule of the Roman Empire became literate in the first centuries of our era. This was the case for the Gauls, Angles, Saxons, Franks and Germans who inhabited present-day France, England and Germany. [Source: Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, January 23, 2014]

Etruscan Inscriptions

Greek and Punic (Phoenician)

Theresa Huntsman of Washington University in St. Louis wrote: “Etruscan inscriptions fulfilled a number of roles, and they often reveal the intended purposes of the objects that bore them. The writing system developed out of necessity when the Etruscans began to engage in Mediterranean trade, and inscriptions could address practical concerns, such as the price of an object, or indicate a buyer’s or seller’s mark. There is an overwhelming number of “speaking” objects, or vessels inscribed with phrases to express ownership or dedication, written as if the object itself were speaking. For example, an Italo-Corinthian alabastron in the collection is incised with the phrase “mi licinesi mulu hirsunaiesi,” or “I am the gift of Licinius Hirsunaie.” This could indicate that the vessel was intended as an offering to a deity, but it could also illustrate a gift exchange between wealthy individuals. [Source:Theresa Huntsman, Washington University in St. Louis, "Etruscan Language and Inscriptions", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2013 \^/]

“Inscriptions associated with pictorial scenes, such as tomb paintings, painted vases, or engraved mirrors, help us to understand what the scene represents. The Etruscans celebrated Greek myths and worshipped many of the same deities, but with variations in the conventions used to portray the narratives that can make them difficult to interpret. Engraved bronze mirrors from numerous Etruscan tombs bear intricate, rich, and nuanced mythological scenes that can be fully understood only through the carefully inscribed names that identify each of the figures . In fact, the only way we know the Etruscan names for the gods is through these labeled mythological scenes on objects and in tomb paintings. Some names are “Etruscanized” versions of the Greek names, e.g., Aplu for the Greek Apollo or Ercle for the Greek Herakles, but others are entirely different and only identifiable through illustrated, labeled scenes, e.g., Tinia for Zeus or Turan for Aphrodite. \^/

“Etruscan tombs, in both their construction and contents, prove that the Etruscans conceived of the afterlife as an extension of actual life. The tomb often replicates a domestic interior, filled with all the objects the deceased would need, like personal adornments, games, banqueting wares, and even food. Inscriptions played a key role in the afterlife, too. Etruscan sarcophagi and cremation urns bore the full names of their owners, often identifying the names of the individual’s father, mother, and for women, her husband. Relatives entering a family tomb to bury an individual would be able to identify the effigies of their ancestors. Inscriptions also had the power to transform objects from things for the living to things for the dead. Through the act of inscribing the word suthina, meaning “for the tomb,” pottery, jewelry, and metal objects such as weapons, armor, mirrors, and vessels were thereby “transformed” and designated for use by the deceased in the afterlife. Some objects were probably made or purchased expressly for burial and inscribed during or shortly after production. Others, however, may have been personal possessions that were inscribed upon the individual’s death and burial.” \^/

Roman Inscriptions

20120225-inscrpitions  Quisquis_amat).jpg
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In a number of civilizations, the written word has been seen as an art form in itself—calligraphy. One may, for example, see ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or Arabic inscriptions as attractive and meaningful even without an understanding of their contents. In the classical world, the use of the Greek and Latin alphabets, derived originally from Phoenician characters, has been taken to be much more functional, and it is the reading of the surviving texts that has been regarded as all-important. There are many more extant examples of Roman inscriptions than earlier Greek and Hellenistic ones, but not all Roman inscriptions are in Latin. In fact, probably as many Roman inscriptions are in Greek as in Latin, for Greek was the common language in the eastern half of the empire, the other from Sardis in Asia Minor. In addition, many, principally official, inscriptions were put up in both languages. An example of a private bilingual inscription (in Latin and Greek) is the tombstone of a freedwoman (ex-slave) called Iulia Donata that forms part of the Cesnola Collection from Cyprus. Some Roman inscriptions, however, are written in other languages; there are examples of inscribed Palmyrene funerary stelae, dating from the second to third centuries A.D. Palmyrene is an ancient form of Aramaic. Many of these local languages eventually disappeared, but Hebrew, for example, continued to flourish during Roman times. [Source: Christopher Lightfoot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009, \^/]

“Inscriptions are valuable historical documents, shedding light on the political, social, and economic realities of the past and speaking directly to the modern reader across time. Relatively few inscriptions survive from the Roman Republic; the vast majority belong to the Imperial period—that is, from the time of the first emperor Augustus (27 B.C.–14 A.D.) until the third century A.D. The number of inscriptions set up in the late Roman period (fourth–sixth century A.D.) was much reduced but still much larger than in the following early medieval period (the so-called Dark Age). It is impossible to estimate the number of surviving Roman inscriptions, although this must run into the hundreds of thousands, and, of course, archaeologists and chance finds are continually bringing yet more to light. This ever-growing corpus of epigraphical material provides information about many different aspects of life in the Roman world. The inscriptions are thus valuable historical documents, shedding light on the political, social, and economic realities of the past and speaking directly to the modern reader across time. \^/

“The variety of media used for inscriptions (stone, metal, pottery, mosaic, fresco, glass, wood, and papyrus) is matched by the diverse ways in which the inscriptions themselves were used. At one end of the scale were large, formal inscriptions such as dedications to the gods or emperors, publications of official documents such as imperial letters and decrees, and, on a smaller scale, the names and titles of rulers minted on coins along with their portraits or the discharge papers, known as military diplomata, of Roman soldiers that are found on portable bronze tablets. At the other end are casual inscriptions such as the graffiti that have been found on street walls at Pompeii and private correspondence such as the papyrus letter containing a mundane shopping list. \^/

“The largest group of Roman inscriptions comprises epitaphs on funerary monuments. The Romans often used such inscriptions to record very precise details about the deceased, such as their age, occupation, and life history. From this evidence, it is possible to build up a picture of the family and professional ties that bound Roman society together and allowed it to function. In addition, the language of Roman funerary texts demonstrates the human, compassionate side of the Roman psyche, for they frequently contain words of endearment and expressions of personal loss and grief. A good example of the various aspects of Roman funerary art is the marble funerary altar of Cominia Tyche. In addition to a fine portrait of the deceased, in which she is depicted with the elaborate hairstyle that was fashionable among the ladies of the imperial court in the late first century A.D., there is a Latin inscription that records her precise age at death as 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days. Furthermore, her grieving husband, a certain Lucius Annius Festus, wished her to be known as "his most chaste and loving wife," her qualities being emphasized by the use of superlatives in each case. \^/

“The most enduring legacy of Roman inscriptions, however, is not their content, regardless of how important that may be, but the lettering itself. For through the medium of carved inscriptions the Romans perfected the shape, composition, and symmetry of the Latin alphabet. Roman inscriptions thus became the model for all later writing in the Latin West, especially during the Renaissance, when the setting up of public inscriptions revived and the use of printing spread the written word farther than ever before. It was not just that the Latin language formed the basis of western European civilization, but it was also because the Latin alphabet was so clear, concise, and easy to read that it came to be adopted by many countries around the world. Those brought up in such a tradition perhaps find it hard to appreciate the beauty and grace of these letter forms, but at its best, as seen in innumerable ancient inscriptions in Rome and elsewhere around the ancient world, Latin may justly be described as calligraphy.

Writing, Pens and Ink in Ancient Rome

For writing the Romans used different materials: first, the tablet (tabula), or a thin piece of board covered with wax, which was written upon with a sharp iron pencil (stylus); next, a kind of paper (charta) made from the plant called papyrus; and, finally, parchment (membrana) made from the skins of animals. The paper and parchment were written upon with a pen made of reed sharpened with a penknife, and ink made of a mixture of lampblack. When a book (liber) was written, the different pieces of paper or parchment were pasted together in a long sheet and rolled upon a round stick. When collected in a library (bibliotheca), the rolls were arranged upon shelves or in boxes. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), ]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Usually only the upper surface of the sheet—formed by the horizontal layer of strips—was used for writing. These strips, which showed even after the process of manufacture, served to guide the pen of the writer. In the case of books where it was important to keep the number of lines constant to the page, lines were ruled with a circular piece of lead. The pen (calamus) was made of a reed brought to a point and cleft in the manner of a quill pen. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“For the black ink (atramentum) was occasionally substituted the liquid of the cuttlefish. Red ink was much used for headings, ornaments, and the like, and in pictures the inkstand is generally represented with two compartments, presumably one for black ink, one for red ink. The ink was more like paint than modern ink, and, when fresh, could be wiped off with a damp sponge. It could be washed off even when it had become dry and hard. To wash sheets in order to use them a second time was a mark of poverty or niggardliness, but the reverse side of schedae that had served their purpose was often used for scratch paper, especially in the schools.” |+|

Reading Scrolls

Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, wrote in the New York Times: The books Greeks and Romans read “were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century. The “book rolls” “long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, to the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page, bad manners — but a common fault, no doubt, Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the books a the very end, with just this problem in mind.”

“These cumbersome rolls made reading a very different experience than it is with the modern book,” Beard wrote. “Skimming, for example, was much more difficult, as looking back a few pages to check out the name you had forgotten (as it is on Kindle). Not to mention the fact that at some periods of Roman history, it was fashionable to copy a the text with no breaks between words, but as a river of letters. In comparison, deciphering the most challenging postmodern text (or “Finnegan’s Wake,” for that matter) looks easy.”

Bad Latin and Tattoos

Jack Malvern wrote in The Times: “The dead language has had a renaissance in tattoo parlours as people seek to emulate celebrities such as David Beckham and Angelina Jolie, but the yearning for classical language has come at a cost.David Butterfield, director of studies in classics at Queens' College, Cambridge, was delighted when he first noticed that Latin had become the lingua franca of skin decoration. He offered a translation service and supplemented his salary by charging small fees. However, he will announce in the next edition of Spectator Life magazine that he has decided ti stop, for fear of fuelling a terrible trend. [Source: Jack Malvern, The Times, March 28 2017]

20120225-inscrpitions Secundus_prime_sue).jpg
“Although most people contracted him to ensure that their planned inscriptions were correct, Dr. Butterfield also had to let down gently those who were checking the ones they already had. The lecturer, who has fielded about 1,500 inquiries since he began offering his services in 2007, said that although Latin lent gravitas, it was also tricky to get right. "When photographs were sent in for checking, it was often manifest that mistakes had been grafted in inch-high-letters," he said. "Latin is a language that leaves no wriggle room: when it is wrong, it is inescapably wrong, at best ungrammatical, atbworst gibberish."

“Asked whether he had to be diplomatic when telling people about indelible errors, he said: "It was never worthwhile beating unduly about the bush: if a woman has got a self-referential tattoo describing her in the gender of a man, that needs raising, howerver gently the news is passed on. I would give the most optimistic reading of how their Latin could be interpreted, perhaps suggesting that it would pass for a school-boy's Latin in medieval Castle."

“He noted that Beckham, who has ut amem et foveam (to love and cherish), had secured the correct translation, as had Jolie, whose belly is inscribed with quod me nutrit, me destruit (what nourishes me, destroys me). He said that many people had made the mistake of trusting online translation services. He saw one attempt to translate the biblical verse: "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" that included English interspersed with the Latin: Ingredior per valley of umbra of nex. In other cases, a translation appeared to have been put through a spellchecker so that "Love is the essence of life" was not Amor est vitae essentia but "Amor est vital essentiaL"

Roman Names

Most Roman citizens had five names. The first three were like a surname, middle name, and last name. The last two usually revealed the person clan or place of origin. In ancient times people generally had only one name, which was given at birth. People with the same name were often differentiated from one another by identifying them as the son of someone (i.e. James, the son of Zeledee in the Bible) or linking them to their birthplace (i.e. Paul of Tarsus, also from the Bible).

Caesar's wife

The Romans developed surnames to link people with their family members and ancestors. With the fall of the Roman Empire, surnames disappeared until they were reappeared in the late Middle Ages. Romans liked names that began with the letter “C”: Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Claudius, Curio, Clodia, Clatulus, Catilibe, Caelius. C originally had the value of G and retains it in the abbreviations C and Cn. for Gaïus and Gnaeus. When they are Anglicized, these praenomina are often written with the C.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “No very satisfactory account of the names of women can be given, because it is impossible to discover any system in the choice and arrangement of those that have come down to us. It may be said that the threefold name for women was unknown in the best days of the Republic; praenomina for women were rare and when used were not abbreviated. More common were the adjectives Maxima and Minor, and the numerals Secunda and Tertia, but these, unlike the corresponding names of men, seem always to have denoted the place of the bearer among a group of sisters. It was more usual for the unmarried woman to be called by her father’s nomen in its feminine form, with the addition of her father’s cognomen in the genitive case, followed later by the letter f (filia) to mark the relationship. An example is Caecilia Metelli. Caesar’s daughter was called Iulia, Cicero’s Tullia. Sometimes a woman used her mother’s nomen after her father’s. The married woman, if she passed into her husband’s “hand” (manus) by the ancient patrician ceremony, originally took his nomen, just as an adopted son took the name of the family into which he passed, but it cannot be shown that the rule was universally or even usually observed. Under the later forms of marriage the wife retained her maiden name. In the time of the Empire we find the threefold name for women in general use, with the same riotous confusion in selection and arrangement as prevailed in the case of the names of men at the same time.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

Roman Threefold Name

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Nothing is more familiar to the student of Latin than the fact that the Romans whose works he reads first have each a threefold name, Caius Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Publius Vergilius Maro. This was the system that prevailed in the best days of the Republic, but it was itself a development, starting in earlier times with a more simple form, and ending, under the Empire, in utter confusion. The earliest legends of Rome show us single names, Romulus, Remus, Faustulus; but side by side with these we find also double names, Numa Pompilius, Ancus Martius, Tullus Hostilius. It is possible that single names were the original fashion, but in early inscriptions we find two names, the second of which, in the genitive case, represented the father or the Head of the House: Marcus Marci, Caecilia Metelli. A little later such a genitive was followed by the letter f (for filius or filia) or uxor, to denote the relationship. Later still, but very anciently nevertheless, we find the free-born man in possession of the three names with which we are familiar, the nomen to mark his clan (gens), the cognomen to mark his family, and the praenomen to mark him as an individual. The regular order of the three names is praenomen, nomen, cognomen, although in poetry the order is often changed to adapt the name as a whole to the meter. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Marc Antony and Octavian

"Great formality required even more than the three names. In official documents and in the state records it was usual to insert between a man’s nomen and cognomen the praenomina of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and sometimes even the name of the tribe in which he was registered as a citizen. So Cicero might have written his name as M. Tullius M. f. M. n. M. pr. Cor. Cicero, that is, Marcus Tullius Cicero, son (filius) of Marcus, grandson (nepos) of Marcus, great-grandson (pronepos) of Marcus, of the tribe Cornelia. |+|

“On the other hand, even the threefold name was too long for ordinary use. Children, slaves, and intimate friends addressed the father, master, friend, and citizen by his praenomen only. Ordinary acquaintances used the cognomen, with the praenomen prefixed for emphatic address. In earnest appeals we find the nomen also used, with sometimes the praenomen or the possessive mi prefixed. When two only of the three names are thus used in familiar intercourse, the order varies. If the praenomen is one of the two, it always stands first, except in the poets, for metrical reasons, and in a few places in prose where the text is uncertain. If the praenomen is omitted, the arrangement varies; the older writers regularly put the cognomen first. Cicero usually follows this practice: cf. Ahala Servilius, (Milo 3,8); contrast C. Servilius Ahala, (Cat. I, 1,3). Caesar puts the nomen first; Horace, Livy, and Tacitus have both arrangements, while Pliny the Younger adheres to Caesar’s usage.” |+|

Praenomen in Roman Names

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The number of names in actual use as praenomina seems to us preposterously small as compared with our Christian names, to which they in some measure correspond. It was never much in excess of thirty, and in Sulla’s time had dwindled to eighteen. The following are all that are often found in the authors read in school and in college: Aulus (A), Decimus (D), Gaïus (C),1 Gnaeus (CN),1 Kaeso (K), Lucius (L), Manius (M’), Marcus (M), Publius (P), Quintus (Q), Servius (SER), Sextus (SEX), Spurius (S), Tiberius (TI), and Titus (T). The abbreviations of these names vary: for Aulus we find regularly A, but also AV and AVL; for Sextus we find SEXT and S as well as SEX. Similar variations are found in the case of other praenomina. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Crispus, son of Constantine, murdered by Constantine

“But small as this list seems to us, the natural conservatism of the Romans found in it a chance to display itself, and the great families repeated the praenomina of their children from generation to generation in such a way as to make the identification of individuals often very difficult in modern times. Thus the Aemilii contented themselves with seven of these praenomina, Gaïus, Gnaeus, Lucius, Manius, Marcus, Quintus, and Tiberius, but used in addition one that is not found in any other gens, Mamercus (MAM). The Claudii used only six, Gaïus, Decimus, Lucius, Publius, Servius, and Tiberius. A still smaller number sufficed for the Julian gens, Gaïus, Lucius, and Sextus, with the praenomen, Vopiscus, which went out of use in very early times. And even these selections were subject to further limitations. Thus, of the gens Claudia only one branch (stirps), known as the Claudii Nerones, used the praenomina Decimus and Tiberius, and out of the seven praenomina used in the gens Cornelia the branch of Scipios (Cornelii Scipiones) used only Gnaeus, Lucius, and Publius. Even after a praenomen had found a place in a given family, it might be deliberately discarded: the senate decreed that no Antonius should have the praenomen Marcus after the downfall of the famous triumvir, Marcus Antonius. |+|

“From the list of praenomina usual in his family the father gave one to his son on the ninth day after his birth, the dies lustricus. It was a custom then, one that seems natural enough in our own times, for the father to give his own praenomen to his first-born son; Cicero’s name shows the praenomen Marcus four times repeated. When these praenomina were first given, they must have been chosen with due regard to their etymological meaning and have had some relation to the circumstances attending the birth of the child. |+|

“So, Lucius meant originally “born by day,” Manius “born in the morning”; Quintus, Sextus, Decimus, Postumus, etc., indicated the succession in the family; Servius was connected, perhaps, with servare, Gaïus with gaudere. Others are associated with the name of some divinity, as Marcus and Mamercus with Mars, and Tiberius with the river god Tiberis. But these meanings in the course of time were forgotten as completely as we have forgotten the meanings of our Christian names, and even the numerals were employed with no reference to their proper force: Cicero’s only brother was called Quintus. |+|

“The abbreviation of the praenomen was not a matter of mere caprice, as is the writing of initials with us, but was an established custom, indicating, perhaps, Roman citizenship. The praenomen was written out in full only when it was used by itself or when it belonged to a person in one of the lower classes of society. When Roman praenomina are carried over into English, they should always be written out in full and pronounced accordingly. In the same way, when we read a Latin author and find a praenomen abbreviated, the full name should always be pronounced if we read aloud or translate.” |+|

Nomen and Cognomen

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The nomen, the all-important name, is called for greater precision the nomen gentile and the nomen gentilicium. The child inherited it, as one inherits one’s surname now, and there was, therefore, no choice or selection about it. The nomen ended originally in -ius, and this ending was sacredly preserved by the patrician families; the endings -eius, -aius, -aeus, and -eüs are merely variations from it. Other endings point to a non-Latin origin of the gens. Names in -acus (Avidiacus) are Gallic; those in -na (Caecina) are Etruscan; those in -enus or -ienus (Salvidienus) are Umbrian or Picene. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]


“The nomen belonged by custom to all connected with the gens, to the plebeian as well as the patrician branches, to men, women, clients, and freedmen, without distinction. It was perhaps the natural desire to separate themselves from the more humble bearers of their nomen that led patrician families to use a limited number of praenomina, avoiding those used by their clansmen of inferior social standing. At any rate, it is noticeable that the plebeian families, as soon as political nobility and the busts in their halls gave them a standing above their fellows, showed the same exclusiveness in the selection of names for their children that the patricians had displayed before them. |+|

“Besides the individual name and the name that marked his gens, the Roman had often a third name, called the cognomen, that served to indicate the family or branch of the gens to which he belonged. Almost all the great gentes were thus divided, some of them into numerous branches. The Cornelian gens, for example, included the plebeian Dolabellae, Lentuli, Cethegi, and Cinnae, in addition to the patrician Scipiones, Maluginenses, Rufini, etc. |+|

“From the fact that in the official name the cognomen followed the name of the tribe, it is generally believed that the oldest of the cognomina did not go back beyond the time of the division of the people into tribes. It is also generally believed that the cognomen was originally a nickname, bestowed on account of some personal peculiarity or characteristic, sometimes as a compliment, sometimes in derision. So we find many pointing at physical traits, such as Albus, Barbatus, Cincinnatus, Claudus, Longus (all originally adjectives), and Naso and Capito (nouns: “the man with a nose,” “the man with a head“); others, such as Benignus, Blandus, Cato, Serenus, Severus, refer to the temperament; still others, such as Gallus, Ligus, Sabinus, Siculus, Tuscus, denote origin. These cognomina, it must be remembered, descended from father to son; they would naturally lose their appropriateness as they passed along, until in the course of time their meanings were entirely lost sight of, as were those of the praenomina. |+|

“Under the Republic the patricians had almost without exception this third or family name; we are told of but one man, Caius Marcius, who lacked it. With the plebeians the cognomen was not so common; perhaps its possession was the exception. The great families of the Marii, Mummii, and Sertorii had none, although the plebeian branches of the Cornelian gens, the Tullian gens, and others, did. The cognomen came, therefore, to be prized as an indication of ancient lineage, and individuals whose nobility was new were anxious to acquire one to transmit to their children. Hence many assumed cognomina of their own selection. Some of these were conceded to them by public opinion as their due, as in the case of Cnaeus Pompeius, who took Magnus as his cognomen. Other cognomina were given in derision, as we deride the made-to-order coat of arms of some upstart in our own times. It is probable, however, that only patricians ventured to assume cognomina under the Republic, though under the Empire their possession was hardly more than the badge of freedom.” |+|

Types of Names

Nero and Agrippina, the mother Nero murdered

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Besides the three names already described, we find not infrequently, even in Republican times, a fourth or a fifth. These also were called cognomina by a loose extension of the word, until in the fourth century of our era the name agnomina was given them by the grammarians. They may be conveniently considered under four heads. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“In the first place, the process that divided the gens into branches might be continued even further. That is, as the gens became extensive enough to throw off a stirps, so the stirps in process of time might throw off a branch of itself, for which there is no better name than the vague familia. This actually happened very frequently: the gens Cornelia, for example, threw off the stirps of the Scipiones, and this in turn the family or “house” of the Nasicae. So we find the fourfold name Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, in which the last name was probably given very much in the same way as the third had been given before the division took place. |+|

“In the second place, when a man passed from one family to another by adoption, he regularly took the three names of his adoptive father and added his own nomen gentile modified by the suffix -anus. Thus, Lucius Aemilius Paulus, the son of Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus, was adopted by Publius Cornelius Scipio, and took as his new name Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. In the same way, when Caius Octavius Caepias was adopted by Caius Julius Caesar, he became Gaïus Iulius Caesar Octavianus, and hence is variously styled “Octavius” and “Octavianus” in the histories. |+|

“In the third place, an additional name, sometimes called cognomen ex virtute, was often given by acclamation to a great statesman or victorious general, and was put after his cognomen. A well-known example is in the name of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus; the title Africanus was given him after his defeat of Hannibal. In the same way, his grandson by adoption, the Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus mentioned above, received the same honorable title after he had destroyed Carthage, and was called Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus. Other examples are Macedonicus, given to Lucius Aemilius Paulus for his defeat of Perseus, and the title Augustus, given by the senate to Octavianus. It is not certainly known whether or not these names passed by inheritance to the descendants of those who originally earned them, but it is probable that the eldest son only was strictly entitled to take his father’s title of honor. |+|

“In the fourth place, the fact that a man had inherited a nickname from his ancestors in the form of a cognomen did not prevent his receiving another from some personal characteristic, especially as the inherited name had often no application, as we have seen, to its later possessor. To some ancient Publius Cornelius was given the nickname Scipio; in the course of time this title was taken by all his descendants, without thought of its appropriateness, and it became a cognomen. Then, to one of these descendants another nickname, Nasica, was given for personal reasons, which in course of time lost its individuality and became the name of a whole family; then, in precisely the same way a member of this family became prominent enough to need a separate name and was called Corculum, his full name being Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum. It is evident that there is no reason why the expansion should not have continued indefinitely. It is also evident that we cannot always distinguish between a mere nickname, one applied merely to an individual and not passing to his descendants, and the additional cognomen that marked the family off from the rest of the stirps to which it belonged.” |+|

Confusion Over Names in Ancient Rome

Commodus, the Roman Emperor in the film Gladiator

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “A system so elaborate as that described was almost sure to be misunderstood or misapplied, and in the later days of the Republic and under the Empire we find all law and order in names disregarded. Confusion was caused by the misuse of the praenomen. Sometimes two are found in one name, e.g., Publius Aëlius Alienus Archelaus Marcus. The familiar Gaïus must have been a nomen in very ancient times. Like irregularities occur in the use of the nomen. Two in a name were not uncommon, one being derived, perhaps, from the family of the mother; occasionally three or four are used, and fourteen are found in the name of one of the consuls of the year 169 A.D. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“By another change, a word might go out of use as a praenomen and appear as a nomen: Cicero’s enemy Lucius Sergius Catilona had for his nomen gentile Sergius, which had once been a praenomen. The cognomen was similarly abused. It ceased to denote the whole family and came to distinguish members of the same family, as the praenomina originally had done: thus the three sons of Marcus Annaeus Seneca, for example, were called, respectively, Marcus Annaeus Novatus, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and Lucius Annaeus Mela. Again, a name might be arranged differently at different times: in the consular lists we find the same man called Lucius Lucretius Tricipitinus Flavus and Lucius Lucretius Flavus Tricipitinus.”

“There is even greater variation in the names of persons who had passed from one family into another by adoption. Some took the additional name from the cognomen instead of from the nomen. Some used more than one nomen. Finally, it may be noticed that late in the Empire we find a man struggling under the load of forty names.” |+|

Names of Slaves, Freedmen and Citizens

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Slaves had no more right to names of their own than they had to other property, but took such as their masters were pleased to give them, and even these did not descend to their children. In the simpler life of early times the slave was called puer, just as the word “boy” was once used in this country for slaves of any age. Until late in the Republic the slave was known only by this name, corrupted to por and affixed to the genitive of his master’s praenomen: Marcipor (Marci puer), “Marcus’s slave,” Olipor (Auli puer), “Aulus’s slave.” When slaves became numerous, this simple form no longer sufficed to distinguish them, and they received individual names. These were usually foreign names, and often denoted the nationality of the slave; sometimes, in mockery perhaps, they were the high-sounding appellations of eastern potentates, such as Afer, Eleutheros, Pharnaces. By this time, too, the word servus had supplanted puer. We find, therefore, that toward the end of the Republic the full name of a slave consisted of his individual name followed by the nomen and praenomen (the order is important) of his master and by the word servus: Pharnaces Egnatii Publii servus. When a slave passed from one master to another, he took the nomen of the new master and added to it the cognomen of the old modified by the suffix -anus: when Anna, the slave of Maecenas, became the property of Livia, she was called Anna Liviae serva Maecenatiana. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

slave manumission

“The freedman regularly kept the individual name which he had had as a slave, and received the nomen of his master with any praenomen the latter assigned him, the individual name coming last as a sort of cognomen. It happened naturally that the master’s praenomen was often given, especially to a favorite slave. The freedman of a woman took the name of her father, e.g., Marcus Livius Augustae l Ismarus; the letter l stood for libertus, and was inserted in all formal documents. Of course the master might disregard the regular form and give the freedman any name he pleased. Thus, when Cicero manumitted his slaves Tiro and Dionysius, he called the former, in strict accord with custom, Marcus Tullius Tiro, but to the latter he gave his own praenomen and the nomen of his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, the new name being Marcus Pomponius Dionysius. The individual names (Pharnaces, Dionysius, etc.) were dropped by the descendants of freedmen, who were, with good reason, anxious to hide all traces of their mean descent. |+|

When a foreigner received the right of citizenship, he took a new name, which was arranged on much the same principles as have been explained in the cases of freedmen. His original name was retained as a sort of cognomen, and before it were written the praenomen that suited his fancy and the nomen of the person, always a Roman citizen, to whom he owed his citizenship. The most familiar example is that of the Greek poet Archias, whom Cicero, in the well-known oration, defended; his name was Aulus Licinius Archias, He had long been attached to the family of the Luculli, and, when he was made a citizen, he took as his nomen that of his distinguished patron Lucius Licinius Lucullus; we do not know why he selected the praenomen Aulus. Another example is that of the Gaul mentioned by Caesar (B.G., I, 47), Gaïus Valerius Caburus. He took his name from Caius Valerius Flaccus, the governor of Gaul at the time that he received his citizenship. To this custom of taking the names of governors and generals is due the frequent occurrence of the name “Julius” in Gaul, “Pompeius” in Spain, and “Cornelius” in Sicily.” |+|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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