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Ancient Roman Names For Modern Babies

Ancient Roman Names For Modern Babies

Why do we keep coming back to Roman names? Just a decade or two ago, many ancient Roman names seemed lost to the past. These included both clunky names like Cornelius that had seen use in modern times, and those that never made it past the fall of Rome. 

But today’s parents are beginning to rediscover all the potential — history, elegance, grandeur — of Roman names. This revival has likely been helped by their use in several generation-defining stories, such as Harry Potter (like Draco and Minerva), and The Hunger Games (such as Cato and Octavia). Now Roman names are a go-to for those looking for sophisticated names with a real history to them — whether they’re popular like Leo and Amelia, or hardly used at all.

Read on to find out how ancient Roman babies were actually named, and explore some of the wonderful options ripe to be used today, from Aurelius to Zenobia.

Authentic Roman Names

What do we mean by “ancient Roman names”? Rome was a center of power for hundreds of years, from its days as a kingdom in the 8th century BCE, through the Republic period, to the Roman Empire which lasted into the 3rd century CE and beyond. As you’d expect, names changed hugely during that time — after all, think how much our modern names change even in a few decades.

The best-recorded convention is the three-part name (tria nomina). Famous examples include Gaius Julius Caesar, and Publius Vergilius Maro (aka the poet Virgil).

These weren’t quite like modern first-middle-last names, although there are some similarities. Let’s take a look at how Romans named their children.

1. Praenomen (First Name)

First came a personal name used among family and close friends, and to distinguish between members of the same family — for example, the politician Marcus Antonius (as in Antony and Cleopatra) had brothers named Lucius Antonius and Gaius Antonius.

The praenomen was given to Roman children in a ceremony on the eighth day after birth for a baby girl, and the ninth day for a boy — not exactly a baptism, but with similarities.

Today’s parents have thousands of first names to choose from, but the options for Romans were very limited. At the start of the Roman Republic, there were about 36 recorded praenomina for boys, and about 40 for girls, and those numbers shrank further as time went on. In writing, they were often abbreviated: for example, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus would be written L. CAECILIVS IVCVNDVS

Women’s praenomina were usually the same as the masculine ones with -a instead of -us, with some slight variations: for example, the feminine of Marcus was Marcia. Over time, they dropped out of use, and women were often simply called by the feminine form of their father’s nomen (more about those below).

Some praenomina had special meaning — for instance, Lucius, meaning “light”, was often given to babies born at dawn, while Decimus was used for tenth sons.

These were the most common praenomina:

2. Nomen (“Name”)

The next part was a family name passed from parent to child, somewhat like our surnames today. They started as the 35 original Roman tribes, but became much more diverse as Rome expanded its territory. And unlike surnames (for most of us), they were the usual way a person was addressed in public.

Women often only had a nomen, the feminine form of their father’s name. So how, I hear you cry, did they tell sisters apart? Step in, extra markers. Our friend Gaius Julius Caesar (who shared his father’s name) had two sisters named Julia Major and Julia Minor (sometimes Maio Julia and Mino Julia): Bigger Julia and Smaller Julia. 

For even more sisters, there were numerical forenames — so the daughters of Flavius might be Maxima Flavia, Secunda Flavia, Tertia Flavia (Biggest Flavia, Second Flavia, Third Flavia), and so on. Even so, it must have been confusing in large families!

Most of the ancient Roman names we use nowadays come from a nomen, whether they’re in their Latin form — like Claudius and Livia — or in disguise, like Cecil and Emily.

Here are some well-known masculine nomina: for the feminine, just replace -ius with -ia.

3. Cognomen (“Surname”)

The final part of the Roman name was either a personal nickname, or a hereditary name for a branch of the family, very similar to modern surnames. Like many trends, it started among the upper classes and spread to the rest of the population.

By the end of the Roman Empire, it was the most important part of the name, and what most people would be addressed by — and there were a huge number in use. Any ancient Roman name that doesn’t end with -us (or -a for a woman) is likely a cognomen. 

Early cognomina often came from regular words, and began like nicknames. For example, the politician Marcus Tullius Cicero’s cognomen comes from the word for chickpea — though whether this meant his family grew chickpeas, or ancestor had an unfortunate-shaped wart, is lost in the mists of time.

Some also came from little-used praenomina, such as Agrippa. Originally a masculine praenomen for babies born feet-first, it later became a cognomen, best known from Emperor Augustus’s right hand man, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

There was also the cognomen ex virtute (“from virtue”), a bonus nickname commemorating a person’s achievement. For instance, the general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus gained the last part of his name for his victory against Hannibal and the Carthaginians.

Here are some Roman cognomina that have been used as first names in modern times — many of them newly popular today:

Adoptive Names

Adoption was another occasion for a name change in ancient Rome, just as it can be today. It was fairly common, usually for boys, by powerful families to ensure the continuation of bloodlines.

The child would take the first two parts of his adoptive father’s name (and sometimes the cognomen too), and his birth nomen would form the basis of a new cognomen. For example, if Manius Aemilius Barbula were adopted by Marcus Livius Drusus, he would become known as Marcus Livius Drusus Aemilianus. Most Latin-origin names ending in -ian(a), like Julian, Fabian and Emiliana, come from adoptive cognomina.

Ancient Roman Names for Modern Children

The names below come from various parts of Roman names. They range widely in style, from familiar to completely obscure, and from subtly classical to those that scream history buff. However, they were all used on real Roman children — and would all be stylish and exciting choices on a modern child too.

Ancient Roman Girl Names

Ancient Roman Boy Names

Roman God and Goddess Names

Although they weren’t used on people in ancient Rome, mythological figures, especially deities, are a huge inspiration for modern-day parents.

Many are already jumping on Roman god names as part of the wider trend for names from mythology. For example, Jupiter is rising rapidly, especially for girls, and two Roman goddess names (Luna and Aurora) are in the US top 50.

These were the twelve major deities in ancient Rome, ranked in order of how many babies were given their names in 2020:

Diana — goddess of hunting, the moon, and the countryside, and twin of Apollo. (1222 girls)

Apollo — a god of many domains, including music, poetry, medicine, archery, and light. (659 boys, 5 girls)

Venus — goddess of love and beauty. (133 girls)

Jupiter — king of the Roman gods, and god of the sky. (117 girls, 45 boys)

Juno — queen of the gods, protector of wives and mothers, and patron goddess of Rome. (107 girls, 26 boys)

Mars — god of war, and agriculture, and a father of Rome. (96 boys, 19 girls)

Minerva — goddess of wisdom, crafts, and defensive war. (69 girls)

Mercury — a messenger god, also god of commerce and thieves. (15 girls, 5 boys)

Vesta — goddess of the hearth and home. (5 girls)

Ceres — goddess of agriculture and fertility. (0 children)

Neptune — god of water and horses. (0 children)

Vulcan — god of fire and metalworking. (0 children)

Minor Deities

Ancient Roman Names Best Left in the Past

Just for fun, these are some Roman names we don’t think will ever make a comeback. They either have a not-so-great meaning — like Scaurus, “swollen ankles” — or they just sound unfortunate in modern English.

  • Aureolus

  • Caecus

  • Censorina

  • Commodus

  • Crassus

  • Cumanus

  • Densus

  • Furius

  • Gargilius

  • Gnaeus

  • Mania

  • Pupienus

  • Scaurus

  • Sextus

  • Urgulanilla

  • Vagellius

About the Author

Pippa Colao

Pippa — known as rosepip in the Nameberry forums — is a student with a keen interest in history and the ancient world.