A Roman By Any Other Name

I know last week we got into narrative and genre discussions, so this week I thought I’d write about something a little more basic: namely, names.  

When I was writing The God’s Wife, I inevitably had to come to grips with the plethora of duplicate names involved in my story, the most obvious and vexing of which was the nigh-intolerable number of Ptolemies I couldn’t avoid in the course of bringing Arsinoë’s story to life. Any sane writing guide will undoubtedly suggest making a large cast of characters as easy to follow for your readers as possible… which is difficult to do when your protagonist’s father, brothers, and nephew share the same name.  

But this is a problem hardly confined to beleaguered novelists – historians have been grappling with this for several millennia as well. Even something as commonplace as a monarchical numbering system (calling Arsinoë’s father Ptolemy XII, for example) is a modern invention, the Ptolemies themselves never used such a device. Contemporary Egyptian sources would have either referred to him by his nickname of Auletes or by one of his five ruling names to differentiate him from his ancestors or progeny. Modern sources will often use a combination of both in an attempt to be as clear as possible. Hence, if you go to Cleopatra’s Wikipedia page, she is offically listed as Cleopatra VII Philopator. Interesting side note, Cleopatra’s entry also has the majority of her five names in hieroglyphics as well as in the Egyptian transliteration alphabet, if you’re curious to see how those names are spelled out. 

So returning to the problems of yours truly, I opted to follow the historians’ lead by using numbers and nicknames to help my readers (and myself!) keep everyone straight. Which is how Arsinoë’s father became Ptolemy the Twelfth of His Name, her nephew is only ever Caesarion, her younger brother became Ptah, and only her same-born brother is ever consistently referred to as simply Ptolemy. The sole one being of my own invention is Ptah’s nickname, which I chose for its phonetic similarities as well as its connection to Egypt and the popular, benevolent deity of the same name. 

So why am I hashing this out for you now that you’ve put in the work on your own to figure all of this out for The God’s Wife? Because I promised you we were leaving  the shores of Ptolemaic Egypt for Rome in the upcoming book, and unfortunately,  the confusion only deepens as we enter another world of singularly confusing naming conventions, so this seems as good a time as any to introduce this topic to my reading audience. Though fear not, my beloved readers, your humble author remains as dedicated to appendices this time around as she was the last, so there will be a short form of this included in the next book. 

So, the Romans. Most Roman citizens (men) had at least two names, a praenomen and a nomen. The praenom is the man’s personal name, chosen by his parents, and the nomen is the marker of his family clan or gens. A perfect person to walk us through this confusing maze of names and titles is one of the main characters of the forthcoming story, because he’s experienced all of this in nearly its every nuance. Since we’re starting at the beginning with a praenomen and a nomen, I’ll introduce you to him with the ones he rode into this world on. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Gaius Octavius. 

Octavius: Stop calling me that. 

He’s a peach, you guys are going to love him. So, Gaius is his given name, his praenomen, and Octavius, his nomen, tells you his family is a part of the Octavii clan. Not a super-important family, which you can deduce from the fact that they do not have a third Roman name, the cognomen. The cognomen began in Roman history as a nickname of sorts earned during a person’s lifetime, but gradually evolved into a status marker among the most aristocratic clans to advertise important ancestors. Now, luckily for Octavius, his mother is the niece of someone with a little more status. 

Julius: Salvete, populi! You thought you’d lost me, too, yet here I am. 

            Yes, so Octavius’ mother is the daughter of one of Julius Caesar’s sisters. But Caesar’s full name is Gaius (his praenomen) Julius (his nomen, because he’s from the Julii clan) Caesar (his cognomen, of whose origin and meaning are still hotly debated by historians). But simply being related to Caesar doesn’t entitle Octavius to use his great-uncle’s cognomen because he’s not a direct Caesarian descendant, nor is he a Julii, because clans follow the father’s line. That is, until Julius’ only Roman child dies and he finds himself a powerful person with no heir. So, he adopts his great-nephew Octavius and in Roman culture, formal adoption strips a person of their original name and clan and fully invests them with the names and privileges of their adopted family. Which is awesome for Octavius, who gets to move up into a much more aristocratic clan, but a nightmare for future historians and novelists because left with his praenomen and given his new family’s nomen and cognomen, that makes his name… Gaius Julius Caesar. 

Octavius: DEAL WITH IT. 

We will not just deal with it. Very early on in history, after it was known that we’d be talking about him as much as his newly-adopted father, historians realized we’d all lose our minds if we kept referring to them both by the same name. Fortunately, the Romans helped us out by giving Octavius another name as well, but that was later. So for points in his life prior to that, he is traditionally referred to as Octavius Caesar or Octavian, for clarity, if not accuracy. 

Octavius: I hate this. That’s not my name. 

            Which is why I use it almost exclusively for him (as does my protagonist) — because we suspect it annoys him. But as I mentioned above, there’s a fourth name a Roman man might have, the agnomen, which is essentially just another cognomen, more nicknames to distinguish people from one another. Octavius has one he was given later in life that you might have heard of. 


He’s very proud of it. So, yeah, after he got the Augustus agnomen, Octavius’ full, legal name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. But generally, historians will shorten this to Augustus Caesar or just plain Augustus. And now you understand how he got there. 

            But what about the ladies, you might be asking. The women of Rome were not gifted with the long, flowery names of their menfolk, but don’t you fret, their naming conventions are equally migraine-inducing. Roman girls technically do not have names, that is, they do not have praenomen like their brothers. They have a nomen with a feminine suffix to denote their clan, and possibly a feminized cognomen if the family had one. A good example of of this is Octavius’ older sister. 

Octavia: Salvete, internet. 

Octavia’s name is just that. Octavia. Because she wasn’t adopted into their Julii relatives’ names like her brother. Her name tells you what family she belongs to and her subsequent marriages don’t change that, as a woman’s marital status didn’t change her family affliation in the Roman world. 

Octavia: I don’t mind.         

Unlike Octavius, she really is a peach. More infuriating to anyone trying to learn anything about them, families usually gave the same nomen to every daughter in that family, leading to gaggles of girls with exactly the same name. Octavia’s daughters are indicative of this. 

Octavia: I have four of them, two for each father. Two Claudia Marcellas and two Antonias.  But this is a picture of four of the Muses…

Shh! You try finding a picture of all of your daughters together… Now, using what we learned earlier, you can already tell that the Claudia Marcellas have a higher-status father because they have a nomen and a cognomen. The Antonias, the daughters of Mark Antony, who doesn’t have a cognomen, have only one name. But this knowledge feels worthless when you’re still stuck with a bunch of girls with the same heckin’ name. 

  This is again where historians have stepped in to try to save us all. In these scenarios, usually the girls will be designated by the birth order as either the Elder or Major, or the Younger or Minor. So, for example, Antonia Major is the grandmother of the future emperor Nero, while her younger sister, Antonia Minor, is the grandmother of the future emperor Caligula. 

The Antonias: When you put it like that, people are going to get the wrong impression. 

Somewhat unhelpfully, historians will sometimes use this same descriptor between mothers and daughters who share a name, but this is less common. 

            One more thing about women and their names… Another trick employed by historians is to attach a girl to her father, if he is important enough, with what is essentially a patronym. Patronymics aren’t really historically accurate, but like some of the devices above, they are useful in differentiating women in a family. A good example of this are the two Julias that come up in the expanding world of The God’s Wife — Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar by his first wife Cornelia, and Julia, the daughter of Octavius. The first Julia is usually referred to as Julia Caesaris — literally Julia, daughter of Caesar, and the second as Julia Augusti (Julia, daughter of Augustus). Now, some of the more observant of you might be wondering, “Hey, why is Augustus’ daughter called Julia? Based on what you said before, that a girl carries her father’s nomen, shouldn’t she be an Octavia like her aunt?” And that my friends, is simply the result of fortuitous timing on little Julia’s part. By the time she was born in 39 BC, her father had already been adopted into the Julii clan, so her name follows them rather than the Octavii.

And now that we have all of that cleared up…

Heket agrees with all of you.

… You can wow everyone on your various Zoom meetings with your newfound knowledge of Roman naming conventions! Congratulations!

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