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A cognomen (Latin: [kɔŋˈnoːmɛn] ; [1] pl.: cognomina; from co- "together with" and (g)nomen "name") was the third name of a citizen of ancient Rome, under Roman naming conventions. Initially, it was a nickname, but lost that purpose when it became hereditary. Hereditary cognomina were used to augment the second name, the nomen gentilicium (the family name, or clan name), in order to identify a particular branch within a family or family within a clan. The term has also taken on other contemporary meanings.


Roman names

Because of the limited nature of the Latin praenomen , the cognomen developed to distinguish branches of the family from one another, and occasionally, to highlight an individual's achievement, typically in warfare. One example of this is Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, whose cognomen Magnus was earned after his military victories under Sulla's dictatorship. The cognomen was a form of distinguishing people who accomplished important feats, and those who already bore a cognomen were awarded another exclusive name, the agnomen. For example, Publius Cornelius Scipio received the agnomen Africanus after his victory over the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Zama, Africa (Africanus here means "of Africa" in the sense that his fame derives from Africa, rather than being born in Africa, which would have been Afer); and the same procedure occurred in the names of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus (conqueror of Numidia) and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus.

In contrast to the honorary cognomina adopted by successful generals, most cognomina were based on a physical or personality quirk; for example, Rufus meaning "red-haired" or Scaevola meaning "left-handed". Some cognomina were hereditary (such as Caesar among a branch of the Julii, Brutus and Silanus among the Junii, or Pilius and Metellus among the Caecilii): others tended to be individual. And some names appear to have been used both as praenomen, agnomen , or non-hereditary cognomen. For instance, Vopiscus was used as both praenomen and cognomen in the Julii Caesares; likewise Nero among the early imperial Claudii, several of whom used the traditional hereditary Claudian cognomen as a praenomen.

The upper-class usually used the cognomen to refer to one another. [2]

In present academic context, many prominent ancient Romans are referred to by only their cognomen; for example, Cicero (from cicer "chickpea") serves as a shorthand for Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Caesar for Gaius Julius Caesar.

Contemporary term

The term "cognomen" (sometimes pluralized "cognomens") has come into use as an English noun used outside the context of Ancient Rome. According to the 2012 edition of the Random House Dictionary , cognomen can mean a "surname" or "any name, especially a nickname". [3] The basic sense in English is "how one is well known". For example Alfred the Great. (This is more similar to the Roman use of agnomen than their use of cognomen.)

Catalan cognom and Italian cognome, derived from the Latin cognomen, mean "family name". Maltese kunjom is derived from the Italian version and retains the same meaning.

The term "cognomen" can also be applied to cultures with a clan structure and naming conventions comparable to those of Ancient Rome; thus, hereditary "cognomina" have been described as in use among the Xhosa (Iziduko), the Yoruba (Oriki), and the Zulu (Izibongo).

See also

Related Research Articles

Over the course of some fourteen centuries, the Romans and other peoples of Italy employed a system of nomenclature that differed from that used by other cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, consisting of a combination of personal and family names. Although conventionally referred to as the tria nomina, the combination of praenomen, nomen, and cognomen that have come to be regarded as the basic elements of the Roman name in fact represent a continuous process of development, from at least the seventh century BC to the end of the seventh century AD. The names that developed as part of this system became a defining characteristic of Roman civilization, and although the system itself vanished during the Early Middle Ages, the names themselves exerted a profound influence on the development of European naming practices, and many continue to survive in modern languages.

The praenomen was a personal name chosen by the parents of a Roman child. It was first bestowed on the dies lustricus, the eighth day after the birth of a girl, or the ninth day after the birth of a boy. The praenomen would then be formally conferred a second time when girls married, or when boys assumed the toga virilis upon reaching manhood. Although it was the oldest of the tria nomina commonly used in Roman naming conventions, by the late republic, most praenomina were so common that most people were called by their praenomina only by family or close friends. For this reason, although they continued to be used, praenomina gradually disappeared from public records during imperial times. Although both men and women received praenomina, women's praenomina were frequently ignored, and they were gradually abandoned by many Roman families, though they continued to be used in some families and in the countryside.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Furia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Furia, originally written Fusia, and sometimes found as Fouria on coins, was one of the most ancient and noble patrician houses at Rome. Its members held the highest offices of the state throughout the period of the Roman Republic. The first of the Furii to attain the consulship was Sextus Furius in 488 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Julia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Julia was one of the most prominent patrician families in ancient Rome. Members of the gens attained the highest dignities of the state in the earliest times of the Republic. The first of the family to obtain the consulship was Gaius Julius Iulus in 489 BC. The gens is perhaps best known, however, for Gaius Julius Caesar, the dictator and grand uncle of the emperor Augustus, through whom the name was passed to the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty of the first century AD. The nomen Julius became very common in imperial times, as the descendants of persons enrolled as citizens under the early emperors began to make their mark in history.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fabia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Fabia was one of the most ancient patrician families at ancient Rome. The gens played a prominent part in history soon after the establishment of the Republic, and three brothers were invested with seven successive consulships, from 485 to 479 BC, thereby cementing the high repute of the family. Overall, the Fabii received 45 consulships during the Republic. The house derived its greatest lustre from the patriotic courage and tragic fate of the 306 Fabii in the Battle of the Cremera, 477 BC. But the Fabii were not distinguished as warriors alone; several members of the gens were also important in the history of Roman literature and the arts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Licinia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Licinia was a celebrated plebeian family at ancient Rome, which appears from the earliest days of the Republic until imperial times, and which eventually obtained the imperial dignity. The first of the gens to obtain the consulship was Gaius Licinius Calvus Stolo, who, as tribune of the plebs from 376 to 367 BC, prevented the election of any of the annual magistrates, until the patricians acquiesced to the passage of the lex Licinia Sextia, or Licinian Rogations. This law, named for Licinius and his colleague, Lucius Sextius, opened the consulship for the first time to the plebeians. Licinius himself was subsequently elected consul in 364 and 361 BC, and from this time, the Licinii became one of the most illustrious gentes in the Republic.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was an ancient Roman statesman and general, he was a leader of the Optimates, the conservative faction of the Roman Senate. He was a bitter political opponent of Gaius Marius. He was consul in 109 BC, in that capacity he commanded the Roman forces in Africa during the Jugurthine War. In 107 BC, he was displaced from his command by Marius. On his return he was granted a triumph and the agnomen Numidicus. He later became a censor, entering into exile in opposition to Marius. Metellus Numidicus enjoyed a reputation for integrity in an era when Roman politics was increasingly corrupt.

An agnomen, in the Roman naming convention, was a nickname, just as the cognomen had been initially. However, the cognomina eventually became family names, and so agnomina were needed to distinguish between similarly-named persons. However, as the agnomen was an additional and optional component in a Roman name, not all Romans had an agnomen.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quinctia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Quinctia, sometimes written Quintia, was a patrician family at ancient Rome. Throughout the history of the Republic, its members often held the highest offices of the state, and it produced some men of importance even during the imperial period. For the first forty years after the expulsion of the kings the Quinctii are not mentioned, and the first of the gens who obtained the consulship was Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus in 471 BC; but from that year their name constantly appears in the Fasti consulares.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Naming conventions for women in ancient Rome</span>

Naming conventions for women in ancient Rome differed from nomenclature for men, and practice changed dramatically from the Early Republic to the High Empire and then into Late Antiquity. Females were identified officially by the feminine of the family name, which might be further differentiated by the genitive form of the father's cognomen, or for a married woman her husband's. Numerical adjectives might distinguish among sisters, such as Tertia, "the Third". By the late Republic, women also often adopted the feminine of their father's cognomen.

The gens Albia was a minor plebeian family at Rome. They were of senatorial rank during the latter part of the Republic, but the only of this gens who obtained the consulship was Lucius Albius Pullaienus Pollio, in AD 90. Other Albii are known from various parts of Italy.

The gens Asinia was a plebeian family at ancient Rome, which rose to prominence during the first century BC. The first member of this gens mentioned in history is Herius Asinius, commander of the Marrucini during the Social War. The Asinii probably obtained Roman citizenship in the aftermath of this conflict, as they are mentioned at Rome within a generation, and Gaius Asinius Pollio obtained the consulship in 40 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caecilia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Caecilia was a plebeian family at ancient Rome. Members of this gens are mentioned in history as early as the fifth century BC, but the first of the Caecilii who obtained the consulship was Lucius Caecilius Metellus Denter, in 284 BC. The Caecilii Metelli were one of the most powerful families of the late Republic, from the decades before the First Punic War down to the time of Augustus.

The gens Servilia was a patrician family at ancient Rome. The gens was celebrated during the early ages of the Republic, and the names of few gentes appear more frequently at this period in the consular Fasti. It continued to produce men of influence in the state down to the latest times of the Republic, and even in the imperial period. The first member of the gens who obtained the consulship was Publius Servilius Priscus Structus in 495 BC, and the last of the name who appears in the consular Fasti is Quintus Servilius Silanus, in AD 189, thus occupying a prominent position in the Roman state for nearly seven hundred years.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sestia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Sestia was a minor patrician family at ancient Rome. The only member of this gens to obtain the consulship in the time of the Republic was Publius Sestius Capitolinus Vaticanus, in 452 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sergia gens</span> Ancient Roman noble family

The gens Sergia was a patrician family at ancient Rome, which held the highest offices of the Roman state from the first century of the Republic until imperial times. The first of the Sergii to obtain the consulship was Lucius Sergius Fidenas in 437 BC. Despite long and distinguished service, toward the end of the Republic the reputation of this gens suffered as a result of the conspiracy of Catiline.

The gens Rutilia was a plebeian family at ancient Rome. Members of this gens appear in history beginning in the second century BC. The first to obtain the consulship was Publius Rutilius Rufus in 105 BC.

The gens Numeria was a minor plebeian family at ancient Rome. Few of its members held any of the higher offices of the Roman state.

The gens Pacidia was an obscure plebeian or patrician family at ancient Rome. Few members of this gens are mentioned by the historians, but a number are known from inscriptions. The most notable may have been the two Pacidii who were commanders in the army of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus during the Civil War.

The gens Scandilia, also written Scantilia, was an obscure plebeian family of equestrian rank at ancient Rome. Few members of this gens are mentioned by ancient writers, but a number are known from inscriptions.


  1. Pinkster, Harm, ed. (2018). Woordenboek Latijn/Nederlands (7th revised ed.). Amsterdam University Press. ISBN   9789463720519.
  2. Powell, J. G. F. (1984). "A Note on the use of the Praenomen". The Classical Quarterly. 34 (1): 238–239. doi:10.1017/S0009838800029529. S2CID   170613918.
  3. Cognomen