Learn the Parts of the Roman Name

Coin of Licinius
CC Flickr User woody1778a

In today's international world, you may come across:

  • people who have what we would call the "last" name before the "first" name
  • people known by a singular name (like Madonna or Lady Gaga, since Lady is a title)
  • people who lack a middle name (George Washington)
  • people with extra middle (saints' names)
  • people with the requisite number to fill out most contemporary forms in the U.S.: a first, middle, and last name

Ancient Roman Names

During the Republic, Roman male citizens might be referred to by the tria nomina '3 names'. The first of these 3 names was the praenomen, which was followed by the nomen, and then the cognomen. This wasn't a hard and fast rule. There might also be an agnomen. Praenomina were waning by the 2nd century A.D.

Although not shown on this page, there were sometimes additional names, especially on inscriptions, often abbreviated, that gave further indications of social groupings—like tribes, and, in the case of enslaved people and freedmen, their social status.


The praenomen was a first name or personal name. Females, who didn't have praenomina until late, were called by the name of their gens. If further distinction were necessary, one would be called the older (maior) and the other the younger (minor), or by number (tertia, quarta, etc.) The praenomen was usually abbreviated [See Roman Abbreviations on Inscriptions]. Here are some of the common praenomina with their abbreviations:

  • Aulus A.
  • Appius App.
  • Gaius C.
  • Gnaeus Cn.
  • Decimus D.
  • Kaeso K.
  • Lucius L.
  • Marcus M.
  • Numerius Num.
  • Publius P.
  • Quintus Q.
  • Servius Ser.
  • Sextus Sex.
  • Spurius Sp.
  • Titus Ti.
  • Tiberius Ti. Tib.

Latin Grammar

Romans could have more than one praenomen. Foreigners granted Roman citizenship by imperial decree took the emperor's nomen gentile as a praenomen. This made the praenomen less useful as a way to distinguish men, so by the end of the third century, the praenomen had virtually vanished except to confer high social status [Fishwick]. The basic name became the nomen + cognomen.


The Roman nomen or nomen gentile (nomen gentilicum) indicated the gens from which a Roman came. The nomen would end in -ius. In the case of adoption into a new gens, the new gens was indicated by the -ianus ending.

Cognomen + Agnomen

Depending on the time period, the cognomen part of the Roman name could indicate the familia within the gens that the Roman belonged to. The cognomen is a surname.

Agnomen also refers to a second cognomen. This is what you see when you see a Roman general awarded the name of a country he conquered -- like "Africanus".

By the first century B.C. women and the lower classes began to have cognomina (pl. cognomen). These were not inherited names, but personal ones, which began to take the place of the praenomina. These might come from a part of the woman's father's or mother's name.


  • "Names and Identities: Onomastics and Prosopography," by Olli Salomies, Epigraphic Evidence, edited by John Bodel.
  • "Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law," by Adolf Berger; Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1953), pp. 333-809.
  • "Latin Funerary Epigraphy and Family Life in the Later Roman Empire," by Brent D. Shaw; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte
  • (1984), pp. 457-497.
  • "Hastiferi," by Duncan Fishwick; The Journal of Roman Studies(1967), pp. 142-160.
  • J.P.V.D. Balsdon, ; 1962.
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Gill, N.S. "Learn the Parts of the Roman Name." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/parts-of-the-roman-name-119925. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Learn the Parts of the Roman Name. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/parts-of-the-roman-name-119925 Gill, N.S. "Learn the Parts of the Roman Name." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/parts-of-the-roman-name-119925 (accessed May 30, 2023).