The Romans, as well as other peoples of Italy, had a system of names in which the most important element was the nomen, or family name. Most Roman men had three names—a praenomen, or first name; a nomen; and a cognomen, or third name. All Roman citizens—men and married women—used the nomen of the father. The nomen ended in -ius for men and -ia for women. Thus, the son of Tullius would have the nomen Tullius, and the daughter would have the nomen Tullia.
The praenomen, the Roman first name, distinguished an individual male within the family. By the late Roman Republic*, 18 praenomina, or first names, were commonly used. The most popular of these were Gaius, Lucius, Marcus, Publius, and Quintus. A Roman’s praenomen was usually abbreviated: for instance, Quintus was abbreviated Q., Marcus shortened to M., and Gaius was written as C. (the early Roman letter that represented both the c and g sounds).
A cognomen was an additional name that helped identify an individual as a member of a particular branch of a family or clan. Cognomens were usually derived from such family characteristics as physical traits, occupation, or place of origin. A Roman noble usually inherited a cognomen along with his nomen to indicate the branch of the larger family to which he belonged. One seldom simply chose a cognomen for one’s children, although it was done at times. Originally, only a patrician* used a cognomen, but beginning in the later Roman Republic, almost all Romans included at least one cognomen in their name.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
Roman women usually did not use a praenomen, and they did not change their names when they married. Slaves and other noncitizens generally had only a single name. When a slave gained his freedom, he took the nomen and the praenomen of his liberator and used his original name as his cognomen. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Family, Roman.)