Family Names

In the classical period the Romans shared with other peoples of Italy a system of hereditary family names.

In patrician or noble Roman families under the Republic a man usually bore three names called respectively praenomen, nomen, and cognomen; a typical example being Quintus Fabius Maximus. Of these names the nomen, the name ending in ius or us, was the most important as it indicated the gens or house to which the person belonged. The praenomen, the first of the three, was the personal name (our equivalent to John, Paul, Peter) and was given on the dies lustricus (this ceremony took place on the ninth day after birth when the child was solemnly purified); the custom was to abbreviate the praenomen i.e., Q. Fabius Maximus. The third name, the cognomen was generally used in Roman noble families, less so in plebeian families. It marked the branch of the family to which the individual belonged.

In formal and official styles freeborn Roman citizens had five components to their names, with some parts usually abbreviated to the initial letter: 1st praenomen , 2nd nomen (or genticulum ), 3rd indication of father's name, 4th the indication of the voting tribe (tribu), and 5th the cognomen . To use Cicero as an example, his full legal name was M. Tullius M. f. Cor. Cicero. That is the praenomen M(arcus) ; the nomen (family name) Tullius; the indication of father's name M(arci) f(ilius); the voting tribe Cor(nelia tribu) ; and the cognomen, Cicero. These five components were required by law in all legal texts.

The nomenclature of freeborn women was similar to a man's except that women did not usually have a praenomen. A woman inherited her gentile name from her father and did not change it on marriage, a custom that is still followed today in Italy. Thus, to take Cicero's daughter as an example, she was Tulia M. f..

Slaves, in early republican times, were generally called by names ending in -por such as Marcipor, Lucipor, Quintipor, an abbreviation of an original Marci puer, Luci puer (puer = boy, lad). Later on fuller forms became usual e.g., Nicomachus Albi, Marci seruus; this is the name of the slave together with his master's nomen and praenomen in the genitive.

A freed slave (libertinus) originally took the nomen of his ex-Master at the same time taking a praenomen of his own choice whilst keeping his original name as his cognomen. Thus the distinguished Roman poet L. Livisus Andronicus was the freedman of M. Livisus Salinator, and to a Roman this would have been crystal clear. From about 50 BC, however, freedmen took both praenomen and nomen from their ex-master. Thus Cicero's slave Tiro, his secretary and closest friend, on manumission became M. Tullio Tiro and his full legal name as a free citizen M. Tullius M. l. Tiro, the M. l. short for Marci (the ex-master) and libertus, in the case of a Roman Emperor's ex-slave this part was the prestigious Aug. l.

Of the three names only the praenomen and cognomen have endured, what we term name and surname.

Cognomen (family names) seem to have continued in use, at least by leading Italian families, during the decline and after the fall of the Roman empire in the West. Indeed the Italian word for surname is today cognome. However, nomenclature was reduced to forename and surname, multiple forenames being a much later practice. The list of Venetian Doges clearly shows this:

726 - 737     Orso Ipato
737 - 742     interregnum
742 - 755     Teodato Ipato
755 - 756     Gallo Gaulo
756 - 764     Domenico Monegiaro
764 - 775     Maurizio Galbaio
775 - 804     Giovanni Galbaio
   the complete list, giving forename and surname, goes down to the last Doge,
1789 - 1797     Lodovico Mannin.

It is thought that returning crusaders passing through Venice took note of this custom of family surnames and adopted it for their own noble families, spreading its use throughout Europe. France, England, and then Germany and Spain began adopting the practice as the need to distinguish members of a family became more important. In nearly every case, the nobility and wealthy landowners first used surnames. The practice then trickled down, around the 13th and 14th centuries, to merchants and commoners; occupations (e.g., Smith, Miller, Carter) mainly replacing place of origin.

Peter Ghiringhelli

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