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Why Women in Ancient Rome Had No Names

Women, Ancient Rome painting
Vincenzo Camuccin, Roman Women Offering Their Jewellery in Defence of the State. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Rome, there were many traditions regarding the position of women, which from a modern point of view may seem bizarre.

Some of them reflected the patriarchal way of society. In ancient Roman families, girls did not have separate names, and all daughters could bear the same name.

Naming System for Girls

Ancient Rome had its own special naming system by which families called their children. During the birth of a boy, the child received a personal name, praenomen, then a genus name (nomen) and also a nickname (cognomen). For example, if we consider the name of Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, then Gaius is the personal name while Julius, which is more commonly a surname nowadays, is the genus name. Caesar is a nickname.

However, these rules did not apply to girls. The women of Ancient Rome did not have names as such. Instead, families called their daughters by the name of the family, sometimes also combining the nickname that was assigned to a certain family. Following this tradition, the daughter of Julius Caesar also received the name Julia after the name of the family.

The wife of another famous ancient ruler, Cornelia Cinna, came from the family of the politician Lucius Cornelius Cinna. According to the tradition of her family, instead of her own estate, she was called Cornelia, to which they added the nickname Cinna, or Tsinilla.

Ordinal Number to Call Daughters

The situation in which not one but several daughters were born in the family at once was very common. In this case, all the girls still bore the same name. In a situation where parents had only two daughters, “Elder” or “Younger” was added to the family name of daughters. If more than three daughters were born, then each of them, in addition to the family name, received an ordinal number as part of their name, namely the second, third, and so forth. For example, Clodia Tertia, a Roman matron who was suspected of poisoning her husband Quintus Caecilius, was the third daughter in the Clodian family.

When a woman married, she retained her family name but also acquired her husband’s family name or his nickname. Hence, the name of the daughter of Julius Caesar, who married the commander Gnaeus Pompey the Great, became a mix of the names of her father and husband—Julius Pompey—after this marriage.

Over time, such traditions have slightly changed. During the period of the Late Roman Republic, which fell between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the cognomen began to play a key role. This was due to the need to distinguish between branches of the same genus. It was followed by a relative diversity in female names as well, and sometimes daughters even received two names. Thus, the naming tradition has become less rigid.

Secret Female Names in Ancient Rome

There is an opinion that some girls did receive personal names, which were kept within the family in the strictest secrecy. It is believed that a daughter was given such a name on the eighth day after birth during a special ritual of purification called lustration.

During the ritual, the girl was washed with water and received her own name, a prenomen. Only members of the family took part in the home ceremony, and they remained the very circle by which her name was known for all the following years.

This secret name was unknown to anyone outside the family, even the woman‘s husband. According to this tradition, when the bride entered her husband’s house, she introduced herself with the name of her new family.

There is even a belief that Rome itself has the same secret name, but this mystery remains unsolved.

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