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My son, Chuck, informed me the other night that in ancient Rome there were only about 17 given names that you could name your male child. I knew this once, although I didn't actually remember it, but I remembered that I knew it, which isn't particularly helpful. If I remembered that I once knew it how come I didn't know it now? I hate it when that happens.
Anyway, the given name, which was called a praenomen, could be something like Gaius, or Marcus, or Lucius or 14 other possibilities, and was followed by something called a nomen, which was always your “gens” or clan name. So whatever that name was, all your brothers would have it too. Your final name was called a “cognomen” and that was your family name within your clan. So Gaius Julius Caesar was Gaius of the Julian Clan of which the Caesar family was a part. If he had a brother he could have been named Marcus Julius Caesar or something. The weird thing is that no one went by their given name except among family or very close friends, so both brothers would have been called Julius Caesar outside the family unit. This must have been terribly confusing if there were more than a dozen Romans in a room at the same time. If someone yelled, 'Hey, Gaius,” 10 guys could turn around at once. If someone scribbled graffiti on a wall (and the Romans loved graffiti) that said, “Julius Caesar is the son of a mongrel hound,” how would you know which Julius Caesar they meant? They probably had some method of dealing with this, but I have no idea what it was. It became even more confusing with women, who were only allowed 2 names because, well...they were women, which in ancient Rome, along with a lot of other places, was not something anyone with any sense would want to be since it generally relegated you to the level of property and the bargaining chip in some marriage related power play. Women on lower social levels probably had a little more freedom, but only because no one had any power to play with. All the daughters in a family were given the same given name, a feminine version of their father's clan name and their father's family name as their second name. So if Gaius Julius Caesar had 2 daughters they would both be name Julia Caesar. Now, if there were only two daughters the oldest would be “Julia Major” and the younger “Julia Minor”. I have no idea at all what they did with any extra daughters that might have popped up, maybe they were “Julia Triple A”, and “Julia Farm League”. Of course, a good high-born Roman family was supposed to consist of only 3 children and infant mortality was undoubtedly pretty high, so maybe the problem didn't crop up very often.
Social situations must have been strange. Imagine you are at a family reunion and there are only 17 given names to go around among the males and most of the females have the same single name. Did they have handy descriptive nicknames to distinguish everyone? Perhaps if you had a cousin, “Stumpy” and a cousin, “Fatty” it helped keep track of everyone. Maybe all the girls had numbers after their names just to keep them straight, so you could say something like, “Have you seen Julia XII? She sure put on a few pounds since I saw her last,” and everyone would know who to look for. There had to be some kind of method they used since if you had more than 17 male family members a good 10 of them could be named “Marcus” or “Quintus” or something. It seems like a terribly confusing way to do business.
These days, people appear to be willing to become utterly ridiculous in their quests to invent new names. My daughter told me that she met a young woman the other day named, of all things, “Enigma”. Are you serious? “Enigma”?
“So,” said my daughter, “You were named after the famous German encoding machine in WWII?” To which the young lady in question responded, “Huh?” indicating that she must have been named, “Enigma”, for some entirely other, if equally bizarre reason.
I asked my daughter if she was one.
“An enigma?” she asked. “Nah, she was easier to read than Green Eggs and Ham.”
Oh, well. Let's face it. The name we are given isn't always the name we deserve. If you don't believe me google Pope Innocent III sometime.
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