5.0785 Gender Differentiation in Names (1/90)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 26 Mar 1992 15:00:46 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0785. Thursday, 26 Mar 1992.

Date: Wed, 25 Mar 92 14:39:45 CST
From: gary forsythe <gfgf@midway.uchicago.edu>
Subject: gender differentiation in personal names

I have a theory concerning gender differentiation in ancient Roman
nomenclature and would like to outline briefly what it is in the hope
that other members of Humanist can help corroborate my hypothesis by
pointing out similar parallels from other times and societies.

During historical times the Romans used a trinominal system. The first
name (praenomen) was a kind of personal name which was given to a boy by
his parents. Although the number of praenomina was quite varied in
early times, by the end of the republic the Romans tended to employ only
about a dozen praenomina. A Roman's second name (nomen) was inherited
from the father's clan or gens. Thus this name is often termed nomen
gentilicium. It roughly corresponds to last names used in the U.S. and
western European countries. The Roman third name (cognomen) could
either be inherited from a person's father and his ancestors and could
thus signify a particular lineage or subdivision within a much larger
clan or gens. The cognomen, however, could also be given to an
individual by way of a nickname, which was then passed on in subsequent
generations to the person's descendants.

The modern orthodox view has been and continues to be that Roman women
had only a nomen and cognomen, and that they did not have or were not
given a praenomen. It is my hypothesis that this modern orthodoxy is
wrong; and depending upon what I am able to put together, I would like
to write an article which takes issue with this modern orthodoxy.

We know from numerous inscriptions that the non-Roman peoples of early
Italy used a nomenclature system similar to the Romans. These same
inscriptions further indicate that the women from these cultures
possessed praenomina. Moreover, both early Latin inscriptions and a few
items in the literary sources suggest that a number of Roman women in
early times also possessed praenomina. Nevertheless, during the better
documented times of the late republic and empire both the inscriptions
and literary sources suggest that Roman women did not have praenomina.
It is due to this last point that modern scholars generally suppose that
Roman women in historical times were not given praenomina as were their
male sibblings.

In fact, there is some small body of information which suggests that
females continued to possess praenomina, but this evidence is either
ignored or explained away by modern scholars. I would like to put forth
the following explanation for the evidence and would like to invite any
responses from fellow humanists.

My view is that Roman girls were always given a praenomen by their
parents, but that social and cultural factors in Roman society produced
the distorted pattern that we have in our documentation. Evidence
suggests that Roman females married in their early or mid teens. When
they married a man, they did not change their own name in any way, and
the children whom they bore took the nomen and often even the cognomen
of the father, but they did not adopt any of the nomenclature from the
mother. Thus, within a nuclear family the mother was the only outsider
in terms of nomenclature. For example, if Fulvia Maxima married Gaius
Cassius Severus, their children would all take the nomen Cassius or
Cassia from the father. My theory is that given this circumstance, a
woman's praenomen was used only during her early years when she was part
of a family in which she had the same name (and perhaps same cognomen)
as her father and her sibblings. In this setting a praenomen would have
been useful, if not absolutely necessary, in order to distinguish among
the children. If the daughters within the same nuclear family did not
have praenomina, how would a father or mother or sibbling disaddress two
sisters without pointing? The two sisters would need something in their
nomeclature which would make each of them distinctive. This simple
point has, I think, been totally overlooked by modern scholars.

But if Roman females were given praenomina at birth and used them while
they were growing up, why is our evidence the way it is? I would further
suggest that when a woman married, she normally droped her praenomen
because her nomen sufficed to distinguish her from other persons,
especially in her new nuclear family where she was the only person who
had a nomen different from everyone else. In my view this social
situation would account for the apparent fact that Roman women did not
have or use praenomina, but it also, I think, has the advantage of not
discarding the little bit of evidence that we do have of women having

I hope that I have not been too confusing. The only model of which I can
think as an approximate parallel is the phenomenon in some western
societies (which seems to have gone out existence by now) in which a
married women took the name of her husband: e.g., Mary Brown marries
John Smith and becomes Mrs. John Smith. Can anyone offer more details
on this latter phenomenon, and could we envisage a situation in which
our documentation from an earlier period would be such that we would
have female names of the form Mrs. John Smith, which would lead scholars
to the erroneous conclusion that the women of that age did not have
their own personal names but were simply known as Miss Brown before

Gary Forsythe
University of Chicago