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The cognomen (Lt.: co, "together with," and nomen, "name"; plural, cognomina) was the third name of a citizen of Ancient Rome, under Roman naming conventions. The cognomen started as a nickname, but lost that purpose when it became hereditary (and thus more like a family name). The term (with an Anglicized plural cognomens) has taken on a less specific meaning.


Historical usage

Because of the limited nature of the Latin praenomen, the cognomen developed to distinguish branches of the family from one another, and occasionally, to highlight an individual's achievement, typically in warfare. One example is Scipio Africanus Major, but some Romans – notably general Gaius Marius – had no cognomen at all. By the Late Roman Republic, however, the use of cognomina even in daily conversation had become typical. In the early Roman Empire the Annaean clan differentiated brothers solely by the cognomen: Lucius Annaeus Seneca Maior had three sons: L. Annaeus Novatus, L. Annaeus Seneca Minor and L. Annaeus Mela.

In contrast to the honorary cognomina adopted by successful generals, most cognomina were based on a physical or personality quirk; for example, Rufus meaning red-haired or Scaevola meaning left-handed.

The upper-class usually used the cognomen to refer to one another. [1]

Today, we refer to many prominent ancient Romans by only their cognomen; for example, Cicero (meaning "chickpea") serves as a shorthand for Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Caesar for Gaius Julius Caesar (see Etymology of the name of Julius Caesar).

General English-language usage

Cognomen (pluralized cognomens) has also been assimilated into English, and is used more generally (i.e. outside the context of Ancient Rome and Latin naming) as a catch-all term for monikers, stage names, pen names, aliases and other adopted (or commonly applied) nicknames or professional names.


  1. ^ Powell, J.G.F. "A Note on the Use of the Praenomen" The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1. (1984), pp. 238-239.

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