Roman names are a bit of a puzzle, and it took me quite a while to work out how to name my characters correctly for the time they lived in. Part of the reason was that the Roman Republic (from 509BC until 27BC) and the Roman Empire which followed (from 27BC to 476AD) spanned between them a period of almost 1000 years. During this time, not surprisingly, a lot of things changed, including the way people were named. It was also tricky because the system was rather complicated.


After you've read the explanations below, see if you can work out what your name would have been in Lucy's time!

"The Leopard in the Golden Cage" is set in AD82, just over 100 years after the Roman Empire is said to have begun. At around this time, boys born into the highest level of society were given three names:

praenomen - nomen - cognomen


When Joe travels back in time to Lucy's world the second time, she invents an identity for him as Marcus Placidius Valentinian.

This means that Joe's praenomen is Marcus. The praenomen was a little bit like the forename or first name given to a baby today. It was chosen by the parents and only used by people who knew the person well.


However, unlike first names today, there was a very limited selection of praenomina, such as Gaius, Gnaeus, Marcus, Quintus, Publius, Tiberius, and Titus. Because there weren't many to choose from, men from the same family often had the same names for generations, especially since the eldest son was usually given the same praenomen as his father, and younger sons were often named after their grandfathers or uncles.


The second name, the nomen, was the family name, equivalent to a surname today. Well-known nomina include Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius, Domitius, Julius, Junius, Pompeius, Antonius, Didius and Valerius. When Tiberius asks Joe what his name is the first time he's in Lucy's world (at the end of chapter 4), Joe answers that it's Claudius Maximus Antonius. Tiberius spots straight away that Joe has made the name up, because Claudius is a nomen and always comes second. When Joe time-travels the second time, the nomen of his new identity as Valentinian is Placidius. Lucy comments that his first two names, Marcus Placidius, are the same as his father's.

You can see from this that if you were talking about someone, it might not be clear from the first two names which member of the family you were talking about. That's why the cognomen was added as a third name. In Lucy's time, it was a nickname or personal name. Joe's cognomen is Valentinian, and that's the name he is known by when he's introduced to Lucy's family.


Sometimes the cognomen was based on some physical characteristic or personality trait, which could turn out to be unsuitable or even funny. Julius Caesar's full name was actually Gaius Julius Caesar, and the cognomen Caesar may have meant 'hairy'. However, statues of Julius Caesar usually show him as going bald!


Another famous Roman was Tacitus. This cognomen meant 'silent', although Tacitus was a well-known orator. And one of the Roman emperors was known as Caligula, although his real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. 'Caligula' means 'little boots', which sounds like a rather disrespectful name for an emperor!

Julius Caesar.

Who needs hair anyway?

The way girls were named changed a lot between the beginning of the republic and the end of the empire.


Lucy was born in the year 72AD, which is about 100 years after the beginning of the empire. At this time, girls usually had two names, the first name often being the feminine form of their father's nomen, and the second name being a cognomen.


Lucy's name is Sallustia Lucilia. As she explains to Joe at the beginning of the book, both of her sisters have Sallustia as their first name. This is based on their father's name which is:


Gaius                      Sallustius             Lucullus

praenomen           nomen                cognomen

Since Lucy isn't the eldest daughter, she is known by her cognomen, Lucilia. Her younger sister is also known by her cognomen, Antonia. Her eldest sister, however, is known by her nomen, Sallustia. Her cognomen is Domitia, named for the emperor of the time, Domitian. But she isn't ever called by this name.

This system wasn't always rigidly stuck to, however. A woman called Agrippina the Elder had three daughters, all with the nomen Julia (from their father's nomen, Julius - so far so good). But even the eldest, Julia Agrippina, wasn't known as Julia. She was known as Agrippina, after her mother, and is commonly called Agrippina the Younger.


You can see her here, looking very peaceful. But don't be deceived! She was one of the most influential women of Roman times and her life was anything but quiet!


  • She was the sister of the emperor Caligula, who she tried and failed to murder.

  • She became the fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, who was actually her uncle, and who she almost certainly poisoned. (She definitely murdered her previous husband.)

  • And she was the mother of the emperor Nero, who is said to have tried to kill her in a shipwreck, and who had her assassinated when she didn't drown!


What a lovely family!

Julia Agrippina, known as Agrippina the Younger. You wouldn't want to eat anything she's cooked.

"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 22 February 2021  © Julia Edwards

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