The cognomen was the third name of a citizen of Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

, under Roman naming conventions
Roman naming conventions
By the Republican era and throughout the Imperial era, a name in ancient Rome for a male citizen consisted of three parts : praenomen , nomen and cognomen...

. The cognomen started as a nickname
A nickname is "a usually familiar or humorous but sometimes pointed or cruel name given to a person or place, as a supposedly appropriate replacement for or addition to the proper name.", or a name similar in origin and pronunciation from the original name....

, but lost that purpose when it became hereditary. Hereditary cognomina were used to augment the second name (the family name
Family name
A family name is a type of surname and part of a person's name indicating the family to which the person belongs. The use of family names is widespread in cultures around the world...

, or clan name) in order to identify a particular branch within a family or family within a clan. Outside of this particular use of the word, the term has taken on a variety of other meanings in the contemporary era.


Because of the limited nature of the Latin praenomen
The praenomen was a personal name chosen by the parents of a Roman child. It was first bestowed on the dies lustricus , the eighth day after the birth of a girl, or the ninth day after the birth of a boy...

, 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 being Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey or Pompey the Great , was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic...

, whose cognomen Magnus was earned after his military victories under Sulla's dictatorship. The cognomen was a form of distinguishing people who made important feats, and those who already bore a cognomen were awarded another exclusive name, the agnomen
An agnomen , in the Roman naming convention, was a nickname, just as the cognomen was initially. However, the cognomina eventually became family names, so agnomina were needed to distinguish between similarly named persons...

. For example, Publius Cornelius Scipio
Scipio Africanus
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus , also known as Scipio Africanus and Scipio the Elder, was a general in the Second Punic War and statesman of the Roman Republic...

 received the agnomen Africanus after his victory over the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Zama, Africa (Africanus means "conqueror of Africa" and not "the african", although it is usually translated as "the african"); and the same procedure occurred in the names of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was the leader of the conservative faction of the Roman Senate and a bitter enemy of Gaius Marius....

 (conqueror of Numidia) and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus was a Praetor in 148 BC, Consul in 143 BC, Proconsul of Hispania Citerior in 142 BC and Censor in 131 BC. He was the oldest son of Quintus Caecilius Metellus and grandson of Lucius Caecilius Metellus.A brilliant general, he fought in the Third Macedonian War...


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
Mucia (gens)
The gens Mucia was an ancient and noble patrician house at Rome. The gens is first mentioned at the earliest period of the Republic, but in later times the family was known primarily by its plebeian branches.-Origin of the gens:...

 meaning left-handed. Virtually all cognomina were hereditary (such as Caesar among a branch of the Julii, Brutus and Silanus among the Junii, or Pilius and Metellus among the Caecilii): others tended to be individual. And some names appear to have been used both as praenomen, agnomen or non-hereditary cognomen. For instance, Vopiscus was used as both praenomen and cognomen in the Julii Caesares; likewise Nero among the early imperial Claudii, several of whom used the traditional hereditary Claudian cognomen as a praenomen.

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

Today, we refer to many prominent ancient Romans by only their cognomen; for example, Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

 (from cicer "chickpea
The chickpea is a legume of the family Fabaceae, subfamily Faboideae...

") serves as a shorthand for Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Caesar for Gaius Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 (see Etymology of the name of Julius Caesar
Etymology of the name of Julius Caesar
The name Caesar probably originated from a dialect of Latium which did not share the rhotacism of the Roman dialect. Using the Latin alphabet as it existed in the day of Julius Caesar , Caesar's name is properly rendered GAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR The name Caesar probably originated from a dialect of...



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 name
Stage name
A stage name, also called a showbiz name or screen name, is a pseudonym used by performers and entertainers such as actors, wrestlers, comedians, and musicians.-Motivation to use a stage name:...

s, pen name
Pen name
A pen name, nom de plume, or literary double, is a pseudonym adopted by an author. A pen name may be used to make the author's name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her...

s, alias
A pseudonym is a name that a person assumes for a particular purpose and that differs from his or her original orthonym...

es and other adopted (or commonly applied) nicknames or professional names.

Romance languages

Catalan language
Catalan is a Romance language, the national and only official language of Andorra and a co-official language in the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencian Community, where it is known as Valencian , as well as in the city of Alghero, on the Italian island...

 cognom and Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

 cognome, derived from the Latin word, mean "family name".

In Africa

The word can also be used to refer to a number of naming and incantatory customs that are native to the Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

n continent. Ranging as these do from the single word Iziduko of the Xhosa people of Southern Africa
Southern Africa
Southern Africa is the southernmost region of the African continent, variably defined by geography or geopolitics. Within the region are numerous territories, including the Republic of South Africa ; nowadays, the simpler term South Africa is generally reserved for the country in English.-UN...

 to the great stanzas of Oriki
Oríkì, or praise poetry, is a cultural phenomenon among the Yòrùbá-speaking people of West Africa.- Oríkì Characteristics :Oríkì varies in length depending on whether it's the name given to a child to describe the future portents of his or her life or a recital of the accomplishments of a person's...

 that are found amongst the Yoruba
Yoruba people
The Yoruba people are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. The majority of the Yoruba speak the Yoruba language...

s of West Africa
West Africa
West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:-Flags of West Africa:...

, hereditary cognomens in this case are used in much the same way today as the Cognomina were during the classical period of Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. They typically distinguish a family or clan from others of the same tribe, honour its founder and remind his or her descendants who make up the said family or clan to live up to their legacy.

Beyond this particular form, there are also traditions of tribespeople taking either group names or individual names following a ritual initiation, though this would probably be more of a religious name
Religious Name
A religious name is a type of given name bestowed for a religious purpose, and which is generally used in religious contexts. Different types of religious names may be in use among the clergy of a religion, as well in some cases among the laity....

 than a cognomen.

See also

  • Isibongo
    In Zulu culture, "isibongo" is a clan name or "praise name". The term is derived from the verb "-bonga" meaning "to praise", "to thank", "to worship" or "to call by a clan name". The plural form "izibongo" refers to praise poetry, a typical Zulu art form where the fame of a person is extolled....

  • Iziduko
  • List of Roman cognomina
  • Oriki
    Oríkì, or praise poetry, is a cultural phenomenon among the Yòrùbá-speaking people of West Africa.- Oríkì Characteristics :Oríkì varies in length depending on whether it's the name given to a child to describe the future portents of his or her life or a recital of the accomplishments of a person's...

  • Roman naming conventions
  • Harold Whetstone Johnston (revised Mary Johnston), The Private Life of the Romans, 1932, Chapter 2: Roman Names
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