Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A Roman by any other name...

There is a reason for me posting a picture of Titus "Phwoar" Pullo and Lucius Vorenus from Rome. It's not just random lechery ... Oh look, here they are again in wet tunics:

I wrote my first historical erotic short last week and it had an ancient Roman setting. Nor was this merely an excuse to watch the boxed set of Rome over from the beginning, even though I was very grateful for the excuse. The DVD has a special geek option that gives you extra historical information as you watch!

To write the story I had to come up with some character names: easy, huh? NOOOO. Roman names (at least among the upper echelons of society) were governed very strict rules. You can't just go round calling somebody Naughtius Maximus or whatever you like.

Here's Naughtius Maximus by the way. Actually its Michael Fassbender modeling for my escaped slave.

Roman names go like this (and bear in mind this is the simplified version). First for blokes: you start with a family name, which comes from your father and is your clan or gens. For example Julius would be a man of the Julii, Antonius would be a man of the Antonii etc. You get this when you're born. If you survive the first 9 days you're given a personal name such as Marcus, but this comes from a very very limited list - 98% of men had one of 17 personal names. Which means that the same bloody names were repeated throughout Roman history and modern researchers end up tearing their hair out trying to distinguish all the different people called Marcus Julius.

To back up the official names you might also get a cognomen, which is sort of a nickname - Caesar means "hairy", Tacitus means "silent", Cicero means "chickpea". As these nicknames eventually became hereditary (after all, sons would be named after their fathers), yet another nickname was added. In fact pretty much all the famous Roman names we know now are actually nicknames.

For women, it was a bit simplier. They didn't have personal names or nicknames, just family ones. So if your father was called Marcus Octavius Africanus you would be called Octavia. So would all your sisters. To distinguish girls they were given numbers: Octavia Prima, Octavia Secunda, Octavia Tertia etc. If anyone outside the family cared, you might also be known as Octavia Africana.

Why am I burbling on about this? Well, first to make the point that all this had to be looked into just to come up with a heroine, her father and her husband. And that pre-internet none of this would have been possible to find out without enormous research effort, and I simply wouldn't have bothered. Not for a short story. Praise Wikipedia, eh?

Standards do rise.

Last word on Roman Names goes, though, to Life of Brian:


Craig Sorensen said...

As I started reading your post, and you got on to naming (and thank you for sharing that!) the first thing that came to mind was the "Bigus Dickus" bit from Life of Brian.

Of course, you had that base covered.

Also, I am a huge fan of the ancient world, and I love the series "Rome." Lots of nasty, grubby sex, tension between the characters and I loved the settings.

Great Post!

Janine Ashbless said...

Thank you Craig! I love doing research, actually. Especially when it involves watching lots of nasty grubby sex in an exotic historical setting, of course.

The Titus Pullo/Gaia confrontation (2nd series) was the best bit of rough sex I've ever seen on TV ... I just can't understand why no one seems to have posted it on YouTube!

Erobintica said...


seriously - that was a wonderful explanation of names.

Nikki Magennis said...

Ooh, fascinating, Janine! Thanks for the illuminating bit of history.

As far as I can see, the Spanish naming system seems to be the fairest as far as sex equality goes.

Janine Ashbless said...

Interesting, Nikki. In Iceland I believe girls are surnamed as mother's-namedottir and boys as father's-nameson.
These details fascinate me. We often assume that names are important to personal identity, yet the practice varies so much. And with the intenet we have multiple names and identities..

Just in passing, I didn't change my surname when I got married. It was really important to me.

Chris said...

On changing names following marriage, I have run across intelligent, young, professional women who are acutely offended that any woman, anywhere, would use Miz. Unless they divorced and went back to their maiden name when it is (barely) acceptable. Huh??? Imaginary sentient creator knows what they'd think of you not even changing your name in the first place.

So...the Mr Ashbless you occasionally refer to... does your husband know about him?

Janine Ashbless said...

My in-laws send cards to us addressed to Mr & Mrs [his forename][his surname] and I REFUSE TO OPEN THEM. That's how snarky and bitter I am, bwa ha ha.

*Ting-Tings reprisal: That's not my name! That's not my name!*

Emerald said...

I also was not surprised to see the Life of Brian clip at the end. :)

This was so interesting! Isn't it funny what one can come upon when researching fiction writing? Thanks for sharing this!

Funny, Janine, sometimes before I moved away from my hometown I would house-sit for my parents when they went on vacation. Bringing in their mail (I almost typed "male," lol) was one of the things I did, and I used to sort it according to which one of them it was addressed to. If something said "Mrs. [my father's first name][parents' last name], I put it in my father's pile. It had only my father's name on it, and I refused to put it in my mother's pile.


Nikki Magennis said...

Hehe - move to a small village, thwart local gossip instantly:

"Miss or Missus?"

"Ms, thanks."

god, how they glower! There's NO WAY TO TELL IF I'M LIVING IN SIN OR NOT! How can people know how to judge me?

I almost feel guilty.


: )

Nikki Magennis said...

Also, Janine, I think that's quite restrained. I'd probably send it back with 'unknown at this address' scrawled across the front!

Emerald said...


Nikki, I seriously laughed out loud when I read that. :)

Janine Ashbless said...

Ah, the joys of small village life!

Cora Zane said...

Wowza! Hot men in tunics. My day just took a turn for the better.

And very interesting about the names. I'll admit I immediately thought of Bigus Dickus. *giggle*

Both Bigus and Octavia Tertia make me a bit more appreciative of Cora (Corrina). I don't like the name much, but it could be far, far worse!

Janine Ashbless said...

Cora ... It's from Kore, i believe, which is Greek for "Maiden". It's one of the names of Persephone, queen of the underworld, and therefore pretty cool in my opinion!