What’s a person’s REAL name?

As Iceland is playing another game in the European championship we shall yet again see the international media struggle with Icelandic names. The typical newspaper article talks of say, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Sigþórsson) or Aron Gunnarsson, and then just call them Sigthorsson and Gunnarsson in all following instances throughout the article. This is normal practice for people with first names and family names, but of course, that’s not quite how Icelandic names work.

As somebody who studies ancient Greece, I am always a bit chuffed to be reminded that there is one small island holding out where most people still have one personal name, followed by a patronymic (father’s name), ending in –son or –dottir. And while we take it in our stride that people just have one name when we talk of Socrates, Plato or Pericles, somehow everybody finds it hard when even trying to imagine the same for contemporary people who we watch playing football on TV.

Icelandic football players with father's names on the back of their shirts

Icelandic football players with patronymics on their shirts

Of course, the Icelanders aren’t helping, with their fathers’ names on their shirts as if they were normal surnames. Imagine that there had been a football match involving Greek philosophers, wouldn’t we find it odd to find ‘Sophroniskou’ on Socrates’ shirt, ‘Aristonos’ on Plato’s, and ‘Nicomachou’ instead of Aristoteles? And in Iceland, you would address people formally with their one personal name and, famously, the Icelandic phonebook (sample page here) also lists people by their main personal names (which look like ‘first names’ to us).


While in the 21st century, Icelandic names seem so unusual the media doesn’t know how to handle them (and Icelandic people themselves adapt them for the outside world), for long stretches of history the idea that a person had one personal name, distinguished by the name of their father, home town, profession, etc., was the normal practice for peoples speaking Indo-European languages (and many other people besides). Many of today’s surnames still reflect these habits in past centuries. In the ancient world, it seemed odd to the Greeks that the Romans had two or three names, including at least one all family members shared. Most Romans had a first name (praenomen), e.g. Gaius, a family name (nomen gentile), e.g. Julius, and most had a kind of additional nickname, which could be personal or run in the family (the cognomen), e.g. Caesar.

It is not clear how the Romans got to this state of affairs. In the region around Rome we find family names among (non-Indo-European) Etruscans and Latin-speakers as early as in the seventh century BC. Perhaps the Romans learned the custom from the Etruscans, or families were so important in their society that those names developed around social structures. At the end of antiquity, the custom disappeared again in western Europe, until it was invented again in medieval northern Italy, and then spread around the world (though this is not the only part of the world where patrilinear family names were used traditionally – e.g. in China).

When the Greeks first encountered the Romans, they certainly found Roman names puzzling. Plutarch reports a very learned (and wrongheaded) debate about which of those three names was the real name of a Roman.

Poseidonius thinks to confute those who hold that the third name is the Roman proper name, as, for instance, Camillus, Marcellus, or Cato; for if that were so, he says, then those with only two names would have had no proper name at all. But it escapes his notice that his own line of reasoning, if extended to women, robs them of their proper names; for no woman is given the first name, which Poseidonius thinks was the proper name among the Romans. Plutarch, Life of Marius 1.2.

In many cases, there was no good answer to this question. Today, we might think that on the whole, first names are our more personal name, while the surname is used in polite and formal contexts. But as far as we can tell, Roman usage was more complicated, and different choices of a ‘main name’ or different combinations of two out of the three could be used, depending on context, uniqueness of name, and various other factors. If you thought that first name terms are a minefield in the modern ‘Western’ World, think again.

For a while, Greeks really seem to have thought that the praenomen was the best way of translating Roman names into a Greek one-name mode, and some Greek historians (e.g. Polybios, who really should have known better, having lived in Rome for years in the 160s and 150s BC) stubbornly talk about Titus, Marcus or Quintus instead of giving full names. The problem is that most Romans shared about fifteen or so common first names, so this often leaves us guessing who might be meant, as if reports about current politics would all be written about David, George or Michael: most people involved are not quite uniquely called Boris or Theresa, and there are rather too many Jeremies. Thus, early Greek attempts to talk about Romans using just one name was definitely a more impractical misuse of a foreign naming system than modern newspapers’ use of Icelandic patronymics.

Bust of Plutarch

Possibly a portrait Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus), found at Delphi, where he was a priest.

And just as Icelandic footballers seem to be happy to adapt their names to more widely used naming conventions, in the end, Greeks came round to the Roman habits as well. As the Romans conquered the Greek-speaking East of the Mediterranean, influential Greeks were able to acquire Roman citizenship. This considerable privilege came with three Roman names, usually adopting the first two from the powerful Roman who had managed to give you citizen status. There were various ways of adapting Greek names, but the most common one was to take the first two names of the Roman benefactor, and use the traditional Greek personal name as the cognomen. Thus, Plutarchos son of (probably) Nikarchos, whom we have already seen engage in a discussion about what the ‘real’ name of a Roman might be, was himself Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, and his son Autoboulos Ploutarchou would have been Lucius Mestrius Autobulus: a Greek name for their Greek lives at home, and three Roman ones for the whole Empire.

Moving between different naming conventions may be tricky, but in the end, it’s possible to adapt names for different contexts, occasions and places.

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