Roman Egyptian Names Trexler Library | Muhlenberg College

Personal names can reveal –or occasionally obscure—personal identity in Roman Egypt.

Roman Egypt was a polyglot society in which Greek often functioned as the “common tongue” (koiné) among social classes.  Traditional Egyptians spoke a language descended from ancient Egyptian which gained the name Coptic; Greeks spoke Greek, and Romans –bureaucrats, retired military, business people—spoke Greek and less often (and among themselves) Latin.  In the merchant and trade classes, inter-marriage resulted in individuals with double-barreled Egyptian-Greek names which might be the same name in each language, or might reflect differing cultural heritages in each name.

The old Roman system of personal name for male Roman citizens involved three parts: praenomen (given name), nomen (gens or clan), and cognomen (name of a family within the gens).  Upper-class male citizens used a very limited selection of praenomina, such as Gaius, Quintus, Publius, etc.  Hence the nomen and cognomen were necessary to distinguish individuals from each other.  Women did not usually bear the praenomen unless the parents chose otherwise (usually only in very upper-class cases).  Males and females could also use a nickname or agnomen.   This old Roman system was breaking down during the centuries reflected in the Oxyrhynchus papyri, but it nevertheless formed the cultural background of Roman Egyptian naming customs.

Personal names thus became ethnic labels which revealed both heritage and aspiration: parents could choose names which allied a child with –or distinguished a child from—the Greco-Roman cultural regime   In 211 AD, Roman citizenship was generally extended throughout the Empire, and from that point names alone cannot distinguish Romans from Egyptians, Greeks from Copts.

More information about Greco-Roman Egyptian naming and ethnic identity can be found at On-line exhibit of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.