Naming and Shaming in the New Naso

Torsten Meißner

The discovery of this new papyrus may give us fascinating new insights into the social significance and reality of the Roman naming system in late Republican and early Imperial times. Most of our understanding of this comes from the careful evaluation of epigraphic sources, combined with  comments by Roman grammarians, most notably perhaps Titius Probus’ De praenominibus,Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae (2.22) and Diomedes’ Ars grammatica (1), and occasional, entirely unsystematic remarks by historians, perhaps most famously Suetonius’ statement that Claudius peregrinae condicionis homines vetuit usurpare Romana nomina dumtaxat gentilicia (Suetonius Claudius 25.3).

However, actual reflections on names and naming patterns are also found in the literature, such as when Cicero (Brutus 62, Tusculanae 1.38) mocks the fact that “families of recent prominence frequently seized upon identity of gentilicium as a method of forging connections with illustrious figures from earlier history,”[1] or when Suetonius ponders the various proposed etymologies for the name Galba (Galba 3).[2] Alhough Ovid’s reflection on his own cognomen is unparalleled in its length, directness and of course inimitable style, it should be seen in the context of the attitude and intellectual milieu just set out, and it gives immediate plausibility to the authenticity of the new find. 

The first century BC sees considerable changes within the Roman naming system.

First of all, the cognomen, for a long time the preserve and playground of the elites, finally becomes firmly established in the Roman plebs in the Augustan era,[3] leading to the eradication of one of the most outwardly visible distinctions between the upper and lower classes. For Ovid, descended from a wealthy family of equites but now confronted nez à nez with questions about his own social standing, this must have been a time of deep personal crisis.

Secondly, this century also sees a marked increase in new, individualising cognomina. Kajanto observes that “cognomina suggesting physical peculiarities are in fact the most popular group of republican cognomina.”[4] What is striking, though, is that there is an observable difference in their application: laudatory cognomina are, relatively speaking, far more frequently applied to females, while for males pejorative cognomina are in the clear majority,[5] perhaps not a distribution one might have expected a priori. A restriction in distribution can also be seen, however. Cognomina like Barba and Barbatus are only attested for men, though this impression of systematic gender stereotyping might be somewhat mitigated by the admirably progressive Faustinus Cunnus attested in imperial Roman Tripolitania.[6]

Returning to our Naso, it would seem, therefore, that a negative interpretation of this bodily attribute – which might, however, be nothing more than a jovial, mocking one – is the most likely.[7] For a personality as fragile and insecure as Ovid, therefore, a reflection on the body part after which he was named is nothing less than the literary expression of this crisis; the nose in this passage is clearly synecdoche for the poet himself, and his destiny. More specifically, by comparing himself to Theseus and Hercules[8] this newly discovered piece can be seen not so much as a “coming out” on his part – it was hardly a hidden quality – as a coming to terms with, and indeed an appreciation of his proboscis, leading him on to the fine sense of the ironic and sublime that characterises him – an opus nasutum indeed. 

Torsten Meißner is a philologist in search of meaning and a Fellow in Classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge.


1 B. Salway, ‘What’s in a name? A Survey of Roman Onomastic Practice from c. 700 B.C. to A.D. 700,’ Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994) 124-145 (available here), at 126.
2 Salway, op. cit., 127 n.21.
3 H. Thylander, Études sur l‘épigraphie latine (Lund, 1952) 103.
4 I. Kajanto, The Latin Cognomina (Helsinki/Helsingfors, 1965) 63.
5 For republican women, we find 28 laudatory and only 5 pejorative cognomina, while for men 319 laudatory contrast with 508 pejorative ones (figures taken from Kajanto, op. cit., 63).
6 J.M. Reynolds and J.B. Ward-Perkins, The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (Rome, 1952) 743.
7 A contrary opinion is proposed here.
8 [si vera lectio!, Antig.]