Vergil or Virgil: What’s in a Roman Name?

Yesterday I made a brief Facebook post regarding an insight one of my students had during a discussion of Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid (the Fall of Troy). The account of the attack on Priam’s palace reminded him of the siege of Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. A friend of mine questioned my spelling of “Vergil” in the post. I assured him that I was correct and realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a blog post on Roman onomastics (the study of naming customs).

My friend thought that the correct spelling for the name of the poet of the Aeneid is “Virgil.” He’s not wrong: look at the cover of my (well-thumbed) copy of the Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid.

So why did I write “Vergil” and not “Virgil”? The poet, of course, didn’t spell his name either of those ways. His full name was Publius Vergilius Maro. But that just leads us to another question: why are we referring to him by a shortened form of his middle name? Well, it’s not a middle name in our understanding of the term—that is, the second of two personal names chosen by our parents, and followed by our last name, which is the family name. The name in the middle position of a 3-part Roman male name was not a personal name chosen by one’s parents; it was part of the family name. In other words, Publius Vergilius Maro’s father and brothers would also be named Firstname Vergilius Maro, and not Firstname Middlename Maro.

Here’s how it worked. The name of a male Roman typically had three parts:

The praenomen (first name) Marcus
The nomen (clan or gens name): Tullius
The cognomen (branch of the gens): Cicero

There were so few praenomines available that the Romans developed a set of standard abbreviations for them; these abbreviations are found, for example, in inscriptions on Roman monuments. They are also commonly used by modern writers. So we could refer to our poet as P. Vergilius Maro, and there would be no doubt that we are talking about a Publius. Here are all the praenomines and their abbreviations (I tell my students that an ancient Roman baby name book was a single page):

C.Caius or Gaius
Cn.Cnaeus or Gnaeus
K.Kaeso or Caeso
S. or Sex.Sextus

Notice that not only are there merely eighteen names to choose from, but some of them are just numbers: Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus (Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth)! I don’t know if those names were reserved for actual fifth, sixth, or tenth sons (or children); I also don’t know why the other numbers are missing.

A boy born after the death of his father was given the praenomen “Postumus.” Sometimes a second cognomen was added (later called an agnomen), especially in honor of military achievements: P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (P. Cornelius Scipio, the conqueror of Africa). If a boy was adopted by another family, he would assume the new family’s nomen and cognomen; his original nomen would have the syllable “an” inserted in it (making it an adjective) and would become his agnomen. For example, when P. Aemilius Paullus was adopted by the Scipio family, his new name became P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the Aemilian Cornelius Scipio). Similarly, when C. Octavius was adopted by C. Julius Caesar, his new name became C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (the Octavian Julius Caesar). We commonly refer to him as “Octavian.” (Later, he was granted the agnomen “Augustus”).

If this is how male names worked, how about female names? Was there a corresponding list of female praenomines, and was P. Vergilius Maro’s mother known as Mrs. Vergilius Maro? No and no. Female Romans had only one name: the name of their father’s gens (his nomen) with a feminine ending. If a family had more than one daughter, they would be distinguished by maior (the elder) and minor (the younger). Roman women did not change their names at marriage. Here are some examples:

C. Julius Caesar’s daughter = Julia
M. Tullius Cicero’s daughter = Tullia
L. Aemilius Paullus’ daughter = Aemilia
T. Livius’ daughter = Livia

Back to Vergilian spelling. One good indication that a particular Roman has had a prominent place in the western tradition is if his name has been anglicized. We don’t say “Q. Horatius Flaccus”; we say “Horace.” We don’t say “T. Livius”; we say “Livy.” We don’t say “P. Vergilius Maro”; we say “Vergil.” But that still doesn’t answer the question where “Virgil” came from.

The answer is that it comes from the Middle Ages. The poet of the Aeneid was especially revered during the Middle Ages, when his work was used for divination: a questioner would open the Aeneid at random and point to a line, whose significance would then be used to answer the question. This practice is known as the sortes Vergilianae (or Virgilianae). As a result, the poet got a reputation as having been a magician. The Latin word for “magic wand” was virga; hence, his name came to be spelled “Virgilius.” This was later anglicized as Virgil.

Today, both spellings are used and both are acceptable. I prefer “Vergil” because it’s closer to his original name. But if I were writing about medieval uses of the Aeneid (for example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy), I would probably spell it “Virgil.”