WIR-S1E01–Distinctiones Romanorum

A good Roman character needs a good Roman name.

Salve, caniculae!

The Polverine has entrusted me to help with When in Rome. It looks like a dolium of laughs, and this Cortex game is something.

Still, two details irk me a little. First, why use a Latin substantive with an English adjective? I don’t know about you, but, mehercle, I’ll call that game Cortex Primus and nothing else! Second, why only four Platonic solids?

Anyway, my first task is to submit ideas for a prime set for a character in Cortex Primus, the Distinctiones. Well, if the game is set in Rome, there’s not much to “submit,” I tell you that! The choice is perfectly obvious.

A good Roman character needs a good Roman name, and that’s all the Distinctiones they need.

A Good Roman Name

Every Roman citizen has, in principle, a three-part name

  • praenomen, or “pre-name”; not much variation here;
  • nomen gentiliciumindicating membership of a family or clan;
  • cognomen literally, “known name,” often a nickname, but there are other uses.

However, this holds for male citizens. Different rules applied to women, who were nominally citizens—with the legal protection, almost none of the civil liberties—and were under the authority of a pater familias (father, or husband). Accordingly, they had:

  • a praenomen, usually a feminine form of their father’s nomen gentilicium,
  • cognomen, often indicating birth order before marriage (prima, secunda), and changing to a feminine version of the husband’s cognomen afterward.

Roman naming conventions are a rabbit hole: follow the Wikipedia links at your peril. If you’d rather not research Roman families or lack Latin fluency, head to the Roman Name Generator. With the guidelines above, you can make up a father’s or husband’s name from a female name or head to Google translate and make a cognomen for yourself.

Names as Distinctiones

If you ask, “what if I don’t want to play a Roman citizen?” I’d ask: “Well, why wouldn’t you?” But that’s a subject for another episode, and Cortex Primus would let you play non-citizens even if I don’t. So we want the Roman naming conventions’ spirit, rather than their letter, to inspire Distinctiones


The praenomen is what your friends, relatives, and neighbors call you face-to-face. If you’re a man, it’s a tie with the cognomen in your absence– unless you are well-known. If you are a woman, it’s definitely the praenomen before marriage—and later, if you make a name for yourself.

Distinctio based on the praenomen (a praedistinctio) should reflect that. Use your praenomen if you’re a Roman citizen or a Roman woman, whatever folks call you face-to-face otherwise, and add a description matching what they could say about what you are, that you’d agree with—the “agreeing with” is to differentiate with the next distinction.

Examples: Gnaeus, the Aventine Troubleshooter; Peregrina, the Cloth Trader’s Bold Wife; Appius, the Well-to-Do Plebeian; Mettius, the Well-Traveled Cloth Trader.

Note that “Peregrina” is a cognomen but like I said, we’re going for the spirit here, not the letter. And one day, Peregrina might earn recognition as Cispia.

Distinctio Gentilicia

The nomen gentilicium tells (allegedly) everyone what they can expect from you. The corresponding distinctio gentilicia sums expectations based on social status, public behavior, and family history, all of which will be covered in future episodes, with other trait sets (and pathways). So, I’ll just offer two examples and move along.

Example 1: Peregrina is the daughter of Appius Cispius Iunianus, the paterfamilias of an old and prosperous Plebeian family. She manages a busy household during her husband’s frequent business trips and oversees the education of their four children. All agree that she is A Good Roman Wife of Good Roman Stock.

Example 2: Gnaeus is the son of Caius Crespus Pugno (“the fist”), a widower, veteran soldier, and known bully who recently passed away. Scorpio, who fought in the Jugurthine War alongside his father, has occasionally suffered from anger management issues. Most assume he is cut from the same cloth as his father. His distinctio gentilicia is: Like Father, Like Son?

Again, if you are not a citizen, you can still comply with the spirit of the distinctio gentilicia. Be advised, however, that expectations about a foreigner or enslaved person would almost always be borne of, and reflect, prejudice and bigotry.

Distinctio Cognoscenda

cognomen tells a story. Ideally, one you’d want to be known, or “should be known,” in the Latin: cognoscenda. A rule of thumb: as someone gains notoriety, so does his cognomen. “His,” because it does not hold for women (cf. Praenomen). Accordingly, the choice of the distinctio cognoscenda is the most dependent on your other trait choices and character growth—and may or not reflect in a cognomen. So I’ll give two examples.

Example 1: Peregrinus’ love for travel has interfered with his business more than once, but Peregrina has taken actions in his name that proved smarter than those he had recommended. Her distinctio cognoscenda is: “My name isn’t my own, but my mind is.”

Example 2: During the Jugurthine War, G. Crespus assisted his father in special assignments and learned that, sometimes, discretion is the best part of valor and that waiting in hiding for the right time to strike is not cowardice but tactics. He adopted Scorpio as cognomen, and his distinctio cognoscenda is “You will never see me coming.”

I find it useful to generalize the above examples and think of the distinctio cognoscenda as a possible in-character statement. For instance, Cicero’s could be: “I’ll make Cicero more illustrious than Scaurus or Catullus!”here for Plutarch’s account; also, Google translate knows catullus and scaurus.

Before closing, let’s gather the Distinctiones for the two characters of this episode, as we will meet them time and again (character sheets in the style of Cortex Primus, created online on: https://tamas-rabel.github.io/cortex/sheet.html).

Conclusio: What’s in a Name (or three)

The Roman naming system has its intricacies, but it’s a great element of flavor and authenticity. It’s a “box” Roman citizens think in, and players who take some time to craft their distinctions thinking in that box, will have a feel of what it is like to be a Roman—at least when you meet someone in the forum and try to guess who they are from their name.

In the next two episodes, I’ll explore the next two prime sets for When In Rome—and there again, “suggestions” are quite straightforward. But before that, The Polverine will throw in a bonus episode about how he built Cispia’s story out of a name generator. In the meantime, 

Valete, caniculae!

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