Naming practices


The purpose of naming is to identify, and for ancient Greeks there were three possible elements in that identification: the given name, the name of the parent, usually the father (patronymic), much more rarely the name of the mother (metronymic); and, in certain circumstances, an indication of origin (the ethnic) or membership of a civic subdivision (demotic).


The given name

Conforming to the Indo-European pattern found throughout most of Europe, Greeks were given one name only. This pattern is evident already in Mycenean texts of the 13th century BC, and in the poems of Homer, dated to the 8th century BC but reflecting an earlier age.

There is abundant evidence, especially from Asia Minor and from Egypt, of Greeks bearing two names, often linked by a formula such as ‘also known as’; and famous people, such as Kings and intellectual figures such as philosophers, often acquired nicknames (King Antigonos Monophthalmos, the ‘One Eyed’, Dio Chrysostom, the ‘golden mouthed’ i.e. eloquent); but these cases do not undermine the fundamental principle that the norm was one name only. Among the 215,000 individuals published by LGPN from the Greek mainland, the Islands and the western Mediterranean, only a few hundred have double names.


The patronymic

The patronymic was crucial in identifying and legitimising the individual. Nonetheless, even with this fundamentally important element of nomenclature, documentary evidence has revealed great variation in its use, especially on tombstones.

The patronymic generally took the form of the father’s name in the genitive case: Αλεξανδρος Φιλιππου ‘Alexander son of Philip’; but in areas of the Aeolic dialect (the island of Lesbos and the facing coast of Asia Minor, and Thessaly and Boiotia on the mainland) the patronymic also took the form of an adjective derived from the father’s name, Αλεξανδρος Φιλιππειος . This usage occurs in the poems of Homer: Αιας Τελαμωνιος ‘Ajax the son of Telamon’. (A second form found in Homer, in which the father’s name is given a termination with patronymic force ‘-ides’ (Εκτωρ Πριαμιδης ‘Hector son of Priam’) survived in the historical period but as an independent name-form deprived of patronymic force.)


Ethnics and demotics

Whether the name and patronymic was followed by an indication of origin depended entirely on context. Since at home there was no need to indicate origin, the city or regional ethnic was used only when abroad. On the other hand, in cities with an internal organisation of demes, notably Athens, Rhodes and Eretria, membership of a deme was indicated by the demotic; but the demotic was not used when abroad. So, for example, the famous Alcibiades would in Athens be Αλκιβιαδης Κλεινιου Σκαμβωνιδης ‘Alcibiades son of Kleinias, of the deme Skambonidai’ (he is so identified, for example, on ostraka used to vote for his banishment from Athens, c. 417 BC), but abroad Αλκιβιαδης Κλεινιου Αθηναιος ‘Alcibiades son of Kleinias, Athenian’.

In antiquity, as in Greece today, there was a tradition of naming the first-born son after the paternal grandfather, and the second after the maternal grandfather. In leading families, whose public offices and honours are on record, it is sometimes possible to trace the grandfather-grandson name-pattern over two or three hundred years. We know less about the naming of girls, since women feature in the documentary record much less than men, but there is evidence of this same pattern. The naming of children after a parent also occurred, and was particularly popular in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods.

This inherent conservatism in name-giving ensured the preservation of names even after the concepts embodied in them had lost contemporary relevance, and the continuation of name-forms after the local dialects had given way to the koine. In this way, names can reflect earlier linguistic developments, even for periods for which we have no written documentary evidence.