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Auxiliary units

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An altar set up between AD 222 and 235 by Quintus Petronius Urbicus, commandant of the Vindolanda garrison

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© Vindolanda Trust

Text Translation

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo)
diis immort(alibus)
et Gen(io) praetor(i)
Q(uintus) Petronius
Q(uinti) f(ilius) Fab(ia tribu) Urbicus
praef(ectus) coh(orits) IIII
. . . . . . . . .
ex Italia
domo Brixia
votum soluit
pro se
ac suis

To Jupiter Greatest and Best,
and to the other
immortal gods

and to the Genius of the praetorium
Quintus Petronius
Urbicus, son of Quintus, of the Fabian voting tribe,
prefect of the 4th cohort of Gauls
from Italy
from Brescia,
fulfilled his vow
on behalf of himself
and his family.

The structure of a person's name, as well as the choice of name itself depended on a variety of factors, for example gender, social status, and cultural background. The parts of a name used in different contexts and documents also varies.


The name of the Roman citizen consisted of three elements, often referred to as the tria nomina: first a forename (praenomen), such as Marcus, Lucius or Titus, often abbreviated (e.g. M., L. T.); second a family name (gentilicium or nomen); third an additional name or names (cognomen / cognomina). The cognomen might be a nickname, or a name with local or regional connections, for example a tribal name. The limited number of forenames, and the tendency from the first century AD to give sons the same name meant that the cognomen allowed individuals who shared the same names to be distinguished. When non-citizens were made citizens, they often took the names of the reigning emperor, a patron or benefactor. This accounts for the frequency of Julius, Claudius or Flavius among provincials in the early Roman empire.

Names can be a guide to family history. The nomen of Flavius Cerialis is that of the Flavian dynasty, implying that Roman citizenship was acquired by Cerialis or a forebear after AD 70, when the rule of the first Flavian emperor, Vespasian, began. The cognomen, Cerialis, is the same as that of Petillius Cerialis, the Roman general who ended the Batavian revolt in AD 69/70 and who governed Britain in the early 70s, recommencing the conquest of the north. Perhaps Cerialis' father or Cerialis himself remained loyal to Rome during the Batavian revolt and was granted citizenship in return for loyalty, Petillius Cerialis acting as his patron. Flavius was a common name among the Vindolanda correspondents, other 'Flavians' including Flavius Genialis and Flavius Conianus. Iulius Verecundus and Claudius Karus took their names from the earlier Julio-Claudian emperors. Other citizens whose names are documented include the commanders of auxiliary units elsewhere, for example Aelius Brocchus (233), perhaps the same person as a C. (Gaius) Aelius Brocchus recorded on an inscription in Pannonia (Hungary), as well as legionaries, for example Vittius Adiutor, a standard bearer of Legio II Augusta (214).

Different parts of names were used in different contexts. In the tablets, as in everyday practice, individuals addressed one another by their nomen and cognomen. We do not therefore know the praenomen of Flavius Cerialis. On formal documents, for example inscriptions, the other parts of names were recorded. As well as the nomen, these included filiation (the name of one's father), voting tribe (all Roman citizens belonged to one of these), and the place from which one came (origo), important for proving citizenship. The altar set up between AD 222 and 235 by a later commandant of the Vindolanda garrison Quintus Petronius Vrbicus provides an example of all the name elements (see above).

Auxiliary soldiers and non-citizens

Ordinary auxiliary soldiers did not generally receive citizenship till after their discharge, although sometimes they adopted the tria nomina before they were entitled to do so. Many individual names in the Vindolanda tablets probably belong to auxiliary soldiers. Personal names of the Roman empire drew on the languages and naming traditions of the many peoples of the empire, in this case the area of northern Gaul from which they came, but provincials also adopted Roman names. In the western provinces for example, including at Vindolanda, certain Roman names, for example Candidus (180) or Verecundus (210) became popular, sometimes making it difficult to identify the origin of the person in question.


Women did not have a praenomen, but took the feminine form of their father's family name (nomen / gentilicium) and sometimes the feminine form of his cognomen. The two best documented women at Vindolanda, Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, and her friend Claudia Severa therefore came from the families of the Sulpicii and Claudii respectively (291). The family name Sulpicia may suggest that Lepidina or one of her forebears was granted citizenship during the brief reign of emperor Sulpicius Galba (AD 68-69). On marriage women kept these names and added that of their husband in the genitive, e.g. 'of Marcus'.


Slaves had a single name, given when bought or at birth, followed by the name of the master in the genitive, 'the slave of …..', sometimes followed by servus 'Candidus the slave of Genialis' (Candidus Genialis praefecti), or 'Rhenus the slave of Similis' (Rhenus Similis servus) If freed they usually took the praenomen and nomen of their former master. Greek names may indicate servile status, especially in provinces like Britain, outside the areas in which there was a large resident Greek population. Some Greek names recorded in the Vindolanda tablets might be those of slaves but might also be names of soldiers (311).

For further information see people of Vindolanda in the exhibition.

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