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One of the small things that sort of bugs me about Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott) is that is screws up Roman rules about naming. Roman society recognized that any upper class man belonged to a familia (a unit formed by the marriage of a man and woman, loosely comparable to the modern nuclear family) and to a gens, or clan, a wider descent group vaguely similar to the idea of Scottish and Irish clans today. By traditional Roman naming convention, a man had three names, his praenomen (his personal or ‘first’ name), his nomen (which signals which gens he belongs to), and his cognomen (the name of his familia, roughly comparable to a Western last name). So Gaius Julius Caesar is Gaius of the Caesarian familia within the Julian gens. The correct order is praenomen, nomen, cognomen.

The praenomen is a private individual name used by the members of a man’s familia, and his close personal friends. Using it is a sign of familiarity or that the speaker is socially above the person being spoken to. So only his close family and friends will call him Gaius. For anyone else to do so is rude. Everyone else will call him Julius, which is how they would also address any of his male relatives.

But Russell Crowe’s character is named Maximus Decimus Meridius, which is wildly incorrect, because it’s cognomen, praenomen, nomen. It ought to be Decimus Meridius Maximus. Everyone calls him Maximus, when they should probably call him Meridius, but there are enough examples of Romans known by their cognomens that we can probably overlook that. Marcus Aurelius and Commodus could reasonably address him as Decimus, since they are clearly his social superior; calling him Maximus would be a substantial courtesy, because it implies that he is their equal.

But that’s not the end of the problem. The two main senators are Senator Gaius and Senator Gracchus, and are addressed as such. Gaius is a praenomen, while Gracchus is a cognomen. So we’ve got Senator Fred and Senator Smith here, which doesn’t make sense unless Senator Gaius is considered a complete joke who doesn’t deserve the courtesy of being called by his nomen or cognomen, and it’s unlikely that any man was elevated to the Senate unless he commanded general respect.

Also, the lanista who buys Maximus, Antonius Proximo (Oliver Reed) has an Italian name; it ought to be Antonius Proximus.

In general, one of the things I’ve learned from watching historical films is that screenwriters just make up names based on rules known only to them. This is one of the very frustrating things for historians; it would take half an hour with a scholarly book or a phone call to a historian to figure out historically accurate names for characters, and instead, they just make shit up. I entirely get that the screenwriters of Gladiator wanted to stage Commodus’ death in the arena instead of his palace; it’s more dramatic in a film called Gladiator to have the bad guy die in the arena. But the names of supporting characters aren’t going to make much difference to the audience, so why not take the trouble to make them at least plausible?

Correction: My colleague Sarah Bond, who specializes in Roman history, pointed out a small overstatement that I made in the above post. Not all Roman men had three names. The trinomina (the triple name) was generally the mark of a Roman citizen, so that lower-class Roman men did not always have three names. Additionally, she tells me that while Hollywood movies often garble Roman names, sometimes Romans in the provinces of the Empire did as well, at least based on funeral inscriptions. So there is perhaps some precedent for a garbled name like Maximus Decimus Meridius, though probably not for man of his apparently very high standing. Thanks, Sarah!

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Gladiatoris available at Amazon.

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