The first declension, with the -a ending, is usually feminine.

Why are so many men's names (cognomina), however, in the first declension -- Seneca, Cinna, Aggrippa, Sulla, and more? This is far out of proportion to the handful of masculine improper nouns in the first declension, like agricola, poeta, scriba, and and nauta.

Is there some historical reason?

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    Gens names are first/second declension adjectives. You are seeing the first-declension form because gens is feminine. For example, men of the gens Julia are called Julius, women Julia. Also, all the names you refer to are cognomina, and in that case one has to keep in mind that the Romans did not generally give cognomina to women (I think). Aug 30, 2020 at 10:57
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    You may find this useful latin.stackexchange.com/a/5908/39
    – Alex B.
    Aug 30, 2020 at 12:37
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    Thank you. There it says that 1st decl. masc. nouns may come from fem. abstract nouns, from Greek influence or loanwords. For proper nouns, however, Etruscan loanwords seem like the most relevant of the explanations mentioned there. Are these many 1st decl. cognomina derived from Etruscan?
    – Joshua Fox
    Aug 30, 2020 at 13:19
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    @JoshuaFox re: Sulla, Leumann says the following, citing Schwyzer: Sulla from Surula, from Σύροσ (p. 52, in Lit.) and then adds "die Verknüpfung mit Σύροσ ist unglaubhaft " [i.e. implausible]
    – Alex B.
    Aug 30, 2020 at 15:25
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    So, I don't know yet - I'll have to do more research/think about this. But my guess is that one of the factors I mentioned in the linked post would apply.
    – Alex B.
    Aug 30, 2020 at 15:38

1 Answer 1


This is what Weiss 2020 writes on cognomina in -a (in III. *eh2-stem suffixes):

Aemilius Alba, from albus 'white'

Calua, from caluus 'bald'

C. Mucius Scaeuola, from scaeua 'left-handed person'

Weiss also mentions Klingenschmitt 1992 - I'm going to re-read this and add more later - who explains these cognomina as collectives with the meaning 'family of X' that came to be applied to individuals. Weiss adds though that some of these cognomina are partly of Etruscan origin, Cotta, Thalna, Tucca (p. 321)

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    That does make sense: "The White family"
    – Joshua Fox
    Aug 30, 2020 at 17:21

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