Why were so many praenomina ordinal numbers or apparently derived from ordinal numbers?

A few examples:

I'm pretty sure that the Romans were not simply numbering their children in the order they were born, since a first child might indeed be named Sexta or any other number—but not Quarta or Quartus, since those were never used as praenomina. According to this Wikipedia article, in the Julii Caesares, if you were male, you could only be named Gaius, Lucius, or Sextus.

If the Romans themselves weren't sure, did they ever at least ask themselves, "Isn't it strange that we're naming our children after numbers?"

  • In the Julii Caeares, I wonder if this a case of where the name may have initially been used as part of a sequential numbering of children, but then evolved into something more of a family name instead.
    – Adam
    Mar 21, 2021 at 19:18
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    I'm not sure if you're referring to minor and maior with the first two, but Octavia is not a praenomen.
    – cmw
    Mar 21, 2021 at 20:02
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    Likewise, Septimius is a nomen, too. He was Lucius Septimius Severus.
    – cmw
    Mar 21, 2021 at 20:37
  • @C.M.Weimer Normas meas demisi ut Septimium Severum nominem atque Octaviarum ignotus eram. Utrumque soloecismum retinebo ut responso bono corrigi possint.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Mar 21, 2021 at 22:04
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    @RedSonja I'm pretty sure there are instances of elder sons with later numbered names than their younger brothers so, in at least some instances, it doesn't seem to have referred to order of birth
    – Tristan
    Mar 22, 2021 at 10:25

1 Answer 1


The origin of ordinal names seems to be unknown, but one theory dating back to Varro is that ordinal praenomen were originally used for children based on the month in which they were born (a custom which is however not attested in the historical period). You can find more details in this blog post by Peter Gainsford: "Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’?", Kiwi Hellenist, Monday, 16 April 2018.

There are nomina gentilicia derived from these, which I think would have been based in theory on an ancestor's name.

Octavia in Octavia Minor and Octavia Major is a nomen, not a praenomen.

  • 2
    An analogy may be the present-day existence of female names like "April", "May" and "June" (also "Summer"). The blog post too mentions Marcus and Maius named after March and May. Also, considering that the Greek and Roman religions have many parallels (unfortunately not much discussed) with Hinduism (all of them at one point Indo-European "cousins" after all), I also note that many children in India are named after months or "stars" (nakshatra), typically the one in which they were born: Chaitra/Chitra, Phalguni, Rohini, Swati, Shravan, etc. Mar 23, 2021 at 18:00

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