In Latin, masculus means male.

Noun masculus m (genitive masculī); second declension

  • a male (of humans or other animals)

In Latin, vir also means male.

Noun vir m (genitive virī); second declension

  • man in the sense of "adult male human": adult, mature or grown man

What is the difference between the two?

Would it have been appropriate for a Roman to name their son either Masculus or Vir?


1 Answer 1


Vir means "man" and is used as a noun. It is a very common word.

Masculus can be translated as "male" or "masculine"; it is used as a noun or adjective, and is less common than vir. Lewis and Short observes that this word is "not in Cic[ero] or Caes[ar]". In form, masculus is a diminutive of mas, which also means "male".

The most obvious difference, which is indicated in the cited definitions, is that you couldn't use vir if you're talking about an animal or any other kind of non-human being that couldn't be described as a "man". Also, as far as I know, vir is not used as an adjective (although Latin sometimes uses two nouns in apposition in ways that look similar to a noun + adjective).

Masculus could be a male cognomen

Roman names are complicated. Masculus is attested as a male name in Latin, but I'm not sure how often it would have been chosen by the individual's parents.

The naming system for men that is generally associated with Classical Rome has three parts ("tria nomina"). The first part, the praenomen, was a given name (which I assume could be chosen by the parents, although appparently, it could be chosen instead by the pater familias), but the praenomen conventionally was chosen from a fairly small and closed list of names, covered here by Wikipedia. "Masculus" or "Vir" would not be a standard praenomen.

The second part of a male Roman citizen's name, the nomen gentilicium, was not chosen: rather, it was inherited from one's father. (Or was granted somehow upon acquisition of citizenship for new Roman citizens—I'm not sure what customs were followed in this case, although I found some discussion here.) These names typically ended in -ius. It seems like there are some attestations of forms derived from Masculus as a nomen. Gavrielatos (linked below) mentions Masclius Balbus (p. 107). "Masclinius" is attested in the name "Masclinius Masculus".

The third name in the tria nomina was called the cognomen. It's not very clear to me when and how a cognomen was bestowed. Descriptions of Roman naming systems seem to often characterize the cognomen as originally being a "nickname" or epithet but it seems to have become common from fairly early on for these names to be inherited within a family. I found an article that suggests the cognomen might be chosen by one's parents in certain periods:

from about 100 B.C. native Romans began to give their children diacritic cognomina at birth. Native Romans used the new cognomen to indulge in new coinages, often formed, like an adoptee's cognomen, from a gentilicium.

("What's in a Name? A Survey of Roman Onomastic Practice from c. 700 B.C. to A.D. 700", Benet Salway, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 84 (1994), page 128)

Masculus is attested as a cognomen, and perhaps also as a name outside of the conventional Roman citizen naming system. I'm not sure whether there are records of how the name was bestowed on the historical figures that bore it. "Names on Gallo-Roman Terra Sigillata (1st – 3rd C. A.D.)", by Andreas Gavrielatos (2012), mentions "L. Tr- Masculus" as the name of a potter.

"Lost Along the Way: A Centurion Domo Britannia in Bostra" (Laurens E. Tacoma, Tatiana Ivleva, David J. Breeze) says in fact that "Masculus [...] is a very common name that can be found almost anywhere in the empire" (note 15, page 17).

Masculus (or Masclus) appears as a personal name in the Tab.Vindol. III, 628, a letter written in Latin from a decurion of the cohors VIIII batavorum equitata named Masculus to the prefect Flavius Cerialis. Cuff 2011 ("The King of the Batavians: Remarks on Tab. Vindol. III, 628. Britannia, 42, pp 145-156) suggests the name was "perhaps a translation of a Germanic word expressing the equivalent value of manliness" (page 149). Cuff infers that the author of the letter was not a Roman citizen, and so Masculus in this context would be a single name (page 154), not part of the Roman tria nomina naming system.

names based on vir: Virilis, Viratus, Virtus

I don't know if vir itself is attested as a cognomen, but there are several names based on it that are.

Virilis seems to be attested as a cognomen:

For the cognomen of Virilis, Kajanto prefers the classification in the category of Cognomina relating to the human body pointing a manly, virile character or manhood in general. It is an adjective used as a cognomen due to the parents’ hopes for the child or to the acquiring of a laudatory nickname. The frequency of the name in CIL XII and XIII implies some connection with the Celtic name Virillus. This connection is simply the Gaulish stem -viro- (‘man’), which is homonym with the Latin vir, -i. The cognomen Virilis is certainly Latin, obtained from the Latin adjective virilis, -e. Its popularity is therefore resulted by the fact that it resembles the Gaulish formations and therefore, Gauls who had a similar Gaulish name, could likely have acquired the Deckname Virilis, as a way of Latinising their names.

(Gavrielatos pp. 95-96)

It seems Viratus could also be a cognomen (CIL V, 7299, cited by "Remarks on the personal names", Karin Stüber, in: Etudes Celtiques, vol. 39, 2013. pp. 161-168, doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/ecelt.2013.2404, page 163).

Gavrielatos also mentions a single example of Virtus used as a cognomen in the name Tabius Virtus, noting

Virtus is not otherwise known as a cognomen. It is possible however, to consider a Gaulish Virutis (adapted to Latin morphology) or Virotos/ -us with syncope of the /u/ or /o/. If so, it is derived from the Gaulish viros (‘man’, ‘true?’) and it apparently used as a Latin homonym (Deckname)

(pp. 133-134).

  • 5
    Would it be fair to say that the difference between masculus and vir is similar to the difference between the English words male and man?
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 15:34
  • 2
    @Adam that's along the right lines, though "man" has too many shades of meaning in English to really highlight the difference. However the adjective "manly" and phrases like "real man" still carry the sense intended by "vir". Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 16:17

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