Dido's sister and confidante Anna has a name that I believe to be unusual in Latin. Where did this name come from? Is it perhaps Semitic and related to Hebrew Hannah and the derived name Anna? The Carthaginians no doubt spoke a Semitic language. How did it come into Latin: did Virgil make it up based on some other example, or was there truly an historical Anna that he knew about?

Bonus question: why no h, while the Romans did have an h? Did they take the name from Greek stories (which in turn took it from a Semitic language)?

Aeneid IV.20 ff.:

Anna (fatebor enim) miseri post fata Sychaei
coniugis et sparsos fraterna caede penatis
solus hic inflexit sensus animumque labantem
impulit. agnosco ueteris uestigia flammae.

Such a great passage, by the way.

3 Answers 3


The entry for Anna in Wiktionary certainly states that it derives from the Hebrew Hannah. And this is how Augustine uses it in The City of God against the Pagans, in book 17, when referring to Hannah, the mother of Samuel (mater quoque ipsa Samuelis Anna ...)

However, there is the possibility that Anna is in fact a Latin name, based on the Roman goddess Anna Perenna. Her festival took place on the Ides of March (March 15th), the beginning of the new year (Ovid, Fasti, 3.146). Macrobius notes that:

... publice et privatim ad Annam Perennam sacrificatum itur, ut annare perennareque commode liceat

... public and private sacrifice is offered to Anna Perenna, so that we might prosperously pass the year [annare] and for many years to come [perennare]

Saturnalia, 1.12.6

I think that this clearly links the name Anna with annus. She was the goddess of the new year, if you will.

The cult of Anna Perenna is also mentioned by Martial (Epigrams, 4.64.17). But it is Ovid who gives us the fullest picture of her and the ribald festivities that took place in her honour in book 3 of the Fasti. Revellers, sitting in the sun, would toast Anna Perenna:

sole tamen vinoque calent annosque precantur,
quot sumant cyathos, ad numerumque bibunt.

But they grow warm with sun and wine, and they pray for as many years as they take cups, and they count the cups they drink.

Ovid, Fasti, 3.531-2

Further, among other stories surrounding her, he explicitly links Anna Perenna with Dido's sister Anna (see: Fasti, 3.543-654). After Dido's death, she flees into exile, spending some time in Aeneas' Lavinium but, due to Lavinia's jealousy, she has to leave. Eventually, finding no refuge, she was turned into a river nymph by Numicius, whereupon she was called Anna Perenna. This is all highly anecdotal, of course, but it does at least establish that the name Anna was known to the Romans and, moreover, with a seemingly obvious etymological link to annus.

In 1999, the Fountain of Anna Perenna, dating back to 4th century BC, was excavated in Rome, thereby consolidating the evidence that Anna could be Roman in origin. Although note that it has been suggested that Anna Perenna could even have been an Etruscan mother goddess originally and "her relationship with Aeneas was developed to strengthen her association with Rome." Nevertheless, it still stands that Anna does not have to be just the Latin for Hannah.

  • Great connection with Ovid's Fasti! So Ovid explicitly links Dido's sister with Anna Perenna, I had no idea. I get a feeling, though, that this might be folk etymology, as it was not uncommon in Antiquity. Ovid might have found it a pleasant idea to link the two women even though one was Semitic (Punic) and the other Latin (from annus) or from some other language (it is possible that a mythical woman had been connected by folk etymology to annus as well, whence Anna Perenna).
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 1:58
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    @Cerberus Yes, I think there is definitely a hint of folk etymology here too! I keep coming back to this question because I feel I’m missing something. My thoughts, in brief: factors in favour of Anna not being Punic/Semitic are the following: the name Dido isn’t Punic (her Punic name is Elissa) so perhaps neither is Anna; the absence of an H, when Hannibal is always spelt with one in Latin, could suggest that Anna is a complete name, in of itself; the apparent evidence of Anna Perenna as a deity indigenous to Italy, with a not-too-fantastical etymological link to annus / annare. Yet ...
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 4:07
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    @Cerberus Factors in favour of Anna being Semitic in origin include: Augustine uses Anna for Hannah; Anna, in Virgil, is a Phoenician so why wouldn’t she have a Punic name? To this end, Hannibal and Hanno are both unreservedly Punic names and the similarity with Hannah is obvious. And indeed, they do all share the Semitic root ḥnn – to be(come) gracious (see: ahdictionary.com/word/semitic.html#%E1%B8%A5dd ) So, culturally and linguistically, it is entirely feasible that Anna is Hannah.
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 4:09
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    @Cerberus (last one, I promise!) But why does the H drop off of Anna and not Hannibal, in Latin? This perplexes me. The ḥ in ḥnn is a guttural which we would expect to be transliterated as an aspirate H. Strangely, in Greek sources, Hannibal and Hanno are Ἀννίβας and Ἄννων respectively, with smooth breathing.
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 4:10
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    Sorry, I just found this: Josephus writes Hannah as Ἄννα, with smooth breathing. This could explain Anna in Latin but doesn't explain Hannibal!
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 4:18

Just to come back to part of the original question, Virgil did not come up with this part of the story himself. Anna as sister of Dido already occurs in Naevius and Varro; this does of course not invalidate the explanations given. See Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, vol. II col. 108,3.

  • A belated thank you for this reference! Very interesting, so the name has a history in Roman literature in that very context.
    – Cerberus
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 2:06

Penelope's survey of available evidence seems to be virtually complete. I chiefly want to observe — with no detriment at all to Penelope's answer — that it relies wholly on mythology, which is really all that we have. Even the mythology may have no more substance than one man's (Ovid's) imagination.

Although it is now mostly disregarded, one of the most useful sources for this kind of thing is Lemprière's Bibliotheca Classica of 1788-1825, claimed by its compiler to contain 'a full account of all the proper names mentioned in ancient authors'. Various received opinions about Anna are quoted, the last of which is not among those referred to by Penelope and which, since the background is an episode quite possibly historical, I think worth quoting:

". . . Anna was an old industrious woman of Bovillae, who, when the Roman populace had fled from the city to mount Sacer, brought them cakes every day; for which kind treatment the Romans, when peace was re-established decreed immortal honours to her whom they called Perenna, ab perennitate cultus, and who, as they supposed, was to become one of their deities."

Certainly, this supports Penelope's opinion that 'it still stands that Anna does not have to be just the Latin for Hannah'. We might also remember how little, if anything, Romans knew of the Jews before they began to accumulate their empire — which alone casts doubt on any connection with the name Hannah.

[Lastly, I hope it's not too far off-topic to remember that the Conspirators were relying on the people being distracted by the Feast of Anna Perenna while the assassination of the Ides of March took place.]

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    just a footnote to your statement above that "We might also remember how little, if anything, Romans knew of the Jews before they began to accumulate their empire — which alone casts doubt on any connection with the name Hannah." I don't think anyone would imagine that "Anna" is directly connected to Hebrew "Hannah", but it's certainly reasonable that it's a genuine Punic name cognate with the Hebrew name. In fact, that's what I'd always assumed, although now I am persuaded by Penelope's analysis.
    – varro
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 20:30
  • The story of the old woman Anna from Bovillae is also in Ovid (Fasti, 3.667-696). I was going to include it in my answer for similar reasons to yours but felt that my answer was getting too lengthy and decided in favour of the Dido-Anna story. But you are absolutely right, the Bovillae-Anna story does indeed lend greater weight to our argument that the name Anna could possibly be Roman in origin (or at least, not necessarily Semitic in origin).
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 1:10
  • Very interesting! I knew about Anna Perenna, but not about this myth.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 1:57

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