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Nicknames and Politics in Republican Rome

By Giovan do Nascimento, PhD candidate, University of São Paulo.

Nicknames can be seen as means of political participation of the popular classes? The answer relies on how we view the politics.If we focus on its institutional aspects, perhaps the nicknames says little about this participation. But if we expand into the informal aspects of politics, we will see nicknames as fragments of public opinion that directly or indirectly influence the reputation of prominent persons.

At the late Roman Republic, there was a diversity of nicknames about distinguished persons.They described, above all, physical or mental peculiarities of the nicknamed. They could have detrimental effects when they carried negative connotations. They had an expiration date. And sometimes they lost their original meaning and were adopted by the descendants of the nicknamed as a cognomen.In a study published in the book Popular Culture in the Ancient World [edited by Lucy Grig, Cambridge, 2017], the historian Cristina Rosillo-López analyses sources written by the literati of that time – who despised or subverted the nicknames, but didn’t completely ignore them – and she observes that nicknames could express an alternative memory of the past and an autonomous interpretation of the political present build by the popular classes.

Crossing streets in a Roman city. (Reconstitution of the Via dell'Abondanza in Pompeii).

Let's begin with the places where the nicknames circulated. In a conversation between the aristocrat Damasius and the poet Horace, the former mentions that “the crowded compita dubbed me Mercury's pet [Mercurialis]” (Horace, Satires, 2.3.25-6; 2.3.68), meaning that he was the favorite of the god of commerce and good business. During Lucius Murena's accusation of electoral corruption, in turn, the accuser Catuss mentioned, in the trial, he had heard on street corners that Murena was called a “dancer” (saltator) (Cicero, Pro Murena, 13), an insult referring to the effeminacy attributed to the dancers of Rome. More interesting than the values ​​rooted in these nicknames is that both are accompanied by their respective places of circulation: street corners or crossing streets (compita), spaces with high rotation of people whose graffiti attests the circulation of gossip and various popular comments and that were also, as attested, for example, by the presence of water sources, places of intense popular sociability.

A street sanctuary (compitum) in honor of twelve gods (Pompei, IX.11.1). (Source:

In general, nicknames circulated in any city space that people could meet and exchange opinions. The streets, theatres, game spaces, workshops and taverns made these dynamics viable both among members of the popular classes and among these same members and the elites. The political relevance of this informal communication is that the formal participation of citizens was restricted to voting and attendance at assemblies, with the right to “speak in public” limited to magistrates and those they invited to speak. But public opinion was not controlled, depending only on people meeting and engaging in conversations. And both citizens and non-citizens, women and foreigners, could participate in these dynamics.

The cases of Damasius and Murena's accuser suggest that the elites could pay attention to the fragments of public opinion circulating in the streets. However, we cannot attribute to the aforementioned nicknames a necessarily popular origin. Is it possible to traces nicknames of popular origin? Gracchus is a good example of this type of nickname. He is mentioned by Cicero in a speech in which he alleged that his political enemy, the tribune Quintus Numerius Rufus, had been nicknamed “Gracchus” by the plebs in a mocking tone (Cicero, Pro Sestio, 72). This tone would mean that the tribune was seen ironically by the citizens as someone who could not be compared to the tribunes Tiberius and Caius Gracchus who preceded him.

After the end of the Punic Wars, the Gracchus brothers fought for the redistribution of land to reduce the social inequalities produced in Rome by military campaigns. This displeased some aristocrats who orchestrated the murder of one and then the other. However, the building of unofficial statues to Gracchus brothers in Rome, the consecration of the places where they were murdered, and the subsequent homage paid to their memory by the plebs indicates that the brothers became true popular heroes. Cicero's speech was delivered when he returned to Rome from his exile in 56 BC. Cicero had been exiled after being accused of having ordered, during his consulate, the murder of Roman citizens without any trial for their participation in Catiline's conspiracy. Numerius, in his turn, in addition to being an ally of Cicero's accusers, was opposed to his return. In this context, Cicero sought, in the courts, to paint the public opinion with colors favorable to his return, considering it opportune to qualify Numerius as helpless by the plebs. But at that time the plebs carried out a series of riots due to the rise in the price of grain. Contrary to what Cicero tried to make it look like, the period when Numerius was a tribune guaranteed him enough time to address the plebs. It is likely that he strove to favor the plebs in the matter of grain, a problem that should have been far more indispensable to the plebs than the return of an exiled orator.

In this context of the grain crisis, Rosillo-López considers possible that the plebs did not attributed to Numerius the nickname “Gracchus” in a mocking tone, but in a tone serious and supportive. This leads her to observe that public opinion mattered enough to Cicero that he sought to subvert it to his own advantage. Contrary to what Cicero suggested, the nickname “Gracchus” represented a popular interpretation of Rome's history and of the political present which were independent of the elite versions. In other words, Gracchus was a popular nickname that, as an expression of public opinion, was also relevant to prominent Roman politicians in the 1st century BC.

To conclude, the informal and uncontrolled circulation of nicknames, as well as the possibility of them emerging “from below” and influencing “the above” suggests that, at the late Roman Republic (and perhaps in our own time), nicknames could not only be means of popular political participation, but they can also become relevant means of accessing the political perceptions of the popular classes, which should not be neglected.

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