Greek Names

Everyone in Classical Greece had a single name. When you introduced yourself, you gave your name, your father's name, and more often than not where you came from. Here are two introductions from the opening scene of my first book. Two strangers are looking down at the body of a man called Ephialtes. The first says:

“I am Nicolaos, of the deme Alopece, son of Sophroniscus the Sculptor.”

He hadn’t anything to say to that. I hesitated, expecting his name in return, and not getting it. He’d called Ephialtes, ‘my friend.’ He looked down at the corpse, and I followed his gaze, thinking as I did that it was astonishing how quickly a man can be reduced from greatness to nothing. The death of this man had the power to change Athens forever.

“And who are you, sir?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.

“I am Pericles, of the deme Cholargos, son of Xanthippus.”

Pericles and Nico provide their deme as their origin, because they are both Athenians. A deme was like a combination of suburb and sub-tribe, used in civic administration. If Nico was visiting a different city, such as Ephesus, he would introduce himself as Nicolaos, son of Sophroniscus, of Athens, because to an Ephesian his deme is irrelevant but his city is meaningful (and might put his listener on guard, because there's no telling what one of those tricky Athenians could be up to).

The patronymics and the demes I used above are totally correct, by the way. Because this was the standard way of naming, even in writing, there are many real people mentioned in classical sources about whom we know almost nothing, except who their father was, and where to find their house if we happen to be visiting Athens in 460BC. A man took the same deme as his father, and since Nico is the brother of Socrates, I need merely look up Socrates' information to find the right deme for Nico.

The naming of children followed a set pattern. The first son was named for the paternal grandfather. More often than not the second son was named for the maternal grandfather. Third sons and onwards were more of a free for all, though it was fairly common for the third son to be named for the father. Thus Pericles, son of Xanthippus, had in turn an eldest son called Xanthippus, son of Pericles, who as I mentioned in a previous post obtained a loan when he was still a child. Pericles later had a son by Aspasia, and that boy was called Pericles, son of Pericles.

Daughters had a similar naming system, though less well known since women were so rarely written of, and once they were married would usually be named in reference to their husbands. A married woman belonged to her husband's deme.

This system means the same names keep cropping up every second generation, and if you know the names from two successive generations then sometimes you can trawl the classical sources to build up a family history.

This is incredibly useful if you happen to be me. There was a legal expert called Archestratus who helped Ephialtes introduce the democracy, and there was an Archestratus who co-founded the Antisthenes and Archestratus Savings and Loan Company. There's no ancient record connecting the two, but the odds are pretty good that Archestratus the Banker is son or grandson to Archestratus the Lawyer.

Almost all names had a clear meaning and were made from one or two words. Some were descriptive: Pericles is a single word meaning surrounded by glory. Some were a virtue or desirable attribute: Nicolaos is made up from Nike (Victory) and laos (of the people)...victory of the people. Many were religious: Diotima is Dio (God, in this case Zeus) and tima (honour)... honoured of Zeus. Phil means lover. Hippos means horse. Hence our modern Philip comes from Phil-Hippos...lover of horses.

Like us, the Greeks used nicknames, usually to emphasize some characteristic of the person, and like us sometimes the nickname took over. There was an Olympic wrestler called Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deme Collytus. Like many wrestlers he had particularly broad shoulders, so much so that everyone called him Broad and his real name was almost forgotten. This man later gave up wrestling and turned to philosophy, and that is why today we know him as Broad, which in Attic Greek is the word...Plato.


Shadows said...

Great article Gary! I've missed your blogs, they are always so educational. So when's the non-fiction Greek for Idiots coming out? I'm ready for it. =)

I had to check out the same sort of phenomenon in Romans, although I'm still uncertain if that tradition carried on at early Rome AD or not.

I'll keep looking, you keep writing. I am really looking forward to reading your book.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie, you're always so kind!

The Roman naming system was wildly different to the Greek, as you would know much better than I. I have no idea where the structure of Roman names came from, but I'd be willing to bet it wasn't Indo-European.

There's not much chance of a non-fiction book of Greek history out of me, much as I would love to do it, because I don't have that wonderful, magical, mystical thing called a platform.

What you're seeing here, as I'm sure you realise, is the by-product of my own book research. Exposition = Evil in novels, but I can purge the urge writing the blog.

scaryazeri said...

Back home, we also use father's names. We don't actually have second names at all. Just say, my father is Fariz. So I would be (First name)Farizovna as in a daughter of Fariz. And the same in Russia.

Kim Kasch said...

Though not Plato or Zeus - I guess I could just go by Kimbra

Gary Corby said...

Scaryazeri: Wow, you're from Baku? Birthplace of Gary Kasparov!

(Alright yes, I'm a chess player...or at least, I was until writing took over.)

Kim: You could probably turn Kimbra into something that looked vaguely ancient. Might look more Latin than Greek though. Definitely couldn't be Persian.