Personal Names – a General Introduction

This section of the romaneranames website deals with personal names that appear to have belonged to indigenous ancient Britons who had not adopted a strictly Roman name.  It is still very preliminary because it needs specialist expertise different from the main section dealing with geographical names.  Helpful suggestions will be much appreciated.

Personal names correlate only weakly with ethnicity and native language.  For top people, names tend to be titles, describing a function.  For example, Caesar's great adversary Vercingetorix (literally ‘over-leader-king’) was surely not given that name at his mother's knee.  Many names are assumed late in life (think of Pope Francis or King George VI), or deliberately chosen to hide an ethnic origin (think of Woody Allen, Kirk Douglas, or Helen Mirren).  Even truly personal names may originate in a different culture: modern British royalty mostly bear names taken from Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, rather than Old English.

The names of little people, which have survived on pottery, writing tablets, or epitaphs, are in principle the best source of information about real ancient Britons, but that data is not always easily available on the Internet and is under-represented here.  Just as today, names were probably dependent on fashion, religion, occupation, location, etc.  It is striking how many Greek and Latin names look slightly odd or insulting (Cicero = chick pea, Strabo = squinty, etc) so maybe British ones were too.  Remember, too, that immigrants (of whom there were plenty in Roman Britain) tend to be prominent in commerce and in technological innovation.

Most ancient names that have survived were written in Latin or Greek, languages whose alphabets and word stock were not perfectly suited to the speech and natural environment of north-west Europe.  So the 20-plus personal names from Britain mentioned by Caesar, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio have passed through tight filters of spelling, grammatical endings, and cultural misunderstanding, even before manuscript copying errors become an issue.  Watch out that classical texts and their translations available on the Internet are not always trustworthy.

Coins provide the earliest, as well as the hardest, written evidence for indigenous names in Britain.  A list of 70 Ancient British kings and other significant Britons, which originated with coin expert Chris Rudd, is online.  The Celtic Coinage of Britain website has much useful information.  Mays (1966) listed all the “Inscriptions on British Celtic Coins” known at that date.  Early British coins generally date after Caesar's invasions, so most of their lettering is essentially Roman.  David Graeber (2011:224-235) explained how coins first appear in societies when they acquire a central government able to impose taxes and organise an army.  Daphne Nash Briggs’ article about Iceni coins (and their Germanic texts) stresses how coin inscriptions sent a deliberate message from their issuers.

The prevailing consensus is that most “Celtic” kings and other people of Iron-Age Britain spoke languages that were well on their way to becoming early Welsh.  Consequently, resources such as the searchable Database of the Celtic personal names of Roman Britain, maintained by Paul Russell and Alex Mullen, suggest Celtic (i.e. proto-Welsh) guesses at the meanings of most name elements.  For more detailed linguistic analyses, see particularly Evans (1967) and Delamarre (2003).

Actually most classical authors, to the limited extent that they wrote on the subject, clearly distinguished Britons from Celts.  This website tries to look at all plausible parallels for the elements in early names in all the languages that might have been present in early Britain.  This necessarily involves presenting parallels that are not Celtic.  Please do not imagine that this website has a nationalist axe to grind.  Its authors genuinely do not know how ancient Britons spoke among themselves and are interested in evidence, not pet theories.

To check the evidence for any of these names, good places to start online include the Clauss/Slaby Epigraphic Database, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the Celtic Inscribed Stones Project.  Early potters' names are listed in Hartley and Dickinson’s Names on Terra Sigillata, a multi-volume (expensive) book, with only the earlier work by Felix Oswald now online.