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What’s in a name? Atticus Finch and his Roman forebears

Already having baby-naming regret? Don’t worry – look to the past for alternative role models. Still of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Universal Pictures

What’s in a name? Atticus Finch and his Roman forebears

The publication of Go Set a Watchman (2015), Harper Lee’s long-awaited semi-sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), has reportedly caused consternation among parents who chose to name their son Atticus out of their admiration for the courageous lawyer Atticus Finch.

According to an article published on July 14 in the New York Times, some parents have been horrified to discover that in Lee’s new book, Atticus Finch is a racist, undermining the values of principle and honour which the name had long possessed in modern culture. Similar feelings have been expressed by the owners of businesses named after Atticus in the hope that their titles would conjure up similar ideals.

But should these children and businesses despair that their fictional namesake has been revealed to be an opponent of racial integration? After all, the name is originally a Roman one, and a survey of other famous Attici (the plural of Atticus) suggests that all is not lost.

The origins of Atticus

In Latin, Atticus is an adjective meaning “belonging to Attica”, the region in which Athens is located, or more simply, “Athenian”. As a name, it had connotations of literary sophistication and culture.

In the Roman imperial period, Atticus also became popular as a name. It was a cognomen (plural: cognomina), a surname which followed a Roman’s praenomen (first name) and nomen gentile (family name).

Today, with surnames largely set in stone, it is our first names which offer parents the opportunity to express their hopes for their children or to honour their own role-models. Young Byron might grow up to be a great writer, little Hillary a politician.

We can also apparently expect more than a few girls called Khaleesi unleashing their dragons on the primary school playground in a few year’s time.

Herodes Atticus bust, from his villa at Kephissia. mid-2nd century. Wikimedia Commons

In ancient Rome, it was the cognomen that conferred personal distinctiveness, especially among the Republican aristocracy. Male first names were generally limited to a select group of fewer than 20 praenomina, such as Marcus, Gaius, or Titus, leaving little room for creativity.

It was even worse for the women, who had to make do with a feminised form of the family name, such as Julia (from the Julian family). Many cognomina began life as nicknames, which eventually became a badge of family pride, such as Cicero (“Chick-Pea”) or Ahenobarbus (“Bronze-Beard”).

The first Roman known to have carried the name Atticus was Aulus Manlius Torquatus Atticus, who was consul in the mid-third century B.C. The reason for Torquatus’ assumption of the name is not attested, but we can assume that it was designed to conjure up an image of cultural refinement, reflecting Rome’s increasing contact with, and affinity for, the Greek world in the middle Republic.

Famous Attici in history

This influenced the assumption of the name by Cicero’s close friend and correspondent, the businessman T. Pomponius Atticus. He spent much of his early life in Athens studying philosophy, and subsequently split his life between Rome and his estates in Epirus. Unlike Cicero, Atticus was a suave and charming wheeler-dealer who deliberately eschewed political office.

He preferred to exert influence through his business interests and by cultivating powerful friendships. This policy served Atticus well, ensuring his survival during the civil wars which transformed the Roman Republic into Caesarian dictatorship and then Augustan principate – while his friend Cicero was executed for sticking to his principles.

Although rare in the Republican period, the name Atticus became much more common under the Roman empire. The evidence of epitaphs and other inscriptions shows that it was held by senators, centurions, cavalrymen, town councillors, freedmen and soldiers in the praetorian guard.

But it did not lose its association with Greek culture and refinement. One of the most famous Attici was Herodes Atticus, an extremely wealthy intellectual and orator who was appointed as tutor in Greek rhetoric to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was not well-liked by the prince’s Latin tutor, Cornelius Fronto, who contemptuously referred to him as a “little Greek” (Graeculus).

Fronto was probably right to be suspicious of Herodes Atticus. Although a lavish benefactor to his beloved Athens, Herodes Atticus appears to have been a deeply unpleasant man.

He aroused the enmity of the Roman governors of Greece, as well as the Athenians themselves, who accused him of tyranny. But this was eclipsed by his treatment of his wife Regilla, who came from a Roman aristocratic family and moved to Greece to live with her husband.

Herodes allegedly had one of his freedmen beat Regilla to death when she was eight months pregnant. Regilla’s brother had Herodes Atticus brought to trial for murder before Marcus Aurelius (now emperor), who exonerated his former tutor.

Herodes Atticus ostentatiously displayed his grief for Regilla by erecting monuments in her memory, a move long suspected of covering up his complicity in her murder. Even today visitors can still enjoy concerts in the theatre on the side of the Acropolis that he constructed either out of grief or guilt.

Modern day Attici, shocked at their hero’s fall from grace in Go Set a Watchman, can perhaps take some comfort in the ancient history of their Latin name. Romans continued to be called Atticus, even after the murderous and criminal actions of Herodes Atticus.

Parents anxious to distance their children from the views of the new Atticus Finch can instead claim that they chose the name based on its original Roman connotations of culture and sophistication.

Or perhaps they should not worry too much: after all, it is our values, character and deeds that really define who we are, not our names.

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