Cornelia (gens)

House of Cornelius Rufus, Pompeii

The gens Cornelia was one of the most distinguished Roman gentes, and produced a greater number of illustrious men than any other house at Rome. The first of this gens to achieve the consulship was Servius Cornelius Cossus Maluginensis, who held that office in 485 BC.[1]

The gens was a major contributor to the highest offices of the Republic, and contested for consulships with the Fabii and the Valerii from the third century BC. Over thirty percent of all consulships were held by men from this gens; several great commanders also came from this family.


The origin of the Cornelii is lost to history, but the nomen Cornelius may be formed from the hypothetical cognomen Corneus, meaning "horny", that is, having thick or callused skin. The existence of such a cognomen in early times may be inferred from its diminutive, Corneolus.[2]

Another possibility is that the name is related to the surname Cossus, used by the most ancient branch of the gens. Cossus may be an archaic praenomen used by the ancestors of the Cornelii, which was subsequently used as a cognomen by the family. A similar instance is found in the patrician Furia gens, originally Fusia, which was evidently derived from the archaic praenomen Fusus. That gens later used Fusus as a cognomen, just as the Cornelii did with Cossus. Long after that branch of the family had disappeared, Cossus was revived as a praenomen by the later Cornelii.[1]


The Cornelii employed a wide variety of praenomina, although individual families tended to favor certain names and avoid others. Servius (abbreviated Ser.), Lucius (L.), Publius (P.), Gnaeus (Cn.), and Marcus (M.) were common to most branches. Aulus (A.) was used by the Cornelii Cossi. Gaius (C.) was used by both the Cornelii Cethegi and Lentuli. The praenomen Tiberius (Ti.) also appears once amongst the Lentuli, who later revived the former cognomen Cossus as a praenomen.[1]

In the first century BC, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla named his twin children Faustus (F.) and Fausta, reviving an old praenomen that was regularly used by his descendants over the next two centuries, and making the Cornelii the only patrician family known to have used that name. Sulla's youngest daughter is believed to have been named Postuma, although no other instances of this name amongst the Cornelii are known.[3]

Branches and cognomina

Tombstone of the brothers Gaius and Lucius Cornelius, sons of Gaius

The gens included both patricians and plebeians, but all its great families belonged to the patrician order. The names of the patrician families are Arvina, Blasio, Cethegus, Cinna, Cossus, Dolabella, Lentulus, Maluginensis, Mammula, Merenda, Merula, Rufinus, Scapula, Scipio, Sisenna, and Sulla. The names of the plebeian families are Balbus and Gallus, and we also find various cognomina, as Chrysogonus, Culleolus, Phagita, etc., given to freedmen of this gens. There are also several plebeians mentioned without any surname. Under the Empire the number of cognomina increased considerably.[1]

The most ancient stirpes of the Cornelii bore the cognomina Cossus and Maluginensis. The Cossi and Maluginenses were probably one family originally, for at first both these surnames are united, as for instance, in the case of Servius Cornelius Cossus Maluginensis, consul in 485 BC. Afterwards, however, the Cossi and Maluginenses became two separate families. The Cossi produced many illustrious men in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, but afterwards sunk into oblivion. The last consuls from this stirps bore the surname Arvina. The name Cossus was afterwards revived as a praenomen in the family of the Lentuli, who belonged to the same gens. The Maluginenses last held consular authority in 367 BC.[1]

The Cornelii Scipiones first appear at the beginning of the 4th century BC, with Publius Cornelius Scipio, said to have been magister equitum to the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus in 396 BC. The Capitoline Fasti identify the magister equitum of that year as Publius Cornelius Maluginensis, suggesting that the Scipiones may have originated as a branch of the Maluginenses.[4][5]

The surname Scipio, which signifies a stick or staff, is said to have been originally given to a Cornelius, because he served as a staff in directing his blind father (patrem pro baculo regebat), and to have been handed down by him as a family name to his descendants. This family produced some of the greatest men in Rome, and to them she was more indebted than to any others for the empire of the world. They bore the agnomina Africanus, Asiaticus, Asina, Barbatus, Calvus, Hispallus, Nasica, and Serapio. With the additional cognomen Orfitus, the family remained prominent until the second century AD[1][6]

Lentulus was the name of one of the haughtiest families of the Cornelian gens; so that Cicero coins the words Appietas and Lentulitas to express the qualities of the high patrician party. When we find plebeians bearing the name (as tribunes of the plebs), they were no doubt descendants of freedmen. Lentulus was said to be derived from lens, a lentil, much as Cicero is said to be derived from cicer, a chickpea. However, the Latin adjective lentulus means "slow". The Lentuli first appear in history at the time of the Gallic sack of Rome, early in the fourth century BC, and from that time remained prominent until the first century AD. They bore the agnomina Caudinus, Clodianus, Crus, Gaetulicus, Lupus, Maluginensis, Marcellinus, Niger, Rufinus, Scipio, Spinther, and Sura.[1][7][8]

The Cornelii Rufini appear in the latter half of the fourth century BC, beginning with Publius Cornelius Rufinus, dictator in 334 BC. From the surname Rufinus, meaning "reddish", one may infer that the first of this family had red hair. A descendant of this family was the first to assume the cognomen Sulla, about the time of the Second Punic War. The name is probably a diminutive of Sura, a cognomen found in several gentes, including among the Cornelii Lentuli. Plutarch, who erroneously believed that the dictator Sulla was the first to bear the name, thought it must have referred to a blotchy, reddish complexion, while Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius derives it from Sibylla, an etymology that is rejected by Quintilian. The Sullae continued in the highest offices of the state well into imperial times. Some of them bore the agnomen Felix.[1][9][10]

The Dolabellae first came to prominence at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, and so remained until the second half of the first century AD. The Cornelii Blasiones flourished for about a century, beginning in the early third century BC. The Cethegi, who first appear in the latter half of the third century BC, were described by Quintus Horatius Flaccus as cinctuti Cethegi, for their old-fashioned practice of wearing their arms bare. They remained prominent for the next two centuries.[1][11]

Merula signifies an ouzle, or blackbird. The family that bore this surname rose from obscurity at the beginning of the 2nd century BC., and continued for the next century. The Cornelii Cinnae flourished from the late 2nd century BC to the early decades of the Empire.[1]

The Cornelii Balbi were, properly speaking, no part of the Cornelia gens. The first of this name was not a Roman; he was a native of Gades; and his original name probably bore some resemblance to the Latin Balbus. Gaius Cornelius Gallus, the poet, and later prefect of Egypt, was evidently of Gallic descent, coming as a young man from the town of Forum Julii, and presumably manumitted by one of the Cornelii Cinnae or Sullae. None of his descendants achieved any prominence.[1]

Over 30% of all the consuls of the republican period of ancient Rome were Cornelians. The notable men and women of the Cornelii family are listed separately, below.


This list includes abbreviated praenomina. For an explanation of this practice, see filiation.

Cornelii Maluginenses

Cornelii Cossi

Cornelii Scipiones

Cornelii Lentuli

Cornelii Rufini et Sullae

Cornelii Dolabellae

Cornelii Blasiones

Cornelii Cethegi

Cornelii Merulae

Cornelii Cinnae

Cornelii Balbi

Other Cornelii during the Republic

Other Cornelii of Imperial Times

See also


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  2. George Davis Chase, "The Origin of Roman Praenomina", in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. VIII (1897).
  3. Mika Kajava, Roman Female Praenomina: Studies in the Nomenclature of Roman Women (1994).
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  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Fasti Capitolini
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  8. Gaius Plinius Secundus, Naturalis Historia xviii. 3.
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  11. Horace, Ars Poëtica 50.
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  17. Diodorus Siculus, xii. 53.
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  26. Valerius Maximus, Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX vi. 3. § 3.
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  28. 1 2 Münzer, "Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families" p. 282.
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 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1870). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 

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