This paper argues that Republican victory cognomina such as Africanus, Macedonicus, and Numidicus were not, as has often been postulated, granted by the senate. Rather, a reexamination of the sources suggests that the generals themselves assumed these names, making nomenclature yet another arena of senatorial competition. While the notion that a senatorial decree was required to add a victory cognomen is generally accepted by modern scholars (Mommsen, Doer, Alföldi, Linderski), my examination of the sources shows that this view is unfounded, and that a different dynamic must be postulated.
Beginning with Theodor Mommsen, modern scholars have proposed that senatorial permission was required to add a new name after a victory. Most recently Jerzy Linderski, using the Fasti Consulares and the cases of Sulla Felix and Servilius Isauricus, argued that an official senate decree was necessary to be granted the right to a victory cognomen. However, as this paper demonstrates, there are several problems with his argument which to a large extent derives ex silentio. I begin by illustrating those problems by reexamining Linderski’s evidence. Then, through a survey of sources ranging from Cicero to Valerius Maximus, I demonstrate that an involvement of the senate is unlikely because this governing body is not mentioned in any ancient source. The only explicit source on the matter is Livy who states that he does not know whether Scipio received his new name from his soldiers, his family and friends, or from the people (30.45.7). Other authors do not directly discuss the acquisition of victory cognomina, but in their accounts the general in question is responsible for his new name. Cicero (Pro Mur. 31) states that it was Scipio himself who appropriated the name Africanus on his own initiative (cognomine ipso prae se ferebat); and Valerius (8.5.6) notes that it was Servilius who added the cognomen Isauricus to the titles of his ancestors (qui maiorum suorum titulis Isaurici cognomen adiecit).
Finally, I situate victory cognomina in the context of senatorial competition. Moving away from Mommsen’s Staatsrecht approach, scholars have demonstrated that mechanisms of commemoration were much more fluid than previously assumed (Walter, Blösel). One example is the censorial law of 158 BCE that ordered the removal of all statues in the forum which had not been dedicated by the senate or the people (Pliny NH 34.30-31). While this law shows that the senate was involved to a certain degree, it also shows that there was ample room for individuals to dedicate statues. Similarly, I argue, it was the individual gens’ decision to adopt victory names. Begun by the Scipiones, this practice was employed by different families to varying degrees. While some families did not employ victory cognomina at all, others, like the Caecilii Metelli, made them part of their symbolic capital. Five of the twelve generals known by their victory cognomina were members of the gens Metella. As Itgenshorst has shown, some gentes preferred a specific type of monument to commemorate victories; the Fabii, for example, continued construction of the Fornix Fabianus for centuries, and the Aemilii seem to have had a preference for porticoes. The Metelli in particular, I propose, used victory names as their distinctive monumental strategy. In this way, the names became monuments in their own right and can be read as such. Like the Hölkeskamps’ Erinnerungsorte, the cognomina offered a way to anchor a general’s legacy in the collective memory of the populus Romanus. They could be inscribed in victory and funerary monuments, into the stemmata in aristocratic atria, and be engraved onto coins.
Victory cognomina, far from being granted by the senate, or simply serving as a means of distinguishing family members, functioned as monuments in their own right. Examining them as such reveals that they were part of senatorial competition and could be employed similarly to other forms of monumentalization.