Shakespeare’s Juliette asked the question: “What’s in a name?” While her answer is pure poetry, names actually tell us a great deal about the person named.
In ancient Rome, most nobles had three names (the ‘tria nomina’), for example, Gaius Julius Caesar. First names were limited to a few, such as Gaius, Marcus, Lucius, and Titus. Unlike in our era, the family name is in the middle, so Gaius Julius Caesar is of the Julii clan. Nicknames were usually in the third position. They were given for interesting or distinguishing bodily features, such as ‘Caesar’, which comes from the Latin word “caesaries” meaning luxuriant hair (here, a family nickname, because both Caesar’s father and grandfather were so named), or for feats accomplished, like Scipio who, by defeating Hannibal conquered Africa, became Scipio Africanus.
Pontius is a distinguished Samnite family name. The Samnite people were a fierce, hardy, and very proud mountain tribe (the modern Abruzzo region). They resisted Rome in several wars. In the Social Wars of 90-88 BC, they were the last holdouts of all the allies. Gavius Pontius, a probable ancestor of Pilate, defeated the Romans at the Battle of Caudine Forks in 321 BC. Reinforcing this view of Pilate as a Samnite is an old tradition of Pilate being born in the town of Bisenti, which dates from Samnite times.
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