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'Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.'

As is well known, Cassius was originally an ancient Roman family name (), but Muhammad Ali, generally considered among the greatest heavyweights in the sport's history, recognized his name as a "slave name".

After some reflection, I began wondering whether naming slaves using names of Roman nobility was common. Was it?

If so, why did slave holders used to name their slaves with the name of the Roman gens?

If not, why did Muhammad Ali affirmed that his name was a "slave name"?

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Perhaps you realised this, but Cassius Clay was not actually born into slavery. His parents would have picked his first name. Its his last name that likely had it origins in the slave era. – T.E.D. Aug 13 '13 at 19:06
Yes, as @T.E.D. points out this seems to be more of a modern political thing: but if you can find more examples, then perhaps we'll have something to go on. – Felix Goldberg Aug 13 '13 at 20:16
I have no references at the moment, but it seems likely that after being freed, former slaves and their descendants chose the names of patricians to emphasize that they were no longer slaves. If so, Mr. Ali may not have been correct - "Cassius" was actually very proud post-slavery name. – user2590 Aug 13 '13 at 22:17
Please isolate a single question. The first and second questions have to do with the practice of slaveholders in pre-civil war America. The third question (about Mr. Ali) is answered by wikipedia and has nothing to do with the first two. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 15 '13 at 11:10
@T.E.D.: Check out Cassius Clay, Kentucky Lion: – Pieter Geerkens Mar 8 at 13:16

3 Answers 3

This is a massive case of historical irony and ignorance or worse from Ali

Muhammad Ali changed his name from what he called his 'slave name' Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam, the religion that sold his ancestors into slavery from Africa. He got his name 'Cassius Clay' because his Christian father was given the name in honor of the Caucasinman who freed his great grand father from slavery (the historical Cassius Clay also got many other slaves free and advanced the rights of African Americans in many areas)

So Cassius Clay was not just a free name, but the name of man who freed his slaves chosen in honour

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-1 You do not answer what the question was, you simply present your views on Muhammad Ali's name change – Rohit Mar 8 at 10:18
I have added two links to articles on the Southern abolitionist Cassius Clay. Senator Henry Clay ( was also an outspoken abolitionist, though he didn't free most of his own slaves until his death. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 8 at 13:13
Ali was glib and intelligent but poorly educated (as was common for inner city blacks of his generation) and manipulated by the Nation of Islam for its own purposes and self interest. They had no reason to be honest with him about the true origin of his name. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 8 at 14:07
@Rohit But he is answering the question because the question stems from a bad premise. OP doesn't give any other examples of slaves with Roman names, so the true answer to this question is where the name 'Cassius' comes from. +1 to this answer. – NobleUplift Mar 13 at 15:28

There was nothing unusual about slaves with classical names. Julius Caesar Chappelle was born into slavery in South Carolina before going on to serve in the MA state legislature. There are slave narratives written by Lucius Henry Holsey and Octavia V. Rogers Albert. This will mentions slaves with the names Caesar, Bacchus, and Pallas, while this will mentions slaves named Cato and Antony. Here's a slave named Augustus and two slaves named Zeno. Thomas Jefferson had a slave named Jupiter. Using the slaves names index, I've confirmed multiple slaves named Julius, Brutus, Pompey, Scipio, Junius, Claudius, Cornelius, and one Remus. Consider that when Joel Chandler Harris named his famous narrator--a kindly, folksy, former slave--Harris chose the name Uncle Remus.

Why name slaves after Roman gods and nobility? Classical names were just much more common in the 19th century: Aside from Cassius Marcellus Clay, we have the politicians Brutus Junius Clay, Julius Caesar Alford, Augustus Porter, Pompey Strickland, Marcus Weyland Beck, Lucius Lyon, Caesar Rodney, Theodorus Bailey, Horace Mann, and Rufus King.

Similarly, we have moguls like Junius Spencer Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt and military men like Horatio Gates, Ulysses S. Grant, and Sylvanus Thayer. And finally, we have the not-so-famous Flavius Josephus Ballou.

Departing from the Roman theme, we have the still-classical Hannibal Hamlin, Cyrus Hamlin, Darius Couch, and Lysander Cutler. Names like Homer, Anthony, and Alexander were also quite popular at the time.

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In fictional works, I remember there was a slave named Jupiter in Poe's The Gold Bug, and there was Calpurnia the housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird (not a slave, but a black woman with a Classical name). – JMVanPelt Aug 15 at 2:30

Cassius Clay was not a name "given" to slaves; it was the name of a famous abolitionist, in whose honor the subject's father was named. The boxer was his son, hence Cassius Clay, Jr.

"Muhammad Ali", as he preferred, considered his birth name a "slave name" because it was the type of name which ex-slaves adopted.

The original Cassius Clay and his brother, Brutus Clay, were prominent citizens of Kentucky named for two of the conspirators who assassinated the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar. These were Gaius Cassius Longinus and his nephew Marcus Junius Brutus. The choice of these names probably reflected a hatred of tyranny and dictatorship on the part of their father, a man named Green Clay.

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