What I mean by the titles is: Alexander "the Great", Julian "the Apostate", Henry "the Navigator" and so on. Do such important figures choose titles for themselves? Or do the subjects or historians unanimously choose them? (To me, at least people unanimously choosing the same title sounds unlikely). Also, what is the specific term for such titles?

Note: I can't think of any relevant tag for this question, nor can I create new tags because of low reputation. If someone can think of appropriate tags, please add them.

  • I retagged - hope you agree. Aug 18, 2014 at 6:03

1 Answer 1


Historians and the general public choose it. The term for these names are epithets. Specifically, the ones you mentioned are cognomens, since they go behind (or before) the given name. In contrast, a sobriquet replaces the proper name altoghther.

Like us normal people, important figures do not generally get to choose their own nicknames. Instead, it is usually invented by someone else and then bestowed on them. Some of these caught on, so to speak, and continues to be known today; though many have since vanished from public consciousness.

One way this happens is that a chronicler or historian created a nickname in their writings. For example, Infante Henrique of Portugal was styled"the navigator" in the writings of 19th century German historians, Heinrich Schaefer and Gustav de Veer. This nickname was then popularised by the British writers Henry Major and Raymond Beazley, becoming standard outside of Portugal.

Sometimes the nickname was bestowed out of political motivations. For example, Julian the Apostate received his epithet from the early Christian Church for abandoning Christianity. William the Wicked, a relatively benevolent king, seemed to have been a victim of his biased chronicler's hatred.

Alexander the Great may have gotten his epithet from the Romans, who slowly came to appreciate his achievements.

It took a long time before Alexander's greatness really came home to the Romans, although they were the people who, as far as we can tell, gave him the epithet 'the Great', and it took even longer before he made an impact on individual Romans. The earliest record we have of Alexander is in Plautus' Mostellaria, 775-7, where the slave Tranio brackets him with Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse: Alexandrum magnum atque Agathoclem aiunt maxumas

- Den Hengst, Danièel. Emperors and Historiography: Collected Essays on the Literature of the Roman Empire by Danièel Den Hengst. Vol. 319. Brill, 2010.

So in conclusion, the general public chooses these nicknames. But this does not have to be unanimous at all. In fact, some times people have multiple nicknames. For example, Louis XI of France has been called both "the Prudent" as well as "the Cunning", after his tight spending and intrigues, respectively.

  • 1
    And don't forget Vlad the impaler, who got it for his tendency to (you guessed it) impale his prisoners on wooden stakes.
    – jwenting
    Aug 18, 2014 at 7:05
  • Here is another example: history.stackexchange.com/questions/8867/… Aug 18, 2014 at 10:35
  • Actually, I'm now curious (yet not enough to switch to wiki) was Pliny the Elder an elder brother? son? or none at all?
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 18, 2014 at 22:04
  • @CGCampbell he was the uncle of Pliny the younger, sometimes just called Pliny.
    – Jeroen K
    Aug 18, 2014 at 23:32

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