What happened to the numerous (patrician) families of Rome?

Like the Gens Julia for example.

There are no ancestors today leading back to them like for example the famous Medici family from renaissance Italy. I can't think of any Roman "last names" still in use.

What happened?

  • 1
    I would think this question is too broad if you could narrow it down to a specific family that would be helpful and maybe even a question for genealogy.SE if refined significantly. There has also been discussions over there that basically says you are likely related to someone this far back in some way if you try hard enough. I personally know someone with a last name of Julia as well..
    – CRSouser
    Dec 12, 2014 at 11:57
  • Maybe it is a broad question, but I mean if something caused their dissapearance from history. Surely the end of the Western Roman Empire couldn't be the end of all families? Like the Gens Julia, Junia, Cornelia etc. Or did their power really just fade and did their lines die out?
    – Twan
    Dec 12, 2014 at 12:21
  • First, is there any evidence that the gens have vanished, or is this just your recollection? Second, are there other family names that have survived, or is it simply natural that a family name would vanish after a thousand generations/intermarriages and the dissolution of the political unit in which they had meaning? Third, the gens were institutions within Roman society/government; once that society and that government vanished, what would be the point of perpetrating the gens?
    – MCW
    Dec 12, 2014 at 12:34
  • Julius is an extant family name in modern Europe. I have no idea whether they could be traced to Ancient Rome, though.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 12, 2014 at 13:14
  • Not to Julius Caesar. His line died out with his daughter.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 12, 2014 at 18:06

7 Answers 7


The wikipedia page on gens notes that

Although both the concept of the gens and of the patriciate survived well into imperial times, both gradually lost most of their significance. In the final centuries of the Western Empire, patricius was used primarily as an individual title, rather than a class to which an entire family belonged.

The gens originally held a governance function, then that governance function was absorbed into Roman governance. After the Imperial period, the functions were no longer relevant. There was no reason to maintain the lineage, and the "notable families" bred back into the general populace.

With respect to Latin surnames, I don't have any data on the distribution of surnames, so I don't know if Latin surnames are under-represented. If I were to hazard a guess, I suspect that after the fall of Rome, the prestige of a Latin surname vanished, and I would expect that today Latin surnames are probably similar to other ethnic surnames in distribution - but that is merely a hypothesis and I don't have data to test it.

Update: Even when Rome controlled Europe, only a minority of the population would have had a nomen. I cannot cite a source, but I believe that the majority of nomen were from the Urban Tribes, and therefore would not have been "notable". The governor of a province and his staff probably had patrician nomen; the inhabitants of the province probably did not. Again, a hypothesis, but I would be surprised to find surnames derived from nomen anywhere other than Italy, Byzantium and possibly Spain/Portugal.

  • Thank you for your answer. Do you know why it is that nowadays there are almost no latin last names?
    – Twan
    Dec 12, 2014 at 12:49
  • Alright, thank you for answering. I found it weird that there is so little Latin in modern names (citation needed). While Rome controlled a big part of the known world for centuries.
    – Twan
    Dec 12, 2014 at 13:21
  • What do you mean by saying that the notable families "bred back into the general populace"? I find it difficult to imagine daughters of consuls and praetors marrying into grocers' families. Jan 23, 2015 at 15:32
  • @Felix Goldberg: That perhaps speaks more to your lack of imagination than anything. Consider for instance the practice, during the last century or so, of impoverished European aristocrats marrying wealthy commoners. Or the wife of the current second in line to the British throne.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 23, 2015 at 20:18
  • @jamesqf Thanks for the compliment. More to the point, perhaps you'd care to notice that I objected to the notion of ""bre[e]d[ing] back into the general populace" (my emphasis). Your examples of nouveaux riches picking up marriage alliances with the genteel poor are of the opposite kind - in this case it is the rich newcomers who are esentially blending into the old aristocracy, "rejuvenating" it in the process. Roman history is of course full of this but this is not what Mark asserted at all. Jan 23, 2015 at 22:00

According to the historical records of the Cornaro / Cornèr family of Venice, they have their ancestral ground from gens Cornelia, via the city of Rimini.

Here are links for Wikipedia (Italian version is more informative) and The Art of Living Long from Louis Cornaro, William Temple the family can derive themselves back into Middle ages so Cornaro / Cornèr family could be good candidate to an old Roman family surviving the Dark ages after Roman Empire.

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    Welcome to Histroy SE, a link would be appreciated since wiki on Corner family goes back only to 13th century. With a source this answer definitely would worth more Mar 1, 2015 at 7:55
  • yes of course, wikipedia come in handy: it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corner_(famiglia) and: books.google.se/… Mar 2, 2015 at 6:58
  • 1
    Please review your answer, on the links (brief look) it seems these families are indeed old, but they can't derive themselves to Roman times. I will edit your answer adding these links, they might lead somewhere. Mar 2, 2015 at 7:43
  • please feel free to edit your answer further if you find it inaccurate Mar 2, 2015 at 7:48

The main issue with sustaining a 'line' is that without modern medicine, a decent fraction of marriages will not result in children. This ends that gens right there.

If you have children, they may die before reaching the age to marry. In ancient times, child mortality was high, something in the 30-50 percent range. Wealthy families might do a little better, but not a lot.

Having a taste for large families helps the odds. However, rich Romans in the Republic usually restricted themselves to 1 or 2 sons, in order to not divide the estate so the son could have enough wealth for politics. This put their gens in the "risky" category.

An added risk for powerful, influential families was proscriptions and political murder during the Civil Wars and Imperial age under paranoid emperors. Entire families could and were wiped out that way.

Roman families didn't last long. The Julius Caesares died with Caesar. His adopted nephew's line ended with him. The last known person with even a remote link to Augustus by blood was the Emperor Nero.


Basically, they petered out and were replaced by new families who in some instances gratuitously grafted old illustrious names to theirs. This process took place a number of times.

For example, according to one estimate, by 69 CE only 2% of the senators had republican patrician ancestry. And that was before the large influx of provincials into the aristocracy.

Another thing to bear in mind is that under Roman law a new citizen (a freedman or a foreigner) took the nomen of the Roman who had sponsored his enfranchisement. So, for example, practically all Gallo-Romans were named Julius Somethingus.

And finally, modern surnames have practically nothing to do with all this.

  • Does that stat imply that the republican patrician families had died out or just that the membership of the Senate had shifted away from the Republican elite?
    – two sheds
    Jan 23, 2015 at 16:40
  • @twosheds Died out. Jan 23, 2015 at 17:08

Over the centuries the original Latin gens were diluted. Even in late Roman times such names were not common.

In many cases Latin families married into the families of leaders of barbarians and their name was lost as a surname. Latin names do tend to persist as first names, however, indicating the continuation of their cultural heritage. For example, the names Julius/Julia and Cornelius/Cornelia are Latin names common in everyday families.

Latin surnames have survived sporadically. For example, there is one guy in the United States with the last name of Chrysogonus, one of the Cornelian gens. It is possible that many old Latin names exist in mutated form. For example, the common upper class Italian name, Schiapelli, may be derived from Scipio, another Cornelian gens. Due to the use of different dialects and languages in Italy old names have in some cases undergone considerable alterations.

  • I doubt Cornelius Chrysogonus formed a long line reaching to the present day, since he was a freed slave of Sulla's and pretty quickly put to death for corruption. These are almost certainly names taken up by personages much later rather than a blood tie.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 12, 2014 at 18:19
  • Well, there were a lot of people named Chrysogonus, although that may be because of Greeks with that name, or descendants of the Cornellian Chrysogonus, its hard to know. Dec 12, 2014 at 18:28
  • @Oldcat Chrysogonus was not executed - at least there is no ancient source claiming so. Jan 23, 2015 at 15:43

My understanding is that some of the prominent Western Roman families that were possible lineal descendants of these families migrated to Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire as the Western Roman Empire fell. Others stayed behind in other areas of Italy.

The ones who migrated probably intermarried, and were integrated into the elite families of the Eastern Roman Empire aka Byzantine Empire.

After the fall of Constantinople the surviving refugees fled to Italy, and others stayed behind as the Phanariotes under the Ottoman Empire


Descendants of those families are still here under different names. I think everyone will agree that there was a very big cultural shift in Europe during the decline and then fall of the western empire, so much of a shift that Latin died as spoken language.

With the cultural stance switching to the local cultures, a powerful family would attain local titles and create a new regime based on local rule. As in England, France and the H.R.E., people became known by their jobs or by the places they lived or governed. The wealthy heads of the great houses, I'm sure, did what they could to maintain their status and as such became big fat targets for every warlord and chieftain looking for loot or to legitimize their own seat. War is expensive, children at the time not so much so many children were wed into local houses to ensure peace.

So to finally get to the point, many prominent houses of today like the house of Hapsburg-Lothringen do descend from Roman Patricians, if Vatican records can be believed.

  • 1
    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Oct 25, 2017 at 18:54

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