How Did Surnames Work in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, surnames did not exist in the same way they do today. Instead, individuals were typically known by their given name and their father’s name. This system of naming is known as patronymics, where a person’s name includes their father’s name as a way to identify their lineage and family heritage.

The Structure of Ancient Greek Names

Ancient Greek names were typically composed of three parts: the given name (or personal name), the patronymic (derived from the father’s name), and sometimes an additional epithet or descriptive term.

For example, if a man named Nikolas had a father named Alexandros, his full name would be “Nikolas Alexandrou.” In this case, “Nikolas” is the given name and “Alexandrou” is the patronymic derived from his father’s name.

Use of Epithets

In some cases, individuals were also identified by additional descriptive terms or epithets. These epithets could refer to a person’s occupation, physical characteristics, or even their place of origin.

For instance, if Nikolas was known for his exceptional strength, he might be referred to as “Nikolas Megalos,” which means “Nikolas the Strong.” Similarly, if he hailed from Athens, he could be called “Nikolas Athenaios,” meaning “Nikolas from Athens.”

The Importance of Lineage

In ancient Greece, lineage played a significant role in society. Knowing someone’s family background was essential for establishing social status and determining one’s place in society.

By using patronymics as part of their names, individuals were able to trace their lineage back through several generations. This lineage was particularly important for those holding positions of power or influence, as it legitimized their authority and provided a sense of heritage.

Changing Naming Practices

It’s worth noting that naming practices in ancient Greece were not static and evolved over time. While patronymics were the most common method of identification, other factors such as regional customs and personal preferences could also influence how individuals were named.

In later periods, as societies became more complex and interconnected, people began adopting additional surnames based on their occupation or place of residence. These secondary surnames often indicated a person’s profession or the region they belonged to.


In conclusion, surnames as we know them today did not exist in ancient Greece. Instead, individuals were identified by their given name and their father’s name, using patronymics to establish lineage and family ties.

The use of additional epithets further helped differentiate individuals with similar names. Understanding these naming practices provides valuable insight into the social structure and cultural traditions of ancient Greek society.