Women Paul wrote to in Rome

Julia (Romans 16:15)

The name, ‘Julia,’ means “downy; soft and tender hair.” I can imagine a mother gently caressing her newborn baby girl, fresh from her bath, fragrant and snuggled into a soft blanket, and thinking, “Her baby hair is as soft and feathery as the goose down I put in our pillows and quilts!”

More importantly, ‘Julia’ is the feminine form of ‘Julius,’ an imperial name, which is intriguing, considering she lived in Rome in 55 A.D. (the writing of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome).

Naming children in the ancient Roman household, held to a long and strong patriarchal tradition. The head of household, in antiquity, was called the paterfamilias, the oldest living male, called “the father of the family.” Today, among mafioso, this sense continues in the one named ‘da capo,’ or ‘da capodecina’ or ‘caporegime.’

The paterfamilias tended to the extended family’s business affairs, property management, social engagements, and even performed religious rites for the family. Paterfamilias held absolute rule. The family was, in a way, an extension of the paterfamilias. Only he owned property—slaves, land, material goods, and so on. He had the legal right to disown his children, sell them into slavery, even kill them under certain circumstances (such as in infancy, if he did not want them).

Sons were important because they would carry on the family name and tradition; they were both the inheritor and the legacy of the paterfamilias. If a family father produce no sons, he typically adopted one from the extended family; sometimes outside the family. As important as they were, though, sons could not own property; their income came as a stipend—called ‘peliculum— from the family father, in order to manage their own households. Sons typically married in their mid-twenties.

Daughters were another matter. Their importance lay chiefly in their ability to produce sons. As a rule, they were married in their early teens. Nevertheless, a materfamilias, did have some influence behind the scenes, and Roman women of high birth were expected to further their husbands' careers by comporting themselves with dignity, modesty, and grace; opening their homes with professional hospitality; and producing, of course, sons.

Sadly, 25% of all babies did not survive past infancy, and up to half of all children died before they reached their tenth year. So, the Roman state created laws to encourage women to keep having children. If a woman was able to successfully give birth to three children (for a slave woman, four children), the Roman government granted her legal independence—meaning she could run her own business and social affairs, and own her own property. That’s quite a carrot!!

All this is important to know, in order to understand a little better who Julia might have been. Typically, a Roman person in the first century A.D. had three names: The praenomen, the nomen, and the cognomen.

Praenomen: Was the true, personal name, chosen by the child’s parents, and given to the child in a special ceremony about a week after the child’s birth. Normally, all the children would have a different praenomen, though a certain protocol was usually followed. The oldest son usually got his father’s name, then the next sons would be named after uncles, or other male ancestors.

Nomen: Identified which “race,” or “family,” or “clan” a person came from—descent from a common ancestor. We might think of it as like a last name today, or a surname.

Cognomen: Was also a personal name, but often added later, as that person’s character traits, personality, or tendencies became more apparent.

Filia: Sometimes, in order to identify more closely with one’s paterfamilias, a name might include the word “filia” and then the paterfamilias’ name—we see this in some other languages today, and recognize the usage in some biblical names, “Jesus, son of Mary,” then, was a not-so-subtle way of saying Jesus had an unknown father.

Slaves and freed persons, by the way, would often have the name of their master in this filia position.

According to one source, daughters were usually not given a praenomina. For one thing, the nomen never changed—so when a woman got married, she kept her nomina. Also, in Latin, names were never neutral, there was a always a feminine and a masculine form of the name. So, for the woman, with a feminized version of her nomina, she would always be distinctive in her family, especially after she married and joined a family with an entirely different nomen.

But, what if more than one daughter was born to (and kept) in a family? She might get a personal praenomen (as Tryphena and Tryphosa did), or she might get a cognomen. Here’s an example,

“If Publius Servilius had two daughters, they would typically be referred to as Servilia Major and Servilia Minor. If there were more daughters, the eldest might be called Servilia Prima or Servilia Maxima; younger daughters as Servilia Secunda, Tertia, Quarta, etc.” [in other words, Servilla the second, Servilla the third, Servilla the fourth, and so on].

So, most Roman women went by their nomen. Sometimes, if she needed more identification, she was known as a particular person’s wife, or daughter.

Now, we get to Julia. Paul greeted her especially, saying,

“Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them.”

Theologians posit Philologus was Julia’s husband, and, in other translations Philologus and Julia are linked with the word “and.” If they were brother and sister, Paul would have greeted them as he did Nereus and his sister. Because Julia’s name is the feminine form of Julius, a name reserved for the imperial family, there is reason to believe Julia also came “from the household of Caesar.” (Philippians 4:22).

All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.