The use of surnames was only needed as populations grew and groups of people no longer lived in villages where everyone knew each other. That was the situation in ancient Rome, where the population grew to over one million at its height. Surnames in the Eastern Roman Empire were used throughout its history, but became more important as the population of Constantinople grew, particularly by about 1000, but how the surname was chosen or taken was fluid for many years.
Some medieval Byzantines did not use a surname. The father of my heroine, Anna Dalassena, was Alexios “Charon” – known by the sobriquet of Charon because of his ability to send enemy warriors to their death. Otherwise, he had no surname. We have no records of surnames for several emperors who arose from the peasant class, including Basil I, Michael IV, and Michael V.
Anna Dalassena chose to use her grandfather’s surname, Dalassena (the feminine version of Dalassenus) as her surname. Her grandfather’s family had produced many notable generals for the empire, particularly Constantine Dalassenus who was twice named as a possible spouse for the three-times a bride Empress Zoe. Constantine Ducas, Anna Dalassena’s hated nemesis, took his maternal grandfather’s surname of Ducas (from the Latin word, dux, leader). The Ducas family had been part of the Eastern Roman Empire’s leadership for generations but the male line had ended with the execution of a Ducas family rebel in the 10th century. If Constantine and his brother John had not adopted it, the name would have died out.
By the 12th century, having a string of three or four family names that showed off a person’s wide noble connections was common. Or a person might chose a beloved grandparent’s last name. A daughter of the great historian, Anna Comnena, was named Irene and chose her grandmother Irene’s last name, Ducaena (the feminine form of Ducas) as her last name. Maybe she got a bit more in her grandmother’s will after doing that?
First name conventions seemed to follow certain patterns as well. Boys’ names were from their paternal grandfather, paternal uncles, maternal grandfather, maternal uncles, other male relations. A boy child might be named after his father if the family ran out of other male relatives. Constantine X Ducas finally named his third son after himself after first having a Michael (possibly named after his maternal uncle, the Patriarch Michael Keroularios) and an Andronikos (named after Constantine X’s father).
There are three men in the history books named Nikephoros Bryennios (all three of whom had notable interactions with the Comneni, as I mentioned in an earlier blog). My guess is that the first Nikephoros Bryennios (blinded when caught rebelling against Michael VI) was the grandfather of the third one who married Anna Comnena about 60 years later, while the second one was likely a nephew of the first one, and so a second cousin of the third one.
Girls names probably followed a similar pattern, chosen to remember mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. However, since the names of many women never made it into the history books, that is less clear.