Today is the Ides of March, the date in which Julius Caesar was killed. Caesar shows up a lot in modern American culture, but if you’ve studied slavery in the Atlantic World, you’ve probably seen the name “Caesar” used to identify enslaved people. In fact, Greco-Roman names were quite common in records of enslaved people in the 17th and 18thcenturies.
So why were enslaved people given Greco-Roman names? Historians offer several potential reasons. One was to show off their Classical education, popular during the Neo-Classical and Enlightenment Eras. Wealthy White men learned Latin and Greek in school, histories of antiquity like Herodotus were popular, and Greek and Roman sculptures were the cornerstones of burgeoning European museums.
Another theory is that giving enslaved people names of Western gods, goddesses, and heroes was done in sarcasm and irony, highlighting the contrast between the enslaved and their vaunted namesakes. For instance, Scipio Africanus was the famous Roman General who conquered Carthage in North Africa. By naming an enslaved man Scipio, his enslaver could emphasize even historical dominance of the African continent.
Additionally, some Classical names were meant to convey characteristics, especially for women. The name Venus, in particular, was designed to assign sexual availability to enslaved women, who were often the targets of sexual violence. Naming an enslaved woman “Venus” after the Roman goddess of love and sex helped an enslaver justify his behavior to himself and his peers.
Several famous enslaved people bore Classical names, including Hercules, the enslaved chef of George Washington, and poet Phillis Wheatley and her enslaved sister Venus. Greco-Roman names of enslaved people were prevalent in New York as well.
In records assigning farms to half-free people in “The Land of the Blacks,” Spanish, Dutch, and English names are common, but the name “Anthony” is among the most common, both as a first and last name.
A different Caesar was a ringleader of the 1741 Insurrection in New York City.
In the Albany fires of 1794, a young enslaved man named Pompey or Pomp was convicted and executed for setting fires, along with Dinah and Bet.
Several people enslaved by the Philipses also bore Classical names. The 1702 will of Frederick Philipse I lists 16 enslaved people, including Hector.
The 1750 probate inventory of Adolph Philipse’s property (he died without a will in 1749), lists 24 people, including a Caesar, a “Kaiser,” and a 2-year-old Caesar (probably the elder Caesar’s son), as well as a Dina.
In the 1751 will of Frederick Philipse II, 37 enslaved people are listed, including Rose’s Ceazar, Phillis, Diana, Cyrus, Cato, Ceazar, and Pompey.
Although Greco-Roman names were popular among enslavers, they were not necessarily popular among the enslaved. Especially in the early years, when most enslaved people were born in Africa, many people already had African names. These names persist among the records of the enslaved, especially “day names,” which were common in Akan culture in West Africa. Day names were given to children born on certain days of the week. For instance, Kojo (Cujo, Cudjoe) was the name for a boy born on Monday. Kweku (Quaw, Quack, Quacko) for a boy born on Wednesday. Kofi (Cuffee, Cuff) for a boy born on Friday. Kwame (Kwami) and Amba, for a boy and girl born on Saturday.
Cuffee and Amba were the names of two Akan people enslaved by Adolph Philipse. Amba was swept up in the 1712 Insurrection trials, but released. Cuffee, with Caesar and Prince, were convicted as ringleaders of the 1741 Conspiracy and executed.
Biblical, English, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese names were also used, and especially in the early days of Dutch New Netherland, many people took their countries or ports of origin as last names, like Anthony Congo or Francisco D’Angola, both of whom settled in “The Land of the Blacks.”
But for many enslaved people, the names given to them by their enslavers represented their bondage, and when they escaped slavery, they also cast off those names.
“Classical Names and Concepts Used in the Service of Slavery” by Susan Wegner, Bowdoin College - Learn more about Greco-Roman naming conventions in the American colonies.
“Naming Culture in the Book of Negroes” by Leah Grandy, Atlantic Loyalist Connections - Learn about the names of Black Loyalists listed in the "Book of Negroes" who left New York for Nova Scotia.
“Othello: what’s in a name?” by Simon P. Newman, Folger Shakespeare Library - Learn how the Shakespearean name Othello was used to describe enslaved people in Britain.
"A Black History of Colonial New York" by Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site - Learn more about the Land of the Blacks, 1712 Insurrection, 1741 Conspiracy, etc.
"Remember Those Enslaved by the Philipse Family" by Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site - Learn more about the individuals enslaved by the Philipses.