The structure of persons' names has varied across time and geography. In some societies, individuals have been mononymous, receiving only a single name. Alulim, first king of Sumer, is one of the earliest names known; Narmer, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, is another. In addition, Biblical names were typically mononymous, as were names in the surrounding cultures of the Fertile Crescent.
Ancient Greek names also follow the pattern, with epithets (similar to second names) only used subsequently by historians to avoid confusion, as in the case of Zeno the Stoic and Zeno of Elea; likewise, patronymics or other biographic details (such as city of origin, or another city the individual was associated with, borough, occupation) were used to specify whom one was talking about, but these details were not considered part of the name.
A departure from this custom occurred, for example, among the Romans, who by the Republican period and throughout the Imperial period used multiple names: a male citizen's name comprised three parts (this was mostly typical of the upper class, while others would usually have only two names): praenomen (given name), nomen (clan name) and cognomen (family line within the clan) — the nomen and cognomen were almost always hereditary.
Mononyms in other ancient cultures include the Celtic queen Boudica and the Numidian king Jugurtha. However, the historical records of some of these figures are scanty or rely completely on the documentation of those outside the person's culture, so it is possible such figures may have had other names within their own cultures that have since been lost to history.
During the early Middle Ages, mononymity slowly declined, with northern and eastern Europe keeping the tradition longer than the south; an example is Edeko, the East Germanic chieftain whose son ruled Italy as Flavius Odoacer. By the end of the period, surnames had become commonplace: Edmund Ironside, for example, ruled England (although Ironside was an epithet added later in life), Brian Boru was High King of Ireland, Kenneth MacAlpin had united Scotland, and even in Scandinavia surnames were taking hold. The Dutch Renaissance scholar and theologian Erasmus is a late example of mononymity; though sometimes referred to as "Desiderius Erasmus" or "Erasmus of Rotterdam", he was christened only as "Erasmus", after the martyr Erasmus of Formiae.