my last name

I would like to know how far back I could trace my genealogy through my last name. In other words, when did people start using last names. Here are some examples from history. Were these true last names as we know them? Did their offspring keep these last names?
Christopher Columbus (500 years ago)
Roger Bacon (800 years ago)
Pepin the Short (1300 years ago)
What about Julius Caesar? (2100 years ago)
I suppose its different around the world and that many cultures do not follow the Western tradition (what’s up with Iceland?) but if I have a Dutch heritage, how far back could I go?

Just to be clear, the preson you’re referring to is Gaius Julius Caesar, where “Julius” is probably what we’d call a last name, although a case might be made for “Caesar” as well. Naming convnetions in Rome were more complex than today.

This cite looks pretty knowledgeable:

Christopher Columbus is an assumed name, his family name was not Columbus.

Are you implying that Pepin the Short’s given, middle and surname were “Pepin,” “[T]he,” and “Short”?

Of course! Just like Smokey the Bear, whose middle name was “the”

(Yes, I know that Park Service People take umbrage at this. Officially, it’s “Smokey Bear”, with no “the”. But I understand he lets his close friends call him “the”)

It would depend on your name, and the culture your ancestors came from; but very likely your name wouldn’t take you back very far.

“Last names” haven’t been particularly stable until rather recently. I know people whose grandparents came from Europe to the United States, and changed their “last name” at that time. But quite possibly the family had no stable “last name” in Europe, either. If they owned land, they might have gone by the name of the farm. Otherwise, they might have been identified as “son of” somebody; Ole Svensson would be Ole the son of Sven, and his son Sven would be Sven Olson, so tracing last names falls apart real fast…

(That, to answer another question you raised, is how Icelandic names work. If your father is Sven, you are “Svensson” if you’re male, “Svensdottir” if you’re female.)

Now, if you’re descended from nobility, you might have a better chance. But very few of our ancestors emigrated because they were doing so well in the old country. Or if your last name is Cohen (or some variant thereof) you at least know that two thousand years ago one of your paternal ancestors could have served in the temple in Jerusalem. But for most of us; good luck.

It could be worse. Latin names were mentioned; as I understand it, if you were born the daughter of a Julius, your name would be Julia. As would the names of all your sisters. No real “name,” in the sense we assume for it; just “Julius’ girl.”

I just threw that one in there. I was more interested that Romans seemed to have a more traditional first name, last name system. This system seemed to die out in the middle ages (ie Pepin the Short), then reappear later as in Christopher Columbus.

Romans also often named their children with numbers, to distinguish them. So Octavius, for instance (better known as Augustus, the Great One) was the eighth kid in his family. And there was a lot of leeway for a cognomen, what we would think of as a nickname, to become a part of a person’s official name, and sometimes even passed down to descendants.