Games and toys in the Greco-Roman world

Play in the formative process of Greek and Roman children

MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

For Greek and Roman children, play was considered a fundamental aspect of the formative process and was imbued with both educational and religious values. 

Games and toys prepared for life in the community, in a path in stages marked by a series of rites and moments of public and private passage, of which significant archaeological traces are preserved both in sanctuaries and in burials.

Feeding bottle (Second quarter of the 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The first toys

The first toy was usually given to the newborn child at the moment of his or her acknowledgement by the father, as part of the purification ceremonies that took place a few days after birth.

During early childhood, moreover, mothers consecrated certain toys in the context of special cults linked to the care and protection of children, who were subject to a high mortality rate during the first years of life.

In the grave goods of younger individuals, feeding bottles with a globular body, a wide mouth for filling with liquid and a spout for suckling are very common.

Feeding bottle - A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The feeding bottles

Some feeding bottles, moulded into particular shapes and covered on the outside with bright colours, were like actual toys, designed to entertain the infant, encourage them to eat and at the same time maintain their interest through noise.

Feeding bottle - B sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Indeed, a small stone or earthenware ball was often placed inside the bottles, which made it possible to generate rattling noises when the objects were shaken. 

Feeding bottle - side viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

It is not surprising that Aristotle attributes the invention of a sonorous toy known as platagè – similar to a cog rattle or crotales – to the Pythagorean Archita, a famous philosopher and politician from Taranto who lived in the 4th century BC.
Indeed, the Pythagoreans recognised that music played a central role in education from early childhood.

Rattles (4th-3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The rattles

Terracotta rattles, made of metal or wood, are frequently found in children's tombs and in sanctuaries dedicated to deities protecting motherhood and early childhood, as an offering of consecration and presentation of children to the deity.

This is perhaps the case of the rattles in the shape of a wild boar and a rooster, dated to the 4th or the 3rd centuries BC, discovered in 1976-1977 at the Sanctuary of the Sorgente di Saturo (Leporano, TA). 

Rattle in the shape of a cradle (1st century BC - 1st century AD)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The terracotta rattles were in the shape of pigs, boar, cattle, tortoises, deer, owls, sheep and goats, but there were also figures of newborn babies in cradles.

An example is the rattle, dated to the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, found in Taranto in Contrada S. Lucia in 1885.

Figured terracotta (4th-3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Animals as playmates

The terracotta models of birds, cockerels and dogs show that domestic animals were the favourite companions of children. 

Figured terracottas (First twenty years of the 5th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Such toys could also be mounted on wheels or have moving parts and holes drilled through them for threading cords. 

Mould (Last thirty years of the 4th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

In most cases these were inexpensive products, made in series using a mould. 

Figured terracotta (2nd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Carts as games

Carts were also widely attested toys, from very simple forms, consisting of a long stick with a handle attached to two wheels that could be pushed or pulled, to more complex forms with seats inside small wagons. 

Apulian red-figured goblet krater (About 400 BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Toys for older children: the girls

Older children were given toys to facilitate their entry into adult society by encouraging emulation, enabling girls to prepare for their role as wives and mothers and boys as citizens and warriors.

On the eve of their weddings, as rites of passage from the world of childhood, young girls offered their dolls to gods such as Artemis or Aphrodite, sometimes in association with a lock of hair, a ball or musical instruments.

Miniature bone crotale (350-325 BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The musical instruments as games

The musical instruments include the krotala (crotales), consisting of three small, slightly flared square bone plates, attached to a handle that allowed them to be struck against each other.

Doll - front viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Their shape and the possibility of creating miniature versions made them particularly suitable for children.

Doll Doll (4th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The terracotta dolls

The terracotta dolls portrayed young girls with adult features and physique, often wearing jewellery. The torso and head were fixed, while the upper and lower limbs were often movable.

Miniature basin (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Miniature crockery set

A miniature crockery set, evoking the sphere of women and children, was perhaps intended as a toy, but may in fact have had a religious or ritual value. 

Miniature jug (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Miniature situla (Late 4th-early 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Terracotta doll and tower (1st century AD)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Toys for older children: the boys

Children were often given toys that recalled the theme of war. An example of this is the small doll with jointed limbs and the terracotta tower found in Via G. Cugini ang. via Leonida in Taranto in 2005, dated to the 1st century AD.

The face and the coloured limbs of the doll suggests that it originally wore cloth or leather garments, while the presence of holes on the base of the tower and on some of the battlements suggests the existence of interlocking decorative elements.

Figured terracotta - side viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The  gladiators

The two polychromatic terracotta gladiators found in Taranto belonged to sets of grave goods. This represents a distinctive aspect of Roman culture, which first coexisted with Greek culture in Taranto and then superseded it during the 1st century BC. 

Find (1st century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Although the lack of weapons, which have not been preserved, hinders identification, on the basis of the surviving elements, the two subjects could be identified  as a Thracian, and a Murmillo.

Terracotta statuary (2nd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Ephedrismos

Ephedrismos (riding piggyback) was a game that older children could play in groups. Pollux, an erudite scholar of the 2nd century AD, sets out the rules in his Onomasticon.

A stone was placed on the ground and the players tried to hit it with a ball or other stones; the winner would be carried on the shoulders of the loser, until the latter, with his eyes closed, reached the stone.

Talus - detailMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Astragali

Astragali, small bones located in the tarsus of a sheep, were also frequently used for those “throwing games”. They were used in tropa (hole-game), omilla (literally “in the circle”), pentelitha (literally “five stones”), artiasmós (even and odd) and pleistobolinda (the game of the highest throw”).

Talus (small bones located in the tarsus of sheep)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

However, astragali were also used by adults in games of dexterity, often enlivened by betting, as recorded by authors such as Martial and Plautus. Gambling is probably the reason why in Rome, in the 2nd century AD, a censorial edict forbade the game of astragali, except during the festivals dedicated to Saturn.

Mould - front viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The astragali players

The popularity of the game of astragali is reflected in the numerous representations of astragalizontes (male players) and astragalizousai (female players), of which numerous examples are preserved. 

The representations mostly show the subjects crouching on the ground in the act of throwing the astragali: an example is the mould used to make statuettes of a kneeling girl in the moment of play.

Mould - back viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

On the back of the artefact, dated to the late 4th-early 3rd century BC, one can still make out the drawing of a face in profile and three letters (HPA), possibly referring to the craftsman, engraved before firing.

Astragali (1st century AD)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Talus with erotic scenes

Astragali could also be inscribed or bear figurative scenes; artificial astragali made of glass, stone and metal are also attested. 

Talus (1st century AD)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

In addition to games, these objects were also used in astragalomantic practices, divinatory and oracular consultations linked to rituals, the worship of specific deities or mystery cults.

Dice (Second half of the 1st century AD)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Dice and gaming pieces

The technical difficulties of these games probably led to their abandonment in favour of classical dice; as in today's games, the sum of the values marked on the opposite faces was equal to 7. There is also evidence of loaded or modified dice.

Astragali, dice, gaming pieces - full viewMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Dice made of bone, or more rarely of ivory, are often found in association with gaming pieces (counters, tokens, tiles) made of stone, vitreous paste and shell, in a wide variety of assemblages.

Astragali, dice, gaming pieces - gaming piecesMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Counters and tiles were used on the so-called tabulae lusoriae, game boards, which were found both in private and public spaces, showing that the game was not only entertainment, but also a social activity.

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