Child’s Play in Ancient Rome

Although childhood in ancient Rome did not last as long as it does for most kids today, ancient Roman children enjoyed similar toys and games. Boys played with wooden horses, soldiers, and swords. Girls had dolls made of rags, wood, or bone. Some of the dolls had arms and legs that moved. Both girls and boys played with kites and jump ropes. Some even had their own swings. Obviously, children from richer families could afford better toys; however, poorer children used their imaginations to create toys. For example, a tree branch could be substituted for a sword.

Like kids today, ancient Roman children enjoyed a variety of games. The Romans had a board game similar to our game of checkers. Children also played hide-and-seek, tag, and blind man’s bluff. One popular game, called knucklebones, was played with the anklebones of goats and may have resembled jacks.  Ancient Roman children also pretended to be grown-ups and dressed up like adults. They pretended to be judges, kings, and gladiators. When the famous Roman Cato was a boy he became upset while playing Law Courts and insisted on rescuing his friend who was playing the prisoner.

Children in ancient Rome also played sports, although the competition and expectations were higher for boys who could one day be soldiers. Kids played ball games and went swimming. The boys were expected to master hunting, wrestling, and sword fighting. These tasks were part of a boy’s education, which started from boyhood and lasted until age seventeen, when boys could enter the military.

Childhood ended early for boys and girls in ancient Rome. When a girl was barely a teenager, sometimes as young as twelve, she got married and gave away her toys. This act signified that she was an adult. Boys were considered adults a bit later, usually at sixteen. A boy left his childhood purple toga on the altar at his parent’s home and put on a white toga, which meant he was now a man. Unlike the girls whose only coming of age celebration was their wedding, parents often threw parties for sons when they became adults. The new Roman men and women were expected to complete their prescribed roles: for the men, this meant starting a career while women were to become dutiful wives and mothers.

Going to School in Ancient Rome

Did you ever think your teacher was difficult to please? Children in ancient Rome often had very strict teachers. Roman boys and girls attended elementary school when they were six or seven, if their parents could afford the school fee. The teacher, known as a magister or grammaticus, taught the children basic reading, writing, and math in two languages–Greek and Latin.

Teachers in ancient Rome sometimes made learning very complicated. For example, the teacher would say the letters of the alphabet aloud without showing students what the letters looked like. As a result, learning to write took a long time because students did not know the shape of the letters.

In addition to mastering two languages, Roman children had to behave themselves. Since there was no principal’s office to send a disobedient student to, teachers would physically punish students. The famous Roman Augustine still had nightmares as an adult about the beatings he received for playing ball during lessons.

School days lasted from dawn until noon without a break. Students did have a summer vacation and didn’t attend school on certain festival days. They also had every eighth day off, which was known as market day. Since many “schools” met in small groups outdoors, it would have been impossible to hear lessons on a busy market day.

Only boys went to the ancient Roman version of high school. By the age of twelve, girls left school to learn how to run a household before they married. In the next couple of years, Roman boys learned grammar and studied literature in Greek and Latin. Other subjects like history and geometry were considered less important and science was rarely studied.

Since teachers expected to receive a fee from the students’ parents, not all Roman children had access to education. Some were lucky enough to have household members who knew how to read and they taught the children what they knew. Many children whose parents did not have money or were slaves, however, remained illiterate.