Roman Children at Play:
Constructions of Gender and Status in Roman Childhood

Fanny Dolansky (University of Chicago)

Drawing primarily on evidence from the material record, this paper will explore children’s play as an arena for the construction of gender and the crystallization of social status in Roman society.  In particular, it will focus on two groups of toys – horse rider figures and dolls – artifacts that seem especially promising for the relationship between children’s play and the formation of gender and status identities.   Play is an important part of childhood, fundamental to physiological, psychological, and social development.  Through play, much valuable learning may take place about a child’s immediate environment – and the world beyond.  Status and gender concerns permeated all aspects of Roman life (social, political, religious, and economic) – and we should expect the world of the child to be no different.  As Jeffrey Goldstein, editor of Toys, play, and child development (1994:2), asserts, ‘play does not occur in a vacuum,’ but reflects important experiences and relationships in children’s lives, functioning as ‘a mirror of social life.’ 

Children’s play generally, and its associations with gender and status specifically, have received relatively little attention from scholars of Roman childhood.  One exception is a study by Leslie Shumka (1993), which catalogues and analyzes literary and material evidence for Roman toys and games.  Shumka addresses some of the same issues that concern this paper, but both her approach and particular interests regarding questions of gender and status differ from mine.  In other studies of Roman childhood, however, modern western assumptions and androcentric biases have influenced some scholars’ interpretations of the ancient evidence, for instance in the works of Jean-Pierre Néraudau (1984) and Thomas Wiedemann (1989), leading them to overlook or omit from the historical record significant factors and agents in children’s lives.  They consider children not merely as silent participants in history, but assume they were passive participants as well, historical objects rather than agents.  Yet as Joanna Derevenski (1997:194), a feminist archaeologist, insists of children’s roles in past cultures,  ‘[c]hildren can be regarded as learners and practisers of gender’ (and social status too I would argue), actively contributing to the world in which they lived, whether as children of the elite or their freed and slave playmates.  It is the contention of this paper that an examination of toys and play that is more sensitive to issues of gender and status will yield a better understanding of Roman childhood and a more accurate picture overall.  Insights from the fields of gender studies, feminist archaeology, and child development further inform this analysis.  They reveal the need to question the applicability of traditional gender stereotypes, to check the impulse to associate automatically dolls with girls and action figures with boys, and to reevaluate Roman toys as social artifacts that simultaneously existed and operated as mediators of gender and status within the arena of children’s play. 

  • Derevenski, J. 1997. ‘Engendering children, engendering archaeology.’ In J. Moore and E. Scott (eds.), Invisible Peoples and Processes. London.  192-202.
  • Goldstein, J. 1994. ‘Introduction.’ In J. Goldstein (ed.), Toys, play, and child development. Cambridge. 1-5.
  • Néraudau, J.-P. 1984. Être enfant à Rome.  Paris.
  • Shumka, L. 1993. Children and Toys in the Roman World:  A Contribution to the History of the Roman Family. M. A. Diss. University of Victoria. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Wiedemann, T. 1989. Adults and Children in the Roman Empire. New Haven.

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