Riddles and games

The riddles in the story come from a book of 100 riddles probably written around the 4th century CE. Romans really did tell riddles for Saturnalia, although we have imagined that the children might write them in school. The answer to the riddle in chapter 30 “I am full of harmless fire, I am very warm but no one is afraid” is … a bathhouse!

Roman children played with knucklebones, hoops and yo-yos, and games with nuts, glass marbles, and wooden tops.

To play Roman knucklebones, throw five in the air and try to catch as many as you can on the back of your hand. Then throw those you have caught from the back of your hand into the air, at the same time picking up any you have dropped, and catch them all in the palm of your hand. 

Roman girl playing knucklebones, 3rd century. Photo Sailko via Wikimedia Commons

Both children and adults played ball games in the exercise court at the bath house. Roman balls were made of leather stuffed with feathers or wool, and were thrown, not kicked. They would not have bounced like a modern ball. 

Click here to see mosaics of children playing ball and women playing a ball game and exercising with dumbbells at the baths.

Dice were a popular game for adults, but Roman dice (usually made of bone or wood) were not perfect cubes: they were often a flattened shape, wider on two sides, so they would have fallen more often on a 1 or 6, and dice towers were used to make them fall more fairly.

A 4th century dice tower like the characters use for playing King of Saturnalia in the book. Image Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn via Wikimedia Commons

Rich children may have played with the slave children in their household, as they often didn’t have living siblings near them in age. Children also seem to have had especially close relationships with the children of their nursemaids, even though they were slaves.

Click here to view a video animation of Roman children’s games, played by cupids (based on wall paintings in Pompeii)

How to play Roman nuts

Note: to avoid nut allergies these games can be played with any other small object such as pebbles.

Game 1: Each player has five nuts, stands behind a line, and tries to throw every nut into a pot.

Game 2: Draw a triangle on the ground, divided into 10 spaces. Each space is numbered (in Roman numerals, of course!). Each player stands behind a line and tries to throw a set of nuts onto the highest numbered spaces. Nuts that fall outside the triangle get no score. Add up the scores of each throw, and whoever scores the most wins!

Roman children playing with nuts, from a 3rd century stone coffin. On the left are girls, boys on the right. Photo Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons

If you visit the Museum of Ancient Arles, you can play Roman games like nuts and knucklebones in the activities garden, as Perry did.

Back to The Boy Who Stepped Through Time Secrets