Names can tell a lot when researching our Italian roots. But there are some names which tell a sadder tale back several generations or so. Orphans and foundlings in Italy were given special names. This list includes the most common surnames used.
Some means of names are pretty obvious: Bastardo... for bastard. Della Femina for From a Woman. Dell'Amore means From Love. All are a testament to those who came before and the trials they must have gone through to get through troubled times of war or poverty or disgrace. Many suffered through the horrors of war or famine. Anyone bearing these Italian surnames should be proud of what their fore-bearers went through to give life to their children and their children's children.
Although these names do have a high probability of being rooted in an ancestor being orphaned, there are exceptions to this.
Amodio (Love God), Arfanetti (Orphan), Armandonada (Donated by Hand)
Bardotti (The sterile hybrid offspring of a male horse and a female donkey)
Bastardo (Bastard), Circoncisi (Circumcised)
Colombini (Little Dove), Dati (from you)
De Alteriis (Changling), De Angelis (From Angels)
Della Donna (From a Lady), Della Femmina (from a Female)
De Domo Magna ("Of the Ospizio" ,of the Hospital or Hospice)
Degli Esposti (Abandoned)
Della Scala (Name assigned by foundling home in Sienna)
Della Fortuna (from Luck), Della Gioia (From Joy), Della Stella (From a Star)
Della Casagrande (of the Hospital/Orphanage)
Dell 'Amore (from Love), Dell'Orfano (the Orphan)
Del Gaudio (of Grace & Goodness), Diodata (God Diven)
D'Amore (Love), D'Ignoto (from Unknown), Diotallevi (God Raised You)
Esposto, Esposito, Esposuto (Lost)
Fortuna (Luck), Ignotis (Unknown), Incerto (Uncertain) Incognito (Unknown) Innocenti, Innocentini (The Lost Ones)
Mulo (Mule), Naturale (Natural/Careless)
Nocenti, Nocentini (Little Innocent), Ospizio (Foundling Home)
Palma (when child is abandoned on Palm Sunday)
Proietti (Thrown away - also, Projetti, Projetto, assigned by an ospizio in Rome)
Sposito (Lost), Spurio (Illegitimate)
Stellato (The Stars), Trovatello, Trovato (Foundling)
Ventura, Venturini (Angels, Little Angels)
Legislation passed in 1928 outlawed the practice of assigning orphans surnames indicating their illegitimacy or abandonment, but surnames of some sort still had to be given to these children. These were sometimes the surnames of royal and noble families, but more often they were geographical in nature or alluded to the day, month or season of the child's birth (i.e. Sabato, Maggio, Primavera and so forth).
The Great War, as it is called, was a dramatic shift in the way war was waged... with the introduction of tanks, churning up the land as they mowed down anything, and anyone--in their way. Both tanks and cannons pulled on carts meant there would be shells remaining... countless numbers of them seemed to become part of the landscape of war, along with the barbed wire and trenches filled with men and vermin.
Italian soldiers were often stuck in the trenches for extended periods, and somehow, from an urge to ease the boredom or simply forget about the horror and fear, they used the jetsam of the battlefield to create
Shell art (not the seashell type) is one of the most famous types produced in wartime. Soldiers hammered intricate designs into the casings of artillery shells. Smaller ones were decorated and carried in pockets, often made into cigarette lighters. The larger were turned into vases, bowls, ash trays, or cachepots and taken home after the war was over.
The soldiers would use whatever tools they had available, creating a range of designs, often dating and naming the battles and victories they took part in, or simply adorned with flowers to please a loved one waiting back at home.
When you look at the beautiful designs on these pieces, it's a wonder that these men crafted them while the world around them was in chaos.
Evangelista Torricelli was born Oct. 15, 1608 in Faenza, Romagna. He was an Italian physicist and mathematician who invented the barometer, a device that measures atmospheric pressure, commonly used in forecasting changes in the weather. The catalyst for inventing the barometer was spurred on my a suggestion by Galileo that Torricelli use mercury in place of water for his vacuum experiments.
After reading his papers in 1641, Galileo invited Torricelli to Florence, where he became the aging astronomer's secretary and assistant during the last three months of Galileo’s life. After Galileo's death, Torricelli was appointed as his successor as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.
Two years later, pursuing the suggestion by Galileo, he filled a glass tube 4 feet (1.2 m) long with mercury and inverted the tube into a dish. He observed that some of the mercury did not flow out and that the space above the mercury in the tube was a vacuum. Torricelli became the first man to create a sustained vacuum. His observations proved that the variation of the height of the mercury from day to day was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure. He never published his findings, however, because he was too deeply involved in the study of pure mathematics. Since atmospheric pressure also changes with altitude, Torricelli's barometer also could be used as an altimeter.
Torricelli died Oct. 25, 1647 in Florence at a mere 39 years old.
As a further honor, Torricelli had both a crater on the moon and a submarine named after him...
Play the video to see how Torricelli's experiment worked.
The Many Reasons for Coming to America
Poverty was the main motivation for an Italian leaving his family and home and putting up with the hardships of traveling to America. In 1898, widespread "bread riots" plagued all of Italy, with people protesting the lack of jobs and the sudden increase in the price of wheat and bread. Other motivators were the constant political strife and the dream to return to Italy with enough money to buy land and improve their lives. Fully 80% of Italians were farmers and couldn't afford modern farming equipment to better their lives. Rural Italians lived in harsh conditions, residing in one-room houses with no plumbing or privacy. In addition, many peasants were isolated due to a lack of roads in Italy.
Most Italians didn't own land, so they were indebted to landlords, who charged high rents and took a portion of their crops. Higher wages in America--as often falsely advertised by many flyers produced by steamship companies--proved to be an attractive draw. AN Italian contadino who farmed year-round might earn 16-30 cents per day in Italy. A carpenter in Italy would receive 30 cents to $1.40 per day, making a 6-day week’s pay $1.80 to $8.40. In America, a carpenter who worked a 56-hour week would earn $18.
Farmers faced even further reasons to immigrate. Besides falling wheat prices, fruit and wine prices were also falling. The phylloxera virus destroyed nearly every grape vine used to produce wine. America was envisioned as a place of opportunity, with abundant land, high wages, lower taxes--and at the time--no military draft. Yes, one more reason why many Italian men wanted to leave Italy... to escape conscription into the military. But still, many wanted only to go to America, earn money and return to buy their own land.
Political hardship was also a factor in motivating immigration. Beginning in 1860, la Guerra dei Contadini del Sud (the Southern Peasants War) began. This was an uprising to resist the changes that the North was forcing on the Southern provinces with the Unification. Led by mostly brigands (many of who had previously had the support of contadini), this was a type of "social banditism" who were rebelling in order to retain their small sphere of power and wealth in their rural areas. The poor contadini were caught suddenly in the cross fire. Later in the 1870s, the government took measures to repress political views such as anarchy and socialism. Many Italians came to the United States to escape political policies and warring factions.
Italian immigrants to the United States from 1890 onward became a part of what is known as “New Immigration,” which is the third and largest wave of immigration from Europe and consisted of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. This “New Immigration” was a major change from the “Old Immigration” which consisted of Germans, Irish, British, and Scandinavians and occurred earlier in the 19th century.
Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, which was the largest nationality of “new immigrants.” These immigrants, a mix of both artisans and peasants, came from all regions of Italy, but the largest numbers were from the mezzogiorno--Southern Italy. Between 1876 and 1930, out of the 5 million immigrants who came to the United States, fully 80% were from the South, representing such regions as Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, Apulia and Sicily. The majority (2/3 of the immigrant population) were farm laborers or laborers, or contadini, as noted on the ship manifests when arriving at Ellis Island. The laborers were mostly agricultural and did not have much experience in industry such as mining and textiles. The laborers who did work in industry had come from textile factories in Piedmont and Tuscany and mines in Umbria and Sicily.
Though the majority of Italian immigrants were laborers, a small population of craftsmen also immigrated to the United States. They comprised less than 20% of all Italian immigrants and enjoyed a higher status than that of the contadini. The majority of craftsmen were from the South and could read and write; they included carpenters, brick layers, masons, tailors, and barbers.
The first wave of Italian immigration began in the 1860s after the Unification of Italy. By 1914, the number of Italians immigrating to the United States reached it's peak at over 280,000 making the journey to America. Since there was a larger population and higher skilled laborers (such as miners) in the industrial northern Italian provinces, a higher number emigrated from the North. But even though the South had a sparser population with less labor skills, more per capita came from these southern regions. In fact, by 1915, the number of emigrants from the South nearly matched those coming from the North.
Due to the large numbers of Italian immigrants, Italians became a vital component of the organized labor supply in America. They comprised a large segment of the following three labor forces: mining, textiles, and clothing manufacturing. In fact, Italians were the largest immigrant population to work in the mines. In 1910, 20,000 Italians were employed in mills in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
An interesting feature of Italian immigrants to the United States between 1901 and 1920 was the high percentage that returned to Italy after they had earned money in the United States. About 50% of Italians repatriated, which can be interpreted as many having trouble assimilating into the American way of life. Some of this can be blamed on the blatant racist views toward Italians and refusal to hire them for better paying jobs. In the large cities, tenements were essentially slums. If an immigrant couldn't get a decent living wage, they might reconsider trying to raise their family in America. Because Italian immigrants tended to be gregarious--often clustering together in "Little Italys", often they didn't feel there was a need to learn English, another factor in not being able to secure better paying jobs.
Many might have fallen into the trap of getting housing or jobs through a padrone, a boss and middleman between the immigrants and American employers. The padrone was an immigrant from Italy who had been living in America for a while. He at first might seem helpful in providing lodging, functioning as safe "bankers" or money changers (often short changing), and found work for the immigrants (albeit, for a percentage of their earnings). Often, they would get the work that they could do in the apartments they rented to them... making silk flowers, rolling cigars, sewing, etc. After a few years of paying a percentage of their salaries to these padrone, many immigrants got discouraged enough to return to the homeland. At best, these situations became indentured servitude, at worst slavery. Child labor was also a product of these padrone, filling sweat shop factories with children as young as 10 years old.
Prejudice Rears its Ugly Head
Both immigrant contadini and those with skills faced economic as well as ethnic prejudices upon entering the labor force in America. The poor economy caused hostility toward Italians and many were labeled as strikebreakers and wage cutters from 1870 onward. American workers already feared the new mechanization in factories was the cause of taking away their jobs. Job bosses used Italians to fill their jobs as scabs during labor strikes. Prejudices were especially aimed at (as perceived) darker skinned Southern Italians who became scabs during strikes in construction, railroad, mining, long shoring, and industry. The Italian workers were called derogatory names such as:
Italians were the only workers to work along side black people and employers preferred Slovaks and Poles to Italians. At the time, it was said that "railroad superintendents ranked Southern Italians last because of their small stature and lack of strength”. In the mining industry especially there was an ethnic hierarchy: English-speaking workers held the skilled and supervisory positions while the Italians were hired as laborers, loaders, and pick miners.
It was not until the 1920s that Italians became more integrated into the American working class, regardless of whether or not they spoke English. More immigrants started to work at semi-skilled jobs in factories as well as skilled positions but one-third of the population remained unskilled. In trade unions, meetings were held in English and Italians were not elected to official positions.
My Grandfather, Sergio Finzi had made two preliminary Voyages across the Atlantic trying to establish connections and work so he could bring his wife and children over. He was a tailor, a skill he brought with him from Molfetta. They were poor. My father told of not having enough coal or wood to fire up their kitchen stove--the only heat in winter. He said he and his brother walked the railroad tracks to pick up scraps of coal fallen from passing trains. They left school in the fourth grade to help the his familia scrape a living from their new home.
Many Italian immigrants suffered--and endured. We are all proof if this fact. Italian immigrants--as many immigrants from other lands--help build this country. They helped defend it. They assimilated. They became citizens. Paid taxes. Sent their kids to school.
And here we are... over 100 years later and many in our country are still ambivalent or even dead against immigrants. Have we really lost sight of the fact that unless we have 100% Native American blood running through our veins, that we all are descended from immigrants?
Starting in 1888, photographer Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, in an attempt to call attention to the suffering of immigrants, photographed the Manhattan tenement slums where Italian (and other) immigrants were living in squalor. He was followed by Lewis Hines, who photographed not only the immigrants and slums but the children who were the most helpless victims of this inflicted poverty.
Enjoy the slide show... and try to remember the hardships our fore-bearers went through to get us where we are today...
On our modern Julian calendar, March is the third month of the year, but to ancient Romans, Martius (as it was called) was the first month of each new year. It makes sense when you think about it. Right now in Italy, the flowers are blooming all over the place. Things are growing, the weather is warm again and it makes sense to think of Spring as the beginning--the birth--of a new year.
The Romans celebrated holidays from the first through the Ides of March (on the 15th) to bring in their New Year. The most important celebration on the Ides was to the god Jupiter, the supreme deity, but also to Anna Perenna, the goddess of the year itself. Anna Perenna was more popular with the plebeians of Rome who drank, played games and had picnics. Later, in Imperial Rome, the Ides began a week long celebration for several various festivals.
The so called "Ides" of a given month refer to the midpoint of a month, for some months (like March) falling on the 16th, and on others falling on the 13th day--all governed by the phases of the moon. The Ides on the ancient Roman calendar was on the new year's first new moon. The Romans didn't use day numbers, but counted backwards from given points in the month... the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).
Of course, we all know that in modern times, the Ides of March is the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Shakespeare tells the tale in his classical play Julius Caesar... Caesar was stabbed to death by a crowd of his opponents, with Brutus and Cassius at the lead. A seer foretold that Caesar would come to an end on the Ides, but when the day came he saw the seer on the street and laughed in his face, saying that nothing bad had happened, but the seer answered back, "...Yet".
Recently, researchers think they have found the exact location of where Julius was stabbed 23 times by the group of senators... at the Largo di Torre Argentina, in the center of Rome not far from the Pantheon, known nowadays to tourists and Romans alike for the tram station adjacent to the site and all the feral cats that live among the ruins. Ancient texts always claimed that Caesar was killed in the Curia of Pompey, a theater at the site, but until recently no archeological evidence could be found. In 2012 a large concrete marker was found which was erected as a monument to Caesar by his loyal followers after his death...
All those cats seem to be wandering and waiting for Caesars return... You can hear their call... "miao, miao... miao..."
Oh, I almost forgot... Felix Annus Novus! (That's Happy New Year in Latin.)
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Members of Black Hand (la Mano Nera) arrested at Fairmont, W. VA.-The Mafia, more commonly known as the Black Hand in West Virginia, reared its ugly head in Marion County in 1908. The members of the Black Hand, all natives of Italy, had banded together with Frank Pisconeri as their president. They carried out a campaign of extortion throughout the county with their victims either Italians or Italians by descent.
-(Marion Co Historical Society)
Black Hand (Italian: Mano Nera) was a type of extortion racket. It was a method of extortion, not a criminal organization as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced it. According to a newspaper report in the New York Tribune of June 1912, the Black Hand "...really exists only as a phrase. As an organization such a thing never existed out of the minds of the police. It is a catch phrase made familiar through the newspapers, and the quick witted criminal of Latin extraction lost no time in using it as a nom de crime, which he wrote at the bottom of his blackmailing letters, sometimes - in fact, generally - adding fanciful decorations of his own, such as daggers dripping blood, revolvers spitting fire and bullets, crudely drawn skulls and crossbones and the inevitable sketch of a human hand."
The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to the Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s. However, the term as normally used in English specifically refers to the organization established by Italian immigrants in the United States during the 1880s who, though fluent in their Southern Italian regional dialects, had no access to Standard Italian or even a grammar school education. A minority of the immigrants formed criminal syndicates, living alongside each other. By 1900, Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian-American communities of major cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Scranton, San Francisco, Olean, NY and Detroit. In 1907, a Black Hand headquarters was discovered in Hillsville, Pennsylvania, a village located a few miles west of New Castle, Pennsylvania. The Black Hand in Hillsville established a school designed to train members in the use of the stiletto. Although more successful immigrants were usually targeted, possibly as many as 90% of Italian immigrants and workmen in New York and other communities were threatened with extortion.
Typical Black Hand tactics involved sending a letter to a victim threatening bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder. The letter demanded a specified amount of money to be delivered to a specific place. It was decorated with threatening symbols like a smoking gun, hangman's noose, skull, or knife dripping with blood or piercing a human heart, and was in many instances, signed with a hand, "held up in the universal gesture of warning", imprinted or drawn in thick black ink. According to author/historian Mike Dash, "it was this last feature that inspired a journalist writing for The New York Herald to refer to the communications as "Black Hand" letters—a name that stuck, and indeed, soon became synonymous with crime in Little Italy." The term "Black Hand" (in Italian: Mano Nera, and in Sicilian: Manu Niura) was readily adopted by the American press and generalized to the idea of an organized criminal conspiracy, which came to be known as "The Black Hand Society".
The tenor Enrico Caruso received a Black Hand letter, on which a black hand and dagger were drawn, demanding $2,000. Caruso decided to pay, "and, when this fact became public knowledge, was rewarded for his capitulation with 'a stack of threatening letters a foot high,' including another from the same gang for $15,000." Realizing the extortionists would continue to demand money, he reported the incident to the police who, arranging for Caruso to drop off the money at a prearranged spot, arrested two Italian-American businessmen who retrieved the money.
Unlike Henry Ford's factory line, which went from one end of his huge manufacturing facility to the other, popping out a finished car at the end, Fiat did things a bit different, to say the least. The Lingotto building in Milano was designed by architect Matté Trucco, had five floors, with raw materials going in at the ground floor, and cars built on an assembly line spiraled up through the building. Finished cars emerged at the top level and immediately were driven on the rooftop test track to ensure quality control. Built between 1916 and 1923, it was the largest car factory in the world at that time.
This factory was closed in 1982, but public outcry over a plan to demolish the structure caused it to be redeveloped into a more modern use. The structure was turned into a modern public complex containing a shopping mall, concert halls, theater, convention center and a hotel. The work was completed in 1989. The test track was saved, and can still be visited today on the top floor of the shopping mall and hotel.
A scene from the film, The Italian Job from 1969 with Mini-Coopers and police in a car chase on the Fiat rooftop track, curiously, they drove Mini-Coopers and not Fiats.
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On July 4, 1957 the first of the Fiat 500 Nuova were introduced to the public in Turino. In a massive public relations stunt, a procession Fiat 500s, each with a beauty queen on board, drove from the factory. At the same time driving in Rome a similar procession to St. Peter's Square.
Coming to be known as the Cinquecento (cheen-qway-CHENT-o... Italian for "500"), its sales were slow in the beginning, because prior to its release, the water-cooled Fiat 600 (the Seicento, produced from 1955 - 1969) was enormously popular and Fiat didn't want to swamp the market with yet another model. Eventually, they produced nearly 3.5 million copies of the Nuova 500 until 1975.
TRIVIA: Fiat is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino
The first Nuova 500 was referred to as "N" model, with backwards opening "suicide" doors, no heater, fixed rear side windows and a fabric roof opening all the way to the rear. It was spartan, to say the least--and tiny--a mere 9'9" long. It was designed as an every-man's car... a family car for essential trips around town.
A close cugino (cousin) to the original Fiat 500 and 600, the Multipla (commonly known as the Seicento Famigliare--"Family 600") was primarily based on the Fiat 600 and sat six people in fairly small size. The driver's compartment was moved forward over the front axle, effectively eliminating the front storage trunk, but giving it a modern minivan appearance. It could be configured with either a flat cargo area behind the front seats or a choice of one or two bench seats. This popular people and cargo mover was a very popular taxi in many parts of Italy up until the 1970s. There even was a beach car version called the Marinella created by car design shop Carrozzeria Ghia.
I personally love practical cars, and loved driving the new Fiat 500L (called the "Large" in Italy) during our Voyage through Italy, although I am certain the U.S. version has a better transmission. We've owned three minivans in our family and would love to see a new version of the Multipla brought to the U.S. in a family minivan configuration. Fiat did introduce a modern version of the Multipla from 1998 to 2010, but despite acclaim for it's bold design (amazing visibility due to huge windows) slack sales outside of Italy doomed the model.
The legendary automobile coach builder Ghia (of Volkswagon Karmann Ghia fame) also created one of my all time favorite cars based on the Cinquecento... the fun-sounding Jolly. The chassis was made by Fiat but everything else was built by Ghia. The little car with a surrey on top was really designed for the rich--as a small car that could be hoisted on and off mega-yachts tooling around the Mediterranean. Oil magnate, Aristotle Onassis (Jackie Kennedy's second hubby) owned one and President Johnson rode around his Texas ranch his. It was a perfect seaside runabout to go from marina to golf course to dinner and back to the marina... while keeping the sun off of the heads of the rich, famous and film stars. Since mostly the elite usually bought them, each one was customized. Besides the canopy, it had no doors and wicker seats. Very cool car... nowadays going for a couple of hundred thousand dollars at classic car auctions. Supposedly, there are less than 100 left in the world.
Of course, this brings us to the current incarnation of the Cinquecento... the Fiat 500 (Type 312). Introduced in 2007, its new styling is reminiscent of Fiat's original 1957 Nuova. It holds four passengers fairly comfortably with a front rather than rear engine, has front wheel drive, and is offered in a three door hatchback and two door cabriolet styles. The newest addition to the U.S. market came in 2016 as a nod to the past Spider series with the Fiat 124 Spider--a joint venture with Mazda, using the new Mazda MX-5 platform. Car manufacturers make strange bedfellows lately... after all, who would have thought that Chrysler would now be owned by Fiat?
It was great to see Fiat's return to the American market after 27 years... I owned a red Fiat 128 station wagon back in the Seventies during the oil embargo and odd-even gas rationing days. I got 30 miles to the gallon while most back then got about 6. I recently did a test-drive the new Cinquecento and love it... although being a tad small, even for our "We Three" family. It's drive didn't feel small, at all. The advent of the Fiat 500L and 500X go even further in changing all that. These are bigger, four door models with plenty of room for small families. Lucas loved having a raised rear "theater" seat in the "L" while we traveled through Italy... giving him much better views. We also liked having the glove box drink chiller--a very welcome thing in hot Italy.
All in all, the Fiat 500 was--and still is--one of the most important, practical designs for people movers on the planet. When you live in a country like Italy with winding roads, limited parking spaces, narrow streets in most villages and the price of fuel always grabbing cash out of your wallet, the ubiquitous Cinquecento simply makes sense...
Bravo Fiat! Bravo Italia!
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Nowadays we buy all sorts of toys for our children, starting them off with the simplest ones: balls, pull-toys, rattles and such. When Lucas was a baby boy, his favorite was a cushy soft ball with a rattles inside--"Shakey Shakey"--he always like to squeeze it tight and shake it. Then there was his spinning top, the kind you pump down on for it to spin. Lots of twirling colors delighted him. Then there was his bouncer, with it's assortment of colorful gizmos for him to touch, hear and chew on. And at 13, he still sleeps with his oldest and dearest friends... his plush "Cushy Bear" and "Moo-Cow". Kids were always kids... even in the ancient world parents gave their kids toys...
Of course, many first toys used by plebeian children were made from things found in nature: rocks, sticks, clay, acorns, pine cones, or vines or husks made into primitive dolls. Sometimes childhood fun is as simple as that. A game called Battledore, resembling badminton, used flat paddles hitting pine cones back and forth, or cork balls with feathers stuck into them used as the shuttlecocks. Pebbles could become a game with the dirt becoming a game board or a place to draw with a pointy stick. Just as today, one generation of children passed along ludos in plateis (street games) to the next.
And of course there were dolls... made from fabric and stuffing, carved from wood or made from terracotta. Modern parents would have a hard time picturing a child cuddling up to a terracotta dolly. I wonder how many must have been broken in a tantrum during the Terribili Due (the Terrible Twos).
For the toddlers, there were pull-toys made of terracotta or wood in all sorts of animal shapes. Some kiddies played with horses and chariots, just as modern kids might play with toy cars. One can imagine a young boy playing the part of the latest charioteer champion. As a boy got older, he might build a little cart to hitch a mouse to. As a kid, I remember putting my hamster behind the wheel of a remote control Model-T Ford model that I had... I loved watching him with his little paws on the steering wheel, going round and round. He seemed to like it, too. A mouse-drawn cart sounds like lots of fun, too.
The older boys and girls had outdoor toys... sticks and hoops, balls, yo-yos, swings, bow and arrows, sling shots, hobby horses, marbles, and games similar to kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and tag. And you can imagine some great racing games using toys with wheels on them... "My chariot can beat your ox cart! I'll bet 5 marbles that I can!"
Of course, all a kid needed to do was have a ball and a stick and he'd make up a game. If he didn't have a ball, a rock or pine cone would do. When I was a boy we played stickball with an old broomstick and a cheap 10 cent pink ball called a Spalding (Spaldeen, we called it). Even thousands of years ago kids had games similar to field hockey or baseball or basketball. Borrow a basket from Mom (while she wasn't looking), start tossing some pine cones, and the fun would ensue.
Sling shots--the same type David used to slay the Giant--came in useful to teach young boys how to hunt. And swimming was enormously popular for Roman boys. They would either go to a special swimming pool (Roman baths were too shallow for "plunging") or to the river. Boys were taught to swim as part of their formal education.
Games were popular too, just like today. One of the most common was tic-tac-toe--played just as we do today, with Xs and Os. Some were carved into walls while most games were just scratched into the ground for temporary fun. Another similar game, Rota, was played with small stones on a layout that looked like pizza cut into 8 slices.
Cube shaped dice, as we know them, were around for at least 5000 years. There were always dice games, many for children and others for adult gambling. A precursor of dice, and a popular game, in and of itself, is Knucklebones (also called astragaloi), a game usually played with five or ten small bones. In ancient times, the "knucklebones" were the the actual knucklebones (astragalus--small ankle bones) of a sheep, although there are ancient "bones" made from precious gems, bronze or glass. The oldest version of a knucklebones game determined a winner depending on which side of the knucklebones landed facing up. (Both sides are distinctly different in shape.)
In another, the bones were tossed up in a manner similar to modern Jacks, with one knucklebone tossed into the air, and the player trying to pick up as many others as possible while it is airborne. Curiously, differently shaped bones would be worth different points. In another Roman game called Tali, the knucklebones are marked as dice are, with dots representing numbers--the resulting toss gives a player a hand to beat, similar to dice or playing cards. You can actually purchase Knucklebone pieces on Amazon.
There was also a game called Tabula that was very similar to backgammon of today, except it was played with three dice, but for most part, dice games of chance were left to adults--especially soldiers--for gambling. Still, boys have to learn the game from someone. I can imagine a father teaching his son how to play, as I've taught Lucas to play backgammon.
An interesting fact is that when Greek and Roman girls, "came of age" (at 12-14 years old) it was customary for them to sacrifice the toys of their childhood to the gods. On the eve of their wedding, young girls around fourteen would offer their dolls in a temple as a rite of passage into adulthood. And yes... girls were married off after the age of 12.
Here are some other facts about what childhood was like in the Ancient World:
When a kid got bored with his toys, he could always spending time with his best friend, Il Cane, who might answer to Craugis (Yapper) or Asbolos (Soot) or Scylax (Puppy). The ancient Romans loved using Greek names for their pet dogs.
Romans were great dog-lovers and had several popular breeds to choose from: hunting hounds, ratters and other small breeds that were bred for companionship and to keep their masters' feet warm in bed. Romans also loved birds, evidenced by various types shown domestic scenes in frescoes and mosaics.
The odd thing is, cats were not liked in the Roman world, and even though might have helped rid them of rodents, were themselves thought of as pests. (Perhaps it's the Roman in me, because I feel the same way when roaming cats spray and stink up in my garden.)
There are also mosaics showing children with pet goats hitched to child-sized carts, and even mice harnessed to miniature toy wagons. Unlike Italians of today, who tend to take a more practical view of animals, Romans loved their animals dearly. For example, modern Italians don't like to spend a lot of money on their pets--not even vets. Ancient frescoes and sculptures show Romans treating their pets as if they were members of the family. The dogs must have felt the same way, becoming protectors of their families, as illustrated by the many Cane Cavem (Beware of Dog) mosaics found at the portals of Roman homes.
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