Toy horse from the 10th century BC
Excavated toys and include push carts, terra cotta tops, marbles, knucklebones, ivory counters, ivory dolls, dancing dolls with movable arms and castanets. Archaeologists have also found dice with the same number configurations as modern dice and a baby feeder inscribed with words "drink, don't drop." Monkeys and dogs were kept as pets, and a few lucky children even got to have pet cheetahs. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Among the toys at the Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from The Classical Past exhibit were baby dolls and baby rattles in the shape of pigs. Kids seem to have been particularly fond of knuckbones made from the ankles of sheep and goats, They threw them like dice and carried them around in little pouch, John Oakley, a classics professor at the College of William and Mary told U.S. News and World Report, “they’re all over the place.” Girls were encouraged to juggle to improve their motor skills.

The word "marble" comes from the Greek marmaros , which means polished white agate. Marbles made from polished jasper and agate, dated at 1435 B.C., have been found in Crete. Yo yos are also believed to have been used in ancient Greece where they were made from wood, metal and terra cotta.

Children in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome made hoops from dried and stripped grapevines and rolled them down the street with a rod. Rattles made with dried gourds filled with clay balls or pebbles were discovered in children's tombs dated at 1360 B.C. They were shaped like birds, pigs and bears. Rattles were also used in ancient rituals to scare off evil spirits. The earliest dolls were images and idols of gods. Playing with idols was considered sacrilegious so the first true dolls were model or ordinary people played with by children. Early females dolls had breasts and male dolls had penises.

Greeks and Romans had dolls with human hair and movable limbs that joined to hip, shoulder and knee sockets with pins. Most Greek dolls were females. The few male Roman dolls that have been found were mostly male soldiers fashioned from wax and clay. By the Christian era infant dolls were popular and children dressed painted dolls in miniature clothes and placed them in doll houses.

Gambling in Ancient Greece

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Dolls from the 10th century BC
According to Sophocles the Greeks invented dice during the siege of Troy. Plato claimed that God invented dice and gave specific credit to the Egyptian deity Theuth. Herodotus attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who he said introduced them during a time of famine so the masses could keep themselves entertained on days they were not allowed to eat. Another story attributes the game to the Greek hero Palamedes to keep his soldiers from getting bored during the Trojan war. Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C.

Dice were usually made of ivory or bone. Like modern dice the numbers were positioned so that the ones on opposite side always added up to seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5 and 3 and 4.

Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. Almost all the ancient civilizations used dice, which developed from astragali---six sided bones, with four flat sides, that came from the ankle bones of hoofed animals. Astragali were used in board games by Egyptians, possibly as early as 3500 B.C. The bones from sheep were most commonly used. Those from antelope were particularly prized.

The Romans loved games of chance and were particularly fond of dice and liked to throw pairs of them from a cup. Dice have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some scholars even said the dice were loaded (dice that weighted on one side so that a certain number is more likely to appear) but offered little evidence to back up the claim. The Romans believed dice were invented by the goddess Fortuna.

The Roman emperors Augustus, Domitian, Commodus, Caligula and Claudius were all big fans of dice. Claudius even wrote a treatise on how to be a top player and is said to have wagered 400,000 sesterces on a single roll of the dice ( the annual salary of a soldier was around 1,200 sesterces). He also reportedly had a special board built into his chariot that allowed him to play dice and other games even on the bumpiest of roads. The politician Seneca said that his gambling was such a vice that deserved to rot in a hell where he would eternally pick up dice and place them in a cup that has no bottom.

Ancient Greek Pets

5th century BC monkey figurine
The ancient Greeks and Romans possessed hounds that hunted using scent. The Greeks used mastiff-like dogs to track lions in Africa. In 350 B.C., Aristotle described three kinds of dogs, including swift Laconians used to chase and kill rabbits and deer.

Dogs in ancient Greece were not fed. They were expected to catch their meals. The Romans fed their dogs. A burial site in Athens has revealed a dog buried with a leather collar.

Homer wrote about dogs: “As they were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy....As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master [and] Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after 20 years.” [Odyssey, Book 17]

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “Evidence for love of dogs in the ancient world is abundant, from Homer's account of Argos waiting for his master to return from the Trojan War to the careful burials of cherished pets all over the world. And, as many owners also know, dogs live for treats. Even in the afterlife, their owners liked to spoil them. Behind the Stoa of Attalos, the main public building of the ancient Athenian market, a fourth-century grave was found containing the skeleton of a dog with a large beef bone near his head.” [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

Greyhounds in Ancient Greece

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A greyhound reportedly saved Alexander the Great from a charging elephant. The name greyhound is believed to derived from the word Grauis , meaning Grecian. The first accurate description of a grey hound is attributed to Ovid (63 B.C. to A.D. 17)

Greyhounds are regarded as the world's oldest breed of dog along with the dingo, New Guinea singing dog, and African basenji. They were pictured in mural from a settlement in Turkey dating to 4000 B.C. By some reckonings the oldest dog breed, the saluki, is thought to have emerged in 329 B.C.

Greyhounds were raised and bred by Egyptians and were pictured in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. The oldest reference to a greyhound is a carving of the Tomb of Amten in the Nile Valley, dated between 2900 and 2751 B.C. It shows three images greyhound or greyhound-type dogs. Two are attacking deer and one is attacking an animal that looks like a wild goat.

Extremely fast and maneuverable, greyhounds were used for hunting animals such as gazelles and wolves and coursing hares. Over the centuries they have been used to pursue all kinds of animals including deer and foxes. Their natural prey is hares.

Greyhounds were linked with royalty, who treated their dogs so well that ordinary people resented them because they were treated better than people. The dogs of some pharaohs had 2,000 attendants.

Dog Sacrifices in Ancient Greece

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Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “ Sacrificing dogs to appease supernatural forces was part of religious traditions in ancient Greece, where the Spartans slaughtered dogs to ensure victory in battle. Homer wrote: “Patroclus had owned nine dogs who ate beside his table. Slitting the throats of two of them, Achilles tossed them on the pyre.” (Homer, Iliad, Book 23) [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

Some dog sacrifices are on a more massive scale. In 1937, archaeologists excavating in the Agora, the main marketplace of ancient Athens, made a stunning discovery---a well containing bones from hundreds of people, including approximately 450 newborns, and from more than 100 dogs. According to Lynn M. Snyder, who is re-examining the animal bones from the well, the infants likely died of natural causes. But she believes the dogs were "most likely sacrificed as part of a purification ritual after a birth, whether successful or not." Several ancient Greek sources identify dogs as the victims of choice to cleanse the pollution caused by both death and childbirth.

But dogs weren't just sacrificed in antiquity. In Hungary, a team excavating a site in the medieval town of Kaná just outside Budapest, discovered more than 1,000 dog bones, about 12 percent of all the mammal bones at the site. From these, Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eoetvoes Loránd University in Budapest identified five puppies, buried in pots, that were sacrificed and placed into the construction trenches of several buildings. Daróczi-Szabó believes that the puppies and several other dog burials at the site were intended to ward off evil, a custom that survived in Hungary into the 20th century. Although similar sacrifices have been found at other Hungarian excavations, especially of religious sites, Daróczi-Szabó was surprised by the pots from the domestic contexts at Kaná. "From these kinds of sacrificial pots, dog remains are very rare," she says. "More often eggs or chicken bones are found. So I was very excited by these finds." Daróczi-Szabó believes they suggest the practice of dog sacrifice was quite common during the Middle Ages in Hungary. "Despite the formal institution of Catholicism by the first Hungarian king, István I (1000-1038), who banned pagan rituals, it shows that part of the population still maintained these rituals in spite of the ideological dominance of Christianity."

Then there is the question dogs being guardians of the soul. Many ancient people assumed they would encounter dogs in the afterworld, from readers of the Rig Veda, the Vedic Sanskrit hymns composed in India in the second millennium B.C., to Greeks and Romans reared on tales of Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the entrance to Hades.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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