The Bulla and the Celebration of the Dies Lustricus

Posted on November 2, 2013 by

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 by: Randy Fields

From Wikimedia Commons:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_boy_wearing_bulla.jpg

The dies lustricus (“day of purification”), or the nominalia as it is sometimes called, was celebrated on the 8th or 9th day after birth and marked the transition from the liminal phase of life to that of infantia.i Since approximately one in three Roman babies did not live to adulthood,ii the celebration must have been an important one. On the dies lustricus, relatives, friends, and even slaves offered small metal and clay charms that were strung together and worn around the neck. These playthings, collectively known as crepundia, entertained the baby with their rattling and jingling and warded off evil spirits lurking near the child. Furthermore on this day, the child was exposed to a succession of ritual dangers designed to demonstrate the child’s fitness for acceptance into a Roman family.iii And finally, the dies lustricus marked the occasion on which an infant received his bulla and name.

In his Ατιαωμαϊκά, Plutarch tackles two questions regarding the dies lustricus that are of particular interest to students: Where did the tradition of wearing a bulla originate? And, why is the dies lustricus celebrated on the ninth day for boys, yet the eighth day for girls? Among the explanations Plutarch offers for the difference of days, the first hinges upon the fact that maturation of women and men occurs at different times. Plutarch explains that, since the first week of life is fraught with danger for a newborn, the dies lustricus must occur after the seventh day of a child’s life.He then suggests that, since females attain maturity before males, the celebration for infant girls occurs before that of boys as a symbolic reminder of this. His other explanations for the difference involve Pythagorean numerology.iv Regarding the origin of the bulla, Plutarch again offers multiple explanations. He first suggests that the wearing of the bulla originated to honor mothers, since Rome’s first 

mothers had been taken by force to become the brides for the early colonists. Another explanation Plutarch offers suggests that is was to honor Tarquin who, as a young boy, received an amulet as a prize for helping the Roman army rout the enemy during battle. Yet another explanation suggests that Roman boys wore the bulla to mark themselves as freeborn males and therefore sexually unavailable.v

Since students are often looking for excuses for having a “party” in the Latin classroom, celebrating the dies lustricus provides an opportunity to take a break from a traditional lesson while maintaining an educational component. The following ideas provide a springboard for celebrating in the classroom:

Since the dies lustricus was accompanied by an offering of cake and wine to the household gods, students could bring cupcakes and juice-boxes as part of the celebration.

Students could select their Latin names on the day an make a “nomen mihi est . . . birth certificate” to commemorate the occasion.

Upon selecting Latin names, students could practice oral Latin by engaging in an exchange: “quid est nomen tibi?/nomen mihi est . . . .”

Student could make crepundia or a bulla to ensure their safety as they move from the infancy of Latin 1 to Advanced Latin. Wearing the bulla on quiz or test days could offer them good luck or a point of extra credit.

 

Step 1:  Create a pattern in the shape of an inverted light bulb approximately 2.5 x 3 inches.

Step 1: Create a pattern in the shape of an inverted light bulb approximately 2.5 x 3 inches.

Step 2:  Inscribe a design in the circular area with the rectangular area facing up.  Avoid excessively complicated designs.

Step 2: Inscribe a design in the circular area with the rectangular area facing up. Avoid excessively complicated designs.

Step 3:  On the opposite site of the paper trace the reverse design that appears through paper.  Placing the paper on a white surface or on a classroom window will make the design clearer.

Step 3: On the opposite site of the paper trace the reverse design that appears through paper. Placing the paper on a white surface or on a classroom window will make the design clearer.

Step 4:  Select a piece of tooling foil at least as large as the pattern you have created.

Step 4: Select a piece of tooling foil at least as large as the pattern you have created.

Step 5:  Tape the pattern, reverse side facing up, to the piece of tooling foil.

Step 5: Tape the pattern, reverse side facing up, to the piece of tooling foil.

Step 6:  Place the tooling foil-cum-pattern on a stack of newsprint or some other soft yet stable surface.  Then, using an inexpensive ballpoint pen, Trace the design with firm pressure.

Step 6: Place the tooling foil-cum-pattern on a stack of newsprint or some other soft yet stable surface. Then, using an inexpensive ballpoint pen, Trace the design with firm pressure.

Step 6 Continued

Step 6 Continued

Step 7:  When you have traced the design completely, turn the foil over to reveal the outlined bulla.

Step 7: When you have traced the design completely, turn the foil over to reveal the outlined bulla.

Step 7 Continued

Step 7 Continued

Step 8:  Cut out the bulla, making sure to leave the rectangular “tab” in tact.

Step 8: Cut out the bulla, making sure to leave the rectangular “tab” in tact.

Step 9:  Turn the bulla face down and fold the “tab” over a “necklace” made from leather lacing or yarn.

Step 9: Turn the bulla face down and fold the “tab” over a “necklace” made from leather lacing or yarn.

Step 10:  Ecce!  The bulla is complete!

Step 10: Ecce! The bulla is complete!

i Varro apud Censorinum, DN 14, 2.

ii Bruce Frier, “Roman Life Expectancy: Ulpian’s Evidence,” HSCP 86 (1982), 213-251.

iii Carlin A. Barton, Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 82.

iv Plutarch, Quaes. Rom. 102.

v Plutarch, Quaes. Rom. 101.

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