Before Barbie: Why Girls Played With Dolls in the Roman Empire

Doll found in girl’s grave from 2,000 years ago in Rome show these toys weren’t just for frivolity. They were meant to prepare girls for maternity at a very young age

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Crepereia Tryphaena's doll
Crepereia Tryphaena's doll, whose hair emulates the 'do of the maternal empress Faustina the YoungerCredit: Centrale Montemartini
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

In the late 19th century in Rome, an unexpected discovery was made. Two sarcophagi placed next to each other were uncovered, holding the fragile remains of the almost 2000-years-old of Crepereia Tryphaena and Crepereius Euhodus. The two family members had been buried in an exceptional location: in the Imperial Gardens of Domizia.

The extraordinary nature of the discovery, arousing public curiosity, lay in the “original” roots of the deceased, for the Crepereii belonged to a family of wealthy freedmen, and yet they had been buried within an imperial estate. Most likely, that singular honor had been granted for the family’s leading role in the administration of the property.

Yet it wasn’t even the “exotic” origins that produced the biggest stir but Crepereia’s opulent and moving burial, for she was buried with her doll. 

Born to be wed

The childhood of Roman girls didn’t last long. Roman law decreed that girls could not marry before the age of 12, an age restriction imposed based on the “extensive” male observation of female pubescence. From the age of 12 girls were deemed physically, socially and legally suitable for marriage, although most Roman girls appeared to marry later, from the still-delicate age of 15.

The families were capitalizing the girls’ fertility, at a time when infant mortality rates were high, even though life-bringing was a dangerous, often deadly process for those becoming child-mothers.

Early marriages were pursued particularly among powerful families, often as a means to make dynastic alliances but also to ensure that a woman had no sexual history, which was seen as humiliating for the husband.

“In ancient Rome, the ‘respectable’ women had to conform to a very precise female ideal entirely constructed around the family and the union of marriage. Women were considered incapable of judiciously providing for themselves at any age and were under constant male authority,” tells Nadia Agnoli, curator at the Capitoline Museum of Centrale Montemartini- the final resting place of the Crepereii.

The Grottarossa doll (mid-2nd century C.E)Credit: Courtesy of the Ministry of Culture - National Roman Museum. credits: photo n. 348132: L. Colasanti

Despite their legal status as “minors in law”, women were expected to take on adult roles, including taking care of children, running the household, often helping with the family business, and supervising slaves, if the family was able to afford them.

But first, before that happened, there was a ceremony to be performed. On the eve of the wedding, the bride-to-be was expected to put all childish things aside, by dedicating her toys to the household gods: a transition from which she would emerge a woman.

It would seem that for the young Crepereia, the Fates decided differently, when one of them, Atropos, the “inflexible” member of the Fates, cut the thread, determining the moment of her early death. The girl was not to be parted with her doll.

Yet, the two rings found within her sarcophagus appear to suggest that the young girl was pledged, if not already married. It could also be that the family decided to reunite her with her favorite doll.

“She was a young woman of no more than 20 years, perhaps already married or newly engaged. The red jasper signet with clasped hands was perhaps her wedding ring and ‘Filetus’ engraved on the other one could be the name of her husband or fiancée,” reveals Agnoli.  

‘Barbara’ vs. Barbie

The lifeless body of Crepereia was laid on her side, with her head inclined towards her small companion. The exquisitely crafted ivory doll (probably made in Alexandria) has articulated limbs that could be moved and bent, similar to the dolls that girls play with today.

The exquisitely crafted ivory doll had articulated limbs that could be moved and bentCredit: Centrale Montemartini

Moreover, the doll was accompanied by miniature toiletries such as little mirrors, delicate clothes and precious ornaments for the girl to dress her in. “This type of doll was produced only for the very rich, and among the ones we know, Crepereia’s is the most refined without comparison,” says Agnoli. “The regular dolls made of fabric or other materials were simplified versions and did not depict anatomical details.”

Similar dolls were found accompanied by their own miniature grave goods, often equivalent to those of the deceased. Crepereia’s doll is by far the most idealized with her youthful features, full lips, gentle nose and big almond eyes, while others such as the Grottarossa doll that belonged to an 8-year-old, with carefully delineated facial features and a “plus-size” body, aimed perhaps at being a more “maternal” version trying to communicate protective qualities. 

Crepereia’s doll, which we shall refer to as “Barbara” with her naturalistic body proportions, drastically contrasts with the alien dimensions of the modern dolls.

Despite being a representation of an adult woman, Barbie, the eternal “perfect image” is not made to be portrayed as a future mother, with her waist smaller than her head and barely-existing hips. Barbie’s creator, Mattel, confirmed that the doll was never intended to replicate an adult figure, but was designed for Barbie to easily accommodate clothes (but what about those breasts?).

Certainly, the Mattel specimen’s proportions suggest that if she were real, she would only possess half a liver and couldn’t menstruate (a essential indicator of maturity for the Romans) and couldn’t walk except on all fours, not to mention, she couldn’t hold her head up (all that comfort sacrificed in the name of fashion). 

If she had been alive, Barbie couldn't stand or menstruateCredit: Terry Madenholm

Child psychology experts are not impressed by the justification of Barbie’s outrageous silhouette that some accuse of contributing to eating disorders in young girls (girls as young as 5 have reported self-body dissatisfaction, and a stronger desire to be skinny when they grow up).

It is unlikely that Barbie’s ancient predecessor “Barbara” with her lifelike form contributed to body image distortion; instead, the doll whispered the quickly approaching eventuality that awaited young Roman girls. 

Divine fertility

Mattel's attempt to make things more "real" went awry, however, with Barbie's best friend, Midge. Midge has been married to Alan since 1991. The happy couple soon welcomed a son, presented as 3-year-old Ryan. In 2002, the couple "revealed" that they were expecting their second child (the doll has a detachable magnetic belly that allows an easy and clean "delivery" of the baby). It was a girl, who would be named Nikki.

A Mattel representative had explained on Barbie’s official website (the comment has since been deleted) that the "Happy Family" dolls were designed for girls aged 5 to 8, explaining that it can be a "wonderful prop for parents to use with their children to role-play family situations - especially in families anticipating the arrival of a new sibling."

Midge, Barbie's pregnant friendCredit: AP

With her freckled face, braids and flower dress, Midge seems to be representing a teenager. Hence Mattel’s attempt was met with little understanding from parents who worried that the brand was promoting teenage pregnancy.

Although Crepereia’s doll isn’t portrayed as pregnant, the doll's rounded childbearing belly and the wide life-giving hips were to "prepare" Crepereia for the most valued role that a woman could have in the ancient world: that of being a mom. Not just any mom, but a respected mother: the doll’s elaborately carved hairstyle is an elegant reproduction of the one popularized by the fashion icon Faustina the Younger.

An aureus portraying empress Faustina the Younger (161-175), a fashion icon in ancient Rome: The reverse depicts Faustina as a goddess standing between two children and cradling an infant.Credit: Art Institute Chicago

“Female fashion standards were set by the women from the imperial family, and even dolls were designed to look trendy... just like the Barbie!” Agnoli tells Haaretz.

Married at age 15 to the 24-year-old Marcus Aurelius who described his wife in his Meditations as “obedient, affectionate, and simple”, children were no strangers to Faustina, who was a mother to 14 in at least 21 years.

Only six survived to adulthood: five daughters and a “slightly” unstable son, Commodus, mostly known for his fashion choices (dressing up as a gladiator) and his unhealthy fascination with the gladiatorial games (even by ancient standards).

With the birth of her first child in 147 C.E., the Senate granted Faustina the lofty title of Augusta (the highest recognition for a woman in the Roman world) before her husband became Augustus himself in 161. The palace propaganda didn’t stop there. Faustina’s role as a mother was publically glorified, and with the birth of her daughter, Fadilla, coins were issued depicted her as the delicious Juno Lucina, the goddess that kept special watch over all aspects of women’s lives including childbirth. Just a year later she received the majestic title of Fecunditas Augustae (“Fertility of the Augusta”) granted for her divine fecundity.

Faustina was publicly represented as the personification of an ideal woman (despite circulating gossips broadcasting her infidelity), the type of woman that Crepereia’s doll aimed to represent: beautiful, fashionable and fertile. 

Besides the obvious physical differences between Barbara and Barbie, the dolls unwittingly share some common points: both are representations of adult women and despite the almost Biblical age difference between them, they were both designed by men that created their ideal female versions for girls to play with.

“Crepereia’s doll had the same function that the Barbie dolls have today: for girls to imitate the behaviors of grown-up women,” says Agnoli.

Barbaras were designed with a specific aim: to meet the demands of Roman girls wanting to imitate and play with the figures they admired and fantasized to be one day - the adult women. Being a respected wife and a mother was “advertised” by men as the most significant role that a woman could have in Roman society and Crepereia’s doll was the model doll to portray it.

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