The “Time of walnuts”

Tablets, smartphones, and expensive electronic games for children?!

In the end, everyone knows: kids have fun with simple things! A bit of water, sand, grass, and they turn into small cooks or great sorcerers!

At the time of the Romans, the true stars of many childhood games were walnuts, which were used as alternatives to marbles.

Kids used to accumulate them and then use them for many different games, to win or lose more.
For the Romans, playing with walnuts was so common that the expression ‘leaving walnuts’ (relinquere nuces) gained the meaning of leaving childhood to enter adult life. The ‘Time of walnuts’ therefore referred to the age of childhood.

Martial wrote: ‘the pupil was sad, because he left the walnuts’.

The Romans, as well as the Greeks and other previous cultures, viewed playing as an educational activity: children, by playing, learn the fundamentals of the rules for community life, such as respect and loyalty, lest their exclusion from society.

A poem attributed to Ovid and called Nuces, ‘Walnuts’, is dedicated to a series of games with walnuts, which kids loved and practiced especially during the Saturnals, a festivity falling on December 17, similar to our Christmas.

Roman children always carried, attached to the belt, a bag containing walnuts, with which they played different and imaginative games. Here are the most popular ones.

  1. The forerunner of basketball. It was one of the best-known games and consisted in trying to throw the walnuts in a jar, placed at a certain distance. A variant, called orca, consisted in throwing a walnut inside the neck of an amphora. If the player succeeded, he would win all the walnuts inside.
  2. the Ludus castellorum or Nuces castellatae. On a base built with three walnuts, you had to place a fourth one by making it fall from a certain height, forming a kind of castle; the one who won carried home all the walnuts of the building. One variant of this game consisted of demolishing the ‘towers’ by throwing walnuts from a distance.
  3. The ‘nutcracker’. It consisted in taking a walnut and putting it on a plane holding it straight with two fingers of the left hand, and then with the right hand giving these two fingers a strong blow, thus opening the shell
  4. Bowling’. It consisted in placing one end of a plank on a raised support and the other end on the ground. In front of the latter, they would put a certain number of walnuts, and each player rolled his down along the plank, hoping to hit some of the ones on the ground. If he succeeded, he would add these ones to his, otherwise his walnut would remain there and enrich the loot of subsequent challengers.
  5. Riddle me this. A kid would hide a number of walnuts in his hands and play odds and evens. The challenger had to decide which of the two options to choose. If he guessed, he would win all the walnuts that the other had in his hand.
  6. Delta. On the ground, a triangle was drawn with the tip pointing upward. In it, from the base, parallel lines were drawn that divided its area into ever smaller areas to then reach the final small triangle. Players, from a distance, threw walnuts inside it, trying to get as close as possible to the top.