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Bill Thayer

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A bulla in the British Museum
(woodcut from William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875)

The word bulla is Latin for "bubble", and thence for a number of bubble-shaped objects (including a boss as on the bronze doors of the Pantheon).

The most frequent meaning of the word, though, applies to the bulla praetexta, a pendant worn by children as a necklace. At first, only by patrician children, the ornament was of gold; it surely must have meant "Lay one finger on this child, and you'll be dealing with some powerful people." Later, every free-born child wore one: the plebeian bulla was of leather.

When the child came of age, apparently at no strict date, but traditionally during the Liberalia in the month of March following her 12th or his 14th year, the bulla was ceremonially laid aside; boys also abandoned the toga praetexta and put on the toga virilis. The bulla was on that occasion dedicated to the Lares. (For a more formal treatment of the bulla, with source references, see the article in Smith's Dictionary.)

At least two examples of the bulla praetexta can be seen on the Ara Pacis in Rome.


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Page updated: 14 Jul 02