The Roman Bulla

Because of our affinity for Imperial Roman culture and religion, we made our son a bulla, and bestowed it upon him at his naming ceremony shortly after his birth.

A bulla is a Roman amulet which was worn by children until their rite of passage into adulthood. The details of who wore bullae and what the amulets were made out of varied through the Empire. At its widest usage, bullae were worn by all free children of both genders.

What the bulla was made out of appears to have been at least somewhat related to class, with wealthier families giving their children metallic bullae and poorer families using simple cloth.

Being middle class and representing merchants in our Roman re-enacting, we chose leather. The added advantage of leather over metal is that I was able to make the bulla myself. Even so, it required me to learn a little bit about leatherworking.

Because sources vary about the details, we decided to start with the general concept and add our own meaning to the project. Sealed inside the pouch is a personalized item that he will be able to choose to see or not when he’s older. We also got a Medusa medallion from Quick Silver Mint (or one of its affiliates, I don’t remember for sure) for the outside. Medusa medallions were common in Rome for warding off the evil eye.

In Rome, the bullae were worn around the neck, but we felt that was too dangerous by modern standards for a baby, so I planned to stitch an oversized baby pin to the back.

Overall, then, this is what I needed:

  • Two pieces of leather
  • A spool of leather cord
  • A set of leatherwork needles
  • The item for inside the bulla
  • The Medusa coin
  • An oversized baby pin

Stitching leather is similar enough to stitching cloth, although quite a bit more work per stitch. I used a strategy similar to making a pillow. I cut two pieces of leather with enough border to make an appropriate sized pouch when turned inside out. I made a test pouch and learned that, because leather is so much stiffer than cloth, I had to make sure that both the border and the region I was stitching around were larger than I had initially planned.

Once I was happy with the target size, I cut two pieces of leather. I decided to go with green for the front and brown for the back, to represent earth tones; this was personal preference. I stitched the coin and the baby pin to their respective sides, so that the knotting would be hidden.

I then stitched the two pieces of leather together (front to front) in a rough circle, leaving a gap on the top edge to turn it inside out. The gap, predictably, was larger than I would have left with a cloth pouch for a similar purpose. I also needed to make sure the gap was large enough to allow the contents of the pouch to fit into it.

I turned the pouch inside out and put in the contents. I was initially going to put a separate piece of leather over the gap, but in my test version I didn’t like the way it looked. Instead, I stitched the gap closed, making sure the knots were in the back. This worked better with the leather than it would have with cloth.

Currently, kidlet wears the bulla on special occasions and during Roman reenactment. When he gets older, he can choose when and how to wear it; the leather stitching along the top will provide support for a chain as desired.

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