Some critical remarks on an Internet Site about Roman Board Games
More and more people looking for information on certain subjects rely on the internet. They hope to find something without having to go to the library, search for books and read them – just with a few clicks. Of course as with books the quality of the information you get on the internet depends on the background of the author of the website. A nicely illustrated site about board games (http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/boardgames.html
or http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/w/x/wxk116/roma/rbgames.html) created by W. J. Kowalski promises some valuable information, but unfortunately it is – pardon, if I appear unpolite and harsh – completely misleading, because the author relies on second and third hand information and is ignorant of the basic studies to the subject and of the actual state of research. Since many people interested in ancient board games come across this internet site I considered it useful to publish some remarks and to clear up some of the major
Tali & Tropa
Tali = "astragals" = "knucklebones" were not as popular in Rome as they were in Greece. Tali is not the name of a game, but simply the Latin word for knucklebones, called astragaloi in Greek. The four sides were only rarely inscribed with symbols as you easily recognise them by their different shapes. As to the values we only know that "Venus" (1,3,4,6) was the highest throw; other throws were named after gods, heroes and other famous people, but we do not know their combinations and values. Nothing can be said about a possible precedence of pairs.
The red-figured vase with the knucklebone-handle depicts two women playing pentelitha, i.e. five stones (pente = 5, lithos = stone): five knucklebones are thrown in the air and must be caught on top of the back of the hand. The same game is played by the girls on the marble painting from Herculaneum in the archaeological museum in Naples on the front page (compare U. Schädler, Spielen mit Astragalen, in: Archäologischer Anzeiger 1, 1996, p. 61-73). This is not a dice game.
The rule described by the emperor Augustus in a letter quoted by Suetonius (Augustus 71,1ss.) says that anyone throwing 1 (canis = "dog") or 6 (senio) must place a silver coin (a denarius) for each 1 or 6 in the pot; the first player to throw a "Venus" wins the pot.
The game of "Tropa" simply consisted in throwing knucklebones in a jar without any scoring except counting how many knucklebones found their way into the jar.
"Felix sex", Tabula, XII scripta
What is written about the board games XII scripta, the presumed game tabula, and a game the author calls "felix sex" which has never existed is a completely misleading invention of the author without any idea of what serious research into Roman board games has brought to light (for example most recently U. Schädler, XII Scripta, Alea, Tabula – new evidence for the Roman history of "Backgammon", in: A. J. de Voogt (ed.), New Approaches to Board Games Research, Leiden 1995), p. 73-98, and Mancala in Roman Asia Minor?, in: Board Games Studies 1, 1998, p. 10-25). The game boards the author calls "felix sex" are simply boards for XII scripta and alea. As a bronze tower for dice (a pyrgus) kept in the Landesmuseum at Bonn (Germany) with an inscription consisting of six words with six letters "pictos victos, hostis deleta, ludite securi" very similar to game board inscriptions such as "parthi occisi britto victus ludite Romani" (see H.-G. Horn, Si per me misit, nil nisi vota feret. Ein römischer Spielturm aus Froitzheim, in: Bonner Jahrbücher 189, 1989, p. 139ss.) shows and bishop Isidore’s statement that such pyrgi were used for the board game "alea" demonstrates, all those boards with six groups of six symbols or letters disposed among three parallel rows were used for the game described by Isidore (Origines 18 § 60-64). A similar pyrgus (not a fritillus) was found together with the board at Qustul dating to the late 4th century (not 5th). Now some Roman authors claim that the Roman senator Mucius Scaevola in the 2nd century BC was a formidable player of XII scripta, while later he is mentioned in connection with alea. Therefore both the games seem to have been practically identical, with one exception: according to Isidore alea was played with three dice, while the earlier game XII scripta was played with two dice only. We can conclude this from both a mosaic from Ostia (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum XIV 607; 2nd-3rd century AD) depicting a XII scripta/alea-board with two dice on it and the explanation of the word "scripta" (which does not mean "lines" but "markings") as "spots on the dice" by the Roman author Nonius (170,22). That’s why XII scripta does not mean "12 lines", but "12 points", i.e. the highest possible throw with two dice.
From the 4th century on game boards with only two rows of two groups of six places are known from Rome, Ostia and Cyprus, although in Asia Minor (at Aphrodisias for example) three-row-boards were still in use in the 6th century. It is this route that lead to backgammon, whereas no relationship can be seen to the Egyptian senet. On such a two-row board the emperor Zeno seems to have played in the famous poem by Agathias (Palatine Anthology 9, 482). The author of the website erroneously refers to this poem in his chapter dedicated to XII scripta. The special names of the squares mentioned by Agathias (who wrote in Greek) are soummos (not Latin summus) and díbos (not Latin divus), which has something to do with the number 2 (like the syllable di- in dioxide for example) and means the second square (in this case the second but last square).
It is not at all sure that the Romans ever called a game tabula. In all the written sources where this word is mentioned in connection with games it can be simply translated "game board" or "board game". Tabula as a name of a board game is rather unlikely, because in medieval Europe board games using the derivative words have it in the plural form (for example Spanish "tablas", English "tables"), since with this word the gaming pieces were meant, not the board. One would therefore expect the Latin name of a board game to be tabulae (plural) instead of tabula, but there is no evidence for a game called like this.
The scene on the bronze mirror probably shows an enlarged version of the famous Greek board game pente grammai = "five lines".
All the European and Arabian games listed on the Tabula page are nothing else than games of the Backgammon family. They have nothing to do with the Egyptian senet.
The emperor Claudius was not fond of playing tabula, but addicted to dice (see Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 14,4-15,1). According to Suetonius he even wrote a book about "the art of playing dice" (de arte aleae). Suetonius does at no point mention a board game tabula in connection with Claudius’ fondness of playing. It is 600 years later that Isidore reports that alea (which means "die") was also the name of a board game. At Claudius’ times the word simply meant "die", just as Caesar used the word in his famous saying "alea iacta est".
To keep it short: everything that is written in the "Felix Sex"/Tabula/XII Scripta chapters is simply a mixture of misunderstood and misordered data concerning various ancient games.
As far as we know no game called calculi existed in ancient Rome. Calculus is the Latin word for gaming piece (the exact English parallel is "counter"). Moreover there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever concerning the existence of a five-in-a-row-game in ancient Greece nor Rome.
There are not so many mistakes here. The dice "with only four marked faces called tali" are simply the knucklebones. I do nit know where the author got to know that the Greeks played with three dice and the Romans with two instead: The illustrations demonstrate that it is the other way round: Ajax and Achilleus depicted on the Greek vases play with two dice only, and the Romans depicted in the Pompejan wall paintings do obviously play with three dice. And XII Scripta was indeed played with two dice (see above).
As far as these paintings are concerned, in Latin hand writing two vertical lines (transcribed by the author as "ii") indicate an "e". So, the Latin is far from being archaic!
The significance of the markings on the underside of many gaming pieces (the "chips" are nothing else than gaming stones) is not known. They could also be used as owner’s marks.
What is written here is also a mixture of misunderstood information concerning different games.
First of all petteia is not the name of a game but a generic Greek term indicating "board game" that derives from the word pessos = stone, gaming piece. Pollux’ description quoted by the author refers to the Greek game "city" (polis), which was obviously the earlier Greek version of the Roman latrunculi. The accompanying illustrations of Greek (!) vase paintings dating to the 6th and early 5th century BC depict Ajax and Achilleus playing neither "city" nor the Roman latrunculi game, but "five lines", as can be seen from the depiction of the gaming board on a vase in the museum in Brussels. "Five lines" was known since the 7th century BC.
The mosaic illustrated has nothing to do with latrunculi, since in ancient Rome the checkering of game boards was unknown.
The rules of the latrunculi game can be reconstructed with a good amount of certainty (see. U. Schädler, Latrunculi – ein verlorenes strategisches Brettspiel der Römer, in: Homo Ludens. Der spielende Mensch IV, 1994, p. 47-67; Krieg der Steine, in: Spielbox 2, 1995, p. 44-46; Latrunculi - a forgotten Roman game of strategy reconstructed, in: Abstract Games 7, 2001, p. 10-11). It was played by two players. The number of pieces used probably varied with the size of the board. There was only one type of piece. The relevant Latin sources sometimes use different terms to indicate the gaming pieces such as latro (soldier), miles (legionary), or bellator (fighter), but this is due to them being poetry with the poets trying to avoid the monotonous repetition of words. There was probably no initial arrangement of the pieces. The pieces were rather placed on the board in alternate turns as in modern "Othello" or in "Seega". An arrangement in two lines is rather unlikely since the method of capture consisted in enclosing one enemy piece from two sides. The first phase of the game would be rather boring with a starting position. Pieces intercepted would not be taken off the board immediately (this is clearly stated by Seneca, letters 117,30) but could be saved (probably by capturing one of the two interceptors), unless the attacking player in one of his next turns takes it from the board. The method of capture by interception also leads to the assumption that the pieces probably moved not more than one square orthogonally, but could leap over adjacent pieces as in "draughts" and "checkers".
To sum up: I know it seems hard and somewhat unfriendly to say so, but this internet site about Roman games though nicely illustrated is completely unreliable, since the author refers only to a few publications in English while he ignores other relevant studies completely (for example Hans Lamer’s standard article "lusoria tabula" in vol. XIII 2 of the "Realencyclopaedie der classischen Altertumswissenschaften" from 1927, or Anita Rieche’s book "Römische Kinder- und Gesellschaftsspiele" from 1984 as well as the articles quoted above). The reconstruction of ancient games is a very complicated subject where archaeological evidence, literary sources in Greek and Latin, and knowledge of general mechanisms of board games must be combined.
Ulrich Schädler, Archäologischer
Park/Regionalmuseum Xanten, Trajanstraße 4, D-46509 Xanten, e-mail: