Games, particularly those played by the ancients have an extraordinarily long history. A wonderful gaming scene of some sort of Draughts or possibly Dice is on a wonderful black figure Greek pot at the Vatican museums. The vase dates back to around 530BC, found in Italy and was painted by the famous vase painter Exekias. It refers to the Trojan war and shows Achilles and Ajax wearing their armour and bent over the game board as they make their moves. Achilles calls a four whilst Ajax a three.
In Roman times these games could be played at a number of locations much as one would today: at the public baths, the circus, the tavern or even at the forum. The Imperial Forums in Rome still have an example or two of simple games scratched into a paving stone (the one I remember looks like noughts and crosses). Clearly, like the Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax, Roman soldiers were also likely to play various games in order to pass the hours of waiting. Being every bit as human as modern man the ancient Romans also suffered the negative side of gambling games and in some cases lost whole fortunes.
The Roman attitude to entertainment and games could also be quite moralistic: there were clear social rules as to what was acceptable from people of different social extraction though when push came to shove such restrictions softened through time. A particularly poignant moment was reached during the time of Emperor Nero though cases of women or upper class patricians and senators involvment in public games, sport and leisure occurred both before and after his reign also.
It cannot be said that the Romans actually invented any of the more common games but they certainly adopted them with a vengeance, so much so that laws had to be made in order to restrict them. Cato refers to gaming (dice) as only being fit for the elderly given that the young should be out in the fields practising their arms. The only use of dice which probably wasn’t restricted was to elect what Horace calls the “arbiter bibendi” – the rule maker at a drinking party.
Ancient Rome Gambling
In ancient Rome, all gambling, except betting at the circus and races, were forbidden by law. Amongst others, the Lex Cornelia, Lex Publicia and Lex Titia forbade the game of dice and the penalty could have the perpetrator sent to jail or fined. Fines were a multiple of the amount of money being bet. Furthermore the law didn’t recognise gambling debts or damages to property arising from gambling. The only time that the population could legally let off steam was during the carnival feast known as Saturnalia when all such games were allowed.
This was the law, but in practice it doesn’t seem that the law was upheld nor feared. The game of dice and others were widespread, so much so that archaeologists have found a shop, complete with sign, which seems to have been an out and out gambling spot. The shop sign itself shows a cup rather like the one used to shake the dice.
History has remembered a number of emperors for their gambling habits. The historian Suetonius tells us that Emperor Augustus was an assiduous gambler and that he himself didn’t bother restricting his gaming habits to the Saturnalia but to all other feasts and days also. It is known that he would invite friends and family round and distribute an ample sum of 250 denars to each to start them off. Furthermore Augustus himself admits in one of his personal letters to having made heavy gambling losses.
Emperor Nero was a great lover of all types of sport and games and is thus also remembered for his gambling skills and high bets. Claudius is remembered for having had a special table made to allow him to play on whilst in a shaky carriage and also for having written a book on the subject, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to have survived. Seneca condemns Claudius for his excessive interest in dice and has him fictitiously condemned to an eternal life of dice throwing with a bottomless cup which will always keep his hopes high but dash his expectations. The extreme was met with Emperor Commodus who went for broke (quite literally). He had plundered the state treasury and attempted to refill the coffers by turning his palace into a Casino.
Ancient Roman Games for entertainment
Other than ancient Roman toys, the major games and Roman entertainment worth noting were board games such as Latrunculi (a sort of chess), the Tali & Tesserae (knucklebones and dice), the Pilae (ball), the Par Impar (odds and evens), the Trochus (stick and hoop) and Micatio (a sort of mix between “odds and evens” and “paper and stone”).
A roman gaming talus or astragalus.Tali and Tesserae: these were two distinct dice games, in fact they were two distinct types of dice. The different games were Ludus Talorum, Ludus Tesserarum or Ludus Aleae. The word “alea” is remembered nowadays as part of Julius Caesar’s exclamation “Alea Iacta Est” – the die is cast – when he crossed the Rubicon river back into Italy with his legions. Eventually the word Aleae came to be a generic term for all gambling games.
The Tali dice were in fact four sided only and had the numbers 1,3,4 and 6. The image to the left is a little out of focus but you can just make out the “3”. There were two flat sides and two curved sides of which one was convex and the other concave. The numbers were set out so that opposite faces would always add up to 7. Curiously enough their original provenance was the bone “thumb” at the back of sheep’s legs. In the common six-sided Tesserae dice, the 2 and 5 are added on opposite sides, again adding up to 7. The Tali and Tesserae were shaken and thrown from a cup called a Fritillum, Pyrgus, Orca or Turricula.
Roman games and entertainment – tali diceThe game with the Tali was played with four Tali-dice and the best score was gained when each piece showed a different number. The game with common dice – Tesserae – was played with three dice and the best score was with three sixes. These high scores were called “Venus” whilst the lowest, bad scores would be called “Canis” (dog). In modern Italian and perhaps even in English, it is still common to refer to bad playing as “playing like a dog”. For the sake of interest we note that the Greeks played with two dice only.
Pilae includes a variety of balls and relative games. There were three major ball games all based on hitting the ball with the hands/arms. These included the Follis which was hit around with the padded arm or even the hand, I guess a little like the English game of Fives. In the game of Pilo Trigonalis three players stood in a triangle and passed the ball whilst trying to make sure they weren’t the first to drop it. Harpastum was actually based on two teams trying to get the ball into the other team’s goal.
To this we can add a further popular game called Trochus, which is in fact a stick and hoop. The main parts of these were made of metal and the hoop in particular was made so as to ensure it made plenty of din as it went round. The hoop was large, possibly as large as a grown man. The stick used to push and drive the hoop was called a “Radius”.
Par Impar is actually odds or evens. This game involved hiding a number of stones or nuts in one’s hand and the opponent having to guess whether it contained an odd or even number. It obviously lent itself to placing a small wager.
Navia aut capita. In a similar strain to Par Impar we have “heads and tails” which in Latin was actually called ships or head because of the coins showing a ship on one side and the double faced head of Janus Bifrons on the other.
Micatio was a game similar to Par Impar except that the two opponents would cast a number from 0-5 with their fingers and each would have to guess the sum of the two hands or simply whether the result would be odd or even.
Roman entertainment : Board Games
Board games were played on portable boards called “tabulae lusoriae” which at their cheapest could be made of wood all the way through to marble, bronze to which inlaid wood and precious stones could be added for more precious results. Many tabulae lusoriae were actually carved into the floors of public buildings, suggesting that such games could be played almost anywhere.
The most common ancient Roman board games for entertainment were tic tac toe (aka as three-in-a-row or naughts-and-crosses), a game involving small cavities (presumably to hold marbles), the game of the twelve lines known as “duodecim scripta”, a word game involving the composition of letters called “Reges” and lastly a chess-like game called “latrunculi”.
Ovid talks of tictactoe in the third book of his “Ars Amatoria” (the art of love) : the small playing board receives three pieces per side and the winner is the one who first manages to place them in a row. He recommends the game to women who wish to have luck in love.
Latrunculi was not dissimilar to our modern Chess or Draughts. The pieces used by the Romans were called “Calculi” or “Latrunculi” stemming from the old Latin word “Latrus” which meant “servant” or “soldier”. These Latrunculi were generally made of materials such as wax, glass, wood or stone.
The game has a variety of possible sources, such as Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who it is said invented it in order to instruct his men in the art of war and strategy. Seneca, who has written about the game on various occasions attributed the invention of the game to a sage of Greece. The fullest although incomplete account of the game is given in a poem of uncertain authorship, possibly Ovid, dedicated to Piso.
Given that Latrunculi didn’t involve gambling but actually required a deal of skill this game was actually well regarded, with the same sort of respect one might have for the game of “bridge” nowadays.
Reges: A board game which appears to have been found particularly around the area of Rome itself. The actual game isn’t fully understood and the boards which have been found are not all identical although they show various permutations of the letters from the meaningless words “REGOR” and “REGES”, disposed in two areas on four lines. The first row always has 10 letters, the second and third 8 and in the fourth 7. An elegant example may be seen at the Capitoline Museums.
Duodecim Scripta was, as far as I can tell, similar to a sort of backgamon combined with a word game. Each player had three dice and three playing fiches which could be moved forward and out of the board according to the dice scores. The means in which you moved your own pieces was up to you, ie you could move one according to each dice or one only according to the sum of the three dice or…..
The board would have a couple of 6 letter words written on three rows, making a total of 36 letters. An example at the Capitoline museums has the words “Abemus in cena, / pullum, piscem / pernam, paonem / benatores …” which makes it sound very much like a pub food board. It is my own random guess that the fiches could land on the letters and a further guess that different letters might have different values – I could easily invent a game for entertainment but it’s not necessarily the game played by the ancient Romans as entertainment!
If anyone has any further real evidence of the rules of these forms of Roman entertainment feel free to write us a note below and we’ll be glad to publish for everyone’s benefit….