What would the modern person do if television, the movies, Social Media, sports, and music events didn’t exist? Chances are we might spend our time playing more board games just like the ancient Romans.
The ancient Romans loved board games.
Some of the more common board games played by ancient Romans were dice, knucklebones, marbles, and a form of checkers, chess, tic-tac-toe, and backgammon.
Let ‘em roll!
Dice (Tesserae) was a gambling game. Players rolled the dice and bet on the results. Roman dice were different from modern dice in that the numbers on any two opposite sides added up to seven. Like today, dice were shaken in a cup and tossed onto a table. People also placed bets. Paintings found on ancient Roman walls show that they played with three dice.
Tali is the Latin name for knucklebones, and the Greeks called them Astragaloi. ‘Like most Roman and Greek games, tali was first played in ancient Egypt,’ and were discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. The first pieces were made from the knucklebones of sheep and goats, but the Romans also made them from marble, wood, glass, precious metals and gems. When the tali are tossed ‘each fall on one of four sides’ resembling the modern game of dice.
The game of marbles called Nux ‘nuts’ originates with the pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia (Winter Solstice), which was eventually replaced by Christmas in Christianized late ancient Rome. People would give each other bags filled with nuts and marbles. Children loved playing Nux and there are references by Roman writers to the game. One account speaks of how the emperor Romulus Augustus ‘played the game as a child.’ The rules of the game have been lost, but some form of it might be seen in modern European games like ‘Ring Taw’ and ‘Archboard’ which requires a player to roll their marbles at a ‘bridge with nine Roman arches.’ The arches are numbered with a Roman numeral from 1 (I) to 9 (IX) and whichever arch a marble rolls through, the player ‘scores the number of points shown at the top of the arch.’ 45 is the total amount of points required to win. Marbles were most often made of clay, stone or glass.
Get on board—Squares, Grids, and Spaces.
The Romans played a form of checkers where the player had to get 5 stones in a row to win and games that involved moving ‘pebbles from one square to another in a grid.’ Evidence of these grids has been found ‘scratched into floor stones and floor tiles all over the Roman Empire, in houses, and by guardhouses, and in amphitheaters, wherever men or women, boys or girls, had some time to waste.’
They also played a game called Latrunculi a Roman form of chess. It used a board made either of wood, marble, stone, or silver, and black and white army pieces that fight it out. There was also another game similar to chess called Pebbles because you could use anything as a piece. The goal was to advance square by square and surround your opponent’s pieces with two of your own ‘either vertically or horizontally or diagonally.’
A game played in ancient Rome and close to tic-tac-toe is known as Rota meaning ‘wheel.’ Rota boards could be easily ‘scratched or scribbled’ anywhere where Romans went. It’s a three-in-a-row game like tic-tac-toe but different in that it cannot end in a tie. Another game also similar to tic-tac-toe from the first century BC was called Terni Lapilli. This form used three playing pieces that had to be moved into empty spaces. ‘Grid markings have been found chalked all over Rome.’
Lastly, a board game that any class of Romans could play was called Lucky Sixes. In each column/row there were six figures that resembled numbers, letters, or even pictures. When put together, they formed a philosophical phrase or joke. Lucky Sixes resembles the modern game of Backgammon because players started at the opposite side of the board and threw dice or sticks ‘to move pieces to their opponent’s side.’
A world without games is no fun at all!
Even in the ancient world, and not just the Roman Empire, man enjoyed sporting pastimes and games. Playing games was most likely a pleasant escape from the job of daily survival. On a hot sunny day under a merchant’s awning or in an icy-cold barracks, a game of marbles or dice must have added to life, and especially if there was money to be won. Bingo!
Pete Di Primo, Ancient Rome; K.E. Carr, ‘Roman Dice Games, Quatr.com; ‘The Origin of the Game of Marbles’ magwv.com; Boardgames.lovetoknow.com; Mental floss.com;Praetorian.com; Tic-Tac-Toe Wikipedia.com
Dante Rosini says
Cynthia Ripley Miller says
Thank you, Dante.