Humans have devised ways to enjoy their recreation time for centuries, and some contemporary board games resemble popular games from antiquity created to alleviate boredom and win some earnings. Ancient Roman board games, in particular, have close connections to many of the modern west's favorite board games, some of which you probably play today. From dice throwing games of luck to pseudo-checkers strategy games, the Roman Republic's well-known love for merriment translated even onto their tabletops.
Tali and Tropa
Originating overseas in Greece and Egypt, Tali was a popular game in Ancient Rome and is characterized by its similarity to modern Yahtzee. No special board was needed to play 'Knuckle Bones', and the sticks that were used could be made from various materials, though animal knuckle bones were most commonly used. A round consisted of each player throwing the sticks out, and whoever's hand was stronger was declared the winner. Each hand was added for a total score to also determine the winner. A Venus was the highest hand and consisted of a 1, 3, 4, 6. A Senio was a 6 with any combination of other numbers. Vultures were all the numbers the same and Dogs, which is the worse score to get, were all 1's. While archaeologists speculate on a few different ways that Tali could be played, there's a consensus among them that the game was gambling-focused and involved multiple rounds.
Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum
Translated as 'The Game of Twelve Markings," Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum was played on a board with two rows of twelve squares and is similar to modern backgammon. Players sat opposite from each other and placed all of their pieces on their own first square. Players threw three dice and moved pieces accordingly. The object was to get all your pieces to the opponent's number one square.
Despite the lack of an abundance of archaeological artifacts, there are some known rules for this game:
- If you land on a square with an opponent's piece, that piece is sent back to square one.
- The only time you can't occupy the square is if two more of an opponent's pieces are already on that square.
There also was a variation of this game called Lucky Sixes, which kept a backgammon-style gameplay and used a board of two columns and three rows. In each of these columns and rows were six figures, which when combined, created a humorous or thought-provoking phrase.
First named in 1916 by Elmer Truesdell Merrill, Rota is a common Ancient Roman game played on a circular board that divided into 8 segments, with 8 carved, circular cells filling the points of the segments and a ninth cell sitting at the center of the board. Similar to Chinese checkers and tic-tac-toe, Rota involved players trying to get their three pieces to form a connected line by having a piece in three linear cells. Interestingly, players could not skip a turn nor could more than one piece occupy a cell, meaning players had to carefully maneuvor their pieces around the board. Thus, Rota could be considered a pure strategy game, with little luck or chance involved in its gameplay.
Ancient Roman Tesserae, or dice, were unique in that the two opposite sides added up to seven, though they were still typified as a six-sided die. Gambling with dice was forbidden in the streets of Rome, but despite Roman soldiers' efforts to find and fine these moral crimes, many dice-throwers simply moved their games indoors. Many types of dice games were played in taverns and during social events, as gambling was a significant pastime during antiquity. One such game that the Romans gambled on resembled Craps, and another was a simple competition to see who rolled the higher number.
Roughly translated to 'The Game of Mercenaries,' Ludus Latrunculorum--or Latrunculi--was an Ancient Roman strategy game that dates back as early as 116-27 BCE according to the historical record. One of the most recent reconstructions of Ludus Latrunculorum's gameplay comes from archaeologist and game historian Ulrich Schädler; Schädler's rules explore a more advanced version of modern checkers where two players have anywhere between 16 and 24 pieces on a grided gameboard. The purpose of the game is to not be left with only a single piece from your side on the board. In order to accomplish this, Schädler posits that the player's would move orthogonally about the grided board, attempting to 'alligatus' (box) each other's pieces in with two of their own, and in the next turn after doing so be allowed to remove the opponent's piece from the board.
On top of literary references to the game from famous Roman authors like Ovid, archaeologists have discovered partial Ludus Latrunculorum boards and pieces from various digs around the world. The larger the grid, the more complicated the game became, and the largest board found thus far--the Poprad gameboard--was discovered in 2006 and boasts a 17x18 grid.
Challenge Your Ancestors to a Game
Whether you belonged to the patrician social strata or were a soldier on the road, chances are high that you participated in at least the occasional game play over the course of your life in the Roman Republic. Fundamentally, these Roman board games represent some of humanity's favorite ways to challenge the mind and pass the time. Things haven't changed much in the few thousand years since the fall of Rome and so many of our modern board games mirror those from the past. Think about your favorite board game, and see if you can find any connections between it and those from Ancient Rome.