by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti
Games of chance
Dices, Astragalismos (Greek) or Talorum lusus (knuckle-bones) and all sort of game boards. With the passing from youth to grown up, men became particularly attracted by more interesting passtimes; not energetic or athletic, but pleasant and lively games and more exciting because with them one could win or lose money, and the sums involved could be considerable. Apart of game boards, many men of the past used to find their excitement by betting on everything. For instance lots of money were staked on cocks? fights, a very popular sport at those times, one that was also appreciated by children who had their own cocks. Of course these little ones did not bet money on their champions, but they followed the fights with their heart in their mouth. On the cemetery steles and in the basreliefs which adorned their sarcophages we often see scenes of cocks fights, sad memory of the young owners who had such a short live. More gay are the statuettes representing some amusing scenes of everyday life: not important works of art but very pleasant subjects. In one of this sculpture, now in the Louvre Museum, two children are represented absorbed in their cocks, while their pets, all feathers ruffled, are starting a fight. In another one now in Baltimore, the fight is finished, and one of the cock is laying on the ground. Nearby, leaning against a pedestal, its little owner cries disconsolately(fig.1). Cocks? fights are also represented on an Ostia?s sarcophage. On its top the statue of the young man, who is buried in it, holds in his arms his fiery cock.
Of course cock fights had nothing to do with more intelligent board games, but they involved bets, and many Romans liked betting more than anything else. Among them there was Augustus who went to cock fights and liked to wage on them his money. It was a well known fact that the emperor had always been an obstinate gambler, and also if he normally preferred others and more exciting games, when there wasn?t anything better to do he amused himself with cocks, and, as Plutarch tells us, also in this, as in all the rest, he was very lucky.
Betting on cock fights was certainly amusing, but there were also other popular passtimes as dices (fig.2) and ?astragalismos? played with knuckle bones (fig.3). Unfortunately the aediles considered them games of chance, and confined their practice to those December holidays which Romans called Saturnalia, happy times for gamblers who then could enter in action
?Forsake for a short time your sterness?
?Here?s December that, lets you free from the laws,
Now the dices ring here and there in their frivolous dice boxes
And boys play to the ?tropa? (fig.4) with the rascal knuckle bones?
but the Saturnalia passed and all games of chance were banned for the rest of the year, a ban that was often completely and gaily ignored by the people of Rome. The aediles tried as hard as they could to oblige their fellow citizens to respect the laws but to little avail. Thus each year when the Saturnalia ended, when the schools reopened, and
?The sad boy was obliged to abandon his walnuts
called back by the loud shouts of his teacher?.?
many grown up men ignored the ban and went on playing. Of course not all of them, but a certain number was caught red handed and brought to judgement
?Betrayed by the captivating ring of his dice box
and just out of the clandestine tavern
the dice player entreat the aedile to pardon him,
but all the Saturnalia are finished ??.?
However also if the rebel dice player was dragged in front of the aedile, this didn?t concern Augustus, who, being excessively fond of those kind of passtimes, never put an end to his gambling. In his house the ?forum aleatorium? (dices?s forum) was always open and always active. But who ever would have had the courage to object? After what the three triumvirs had done in the last proscriptions any Roman would like to find what aedile could dare to cite Augustus and maybe condemn him. Thus the emperor was free to play at any games he liked, and in any period of the year.
His games were all in the list of the ones banned by law, starting from some very innocent ones as ?Capita aut navia?, heads or tails, a game which was done flinging a coin in the air. It was so called in Latin because the more ancient moneys had a head of Janus on one side and the prow of a ship on the other. There was also another simple and quite vulgar game called ?morra? which was played as we do today, opening at the last moment the fist with a certain numbers of fingers stretched and contemporarely shouting a number. The player who guessed the right sum of his own fingers and his adversary?s ones won.
However the most important among all games were the dices - identical with our own and played in the same manner as we do now ? but very popular were also the ?astragali?, the knuckle bones, unknown to us, but a very ancient passtime, which is even cited in Homer?s Iliad. Their use was very diffused in Greece and Rome and they were well liked. With them one could play at many games, as, for instance, at odds and ends, and maybe lose a fortune on it: of course this happened because some time the stakes were very high. The game consisted in fishing some knuckle bones in a box, and challenge the adversary to guess if the number of the ones, which were kept in his closed fist, was odd or even. It was a very popular game played by everybody, regardless of age and sex, Even the imperial family spent some time in it. In a letter written by Augustus to his daughter Iulia the emperor says:
? I sent you two hundred and fifty ?denarii?, just as many as I gave to each of my guests so, that if they wanted it, they could play at ?astragalismos? or at odds and ends during he dinner.?
With the ?astragali? gamblers played the ?astragalimos? a game quite similar to the dices. Four knuckle bones were used. Two of the six sides of them, the sides number two and five, were not counted because they were round. The other four had some images depicted on them. On one of the larger flat side there was Anubis, the jackal god of the Aegyptian tombs. Greek called it ?kion? which means dog and it was also called dog - ?canis? - by the Romans. Of course Anubis was the worst throw, and it counted 1. The opposite side was devoted to Venus and that was worth 6 points. Of the other two sides the concave one was worth 3 points and the convex one 4. The throws originated 35 different combinations, each of which was called with a different name, but we know only few of them. We learn that the worst throw of all was the one in which all the four knuckle bones marked 1. It was called the dog throw. After this there was the side with the 6 and so on, while the best throw was the one in which all the four ?astragali? showed four different numbers. This was called the Venus throw and the one who did it won everything. Thus commenting on the gift of four ivory knuckle bones sent to a friend, Martial wrote
?When not even one of the ?astragali? will show the same side
you?ll say that I gave you a splendid gift?
Among Rome?s important personages there were many knuckle bones players. August was one of the more fondest among them He played often at them and in one of his letter to Tiberius he described the scene
?I dined, my dear Tiberius, with my customary friends and we were joined by Vinicius and Silius father. Today as yesterday, as was the old times custom, we played during the dinner: Once thrown the ?astragali? the one who had made ?dog? or ?six? had to put on the table as many ?denarii? as were the knuckle bones, and the one who did ?Venus? won everything.?
In the long run it could be a very high priced game and Augustus knew it. Thus in another of his letter to Tiberius he wrote
?We, my dear Tiberius, have spent very pleasurably the ?Quinquatria? festivities. We have played every day, and the ?Forum aleatorium? (Dices forum?) was enflamed. Your brother (Drusus Maior) played with great shrieks, but, when all was finished, we saw that he wasn?t out of much, because , little by little, he had succeded to make up. Instead I have lost twenty thousand sextertia, but only because as usual I have been generous. If, as a matter of fact, I had asked back all the stakes I had remitted, and if I had kept for me all the money I gave as gifts to others, I would have won fifty thousand sestertia. But I like to do so. My generosity will send me directly in paradise.?
Twenty thousands sextertia! It was a considerable sum, but for Augustus who was very rich it was less than nothing. Moreover at plays he was rather fortunate, as also Plutarch witness: Augustus had lots of luck in games and certainly much more than in war. Thus, after his unfortunate campaign in Sicily during which many of his ships had been sunk, the Romans, furious with him, had widely circulated this epigram:
?Because, twice defeated, he has lost all his ships
to win at least once now he is always playing dices?
As we have just seen there were lot of games of chance in ancient Rome and certainly nobody could deny that some time dices and knuckle bones could be such, but unfortunately for the Romans any game played on a game boards was considered banned by the aediles. It is certainly not our point of view. How is it possible to consider game of chance a match of draughts or chess? And when ever could we feel indignant over backgammon? But this was the Roman Aediles?s point of view, probably because they were against any form of game.
Origins of the game boards The origin of the game board is lost in the night of times. The most ancient that we know has been found in a five millenium B.C. calcolithic village (fig.5) but we don't know how it was used.
After this there are Mesopothamian and Aegyptian game boards among which we can include the ones found in the tomb of Tut?ankhamun: two rectangular boxes inlaid with ivory and precious woods and with two different kind of games for each one of their sides (fig.6). It is evident that they were probably used in two different manners. On one of its side, the anterior, the board was divided in 30 squares, while on the other, at the opposite side, there were 18 squares in the middle of two very long ones, each of which occupied the space of 6 normal ones.
Over each square, just as for a game of our snakes and ladders, there were drawings. On some of them there were three spoons, on some others three ibises, and on the rest two kneeling Egyptians in the classic pose that we see in their ancient drawings, with their head in profile, their breast in front, and the usual gesture of their arms and hands.
The boxes found in Tut?ankhamun?s tomb were very elegant and they even had a special support wih well moulded legs made as lion?s paws. The pawns which were found on the floor around them must have been kept in the drawers of the nearby game board. They where of three kinds: some, very simple, were molded in turned wood; others, shaped as ?astragali?, were made of red resin; then in the boxes there was a series of four small sticks - two in ebony and two in ivory ? which were long 17,5 cm, large 0,85 - 0,90 and 0,60 thick (fig.7) The ebony sticks were shaped as long fingers with their nails; the ivory ones had a similar shape but no nails. It doesn?t seem that these sticks had different shapes for the different players and however we don?t know how they were used, also if it is probable that they had the same functions of similar sticks still used in Far East?s games and particularly in Corea.
Also in Greece there were board games that belonged to the first days of its civilization, and the games played on them were always very popular. Representations of players are depicted on greek vases. In one of them, now in the Vatican museum, we can see two heroes of the Troyan war sitting around a game board. They seem very toughtful and are seriously studying which pawn to move.
Also Romans used game boards, but, for want of anything better, sometime they also cut copies of them on some curbs?s flagstones. Thus visiting the ruins of the ?fora?, or walking in ancient towns?s streets, we find these carvings which might have costed lots of work and exertion to the ones who sculpted them(fig.6). However, once the rustic board was finished, people sat around it, and began to move pawns that often were simple pebbles. We find many of these games at the Roman Forum; on the steps of the ?Basilica Giulia?, and we find them in Africa and everywhere around the empire (fig.7).
Near Seville, at Italica, where Emperor Hadrian?s family lived, there are 57 of those game boards carved on the curbs of a street which coasted the ?domus of Venus?s mosaic?, a place where evidently large groups of loafers convened. Here probably there was not much supervision, nor strict controls to check that the games would be played only in the Saturnalia period. 45 of those game boards were shaped as a circle cut by three or four, or even more rays. Some had another circle inside the first one; another one of them, divided in four sector by two rays, had four small circles carved inside each of its sectors. Three others were rectangles cut in four equal areas by two perpedicular segments Also if many of them look similar to our modern tic-tac-toe or tris game and we know how to play them, the other are completely unknown to us.
There are also other game boards made by a series of small cavities cut in the stones; over them there is a long rectangle and some time there are lines limiting the game?s area. We don?t know how they were played but in North Africa I saw Bedouins who, after having dug cavities in the sand, moved pebbles in them.
If poor people had to play around this roughly cut boards, also rich men played similar games only they didn?t have to carve them on their marble floor. Wealthy men used game boards that some time were made by very precious materials. We don?t know if Pompeus Magnus used the three feet for four (90 x 120 cm) one whose squares were inlaid with precious stone, a war trophy that was paraded in the triumph with which he celebrated his victory on the pirates, Asia and the Pontus. However we can see Trimalchio belatedly coming at his own banquet with a very nice game board, a valuable object made of terebinth with crystal dices and, instead of the normal black and white pawns, silver and gold money.
Many were the banned games that where played in Rome. One of them was called the 12 lines and for it, it was necessary to have a board, two dices and a dice box to shake them in, to this there were added 12 or fifteen pawns half of which were white and the others black. To find which player would begin, the players launched the dices. The man who made the highest number was the lucky one, and he could do the first throw. Then he had two choices: he could either bring one of his pawns in the square whose number corresponded to the sum of his dices, or else he could pick two pawns and put each one in squares with the same number of each dice. However he could never set them in places which were already occupied by two or three of the adversary pawns: these were considered close. If during the game a dices throw, had the number of a square that was occupied by only one of his adversary pawns, the player could send it back at the beginning and occupy the place. There was also the possibility that both the dices launched got the same number, at this moment the player had the right to another throw and consequently another move. The game was won by the first player who succeeded in bringing all his pawns on the first square. As a matter of fact it was a game very similar to our backgammon.
Always on a game board was played another game that was considered the most intelligent of all the ancient one. It was called called ?Latrunculi?, a word that until Cicero?s times meant mercenaries or guardcoasts, and did not intend thieves as it did some time later. When the word assumed this sense, the name of the pawns where changed in ?Milites? (soldiers) or ?Bellatores? (warriors). The ?latrunculi?, quite popular at the end of the Roman republic, were considered a strategy game and its 64 squares board was the battle field. Each player had 16 pawns, 8 of them were small and 8 large. The game was a middle course between draughts and chess: each player tried to invade the adversary?s field with his pawns. When one of his ?bellator? reached the last line of the chessboard, it became a king (in latin ?mandra?).
There was also another game that was played with pawns of different materials, and all had images depicted or carved on them. Some of them could have on one side a Muse, and on the other her name. But Muses were not the only subject used on them: on this kind of pawns we find comedy characters, slaves, caricatures, theatre masks, birds, animals, shells, zodiac signs, and objects as fruits?s baskets, and, even more interesting, the principal monuments that characterized the different districts of Alexandria.
Unfortunately, as we don?t know enough about ancient games, we can?t understand the reasons of these images and how they were chosen, In 1904 Rostovzeff published a set of 15 pawns that were located in the tomb of a boy. This finding proved that the game was played with 15 pawns. The images on this boy?s set depicted nine gods, a king, an Alexandria?s monument, two representations of athletic contests and two portraits of somebody. This bring us to hypotize that the game was invented in Alexandria at Iulius Caesar?s and Augustus?s times, and, as the last emperor?s image found on some of them represented Nero, we can think that the game was played in the span of time intercurrent between Caesar and the end of the Iulius Claudia dynasty.
Now, with the games of chance we close this excursion on the human ludic activities and their importance in the antiquity. They were very significant, they still are, and they will continue for ever. Children?s toys will be always here also if today our young ones wont have clay small animals and whistle, or bronze harness bells and our children will play with garishly coloured plastic toys but clay or plastic don?t change the spirit of plays and both the antiquity?s young ones and our own will enjoy the same games: swings, kites and balls. With the passing of time some game will be forgotten and some new one invented, but they will always be the same thing: the expressions of an activity that is implicit in human nature and that will never end.
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI, Dossier Giocare nel mondo antico in Archeo (Anno IX, n? 6 (112)) June 1994, pp. 40-85
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI, Giochi e giocattoli, Casa editrice Quasar, Roma 1995