Games Around the World: Ancient Greece and Rome
Saturday, 26th December 2015
The previous stop in my armchair journey around the world was mediaeval Spain. Now I travel a little further around the Mediterranean Sea, and back in time to classical antiquity. It is time to visit Greece and Rome, to see what board games they played.
The games of these civilisations all have an air of mystery about them. Despite being two highly literate cultures, very little information has been left to us of the games that they played, so most that are played today are reconstructions.
Not even the name of the first one has survived. Plenty of etched boards have been found in public places, though. The game is in the form of a circle, crossed by vertical, horizontal and diagonal line, the board resembling a pie cut into eight equal pieces. The lack of information causes some to question whether it is a game at all.
But supposing it is a game, the closest known game to it would be three men's morris. The normal rules of three men's morris could not have applied here. Given that a straight line of three wins the game, and all straight lines cross the centre, the first player who places a piece in the centre would prevent the opponent from ever winning the game as long as that central piece is not moved.
Two games providing bigger clues as to game play are ludus duodecim scriptorum (the game of twelve lines) and tabula, two predecessors to backgammon. Ludus duodecim scriptorum has three rows of twelve playing spaces, while tabula boards resemble a modern backgammon board. Unlike modern backgammon, tabula was played with three dice, and the pieces of both players travelled in the same direction.
Less is known about ludus duodecim scriptorum, but like tabula it probably had the pieces travelling in the same direction for both players. A board marked with alphabetic characters seems to suggest that pieces started on the central row, doubling back on one of the outer rows, and turning back again on the opposite outer row, the paths of the pieces resembling a giant paperclip.
The morris game was probably a children's game, and the two backgammon-like games for gamblers. But the most educated people would have played a more strategic game: petteia in Greece, which became Ludus Latrunculorum in Rome. These games resembled draughts or checkers, but the pieces moved in straight lines rather than diagonals. Capture was not by jumping, but by surrounding an enemy piece by two of one's own on opposite sides.
The final stop on our round the world tour will be Lapland, where the Saami people were very innovative game inventors.