The games played by Romans

Updated Thursday 3rd September 1998

How did the Romans entertain themselves on the long nights in the corner of empire?

Irving Finkle Copyrighted image Icon Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

Meet the legionnaires

Our Roman legionnaries are Gais Allius and Petronius Scaurus, alias Colin Martin and Peter Mitchell. They are members of the re-enactment group Legion XIIII and are based in Hertfordshire.

Re-enactment of legionnaires playing game Copyrighted image Icon Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

 

Games

The first game our two legionnaries are playing is called Tabula or Duo Decim Scripta. It is played in 12 lines, much like modern backgammon, but uses letters to mark the board instead of points. These letters often spelled out amusing or rude phrases – the one our Romans are playing on says ‘levate/dalocv/lvdede/nescis/idiota/recede’ which means ‘Get up, give me your place, you don’t know how to play, you’re an idiot’!

 

Roman dice Copyrighted image Icon Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

 

Dr Finkel also shows us some examples of Roman dice, the most crude being sheep’s knuckle bones. Easily found and usually free, each bone has four distinct sides and expert players may have been able to throw them to get the result they wanted. Dr Finkel also shows us dainty glass replicas that may have been used by the upper classes, as well as a six sided dice very like the ones we use today.

Counters for playing the games were anything from stones on the roadside, like the ones our Romans are using, to bits of broken pottery, shaped bone or ornate, carved, glass pieces.

 

Roman board game Copyrighted image Icon Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

 

The second game our legionaries play is a more strategic game, similar to modern day chess or draughts. It is difficult to establish exactly the rules of any Roman games, but from references in poetry together with archaeological evidence we think that the aim was to trap opponents’ pieces by moving the counters one at a time. This particular board is a replica of one recently excavated at Stanway near Colchester. It was found in the grave of a British doctor and Dr Finkel says:

"It’s a clear example of, when the Romans departed, leaving behind them a board game which must have passed into British society and probably lasted a long time."

Similar games would probably have been played in Britain until their modern equivalents took their place.

Take it further

The Oxford History of Board Games, David Parlett (Oxford University Press)

Weblinks

British Museum

Colchester Archaeological Trust - more on the Stanway board

Legion XIIII

Find out more about studying history with the Open University.

 

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