The games played by Romans
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.
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’!
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.
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)
Colchester Archaeological Trust - more on the Stanway board
Find out more about studying history with the Open University.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Thursday, 3rd September 1998
Last updated on: Thursday, 3rd September 1998
- Body text - Copyrighted: The Open University
- Image 'Irving Finkle' - Copyrighted: Production team
- Image 'Re-enactment of legionnaires playing game' - Copyrighted: Production team
- Image 'Roman dice' - Copyrighted: Production team
- Image 'Roman board game' - Copyrighted: Production team
If you enjoyed this, why not follow a feed to find out when we have new things like it? Choose an RSS feed from the list below. (Don't know what to do with RSS feeds?)
Remember, you can also make your own, personal feed by combining tags from around OpenLearn.