Examining the games in Ancient Rome requires starting from the origins of the Roman society. Since the most archaic times, the games and in general the ludic activity revealed themselves as essential moments for the social aggregation, playing an important function within the community, both private and public.
On the one hand the Etruscans and on the other hand the Greeks gave to the game a high social consideration, considering it literally essential to a proper organization of the community. As for the Romans, it is enough to think about the famous saying “panem et circenses“, which in just three words exalts the importance of entertainment and free time for every single level of the population. Obviously, in the full respect of the traditions and Roman habits, it was necessary to define the rules of the games at a technical level, to regulate the disciplinary process, to elaborate a set of laws which would allow to enhance their importance, as testified by numerous historical and archaeological evidences.
Our reference for this article is Vincenzo Spina, Tour Guide of Rome Guides and expert designer of board and card games. Who better than he could combine the history of ancient Rome and that of board games?
THE CONCEPT OF GAMBLING
The term “hazard” derives from the Arabic word az-zahr, which translates as “dice”: if you think about it, indeed, the most ancient games of chance were based on dice, which were thrown to predict which combination of numbers would come out.
The very purpose of the concept of gambling was to bet money or goods on the outcome of a future event, more or less probable: it was a sort of challenge between the human intellect and its ability to predict the future and the chaos and randomness of fate. The very concept of gambling, therefore, implied that a player had no probabilistic certainty about his winnings: many famous people went completely bankrupt because of gambling, such as the great Greek philosopher Socrates, who according to the chronicles literally fell into poverty.
Given the potential social danger of the phenomenon, in Ancient Rome since the dawn of the Republic they tried to regularize gambling, issuing for example the Lex Alearia, which punished anyone who played dice with a fine equal to four times the amount at stake: the law also stated that gambling debts were not actually payable, and therefore the creditor could not legally pursue the debtor to obtain the amount due to him.
The Lex Alearia, however, did not succeed in any way to stop the frightening spread of gambling within all social classes of Rome: according to its detractors (and not only…), even the Emperor Augustus suffered from a real form of ludopathy, with an unbridled passion for the game of dice, which made him lose large sums of money and even two ships during his glorious empire.
Yet, in contrast to what has just been said, there was in the Roman calendar a specific time of the year when gambling became not only allowed, but even encouraged: it is the week between December 17 and 23, when the Saturnalia celebrations were held, still considered a halfway point between our Christmas and Carnival holidays (just think that the ancient Romans, during this holiday, exchanged small symbolic gifts, a tradition still used today with reference to Christmas). The festival of Saturnalia represented a sort of rite of passage between the old and the new year, and was celebrated with festive banquets marked by a sensational reversal of roles: for a week, the slaves acquired power and freedom for just seven days, while throughout Rome were organized theatrical and musical performances, and everywhere it was possible to gamble legally and without danger.
THE VARIOUS TYPES OF GAMBLING
Among all the various games of chance practiced in Rome, one of the most popular was called Navia et Capita, and was the equivalent of our Head or Cross. To play, it was enough a simple coin: the denomination was derived from the decoration of a coin of the Republican era, which had on one side the profile of the head of the goddess Rome (or perhaps the god Janus) and the other the representation of the prow of a ship armed with rostrum.
If the players did not have even a coin in their pockets, but had a hand with all five fingers, they could have challenged each other to a game of Micatio, the ancestor of today’s morra. Even this game was very common in Ancient Rome, and consisted of shouting aloud a number ranging from two to ten, trying to guess the sum of the numbers that were shown with the fingers of the two players, who simultaneously stretched out their arm showing a number of fingers of your choice (value between 1 and 5). The one who guessed the total sum won the point, while in the case in which both had guessed, nobody would have scored points and it would have been necessary to continue the game.
The most popular gambling games in Ancient Rome, however, involved the use of dice. Pliny says that they would have been invented by the Egyptian god Thoth, in contrast to Herodotus who considered them as a creation of the mythological Lydian people: regardless of who had the idea, the only thing that is certain is that the dice spread with incredible speed, representing on the one hand the Romans’ favorite pastime and playfulness and on the other hand a form of divination tool, thanks to the reading of the throws made through a special technique called “cleromancy”.
The dice, which like those of today had six faces whose opposing numbers always had to give a sum equal to seven, could be made of bone, wood, terracotta, lead, bronze, quartz and even silver or gold.
The game of dice was called alea (think of the phrase “alea iacta est“, which has passed into history because it is connected to the memory of Julius Caesar) and was practiced literally everywhere, in the most treacherous inns and in the most luxurious baths, in the middle of the mud in the street and in the majestic halls of the imperial palaces, and even in the bedroom as a delightful erotic prelude to the sexual act itself.
The rules of the game were very simple: it was enough to throw three dice and add up the results obtained. Obviously, there were particularly good or bad combinations, such as the already mentioned “Aphrodite’s hit” or “Dog’s hit“, respectively consisting in a triple six or a triple one. Gambling has always been connected to the attempt to obtain an unfair advantage, and cheats and manipulators were the order of the day: the Emperor Caligula often used rigged dices with counterweights inside to win his games. His successor, his uncle Claudius, was certainly more honest than him, but no less passionate: imagine that he had a wooden board with raised edges built on his traveling wagon, in order to play during the trips avoiding that the dices rolled out of the wagon itself.
However, it was not necessary to insert weights in the dice to obtain the desired result: many players had become so clever to have perfected their throwing technique to the maximum, being able to make the dice fall on the desired side. To get around this cunning stratagem, the Romans invented a sort of small tower, often decorated with letters used for additional word games, which forced the dice thrown inside to follow a random path before coming out on the game board, making it almost impossible to make a “programmed” throw.
THE TABULAE LUSORIAE
On the floors and steps of several monuments of Ancient Rome, as for example on the steps of access to the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum, it is still possible to find real boards belonging to ancient board games, which were a very popular entertainment among both children and adults. You could see them booking the Imperial Rome Tour by Rome Guides, specifically dedicated to the analysis of the Ancient Rome.
The Latin name of these game boards is Tabulae Lusoriae: these boards, usually made of wood and often foldable on themselves, could be worked in a very simple way or richly decorated, with valuable ivory and precious stones inlays. Some Tabulae Lusoriae had the form of a real chessboard, as for example the one brought in triumph by Pompeo Magno, that was long more than a meter and entirely realized through the inlay of two different precious stones, one light and one dark.
At least eight board games are known to have been played in Ancient Rome. The most widespread of them was called Ludus Latrunculorum and can be considered an indirect ancestor of checkers and chess. To understand the rules, it is necessary to refer to a series of passages written by Martial and Ovid: on the basis of these indications, it is possible to affirm that the game was played on a chessboard divided by horizontal and vertical lines, on which the players placed sixteen pawns of different colors, called milites. These pawns could move any number of squares horizontally and vertically, exactly as happens with the tower in the game of chess. A pawn was captured when it was surrounded by two enemy pawns, horizontally or vertically. As can be easily deduced, the player who managed to eat more pieces than the opponent won the game.
Less strategic and more aleatory was the Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum, which was played on a larger board, with twelve pawns per player. The pawns, however, could not be moved freely, but it was necessary to roll the dice: if one’s pawn happened to be on a square occupied by an opponent’s pawn, the latter would have to return to the starting point, with a rule very similar to that of the modern game “Don’t get angry!”.