Roman Board Games
"qui audet adipiscitur"
By Jason Zhao
Like most of us, the Romans were a busy people who were often occupied with negotium (work/business) and had little free time. However, also like us, the Romans found many ways to spend their sparse amounts of free time. One of their favorite pastimes was board games. There are many Roman board games, but most of them share a few common traits.
Rome was a civilization that thrived on expansion, constantly attacking and conquering neighboring states. This lead to the diffusion of many cultures into and out of Rome. Board games were no different: most Roman board games originated in Egypt and Greece before eventually making its way to Rome. Although Romans retained the basic concept of these foreign games, they often altered the details to match their opinions and culture. These new "Roman" games would then be spread throughout the rest of the world. Some of these Roman games still live on today: Chess, Mancala, and even Tic-Tac-Toe have made their way into popular culture.
Portability and Simplicity
Romans loved their board games very much, so it wasn't much of a surprise when archaeologists discovered game boards engraved onto the surface of floors, steps, and sidewalks. However, game boards were also found inscribed onto the floors of Roman courthouses and even holy temples! The emperor Claudius even had a special table designed so that he could play board games on a shaky chariot. This shows that the Romans enjoyed playing board games whenever they could, as well as the overall simplicity and ease of play of most Roman games. Most Roman board games could be played almost anywhere and at any time.
You may wonder why the Romans were so interested in playing board games. The answer lies in a less discussed aspect of Roman life. In addition to wars, honor, and glory, the Romans loved gambling. Almost every single form of Roman entertainment had something to do with gambling: betting on races, gladiators, and even gambling in board games. Romans were gambling so much that the government had to pass laws to stop the frequent riots and arguments incited by flared tempers. A Roman caught gambling had to pay four times the stakes and might even get sent to prison. The only time a Roman was allowed to bet was on the holiday of Saturnalia, a carnival/feast. However, these laws were often ignored and almost never enforced. Ironically, Emperor Claudius wrote a book about gambling board games, Emperor Augustus gave gold coins to guests so they would have money to gamble with, and Emperor Commodus even turned his palace into a casino to raise money (after he used up the Roman treasury)!
Soldiers and Children
Emperors and the Roman elite were not the only Romans who played board games. Soldiers were perhaps the most avid players, often bringing game boards with them to their outposts. This in turn spread the game around to foreign states and raised the game's popularity. Some military commanders used board games to instruct soldiers. Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, invented Latrunculi (Roman Chess) to teach his soldiers the art of strategy and war. The military aspect of Roman games provide an explanation of why the Romans called game pieces "men" and the most valuable piece the "general" or "king". The children of Rome also loved playing games, and they had the time and friends to do so. Often children would be introduced to the world of Roman games (and gambling) through simple pastimes such as Tic-Tac-Toe.
Children and grown men alike often cheated their way to success and riches while playing board games. This only led to more brawls, especially when gambling was involved. The Romans often made loaded coins and dice with extra weight on certain sides for more favorable rolls. Some Romans even tried magic as a solution to their gambling woes. One well known Roman cheater was the Emperor Caligula, who was recognized for his cheating tactics. In fact, cheating became such a widespread issue that the Romans had to invent a process to negate the effects of loaded game pieces. The dice (or any other game piece) would be shaken in a pyxis cornea (a horn) instead of a traditional dice box. Afterwards, the dice would be tossed into a cylinder with a funnel on top and a "spiral staircase" inside. It was only after falling through this cylinder and onto the game board that the Romans could be sure that the roll was honest.
Roman board games provide valuable insight into the culture, lifestyle, and characteristics of Rome. They also highlight just how much Roman culture and influence have made their way into our lives today. It is amazing that such an early civilization could reach such a level of sophistication.