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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski


Latrunculi means "robber-soldiers" or "mercenaries" and was the most popular thinking man's game in the Roman Empire. Numerous boards have been found and they vary in size, but the most common size is 8 by 8. This game seems to have gone through a transition, just as Duodecim Scriptorum changed to Tabula.

The result is that writers have described it alternately as having either one type of playing piece or two. Archeological finds in Italy and Britain suggest that at least in the later Empire Latrunculi had two playing pieces. The earlier single stone version, therefore, would be identical to Petteia.

Latrunculi most certainly derives from the Greek game Petteia, which also means "pebbles". Plato tells us that Petteia originally came from Egypt. In the pictures from Greek amphoras we see Ajax and Achilles playing Petteia. These vases predate Roman boards.

In a book called Onomasticon by the Greek writer Pollux, he describes Petteia as follows:

The game played with many pieces is a board with spaces disposed among lines: the board is called the 'city' and each piece is called a 'dog'; the pieces are of two colors, and the art of the game consists in taking a piece of one color by enclosing it between two of the other color.

The Greeks played this game by at least the 5th century BCE. The Egyptians may have been playing this game in the time of Ajax and Achilles, and the Greeks certainly had commerce with Egypt at the time of the Trojan War, but no evidence of this game in Egypt has yet been found. The amphora images may be fancy or fact, but the suggestion that the game involved military style strategy is inescapable. In these images, there are 11 stones lined up on one of the boards, and 9 or 10 on the other, which are suggestive of the board lengths.

Latrunculi was a military strategy style game resembling modern chess in some ways.The exact rules of this game are not known. Checkerboards were unusual.

Boards varied in size; some boards were 8 x 8, 8 x 7, or 9 x 10.

It may be impossible to determine which of these boards were for what game, but the size of the board may not have affected the style of play. Boards for all these games, therefore, may have been interchangeable. Boards were made of wood, but some were made of stone, marble, or even silver.

The single stone (single type of playing piece) must be the original version of the game, and is the Greek game of Petteia. The two-piece version is referred to here as Latrunculi 2 or just Latrunculi. The single additional piece sat in front of the line of stones and may have represented the Eagle (aquila), or standard-bearer. Descriptions and proposed rules are provided on the following pages :

  1. Petteia (Single Stone Latrunculi)
  2. Latrunculi Directions

The pieces could be made of metal, ivory, stone or glass. Even coins could have been used. Boards may have varied in size, without affecting the style of play. Some boards were made of silver, most were made of wood, but some were made of stone or marble.

The relationship describing the evolution of Latrunculi and precursors is shown here. The links to modern chess and Go are speculative, but in the case of Go, it is curious to note that the game of Five-in-a-Row was played in China on Go boards and in Rome on Latrunculi boards.


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