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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski

Duodecim Scripta

Duodecim Scripta means "Twelve Lines" and was played on a board like the one below. Two players sat across from each other and placed their 15 black or white pieces (presumably stacked) on the first square on their side of the board. They then each tossed a set of three dice fom a cup and would move their pieces according to the value of the throw.

The pieces were like the lathed bone roundels. These seemed to be the standard pieces for most games of this type. Gambling chips looked essentially the same, but were scratched (on the backside) with numerals representing money values. Game pieces were also distinguishable by the fact that they were often inscribed on the back with the owner's name or initials. The colors have faded, but pieces that were not bone-white were either blue or black, but some pieces have been found that were red or even yellow.

The object was to get all one's pieces across the board to the final square. If you landed on a square that had an opponent's piece already on it, that piece would return to (their) square one. If two or more opponent's pieces were already on the square, then it could not be occupied. Presumably you would be forced to fall short, or rearrange the moves of your own pieces.

Some of the squares had names. Square 14 was called Antigonus. Square 19 was Summus. Square 23 was Divus. The special meaning, if any, of these names is not certain.

Obviously this game has a great deal in common with modern Backgammon and with Egyptian Senet. In fact, Duodecim Scriptorum may derive from its Egyptian precursor, since Senet dates to about 1000 years before the founding of Rome in 753 BCE.

Some historians believe that Duodecim Scriptora is the same as the game of the six six-lettered words, which we call Felix Sex. They have assumed that an extra row was added to create 36 squares, and that the squares were changed to letters so as to form words. But why they would continue to call the game "Twelve Lines" when there were neither twelve items nor any lines is unexplained by proponents of this theory. See the page on Felix Sex for further discussion on this matter.

Games sometimes split into two major variations. Just consider that Football and Rugby both evolved from Soccer. In the same way, Duodecim Scriptora may have led to the development of Felix Sex, but it most certainly led to the spin-off version called Alea or Tabula. And Tabula is the forerunner of a group of similar games played in Medieval Europe (Ad Elta Stelpur & Sixe-Ace) and Arabia (Nard) which have produced the modern game of Backgammon.

When the above depiction of a Duodecim Scriptorum board is expanded widthwise, and the playing pieces are set alongside each other, rather than stacked, we immediately see the resemblance to modern backgammon. In fact, the typical bone playing pieces were so unevenly cut that they may not have stacked well, and this may have caused the board dimensions to change out of necessity.

For the continuation of this story, see the pages on Tabula and Felix Sex.

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Roots of English: an Etymological Dictionary

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Astragalos used for playing games

The Game of Senet

Roman Toys and Games

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