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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski


Tesserae

Playing Dice was very popular game among the Romans. The Romans called these tesserae, but they also had a type with only four marked faces called tali. The only difference between these Roman dice and modern dice is that the numbers were arranged such that any two opposite sides would add up to seven. Dice were shaken in a cup then tossed, as croupiers do today. Bets were placed the same manner as we place them today. Greeks played with three dice, but Romans played with two, except for the board game Duodecim Scripta.

This game was played in taverns as well as gambling houses, brothels and on the street. The emperor Commodus was fond of gambling with dice, and once turned the Imperial Palace into a brothel and gambling house to raise money for the treasury he bankrupted. In this he may have followed a precedent set by the mad emperor Caligula.

The game of dice could be played with other pieces, such as knucklebones, or Senet sticks, which would be tossed in the same way. The Romans, in fact, played a variety of games of chance for the purpose of gambling. Coin tossing was known as capita aut navia, which means "heads or ships," (early Roman coins always had a ship on the tail side). These games were often played in the streets.

The wall drawing shown below comes from a tavern in Pompeii. The image was redrawn from Gusman's Pompeii, the City, its Life and Art. Treatments were provided by the author. The Latin captions read "Exsi" and ''Non tria duas est," in the first frame. In the second they appeared to read "Noxsii amii tria iigo fui," then "Urtii. Piillatorii hgo tui," and the barkeeper says "Itis foras rixsatis." Though this Latin seems archaic, it is charmingly slang-like and was probably all cliches to the Romans.

Below at the left is provided an English equivalent colloquialized by the author. Bell and others considered this to represent Duodecim Scripta, and "exsi" makes sense in this regard. However, how a two can be rolled with three dice has never been explained by anyone, but then, one should not underestimate the Roman sense of humor.

Gambling became such an obsession for some Romans, and such a social problem in general, that the government was forced to restrict it. This was indeed unusual for the Romans, as they rarely restricted any type of civil or business activity. The Republic restricted gambling to the week-long festivities surrounding the Saturnalia (the modern Christmas and New Year's holidays).

Under Roman law, games of chance played for money were forbidden under the penalty of a fine fixed at four times the value of the stakes. We can imagine how effective this must have been. It probably caused most gaming tables to simply be moved indoors to so-called private clubs. Furthermore, gambling chips would have replaced actual money in the games. Considerable evidence for this exists in the large number of marked gambling chips that have been found throughout the Roman Empire, examples of which are shown here.

These chips, called roundels, are generally made of bone and carrying numerical markings on one side. The most common markings are X, V and I, with only a small proportion marked with other numbers such as II, III, VIII, IX, or other numbers up to 18. Many of the chips marked with an X have an extra vertical line through the middle, which symbolizes a denarii, or a Roman coin. Some of the chips are even labeled remittam libenter ("I will gladly repay"). This is the Roman equivalent of an I.O.U. and, presumably, the repayment would have been made to or from the tavern or gambling club, much the same as is done with gambling tokens in Las Vegas today. These chips bear a great similarity to those colored roundels that would have been used for other board games, such as Calculi and Tabula. This should not be surprising since they were made by the same process, turning and grinding sections of bone on a lathe. In fact, many of these gaming pieces could have served dual purposes.

Betting on horse races and gladiatorial combat was never restricted and this left the gamers some leeway in satisfying their gambling habits legally. In the later Empire it seems enforcement was spotty or neglected altogether, since even the emperors would gamble. Augustus Caesar regularly played dice or knucklebones with his family in the Imperial Palace, giving them handfuls of coins to start with.

 

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