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Roman Board Games
by Wally J. Kowalski

Latrunculi Directions

Here is a peculiar description of a game from the Persian writer Firdawsi (300?), who presumed to describe the origin of chess in the East. His description, however, seems to confuse Latrunculi with a game played with dice. This is the description, ignoring the reference to dice, of the King of India answering the King of Persia's challenge to learn this game.

He arranged an army similar to that of chess; he placed the two sides in order of battle and distributed the troops, ready for battle and for the assault of the town, among eight houses. The field was black, the battle-field square, and there were two powerful kings of good disposition who should both move without ever receiving injury. Each had at his side an army in its arrangements, collected at the head of the field, and ready for the fray. The two kings advanced upon the field of battle, their troops moved on all sides around them, each trying to outgo the other; now they fought on the heights, now on the plains; when two on one side had surprised a man by himself, he was lost to his side, and the two armies remained face to face until it was seen who was beaten.

This particular game was supposed to have been played on an 8 x 8 board with 8 men and a king on each side, although this description seems to exaggerate all the proportions and actions. This passage suggests at least two types of players, the king and the ordinary troops, which makes it distinct from Petteia (single stone Latrunculi).

A tantalizing clue to the nature of the game comes from the Vikings, who played a very similar game called Hnefatafl. This game is related to a group of games played by the Danes, the Swedes, the Lapps, the British and the Irish. Although the initial arrangement is different, and the board includes one king, in all other respects, this games appears to be the same as Latrunculi. Since the players in this game all have the move of a rook, we can conclude that the same must be true in Latrunculi. Also, the king in Hnefatafl cannot be captured, but can be immobilized.

A game in progress was discovered at Stanway in Essex, England, in 1996, on a board which had a length of 12 spaces, and a width of 8. The board has disappeared, but the hinges and metal fittings were still present and the stones remained essentially in place where they were left. Two or three had apparently been played, as shown in the diagram at right.

In addition to the glass stones, additional white and black pieces appeared. These could represent the king of hnefatafl, a game probably derived from Latrunculi, but the Romans would never have used the term "king". More likely is that this extra piece was either a commander or an Eagle (aquila). The eagle was carried by the standard-bearer and protecting it was of great importance.

The Stanway board has no center for an eagle, and the extra white and black pieces were placed on the fourth line. The eagles must have been moved once each, and the only symmetrical positions they could possibly have moved from are shown in the diagram at left.

This game could actually represent the transition of Roman Latrunculi (single stone) into the Celtic/British precursor to hnefatafl. In this case they were still using a Latrunculi board. The additional pieces, the eagles, in this version would seem to be a Roman innovation, since Latrunculi does not appear in Greece or in Egypt. Or they could be a British innovation, hence the name "kings" in hnefatafl (the Celts had no Eagles or standard-bearers). The conclusion can be drawn by similarity that the eagle cannot be killed but could engage in capturing enemy stones. A game could be won by penning up the eagle or killing all the men and penning up the eagle. Although in Henfatafl the king could only move one space at a time, it is clear from the Stanway game that the eagles have moved several spaces in one move.

A layout of the gameboard is shown below, based on the game found at Stanway in Essex, England. The eagles are located symmetrically opposite one another. The similarity to the placement of the kings in modern chess should not go unnoticed. Each eagle is placed right of center in front of twelve latro on a 12 x 8 board. Furthermore, the eagle cannot be captured, but can only be penned up. In all other respects, this version is played the same as Petteia. Two men may capture an enemy player by enclosing him on two sides, horizontal or vertical. When all the enemy's men are either captured or enclosed, the game is over.

Proposed Rules for Latrunculi

  1. Use 12 x 8 board arranged as above, or a 10 by 11 with the king centered between 5 men.
  2. Stones are lined up as shown on the board diagram, and Black plays first.
  3. Stones may move any number of spaces in the horizontal or vertical direction.
  4. Eagles cannot be captured but can be immobilized.
  5. A single stone is captured if it is surrounded on two sides (similar to latrunculi).
  6. The outside walls cannot be used to capture men.
  7. First player to block up or kill all the enemy stones and immobilize the enemy eagle wins.


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