Greece and Rome

Research Article

Roman Board Games. I

R. G. Austin

The study of classical board games offers a most fertile field for conjecture, yet at the same time yields a distressing paucity of certain fact. Hasty conclusions of all kinds have been drawn from the sources available, both as to the nature of the games and as to methods of playing them; encouraged by the cheerful ambiguities of our authorities, investigators have not hesitated to equate Greek games with Roman, or both with those of Egypt and the Orient if occasion suited, and to lay down rules for the one deduced entirely from the other. Actually, the most sober caution is necessary. We are not justified in deriving the games of one country from those of another; but when a game obviously conforms to a definite type as played throughout the ages in various parts of the world, then we may justifiably make certain assumptions concerning it; for example, in the case of those Roman games which are of the backgammon type we may reasonably infer that they were played in a certain way. Beyond that we cannot go, and the utmost care is needed not to pervert the tradition of ancient authors, vague and obscure as it so often is. It is especially important to note that none of these games, either Greek or Roman, had any connexion with chess. There is no proof that the latter was derived either from the πντε γραμμα or from the ludus latrunculorum; any such claim is quite invalidated by the anachronisms and impossibilities involved. Thus ‘chess’, even as a loose translation of a term such as πεττεα, so commonly found, is inaccurate and misleading. If this paper is less inconclusive than many previous accounts, it is due to the help freely given me by Mr. H. J. R. Murray, who has put at my disposal his own notes and suggestions, backed by his expert practical understanding of board games and his unique knowledge of their comparative history.