Roman games were not so different from many that we still know and enjoy today, with the Roman Tabula being likened to modern backgammon, Terni Lapili as our tic-tac-toe, and Latrunculi not dissimilar to chess or draughts. While there is numerous physical evidence for these games, such as the sets themselves and Pompeian wall paintings of the games being played, the rules are harder to uncover; historians use a mix of literary sources and comparisons to extant games in order to reconstruct ancient game play.
Games with dice were extremely popular in all the regions of the Roman Empire. According to Herodotus, the most famous ancient Greek historian, the Lydians, an Anatolian people living in Lydia, a region in Western Anatolia, claimed to have invented dice games. This has been however proven-otherwise by experts and archaeologists: the use of dice dates back to the Egyptian world, around 3000 BC, almost 2,000 years before the Iron Age Lydians.
Tali and Tesserae
The ancient Romans had two games played with dice: Tali and Tesserae. Tali, or knucklebones, was played with a 4 sided dice, although these varied in form from our more modern cuboid die to any small object that was available, such as stones, shells and seeds. While often played with the eponymous knucklebones of sheep, even purpose-made dice were fashioned from animal bone.Bad scores were called canes, or dogs, and the high scores were called Venus, after the Roman goddess of love. Players threw from a cup called a fritillium and usually played on a board made of wood, bronze or marble. Wealthy players had marble boards encrusted with jewels and had their names inscribed on the back of the boards.
Dice and Gambling
Dice, of course, led to gambling, and the Romans had a reputation for being a society of prolific speculators. Everyone from the emperor to slaves enjoyed gambling, with Augustus writing to Tiberius that he had lost 30,000 sesterces in one weekend, suggesting that this was only because he was a good host to his guests. Caligula, on the other hand, is said to have freely cheated his friends in order to raise money for his lavish ventures. The ruin of so many Romans through gambling losses caused the authorities to enact numerous laws (e.g. Lex Titia) forbidding the game of dice. But the laws were ignored and “shooting craps” continues to be one of the most popular games 2000 years later, as Las Vegas enthusiasts demonstrate. Praising the god of Luck is not just an ancient pastime!