Monday, January 9, 2012


Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Way back in October we began a series of posts on Games of the Ancient world when we examined the game of Hounds and Jackals. Things got shunted aside to make way for the Christmas posts, but we’ll be back on track throughout January and the first half of February when we’ll pause to do an in-depth study of Lent and Easter. By the way, if you missed the Hounds and Jackals post, you can start at the beginning by going HERE.

Today, we’ll look at another popular Roman game, Ludus latrunculorum, more commonly called simply Latrunculi...the game of brigands. It was a game of military tactics and strategy, favored by the thinking man. Its name derives from the Latin word latrunculus: mercenary or highwayman. It’s aptly named since the play involved military-like strategy, feints, attacks and capture of the opponent’s men.

A Relief of Latrunculi Players and Onlookers
 In case you’re wondering, our interest in these games grew while doing research for my book, Disciple. There’s a scene that takes place in Antioch, in which Rivkah and Shemu’el encounter his old friend, Atticus. Atticus is now Primus Medicus… supervisor of the medical staff serving the four Legions stationed in Antioch. Needless to say, he is a man of power and wealth. Atticus invites his old friend and family to come to his home for dinner. The chapter in question deals with his home, dining customs of that era, and mentions the children playing Hounds & Jackals and Latrunculi after dinner. It also contains back story on Atticus and his wife, Marcelina, as well as their subsequent conversion to Christianity. If you’re interested, you can read it HERE.

An Ancient Gameboard Found in a Dig
In its earliest version, Latrunculi was played with small stones. This made the game very portable and an obvious favorite of the soldiers. Working with whatever might be at hand, players could scratch the grid into a board, table, rock, or even etch it in the dirt. Give each player a handful of pebbles and they were off and running.

Over time, the game has been described alternately as having either one type of playing piece or two. Archeological finds in Italy and Britain suggest that at least in the later Empire, Latrunculi had two playing pieces. All the pieces except one were flat, smooth stones or discs, representing the footmen or pawns. the Dux, a piece that today we might call the King, was made as a four-sided piece to differentiate it from the rest of the men.

By the way, dux (plural: duces) is Latin for leader…from the verb ducere, to lead. The word eventually found its way into Italian. We all remember Benito Mussolini being referred to as Il Duce…the Leader.

Latrunculi is clearly a variant of the earlier Greek game known as Petteia, which means pebbles. Plato tells us that Petteia originally came from Egypt. In the pictures from Greek amphorae we see Ajax and Achilles playing Petteia. These vases predated Roman boards.

In the Onomasticon, a book by the Greek writer Pollux, he describes Petteia as follows:

“The game, played with many pieces, is a board with spaces disposed among lines. The board is called the city and each piece is called a dog; the pieces are of two colors, and the art of the game consists in taking a piece of one color by enclosing it between two of the other color.”

That Latrunculi is a precursor to chess is pretty much a given. When chess came to Germany, the terms for Chess and Check (which had originated in Persian) entered the German language as Schach. But Schach was already a native German word for robbery. As a result, ludus latrunculorum was often used as a medieval Latin name for chess.

A Stone Board with Divots for Playing Pieces
So, suppose you’re now itching to play a round or two of Latrunculi? That might be a little difficult since no one knows the exact rules. Several people have, however, developed a presumed set of rules.

What follows is known as Kowalski’s Conjectural Rules:

A)   The board has eight ranks and twelve files. Each player has twelve men plus a dux. One side is black, the other white. In the starting array the men fill the first rank and the dux stands on the second, on the square just to the right of the center line (from each player's point of view). On a board of ten squares by eleven, the dux starts in the center of the back row, flanked by five men on each side. Black moves first.

B)    Each piece may move any unobstructed distance along a rank or file similar to the rook in chess.

C)    A man is captured if the enemy places a piece adjacent to it on each side, forming an orthogonal (perpendicular) line.  I read this to mean that you have one man beside your opponent’s man and the other either immediately above or below the man being captured. Thus, they form a right angle…from the Greek orthos, meaning straight, and gonia, meaning angle.

D)   If a piece is moved voluntarily between two enemy pieces, it is not captured, but the player so moving should point out the fact to avoid later disputes.

E)    A man in a corner is captured if the opponent places his men on the two squares adjacent to the corner.

F)    Repeated sequences of moves are not allowed. If the same position occurs three times, the player must vary his attack.

G)   The dux cannot be captured. It is immobilized if blocked on all four sides. A player who immobilizes the enemy's dux wins the game, even if some of the obstruction is by the dux's own men.

H)   Play continues until one player cannot move, and thus loses. This sounds a lot like the rule of checkmate, where a King cannot move into check in a chess match.
So there you have it. There were, of course, many other Roman games. Some involved pitting a bull against a bear. Others pitted man against man, or man against beast. The latter is the best remembered since during various persecutions that man happened to be a Christian. We’ll continue visiting other table Games of the Ancient World in future posts.

Next time, we’ll resume our posts on Metals of the Ancient World with a look at Copper.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

If you reached this post via a link, click the HOME tab above to see other posts and our archives.

1 comment:

Paul Owen said...

I am strongly reminded of an ancient family of games called "tafl games," including the game Hnefatafl, which was spread by the vikings throughout northern Europe. The rules are very similar (though not identical) to Kowalski's Conjectural Rules for Latrunculi.

The Christian influence on tafl games is strong. Although there are many variations, in all cases the initial setup of pieces is cruciform.

I wonder whether the Roman game of Latrunculi was a precursor that the Romans spread to northern Europe and that the vikings adopted centuries later as Hnefatafl.