The coronavirus pandemic has caused people to use some things they haven’t used in years – thermometers, pasta recipes, masks and board games. That last item is something humans have used to pass the time during good times and bad for about as long as they could communicate, count and swear. Unfortunately, many of the oldest and earliest of these games suffered the same fate as modern ones – missing pieces and lost instructions – and our knowledge of them is limited. That’s what makes a recent discovery in England exciting (at least to board game fans) — archaeologists in Chester, England, found a piece to a game once played by Roman soldiers. Clue? Battleship? Roman Candyland?
“The lozenge-shaped gaming piece is highly polished, probably from use, is approximately 29mm long and features a common Roman decoration of a ring and dot motif.”
The 1.5 inch piece (see pictures here) has a distinctive design, according to a press release by Chester Northgate, a business development area under construction in the heart of Chester, near the border with Wales. As with all excavation projects in England, the contractors brought in archaeologists – in this case from Oxford Archaeology – to help remove and identify signs of Roman life and other historical artifacts in this city which dates back to 79 CE when it was founded as a castrum or fort named Deva Victrix during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian. The artifacts, including the game piece, will either be taken to the Grosvenor Museum or housed undisturbed in place as a historical part of Northgate Chester.
“Experts link this to the game of Ludus Latrunculorum, meaning the Game of Mercenaries, which was a two-player military strategy board game played throughout the Roman Empire, similar to draughts.”
The area where the piece was uncovered was part of the barracks of Deva Victrix, so it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the soldiers playing it to pass the time and keep their military instincts sharp. According to The Smithsonian, Ludus Latrunculorum was mentioned in the writings of Ovid, Martial and Varro, and was played by Romans stationed in Norway, Italy, Libya and England – evidence has been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England. “Draughts” is the British version of checkers, which dates back to at least 3000 BCE in Sumer. However, the anonymous Roman poem Laus Pisonis, written in the 1st century CE, give some of the differences in playing Ludus Latrunculorum.
“In a thousand ways your army fights: one piece, as it retreats, itself captures its pursuer: a reserve piece, standing on the alert, comes from its distant retreat — this one dares to join the fray and cheats the enemy coming for his spoil. Another piece submits to risky delays and, seemingly checked, itself checks two more: this one moves towards higher results, so that, quickly played and breaking the opponent’s defensive line, it may burst out on his forces and, when the rampart is down, devastate the enclosed city. Meanwhile, however fierce rises the conflict among the men in their divided ranks, still you win with your phalanx intact or deprived of only a few men, and both your hands rattle with the crowd of pieces you have taken.”
As described in this and other writings, pieces can be captured, positioned in a line to avoid capture, moving backwards and forwards, removed permanently when captured, and ended when one player has only one piece remaining on the board. While checkers and other games start with the pieces in predefined positions, there is some evidence that Ludus Latrunculorum allowed pre-placement as part of the strategy. Also, the number of pieces used can vary, based on a pre-agreed amount.
It’s not known what the proper victory yell was, but it’s likely the Roman soldiers had a suitable one. Excavations at Chester Northgate are ongoing, so there’s a chance that more pieces to this game of Ludus Latrunculorum will be found.
It’s comforting to know that as fast and furious as the world is changing, some things have remained the same across time and cultures.
Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean
And they wile away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up with flowers
In the back of a black limousine
La-da da da da da da da
La-da da da da da de
Talking ’bout you and me
And the games people play
— Games People Play (Joe South)