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Roman Board Games. II

  • R. G. Austin


It is now time to deal with the much-discussed and much-abused passage of Isidore, Orig. xviii. 60 ff. The account begins: ‘De Tabula. Alea, id est lusus tabulae, inventa a Graecis …; tabula luditur pyrgo, calculis tesserisque.’ After explaining the meaning of pyrgus (dice-box), calculi, and tesserae, Isidore continues with a section entitled De Figuris Aleae, a description of the board; then follow the names of the throws, remarks on the best way of throwing, and a description of the movement of pieces; the account ends with the statement that owing to its immoral tendencies the game was forbidden by law. Now, if this passage is read as a whole and without bias, it is clear that Isidore is giving a methodical account of one particular game, which he calls ‘Alea’ or ‘Tabula’.



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page 76 note 1 The full expression was ludere tabula, ad tabulam; cf. τάβλη, ταβλίʒειν, and the modern Greek τό τάβλι (stated by Lamer to survive in Syrian Arabic, and in Turkish).

page 76 note 2 Lamer, however, simply discredits Isidore's account of the moves as quite unsupported by other evidence, and thinks that the whole passage is general and eclectic in nature—a view which I cannot accept.

page 77 note 1 See J.H.S., 12 1934, p. 202 f.; Jackson's, H. reconstruction is faulty (Journal of Philology, vii, pp. 240 ff.)

page 78 note 1 Mr. Murray very plausibly conjectures that Claudius himself may have dealt with the new form of the game in his work de arte aleae which has so unfortunately perished.

page 78 note 2 Plautus' phrase ‘ad incitas [sc. calces] redigere’ (Poen. 907, Trin. 537), probably refers to xii scripta; no doubt tabula borrowed its technicalities from the older game.

page 79 note 1 Cf. Ovid's distans (Trist. ii. 475), probably in connexion with xii scripta; Agathias uses ἄʒυξ for ‘blot’ (A.P. ix. 482, 26).

page 79 note 2 Cf. Boeswillwald-Cagnat-Ballu, , Timgad, p. 27.

page 80 note 1 Cf. C.I.L. xiv. 5317, quoted in my account of xii scripta. Mr. Murray tells me that nearly all the medieval boards in museums are double-sided, and that such are mentioned in Muslim works and in early Norse inventories; nearly all Egyptian boards are likewise double-sided.

page 81 note 1 Cf. Lafaye, in Daremberg and Saglio, s.v. tessera; Hülsen (Römische Mitteilungen, xi, 1896, pp. 238 ff.) concludes that they were used for xii scripta. See also McDowall, K. A., Numismatic Chronicle, 1906, pp. 232 ff., for a discussion of various types of playing-pieces, a reference which I owe to Miss A. S. Robertson.

Roman Board Games. II

  • R. G. Austin


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