What is the game?
This fragment of a game board along with some of its counters was found at the Roman military fort of Canovium in north Wales. It was probably used to play the game latrunculi, or robbers. This game was a game of capture like modern draughts and chess with different types of pieces that were moved around a board made up of squares. The Romans also had race games such as duodecima scripta and Lucky Sixes which are similar to modern backgammon; you can find a board for Lucky Sixes in For the classroom. You can find out how to play these games using the links in More information below.
The grid for the game is drawn roughly and so this board was probably just a spare piece of loose slate or part of something else. There are several examples of boards scratched on to the steps of the Basilica Iulia in the forum at Rome. In either case, the rough and ready nature of this board is an indication of the popularity of board games in the Roman world. One enthusiastic games player from northern Italy was buried with more than eight hundred game pieces and a coffin discovered at Lullingstone in Kent contained thirty gaming pieces. The board and pieces from Canovium are inexpensive, but rich Romans had boards made of expensive wood and pieces made of ivory or precious stones.
Gambling was popular across the Roman Empire even though for a long time it was strictly illegal. While it is likely that the Romans may have gambled on board games, the most popular forms of gambling used dice - just like those we have nowadays - and knucklebones from sheep that had been cleaned and dried. These had four distinct faces which were given names and values. Different throws of dice and knucklebones had names: Venus was the best and Dogs the worst. Animal fights such as cock fighting were also popular opportunities to gamble, as were large scale entertainments such as gladiatorial contests and chariot races - see Object File: A cup decorated with gladiators.
Where to play
A favourite place for Romans to indulge in amusements such as board games was at the baths. Most Roman towns had sets of baths for use by men and women, either in separate areas or on different days, and by a wide range of social classes. Baths were not just places to get clean by going through the sequence of hot and cold rooms; they were also places for relaxation and enjoyment. Normally baths had exercise areas in the form of open spaces called palaestras, with porticoes of columns around where people could sit and socialise. In the Mediterranean region a palaestra was usually open air, but in Britain’s cooler climate they were roofed over. Examples of roofed palaestras can be found in Britain at Wroxeter in Shropshire and in Leicester. There was a bath house for the soldiers at Canovium, though this board was not found there.
Popular activities in the palaestra were athletic exercises borrowed from the Greeks: wrestling, jumping, running and throwing. We know that ball games were played too with one in particular, trigon, that involved three people throwing a ball around and trying to catch each other out by delaying, throwing hard, changing direction and using more than one ball at a time.
Board game directions
Detailed information about Roman board games and suggestions for rules.
Video from Chedworth Roman Villa (National Trust) showing how to play latrunculi.
Duodecim Scripta video
Video from Chedworth Roman Villa (National Trust) showing how to play Duodecim Scripta.
Nine Men’s Morris video
Video from Chedworth Roman Villa (National Trust) showing how to play another Roman game, Nine Men’s Morris.
Roman bath house
54 minute video about the reconstruction of a Roman bath house with sequences of bathing that may be useful in the classroom.
Book by Irving Finkel with information about and rules for five ancient games.