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 p670  Latrunculi

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp670‑671 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LATRU′NCULI (πεσσοί, ψήφοι), draughts.a The invention of a game resembling draughts was attributed by the Greeks to Palamedes (Abacus, § 5). The game is certainly mentioned by Homer, who represents the suitors of Penelope amusing themselves with it (Od. I.107). Others ascribed the invention to the Egyptian Theuth (Plat. Phaedr. p274D); and the paintings in Egyptian tombs, which are of far higher antiquity than any Grecian monuments, not unfrequently represent persons employed in this recreation. The painting, from which the accompanying woodcut is taken, is on a papyrus preserved in the Museum of Antiquities at Leyden, and was probably made about 1700 years B.C. It is remarkable that a man is here represented playing alone; whereas not only in works of Egyptian art, but also on Greek painted vases, we commonly observe two persons playing together. For this purpose there were two sets of men, one set being black, the other white or red. Being intended to represent a miniature combat between two armies, they were called soldiers (milites, Ovid. Trist. II.477), foes (hostes), and marauders (latrones, dim. latrunculi, Ovid. Art. Amat. II.208, III.357; Mart. XIV.20;  p671  Sen. Epist. 107); also Calculi, because stones were often employed for the purpose (Gell. XIV.1). Sometimes they were made of metal or ivory, glass or earthenware, and they were various and often fanciful in their forms. The object of each player was to get one of his adversary's men between two of his own, in which case he was entitled to take the man kept in check (Ovid, ll. cc.; Mart. XIV.17), or, as the phrase was, alligatus (Sen. Epist. 118). Some of the men were obliged to be moved in a certain direction (ordine), and were therefore called ordinarii; others might be moved any way, and were called vagi (Isid. Orig. XVIII.67); in this respect the game resembled chess, which is certainly a game of great antiquity.

Seneca calls the board on which the Romans played at draughts, tabula latruncularia (Epist. 118). The spaces into which the board was divided were called mandrae (Mart. VII.71). The abacus, represented at page 1, is crossed by five lines. As five men were allowed on each side, we may suppose one player to arrange his five men on the lines at the bottom of the abacus, and the other to place his five men on the same lines at the top, and we shall have them disposed according to the accounts of ancient writers (Etymol. Mag. s.v. Πεσσοί; Pollux, IX.97; Eustath. in Hom. l.c.), who say that the middle line of the five was called ἱερὰ γράμμη. But instead of five, the Greeks and Romans often had twelve lines on the board, whence the game so played was called duodecim scripta (Cic. de Orat. I.50; Quintil. XI.2; Ovid, Art. Amat. III.363). Indeed there can be little doubt that the latrunculi were arranged and played in a considerable variety of ways, as is now the case in Egypt and other Oriental countries (Niebuhr, Reisebeschr. nach Arabien, vol. I p172).

Besides playing with draughtsmen only, when the game was altogether one of skill, the ancients used dice (Tesserae, κυβοί) at the same time, so as to combine chance with skill, as we do in backgammon or tric-trac (Ter. Adelph. IV.7.23; Isid. Orig. XVIII.60; Brunck, An. DIM.60; Becker, Gallus, vol. II p228, &c.).

Thayer's Note:

a This account appears to me somewhat confused, and probably conflates two different games. Just as today chess and checkers (British English: draughts) are played on the same board — in the Anglo-Saxon world at least: in France for example, the latter is played on a 10 × 10 board — but are different games, so too, I think, calculi must have been the "checkers" to latrunculi's "chess". See João Pedro Neto's Latrunculi page for diagrams and clearer explanations, based in part on the lessons of archaeology.

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Page updated: 31 Oct 17