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 p1095  Talus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1095‑1096 of

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

TALUS (ἀστράγαλος), a huckle-bone. The huckle-bones of sheep and goats have often been found in Greek and Roman tombs, both real, and imitated in ivory, bronze, glass, and agate.a Those of the antelope (δορκάδειοι) were sought as objects of elegance and curiosity (Theoph. Char. 5; Athen. V p193F). They were used to play with from the earliest times, principally by women and children (Plut. Alcib. p350), occasionally by old men (Cic. de Senect. 16). A painting by Alexander of Athens, found at Resina, represents two women occupied with this game. One of them, having thrown the bones upwards into the air, has caught three of them on the back of her hand (Ant. d' Erc. I tav. 1).b See the following woodcut, and compare the account of the game in Pollux (IX. c7).º Polygnotus executed a similar work at Delphi, representing the two daughters of Pandarus thus employed (παιζούσας ἀστραγάλοις, Paus. X.30 § 1). But a much more celebrated production was the group of two naked boys, executed in bronze by Polycletus, and called the Astragalizontes (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.8 s19). A fractured marble group of the same kind, preserved in the British Museum, exhibits one of the two boys in the act of biting the arm of his play-fellow so as to present a lively illustration of the account in Homer of the fatal quarrel of Patroclus (Il. XXIII.87, 88). To play at this game was sometimes called πενταλιθίζειν, because five bones or other objects of a similar kind were employed (Pollux, l.c.); and this number is retained among ourselves.


[image ALT: An engraving of a woman squatting on the ground; with her right hand she has just let drop two small, indistinct objects, three more are resting on the back of that same hand. It is an illustration of the ancient game of 'tali' or knucklebones.]

Whilst the tali were without artificial marks, the game was entirely one of skill; and in ancient no less than in modern times, it consisted not merely in catching the five bones on the back of the hand as shown in the wood-cut, but in a great variety of exercises requiring quickness, agility, and accuracy of sight. When the sides of the bone were marked with different values, the game became one of chance [Alea; Tessera]. The two ends were left blank, because the bone could not rest upon either of them on account of its curvature. The four remaining sides were marked with the numbers 1, 3, 4, 6; 1 and 6 being on two opposite sides, and 3 and 4 on the other two opposite sides. The Greek and Latin names of the numbers were as follows (Pollux, l.c.; Eustath. in Hom. Il. XXIII.88; Sueton. August. 71; Mart. XIII.1.6:— 1. Μονὰς, εἶς, κύων, Χῖος (Brunck, Anal. I.35, 242); Ion. Οἴνη; Unio, Vulturius, canis (Propert. IV.9.17; Ovid. Art. Amat. II.205, Fast. II.473); 3. Τριάς: Ternio; 4. Τετράς: Quaternio; 6. Ἑξὰς, ἐξίτης, Κῷος: Senio.

As the bone is broader in one direction than in the other, it was said to fall upright or prone (ὀρθὸς ἢ πρηνῆς, rectus aut pronus), according as it rested on the narrow or the broad side (Plut. Sympos. Prob. p1209, ed. Steph.; Cic. de Fin. III.16).

Two persons played together at this game, using four bones, which they threw up into the air, or emptied out of a dice-box [Fritillus], and observing the numbers on the uppermost sides. The numbers on the four sides of the four bones admitted of thirty-five different combinations. The lowest throw of all was four aces (jacit voltorios quatuor, Plaut. Curc. II.3.78). But the value of a throw (βόλος, jactus) was not in all cases the sum of the four numbers turned up. The highest in value was that called Venus, or jactus Venereus (Plaut. Asin. V.2.55; Cic. de Div. II.59; Sueton. l.c.), in which the numbers cast up were all different (Mart. XIV.14), the sum of them being only fourteen. It was by obtaining this throw that the king  p1096 of the feast was appointed among the Romans (Hor. Carm. I.4.18, II.7.25) [Symposium], and hence it was also called Basilicus (Plaut. Curc. II.3.80). Certain other throws were called by particular names, taken from gods, illustrious men and women, and heroes. Thus the throw, consisting of two aces and two trays, making eight, was denominated Stesichorus. When the object was simply to throw the highest numbers, the game was called πλειστοβολίνδα (Pollux, VII.206, IX.95, 110, 117). Before a person threw the tali, he often invoked either a god or his mistress (Plaut. Capt. I.1.5, Curc. II.3.77‑79). These bones, marked and thrown as above described, were also used in divination (Sueton. Tiber. 14).


Thayer's Notes:

a Maybe the most striking surviving examples of artificial knucklebones from Antiquity are those — far larger than such bones in any farm animal — from the temple of Branchidae in Miletus, now in the Louvre. For a very nice photograph of one of them and further details, see my transcription of Herodotus VI.18.

b I give the passage here, from notes 19‑21 on pp3‑4, to save your eyes; and the original engraving (from the plate at the end of the Antichità), as an improvement over the excerpt in the dictionary. The beginning of the note can serve as a translation of the passage of Pollux which is cited a bit further on; and we see that the author of our dictionary entry continued to make good use of the Italian book after that.


[image ALT: A drawing of five women in ancient Greek dress, two of them crouching on the floor and three standing. One of the crouching women is playing a game of knucklebones, and has caught three of the bones and let drop two. The other crouching woman is watching the play attentively, while the standing women are engaged in a conversation.]

[A larger, fully readable version opens here (1.1 MB).]

(19) Polluce lib. IX. Sez. 126. ci spiega minutamente questo giuoco: Al Pentalita (egli dice) così si giuocava. Cinque pietruzze, o calcoli, o aliossi dalla palma della mano si lanciavano in su, per modo che rivoltando tosto la mano, venissero a riceversi nel dorso della medesima. Or questo appunto è quel, che fa nel nostro marmo Ileera. Quelli poi, che non si raccoglievano sulla mano rivolta, si alzavan da terra: come soggiunge Polluce, e come par che faccia quì aglaia. Ed era tal giuoco più da donne, che da uomini, come averte lo stesso Autore.

Pollux IX.126 explains the game to us in detail: Pentalithaº (he says) was played like this. Five little stones, or pebbles, or knucklebones held in the palm of the hand were thrown upward, in such a way as to catch them, quickly turning the hand over, on the back of the same. And this is exactly what Ileaira is doing on our marble. After that, those that were not caught on the back of the hand, were picked up off the ground: as Pollux adds, and just as Aglaea is doing here. And this kind of game was more of a woman's game than a man's, as the same Author states.

(20) Astragaloº da' Greci, e Talus da' Latini chiamasi quell' ossicciuolo tolto da Agnelli, o altri piccoli animali, che i Toscani dicono Aliosso, o Tallone, o Talo. Di questi ossicciuoli valeansi gli antichi nel Ludere talis, che oggi dicesi, giuocare agli Aliossi. L' Aliosso ha sei faccette: ma in due non potendo reggersi, ne siegue, che sole quattro cadute si contino: delle quali tale aveasi per vantaggiosa, e tal per contraria. Di questo giuoco se ne son fatti tratti interi dopo Eustazio sopra Omero: ma è ben diverso dal nostro, che quì si vede dipinto. Basta avvertire, che gli Artefici rappresentavano nelle loro Sculture, e Pitture tai giuochi. Plinio XXXIV.8. fa menzione del famoso simulacro di Policleto, rappresentante due ragazzi, che giuocavano agli Aliossi, chiamato perciò tal simulacro Astragalizontes. Pausania X.30. riferisce, che in una pittura di Polignoto si vedeano le due figlie di Pandaro, cioè Camiro e Clizia, παίζουσι ἀστραγάλοις. E 'l Seguino p13 lo rappresenta in una curiosa medaglia con questa scritta: Qui ludit, arram det, quod satis est.

(20) Astragalos is the Greek, and Talus the Latin, name for that little bone from lambs or other small animals, which the Tuscans call Aliosso, or Tallone, or Talo. These little bones were used by the ancients in the game of ludere talis, which today we call playing knucklebones. The bone has six faces: but on two of them it cannot stand, so that only four outcomes are counted, some held to be winning, and some not. This game has been the subject of entire treatises since Eustathius on Homer: but it is a very different game from ours, seen painted here. Suffice it to say that artists depicted such games in their sculptures and paintings. Pliny XXXIV.8 mentions the famous statue by Polycletus, depicting two boys playing knucklebones: from which the statue received the name Astragalizontes. Pausanias X.30 states that in a painting by Polygnotus the two daughters of Pandarus, Cameiro and Clytie, were seen παίζουσι ἀστραγάλοις ["playing knuckle-bones"]. And Seguin, p13, depicts the game in a curious medallion with this legend: Qui ludit, arram det, quod satis est. ["Whoever plays, let them give sufficient security."]

(21) Oltre a' cinque Aliossi si veggono nella nostra pittura delle altre cose da quelli diverse: Forse per rendere il giuoco più intrigato, e più dilettevole.

(21) In addition to the five knucklebones, other different items can be seen in our painting: perhaps to make the game more complicated and more amusing.


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Page updated: 27 Aug 18