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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. 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). 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 p1096of 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).


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