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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review

Vol. 6 (1892), pp335‑336

The text is in the public domain:
Arthur Tilley died in 1942.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p335  Ludus Latrunculorum

This subject has been fully treated with great learning and ability by Mr. Wayte in the new edition of the Dict. of Antiquities. I therefore merely wish to discuss one or two points as to which his interpretation of the evidence seems to be unsatisfactory. The chief and almost only prose passage which gives us any information as to the Roman method of playing the game is the well-known one​a from the Origines of Isidore, Bishop of Seville, an encyclopaedic writer, based largely on the Prata of Suetonius and written in the first half of the seventh century A.D. The passage runs as follows. Calculi partim ordine moventur partim vage. Ideo alios ordinarios alios vagos appellant. At vero, qui moveri omnino non possunt incitos dicunt. The meaning of the first part of this passage is tolerably certain. There were two classes of pieces: (1) common soldiers who moved one square at a time and only straight forward or backward,​1 (2) officers who could move along any number of squares at a time or in any direction. It has been conjectured, but without a shadow of evidence, that the officers were called latrones and the inferior pieces latrunculi. So far as our information goes we are only warranted in supposing that latrunculus was the ordinary name for both classes, while the form latro was used in poetry for metrical reasons. But it is the last clause of the passage from Isidore to which I wish especially to call attention. In the well-known phrase ad incitas redigere which occurs twice in Plautus (as Mr. Wayte points out, calces an older word for calculi must be supplied) and twice in Lucilius in the form ad incita, commentators and lexicographers invariably explain incitus as a piece which has become blocked and so cannot be moved. Thus according to this idea a player who is ad incitas redactus is in the position of a chess-player who has been stale-mated by his opponent. But this is not what Isidore says and is not, I think, what he means. As I understand him, the inciti are a third order of pieces which cannot be moved at all. And there seems to be a confirmation of this in a recent find of latrunculi in a tomb at Perugia. Here were found 816 glass latrunculi, hemispherical in shape, and of three colours — blue, yellow, and white (Notizie dei Scavi 1887, p396). Now, although the descriptions of the game that have come down to us represent the opposing pieces as distinguished by colour, might it not sometimes have been the case that while shape distinguished the opposing pieces colour was used to distinguish the different classes of pieces? Thus the gentleman who was buried at Perugia took with him to the Elysian fields a plentiful supply of his own latrunculi and trusted to find there other persons similarly provided. The latrunculi in the British Museum, I am informed by Mr. Walters, are of very various colours and shades of colour, but practically of the same size and shape. It is curious to note that none of them are red or black.

But, be that as it may, I am confirmed in my view of the nature of the inciti by the fact that the game evidently represented the mimicry of war. The movable pieces were the armies drawn up in battle array, the officers being, I should conjecture, far fewer in number than the common soldiers. The supposition that they stood in a row, with the common soldiers like a row of pawns in front of them, is an analogy from chess for which there is no authority. On the other hand the immovable pieces, the inciti, represented the camp, and the man who was ad incitas redactus was in the position of a general whose army had been defeated and whose camp was being stormed. This stage in the game is apparently represented in the Laus Pisonis in the following lines:

Sic ad maiora movetur,

ut citus ecfracta prorumpat in agmina mandra,

clausaque deiecta populetur moenia vallo.

But this passage brings us face to face with another crux. What does mandra mean? The only other passage in which it occurs in connexion with the ludus latrunculorum is Mart. VII.72.7

mandris et vitreo latrone clusos.

Its primary meaning is a 'pen' but it is used by Martial V.22.7 of a drove of mules

longas mulorum . . . . . mandras

and in a similar sense by Juvenal III.237

stantis convicia mandrae

In the first quoted passage from Martial it is explained by Marquardt, whom Friedländer  p336 follows, to mean the common pieces, the Bauern, as distinguished from the latrones or officers. But this is a guess and a far-fetched one. Taking this passage in conjunction with the one from the Laus Pisonis it seems clear that mandra must be some sort of obstacle or barrier, to attempt to break through which denotes a bold game (ad maiora movetur) but which when successivelyº accomplished results in victory. This would seem to connect it in some way with the inciti, especially as in the Laus Pisonis the breaking through of the mandra is either followed by or is synonymous with the overthrow of the vallum. I would therefore suggest as a possible interpretation that mandra or mandrae was a collective term for the inciti and that these were arranged in a square so as to represent a camp, with perhaps four gaps in the square for gates: within the square would be a few movable pieces representing the garrison of the camp. This interpretation will suit fairly well the passage in the Laus Pisonis. But the passage in Martial

mandris et vitreo latrone clusos

is still very difficult to translate. I would suggest as a possible rendering 'hemmed in by the camp-enclosure and the glass soldiery,' and that the whole passage means: 'May you beat Novius and Publius having reduced them to the last extremity when they have nothing left but a few pieces hemmed in between their own inciti and those of your calculi which have forced their way through them.'

In conclusion I feel that I have thrown little light on this obscure subject — perhaps I have rather darkened it. But the point on which I lay stress is this, that any successful attempt to explain the working of the game must be based on analogies not from draughts or chess but from the Roman army and camp.

Arthur Tilley.

The Author's Note:

1 Aemulus et coeptum saepe recurrit iter, Ovid. A. A. III.360. This however may refer only to the officers.

Thayer's Note:

a Orig. XVIII.67.

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