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 p1112  Tessera

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1112‑1113 of

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

TES′SERA, dim. TESSE′RULA and TESSELLA (κύβος), a square or cube; a die; a token.

The use of small cubes of marble, earthenware, glass, precious stones, and mother-of‑pearl for making tessellated pavements (pavimenta tessellata, (Sueton. Jul. 46) is noticed under Domus, p431 and Pictura, p915.

The dice used in games of chance [Alea] had the same form, and were commonly made of ivory, bone, or some close-grained wood, especially privet (ligustra tesseris utilissima, Plin. H. N. XVI.18 s31). They were numbered on all the six sides like the dice still in use (Ovid. Trist. II.473); and in this respect as well as in their form they differed from the tali, which are often distinguished from tesserae by classical writers (Gellius, XVIII.13; Cic. de Sen. 16) [Talus.] Whilst four tali were used in playing, only three tesserae were anciently employed. Hence arose the proverb, ἢ τρὶς ἕξ, ἢ τρεῖς κύβοι, i.e. "either three sixes or three aces," meaning, all or none (Plat. Leg. XII. ad fin.; Schol. in loc.; Pherecrates, p49, ed. Runkel); for κύβος was used to denote the ace, as in the throw δύο κύβω καὶ τέτταρα, i.e. 1, 1, 4 = 6 (Eupolis, p174, ed. Runkel; Aristoph. Ran. 1447; Schol. in loc.). Three sixes is mentioned as the highest throw in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (32). As early as the time of Eustathius (in Od. I.107) we find that the modern practice of using two dice instead of three had been established.

The ancients sometimes played with dice πλειστοβολίνδα [Talus], when the object was simply to throw the highest numbers. At other times they played also with two sets of Latrunculi or draughtsmen, having fifteen men on each side. The board (alveus lusorius, Plin. H. N. XXXVII.2 s6; alveolus, Gellius, I.20, XIV.1) was divided by twelve lines, so that the game must have been nearly or altogether the same with tric-trac or backgammon (Brunck, Anal. III.60; Jacobs, ad loc.). Perhaps the duodecim scripta of the Romans was the same game. [Abacus.]

Objects of the same materials with dice, and either formed like them or of an oblong shape, were used as tokens for different purposes. The tessera hospitalis was the token of mutual hospitality, and is spoken of under Hospitium, p619A. This token was probably in many cases of earthenware, having the head of Jupiter Hospitalis stamped upon it (Plaut. Poen. V.1.25; 2.87‑99). Tessera frumentariae and nummariae were tokens given at certain times by the Roman magistrates to the poor, in exchange for which they received a fixed amount of cornº or money (Sueton. Aug. 40, 42, Nero, 11). [Frumentariae Leges.] Similar tokens were used on various occasions, as they arose in the course of events. For example, when  p1113 the Romans sent to give the Carthaginians their choice of peace or war, they sent two tesserae, one marked with a spear, the other with a Caduceus, requesting them to take either the one or the other (Gellius, X.27).

From the application of this term to tokens of various kinds, it was transferred to the word used as a token among soldiers. This was the tessera militaris, the συνθημα of the Greeks. Before joining battle it was given out and passed through the ranks as a method by which the soldiers might be able to distinguish friends from foes. Thus at the battle of Cunaxa the word was "Zeus the Saviour and Victory," and on a subsequent engagement by the same troops "Zeus the Saviour, Heracles the Leader" (Xen. Anab. I.8 §16, VI.3 §25). The soldiers of Xenophon used a verbal sign for the same purpose when they were encamped by night (VII.3 §34). Aeneas Tacticus (c24) gives various directions necessary to be observed respecting the word. Respecting the tessera or watchword in the Roman camp, see Castra, p251A.


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