Monthly Archives: March 2015

‘Let the Snorter Be Covered in Soot’: Ancient Board Game Inscriptions

☩ μὴ θεόμαχος νήων. ☩

☩ ἀσβολόθη ὁ ῥονχάζων. ☩

Let the snorter / be covered in soot!

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Games of chance are never a silent endeavor; however, Romans found it rather uncouth to snort when Fortune was not on your side. A civil person kept their nose silent. There is a strong auditory component to board and card games even today (think about your own favorite cuss words or perhaps a nicely placed ‘yo mama’ joke), just as there was in antiquity. An inscription from late antique Phrygia (4th-5th c. CE) in fact gives us some idea of the insults hurled in the late ancient world. On the edges of a game board adorned with crosses, no less, we have the insult: ‘μὴ θεόμαχος νήων’ (for ναίων), ἀσβολόθη (should be ἠσβολώθη) ὁ ῥονχάζων–essentially, let the snorter go straight to hell. Clearly the crosses were there for protection and luck, and not as a show of a generous Christian spirit.

Right, so why should we care about inscriptions on or around ancient board games? Let me digress for a second to explain how I began to ruminate on these inscriptions and then we shall get, as always, to some semblance of a point. One of the great Roman historians of our time is Nicholas Purcell. While he has many works of staggering genius (particularly his tome with Peregrine Horden, The Corrupting Sea), my favorite piece of his is actually an article titled, “Literate Games: Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea(1995). What interests me most is Purcell’s thesis that ultimately, “The numerical sophistication of ancient gambling may ultimately be related to the patterns of ancient literacy, and it is one instance of that that this article hopes to elucidate” (4). The intricacy of the game, the labels, and the surrounding inscriptions can perhaps all work together to tell us a little about how Greeks and Romans interacted with texts on a daily basis–even if we might consider many of these individuals largely illiterate today.

A 3rd c. CE mosaic of men playing on a tabula (El Djem, Tunisia).

A 3rd c. CE mosaic of men playing on a tabula (El Djem, Tunisia). Photo: AKG. 

Purcell begins by discussing the origins of the game of alea, the popular game of dice played in antiquity. It is this game that is alluded to in the famous ‘Alea iacta est’ statement attributed by Suetonius (actually as ‘iacta alea est‘) to Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE. The die are cast; in other words, the dice have been rolled and cannot be undone. Isidore of Seville (18.60) notes that during periods of boredom in the Trojan War, games were used to fill the time. It was a long war, after all. The game of dicing on a tabula (game board) was invented then and later called alea. Most people attributed it to Palamedes, though Isidore thought it was due to a soldier named Alea.

Inscriptions indicate a great deal about Roman games and give us insight into how text and ludic activity were combined. A famous board from the forum of Timgad, for instance, gives us an idea of fun pastimes in and around the city: ‘venari lavari / ludere ridere / (h)oc{c} est / vivere’: ‘to hunt, to bath, to play, to laugh — This is to live!’ (CIL VIII, 17938). Not so different from today, I’d say. Such tabulae were common on roads, on old statue bases, and in various other areas around the city. As a result, gambling, crowds, and popular interactions within cities come into clearer focus. They are interactive boundary zones for social historians to reflect on in order to be able to reconstruct movements within ancient cities.

Inscription on the board at Timgad.

Inscription on the board at Timgad. CIL VIII, 17938.

Game boards carried more than curses and aphorisms, they could also transmit dedications. A number of inscriptions from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor tells us about a local official named Flavius Photius, who in the fifth/sixth century CE dedicated game boards within the city and noted ‘☩☩ἐπὶ Φλ(αβίου) Φωτίου σχο(λαστικοῦ) κ(αὶ) πατρ(όσ) ☩’: ‘Under Flavius Photius, scholasticus and pater.’ trans. Roueché. Dedicating a game board would certainly get your name out there, and perhaps curry more appreciation than a statue would among a certain sect.

Late antique game board from Aphrodisias dedicated by Flavius Photius. Photo via Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity.

Late antique game board from Aphrodisias dedicated by Flavius Photius. Photo via Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity. no.238.

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As Purcell notes (21), graffiti also attest to the exuberance people felt when they won at a game of alea. This was a gambling high often communicated with writing. At Pompeii (CIL IV, 2119), an individual boasts that at Nuceria, he had won 855 1/2 denarii while playing the game (‘Vici Nuceriae / in al<e=I>a |(denarios) DCCCLV s(emis) / fide bona). But winners means there were losers, and often people lost both money and dignity. This fact is also reflected in these boards. One from Numidia reads: ‘Invida punct[a] / iubent felice / ludere doctum’ (CIL VIII 7998). The rich and the poor depended on luck in the game of dice, and thus encouragement was often needed. A well-known inscription from a German dice pot has the inscribed words: ‘Pictos victos hostis deleta ludite securi‘: ‘The Picts defeated, the enemy wiped out; play without fear.’ trans. Purcell (26).

Board games were indubitably a big part of Roman life, but as Purcell encourages us to, we should consider what the inscriptions tell us as well. The game in many ways was a mirror for Greco-Roman cultural traditions, interactions, and expressions. These boards were embedded in the public and private spaces of many Mediterranean cities, and the scribbles and inscriptions in and around them attest to the importance of such activities within ancient culture–and help us reconstruct more than a few profane words likely yelled out during a heated game of dice.

Vettweiss-Froitzheim_Dice_Tower

The Vettweiss-Froitzheim Dice Tower (4th c. CE). Image via Wikimedia.