Researchers Are Trying to Figure Out How to Play This Ancient Roman Board Game

Found in a grave in Slovakia in 2006, it is one of Europe’s best-preserved ancient gaming boards

Game Board
Slovak Academy of Sciences

Despite all the plastic hippos, Pop-O-Matic bubbles and illustrations of Gum Drop Mountain, board games are not a modern phenomenon. In fact, whiling away the hours in front of board is an ancient past time and a board for an Egyptian game called Senet was even buried with King Tut. One of the best-preserved boards ever found in Europe is a Roman game unearthed in the tomb of a Germanic aristocra in 2006. Now, as the History Blog writes, researchers are trying to figure out how the millennia-old game is played.

As the Slovak Spectator first reported, the board was found in a tomb unearthed near Poprad, Slovakia. The burial dates to 375 C.E., just on the cusp of the collapse of the Germanic tribes' relationship with occupying Roman forces.

It’s likely the occupant of the grave was a leader of a foederati, or a band of Germanic mercenaries paid to fight for the Romans. According to the Spectator, the man was born in the area where his body was found, and spent some time in the Mediterranean region, possibly while serving in the Roman military. That might be how he acquired his wealth and taste for Roman board games.

The board itself is a piece of wood divided into squares, similar to a chess board. Found along with it were green-and-white glass, which appear to function as playing pieces. Analysis shows the glass itself likely came from Syria. While similar playing surfaces have been found carved into the floors of Greek and Roman temples dating back 1,600 years, this is the best portable wooden version of the game found in Europe.

“The board game from the tomb of the German prince in Poprad is a great discovery and contribution to the history of games in Europe,” says Ulrich Schädler, director of the Museum of Games in Switzerland.

Schädler's team is now trying to figure out how to play the game before the board goes on exhibition at the Podtatranské Museum in Poprad later this year.  

It’s likely the board is designed to play Latrunculi or Ludus latrunculorum, which translates as “Mercenaries” or the “Game of Brigands” or some variant. That game was originally derived from an ancient Greek game called petteia which is referenced in the works of Homer. There are a handful of vague descriptions of how the game was played in ancient sources, but researchers have not successfully figured out the complete set of rules so far, though many gamers have come up with their own guesses.

“There were plenty of board games in ancient times with many variants, but reconstructing the playing technique is a very complicated process that only top experts can solve,” Karol Pieta, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, tells the Spectator.

The board game was not the only find in the burial chamber. Researchers also found lots of textiles and leather goods, as well as coins and furniture, which they are painstakingly conserving.

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