Playing board games was a popular pastime in the Roman world. There are two known from the literary and other sources. Ludus latrunculorum was a game of skill where the aim was to take one of your opponent’s pieces by placing two of your own on either side of it. Ludus duodecim scriptorum (xii scripta) was more a game of chance akin to backgammon where the aim was to play all of your pieces off the board first. Both games needed counters and xii scripta needed dice as well.
Counters could be made of various materials. The glass counters found in gaming sets in Roman graves are plano-convex so when I started to find similarly-shaped pieces of glass in the VI.1 assemblage I naturally assumed they were counters for playing games. I had severe doubts about this identification by the time 100 had been catalogued, and it became very unlikely by the end of the cataloguing when there were well over 500. By analysing the size, colours and contexts of the ‘counters’, it was possible to show that only a relatively small number were likely to be true counters for playing games. The others seem much more likely to have been used in the interior decoration of walls, ceilings and furniture. This is explored in the report and a little more fully in this article. A blog about the writing of the article has useful illustrations comparing the VI.1 counters to those from a set in a grave and those set into the wall of a nymphaeum in the Casa del Augusto in Rome.
A selection of glass counters from VI.1. They were found in a wide range of translucent monochrome colours. There were 40 examples in two or more colours. This is a very different pattern to those from gaming sets which are normally black and white. (Photos: Mike Baxter and Hilary Cool).
Red porphyry (?) counter (Catalogue no. 8.48) from a modern context in the Bar of Phoebus and a stone die (Catalogue no. 7.4) from a Tiberian-Neronian context in the Inn. (Photos: Mike Baxter).
Items where there is less doubt that they were used for playing board games include dice and several stone counters very similar to the set of counters and dice found in the Comacchio ship wreck which dated to the end of the first century BC. Dice, of course, could have been used in divination but in VI.1 there was a strong association between material that was used in gaming including dice and the bars which faced onto the Via Consolare. This suggests that in VI.1 the dice were probably more frequently used for gambling than for telling the future.
One interesting find was the ivory piece depicting the carcase of a trussed fowl with the number XII on the underside. There has been a lot of argument in the literature about quite what these were used for, but they are sometimes found in sets and sometimes associated with other items for playing games. One option that everyone agrees on is that they could have been pieces for playing an unknown type of game. The VI.1 example was again found in a bar suggesting that this one at least was used as a playing piece.
Contents copyright H.E.M. Cool and M.J. Baxter 2016