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Dice in ancient Roman world

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Cubic dice
Cubic dice

Games that use a variety of small items, such as astragals or cubes were very popular among the ancient Romans, which is confirmed to some extent by archaeological finds. As it turns out, the dice is uneven – Roman game equipment took various, sometimes even surprising forms, not always similar to those we know today.

Tali

tali(singular: talus) was Ancient Rome, the so-called astragalas – one of the oldest game-related items known to mankind. In the Mediterranean region, archaeologists find them at sites dating back to the Early Stone Age, although it is not known whether they were already used for games or had a functional or symbolic meaning.

Astragals are small animal metatarsal bones – sheep, goat or slightly larger bovine astragalus – with a specific form and six easy to handle distinguish the side surfaces. For the purposes of the game, each of these surfaces was scored in a specific way, while the points on the opposite sides of the astragalus usually had to add up to a seven: so 6 and 1, 4 and 3, 5 and 2. Throwing some combinations was easier than others, e.g. It was rare for astragales to fall down on the smallest sides, and players were obviously aware of it. Archaeological finds include decks with traces of deliberately sawing or rubbing some of the sides – some players apparently wanted to increase their chances of rolling a certain number of points this way. In order to balance the astragalus more favorably, it was also possible to load one of the walls by drilling it and filling the hole with metal.

In addition to natural astragalas, tali cast metal, mainly of bronze. They imitated the natural form more or less faithfully.

Tesserae

Polygonal dice with mesh numbers marked on their faces were referred to in ancient Rome as tesserae (singular: tessera). They were most often made of animal bones or antlers, although among the finds there are also bones made of other materials, e.g. bronze, lead or stone, and single specimens were even made of semi-precious stones and amber. Some tesserae were in the form of elongated cuboids, others were more or less regular cubes. It is worth noting at this point that in antiquity, dice were not standardized yet and not so much attention was paid to whether each side is perfectly even. This often had an impact on the course of the game. It happened, of course, that the bones were attempted to be forged, e.g. by sawing them up or filling the meshes on a certain wall with lead.

There are mysterious pieces among Roman dice. An example are two small, bone objects formed into “cushion” polyhedrons marked with eyelets, dated around the 1st-2nd century BCE. It is difficult to say whether they were thrown like traditional dice – judging by their appearance, they usually had to fall on at most two levels.

Some bones have been given more complex forms, such as a naked, crouching human figure, mostly female. There are objects of this type made of metal, mainly bronze, as well as animal bones, and at least one specimen from Italy, dated around the 2nd century CE. it was additionally painted black. Scoring on this type of bones was placed in different places on the figure: on the hairstyle or on the back, on the breasts, on the outer surfaces of the arms, on the thighs and on the buttocks. It seems that such performances could be erotic or humorous, further diversifying the gameplay for players.

Among the more interesting dice specimens, it is also worth mentioning bones with more than six faces. An interesting example is the icosahedral cube, carefully worked out in mountain crystal, dating from the 1st-2nd century CE. There are only two markings on it: “X” and, on a different panel, “I”. Another, similar icosahedron dating from the 1st-3rd century CE, also made of rock crystal, has numerical markings on each side.

The bones with Latin words instead of numbers are quite mysterious. One of these bones, dating back to around the 2nd century CE, was found in a Roman workshop discovered in what is now Southwark (London, UK). On its six lead walls, additionally bearing traces of silver paint, there are the words:

P / VA / EST / ORTI / VRBIS / ITALIA

According to the Museum of London researchers, this could be roughly (… very roughly…) translated as “P [ublius?]arises from the city of Italy.” Only five similar cubes are known from the areas of the former Roman Empire: four from the area of ​​today’s France and one from Hungary. The layout of words has the same pattern on all of them – on each plane there is one / two / three / four / five / six letters, respectively – it is not known, however, if it is just a variation in the subject of the symbol (letters instead of dots, cleverly arranged in words) or maybe the words were not used accidentally and made up sentences whose meaning is unclear to us today.

Author: Ewa Wielocha
Sources
  • Kostka do gry. Obiekt nr 1923,0401.1184 [pozycja w katalogu British Museum dostępnym w Sieci pod adresem:] www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1923-0401-1184 [dostęp: 22.04.2021]
  • Astragalus. Obiekt nr 1880.3485 [pozycja w katalogu British Museum dostępnym w Sieci pod adresem:] www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1880-3485 [dostęp: 22.04.2021]
  • Glynn Davis, Can you identify three mystery archaeological objects?, 25.01.2017 [artykuł dostępny w Sieci pod adresem:] www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/can-you-solve-three-mysteries-archive [dostęp: 22.04.2021]
  • Agnieszka Stempin, Astragalusy - czyli dlaczego gramy sześciennymi kostkami? i Kości [w:] Magia gry, sztuka rywalizacji, red. A. Stempin, Poznań, 2012, s. 17 - 40

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