The first record of a name for draughts goes back to the 7th c. AD. In this age draughts was very common among Latin speaking people, probably for a long time already. But how long? Was draughts played in Ancient Rome?
Roman authors made mentions of board games only casually. From fragments of manuscripts, rounded up with archaeological information, modern board game historians concluded that the Romans played three board games:
1. Ludus Latrunculorum, literally “The Soldiers Game”.
Board for the Soldiers game
2. Duodecim Scriptorum (more frequent Duodecim Scripta), literally “Twelve Lines Game”, tables.
Back of a silver mirror c. 200 BC [Bell 1 1969:30]
The Soldiers game and the Twelve lines game were both (also) played by the notables.
3. Morris, a game of a lower status.
Morris board incised in marble
Cloister of the balisica Saint Peter-outside-theWalls, Rome (It.) [Fittà 1998:167]
A fourth Roman board game?
(1) We are told that Scaevola, after a game of duodecim scruporum in which he had made the first move and was defeated, went over the whole game again in his mind on his way into the country, and on recalling the move which had cost him the game returned to tell the man with whom he had been playing, and the latter acknowledged that he was right.
[Marcus Fabius Quintalianus “De institutione oratoria” book XI]
Publius Mucius Scaevola (c. 35-c. 100 AD) was able to remember the moves he had played, and could analyse without board and pieces, blindfold, where he had made a wrong move. Obviously, he played with a strategic plan; if not it had been impossible to recall his moves. And for the same reason he must have been a practised player. Nevertheless he lost. Why? He had the first move, said Quintilianus, in the game he played it was disadvantageous to do the first move. For this reason it seems implausible to me that Scaevola played duodecim scriptorum. I cannot imagine how the first move in a race game could be a disadvantage, and nowhere in the literature on board games I found a remark of this kind.
In which board game has the first player a disadvantage? We came across this observation in an earlier chapter, in the description of draughts, called alquerque, in a Spanish source from the 13th c.
There are other sources, however, describing the game Scaevola played as duodecim scriptorum. And hence Hoops [1978 III] and A.J.H. Greenidge in his “History of Rome” called Scaevola a player of tables. Could it be possible, I ask, that references to a game duodecim scruporum have been emended to duodecim scriptorum, given the frequent records of this last mentioned game? For besides the remarkable circumstance that the first player in Svaevola's game has a disadvantage, there could be a second indication for the existence of alquerque in Scaevola's days: ancient carvings of the alquerque board. One of these boards, exhibited in the archeological zone under the cathedral in Barcelona (Spain), was carved into limestone. According to Spanish archeologists the board could be from the period 0-500 AD [communication from Ulrich Schädler from the Swiss Museum of Games, who considers the dating as uncertain].
The Roman culture can be considered as the continuation of the Greek culture. It seems impossible that the ancient Greek played alquerque. The Greek game name penta grammai, literally "five lines", could refer to alquerque board with its five lines, see the diagram below.
Alquerque diagram with five lines
There is a Hellenic relief from Eretria on Euboea, a Greek island off the coast of Attica, dated from before the 5th c. BC, where the characteristic pattern of the lined draughts board is plainly visible.
Greek heroes playing on the alquerque board?
But there are many more carvings and drawings showing a pattern with five horizontal lines [Ulrich Schädler, Pente grammai - the ancient Greek boardgame Five Lines [in Proceedings of Board Game Studies Colloquium xi, Lisboa 2009:173-196, ed. Jorge Nuno Silva]. For this reason it seems implausible that the Greek have played the game.
The assumption they did it is based on Murray, who claimed that the Egyptian played alquerque.
About 500 BC, the Greek culture prospered both in the central town Athens and in the regions in Athens’ sphere of influence in Europe, Africa and Asia. In the Middle East, cultures had flourished earlier. One of them was Egypt under the pharaoh’s. There were contacts between the Greek and the Egyptians. Applying the law that a lower culture borrows from a higher culture, we may assume that the Greek borrowed board games from the East. There is even an eyewitness account: according to the Greek philosopher Plato, born c. 428 BC., the Greek had adopted Egyptian games, games with dice as well as games without dice [in “Phaedrus” 274d, source Murray 1952:24].
One of the borrowed treasuries was the board game alquerque, Murray claimed. Several game patterns were carved into the roofing slabs of the temple complex of Luxor on the Western side of the Nile. This complex was built in the 14th and 13th c. BC. Among them an alquerque pattern. It is always difficult to date a carved board. Murray [1952:18] made out a case for an early dating, as the board was partly cut away when the edges of the slabs were trimmed to make them fit against the adjoining slabs. But even if it should regard carvings from these early days, Murray's claim is wrong. In his book [1952:19] he presented the drawing below. The right diagonal was mistakenly drawn.
Drawing in Murray's HB
Murray based his drawing on a description of the Egyptologist H. Parker [“Ancient Ceylon”, 1909], who visited the complex in the early days of the 20th c. Bottom left his drawing, with 16 squares instead of Murray's 25 squares.
Drawing from Parker (left) and from Van Mourik (right)
Parker´s drawing, however, is a rather free interpretation of the real carving top right, a drawing by the Dutch draughts historian Wim van Mourik [Het Damspel 2.2009:34-5]. Van Mourik based himself on a photograph by the German archeologist and Egyptiologist Rainer Stadelmann, see bottom. Stadelmann is working on a publication on the temple.
Photograph from a carving into the roof of the Luxor temple (© R. Stadelmann)
Stadelmann has his doubts about an early date: the gaming boards on the roof of the temple are almost certain from a later period, 300-600 AD, when the region was inhabited. Some game board have Coptic crosses, as the morris board below. Copts were Egyptian with the Christian belief.
Morris board from Luxor c. 300-600 AD
The conclusion should be that supposedly neither in ancient Egypt nor in ancient Greece nor in ancient Rome draughts was known. But there are some uncertainties.