By Tim Penn and Summer Courts

Board gaming in Roman Britain

Most of us probably remember playing board games over the years, but may not have stopped to think about how old a tradition they are. Boards games enjoyed great popularity in Roman society and were played by people from a wide range of social classes, some of these resemble games which we still play today. For example, a family of related games known as Duodecim Scripta or Ala, are probably the ancestors of modern backgammon. Merels (the ‘mill game’) is essentially the same as modern Nine Men’s Morris. Other games, especially those played with dice are mysterious to us because we have no records of their rules. Nevertheless, we know that both games of chance with dice or knucklebones and board games were commonplace both in Roman Britain and in the wider Roman World. Archaeologists and historians investigate ancient games through a range of sources. Some ancient authors - such as the poets Ovid or Martial – drop hints about the rules of ancient games, while others, like Suetonius, tell us that people as important as the Emperor Claudius played board games. We can compare this with material evidence such as gaming boards, gaming pieces and dice to try to understand how people played games in the past. However, we can’t always fully recover all the rules for Roman board games, but we can often scrape together enough information to be able to understand what kind of games they were.

Gaming board with bone counters, dice and shaker from Vindolanda

The most popular game in Roman Britain was Ludus Latrunculorum or latrones (“the game of brigands or soldiers”), a military tactics game similar to draughts. This game was played on a board incised with squares and two sets of counters; one for each player. The object of the game was to capture your opponent’s pieces by trapping them between two of your own. To date this is the only board game found at Vindolanda. A grand total of 16 boards for playing this game have been found at the site so far, making Vindolanda’s the largest collection of gaming boards in Roman Britain. Although research is still ongoing, there are lots of reasons which might explain this: Ludus Latrunculorum boards are a basic grid-shape and were easy to make, the rules seem to have been quite simple, and the military connotations of the name might have appealed to soldiers – in fact, one ancient author even tells us that the winners of the game were called ‘Imperator’ (‘general’). This does not necessarily mean that people weren’t playing other games at Vindolanda; a few dice have been found and this might suggest that other games, which require dice to play, like duodecim scripta, were also part of life at the fort; and are waiting to be found.

Roman Ludus Latrunculorum board found at Vindolanda in 2019

Archaeologists have found gaming boards and other gaming-related artefacts across Roman Britain, with towns, villas, villages, roadside settlements and military sites all providing different levels of evidence. Analysing the kinds of places where gaming kit is found allows us to understand who was playing board games. The wide variety of findspots suggests that Latrunculorum was a popular game enjoyed by many segments of Romano-British society, not least soldiers. At Vindolanda, gaming boards have been found both inside and outside the walls of the fort, and in a range of different social contexts. For example, inside the fort some boards were found near the home of the commanding officer and in the barracks, while outside the fort, other boards were recovered near the baths. Altogether, this suggests that Ludus Latrunculorum was quite literally a game anyone in the Vindolanda community could play!

Roman Ludus Latrunculorum board found at Vindolanda in 2009

Gaming boards from Vindolanda are interesting for other reasons – not just because there are a lot of them. The 16 gaming boards recovered here range in size, weight and quality, and this might be because they were made at different times or using different kind of stones. However, it could also change the way that people experienced the game. For example, smaller, lighter gaming boards could be more ‘portable’ than big, bulky ones. This could mean that they were suitable for moving around the settlement to allow people to play games with their friends and neighbours. Our future research will look at these social aspects of gaming and in doing so, we hope to cast new light on the everyday life of the Vindolanda community.