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LATRU´NCULI (πεσσοί, ψῆφοι, oalculi), a game of skill resembling draughts, played in a variety of ways by both Greeks and Romans. The invention of it was commonly ascribed to Palamedes, who, according to some, was also the inventor of dice (Soph. fr. 380, 381, Dind.; Eurip. Iph. A. 196, πεσσῶν ἡδομένους μορφαῖσι πολυπλόκοις, the “combinations” of the game: a curious but perhaps interpolated passage). Homer represents the suitors of Penelope amusing themselves with it (Od. 1.107). Plato assigns both πεττεία and κυβεία with other more useful arts to Theuth, the Egyptian Hermes (Phaedr. p. 274 D); and it is at least certain that such games were known to the Egyptians. Besides numerous paintings representing the game, draught-men have been discovered in the tombs. Among the recent acquisitions of the British Museum are some beautiful specimens; a set, apparently of one type, carved as lions' heads; others in glass (a favourite material with the Romans; see below) of two sizes, as if for a game in which there were both “officers” and “men.”

The annexed cut, from a papyrus in the British Museum, represents a game of draughts between a lion and an antelope; each plays with five men, distinguished, not by colour, but by their shape: the lion has won, and holds in his left paw a purse containing the stakes. In Wright's Hist. of Caricature (1865, p. 8), the vanquished animal is described as “a unicorn” ; in Becker-Göll, Charikles (ii. p. 373), as a hare (!). It is clearly meant for an antelope, though only one horn is seen, owing to the absence of perspective.

Among the Greeks two kinds of πεττεία at least are clearly distinguishable, though

Egyptian Draughts. (From a papyrus in the British Museum.)

there were probably others. We may notice, in passing, the explanation of the Homeric πεσσοὶ as quoted from Apion by Athenaeus (i. p. 16 f, 17 a). According to a tradition which Apion heard from a native of Ithaca, this was a game not of mental but of bodily dexterity, a sort of bowls or nine-pins in which a mark was aimed at. Too much has been made of this passage by Becq de Fouquières (pp. 405-407); Homer says simply πεσσοί, and all the rest is fancy (cf. Becker-Göll, Charikles, 2.372). Of the two modes of play of which we have distinct accounts, the simpler and doubtless the older was the game of the five lines, πέντε γραμμαί, thus described by Pollux (9.97): ἐπειδὴ δὲ ψῆφοι μέν εἰσιν οἱ πεττοί, πέντε δ᾽ἑκάτερος τῶν παιζόντων εἶχεν ἐπὶ πέντε γραμμῶν, εἰκότως εἴρηται Σοφοκλεῖ καὶ πεσσὰ πεντέγραμμα καὶ κύβαν βολαί: τῶν δὲ πέντε τῶν ἑκατέρωθεν γραμμῶν μέση τις ἧν ἱερὰ γραμμή: καὶ δ̔ τὸν ἐεῖθεν κινῶν ἐποίει παροιμίαν: κίνει τὸν ἀφ᾽ ἱερᾶς. The natural inference is that in this game the pieces moved along the lines, not the spaces between them; though a board of 36 squares, i. e. divided by five lines each way, has been suggested (L. and S. s. v. πεσσοί). Eustathius (on Il. vi. p. 633, 58) throws some further light on the proverbial expression κινεῖν τὸν ἀφ᾽ ἱερᾶς, “to try one's last chance:” it is well known through allusions in literature (Alcae. fr. 77 Bergk; Theocr. 6.18; and elsewhere); but why it was dangerous to move this piece, when it became necessary to move it, or what was the effect upon the game, it is impossible to say. The Greek idiom of course implies that the ἱερὰ γραμμὴ was the original station of this piece; a sufficient answer to the notion of Becq de Fouquières (p. 402) that it was a part of the board which it was dangerous to approach, and from which a player had to remove his man if possible. It is a matter of probable conjecture, but not expressly stated, that in this game, as in the other form of πεττεία, the object was to hem in the enemy's men, or to place one of them between two adversaries, in which case it was taken off the board; and that the game was won, as in modern draughts, either by the capture of all the opposing forces or by their inability to move.

The accounts of the other kind of πεττεία are a little more explicit: it was called πόλις or [p. 2.12]rather πόλεις, another name for the χῶραι or squares. The leading passage is Pollux, 9.98: δὲ διὰ πολλῶν ψήφων παιδιὰ πλινθίον ἐστὶ χώρας ἐν γραμμαῖς ἔχον διακειμένας: καὶ τὸ μὲν πλινθίον καλεῖται πόλις, τῶν δὲ ψήφων ἑκάστη κύων: διῃρημένων δὲ ξἰς δύο τῶν ψήφων κατὰ τὰς χρόας, τέχνη τῆς παιδιᾶς ἐοτι περιλήψει δύο ψήφων ὁμοχρόων τὴν ἑτερόχρουν ἀνελεῖν. We have here distinct mention of squares instead of lines, of the different colours of the men (here called κύνες and not πεσσοί), of the rule that a man caught between two adversaries was lost. In the words καὶ τὸ μὲν πλινθίον καλεῖται πόλις, there seems to be a confusion between the board (πλινθίον) and the squares (χῶραι) into which it was divided; other passages, however, clear up this difficulty. Zenob. Cent. 5.67: πόλεις παίζειν: μέμνηται ταύτης Κρατῖνος ἐν Δραπετίδι: [fr. 51 M. ap. Poll. l.c.] δὲ πόλις εῖδος ἐστὶ παιδιᾶς πεττευτικῆς, καὶ δοκεῖ μετενηνέχθαι ἀπὸ τῶν ταῖς ψήφοις παιζόντων, ταῖς λεγομέναις νῦν μὲν χώραις, τότε δὲ πόλεσιϝ. Plat. Rep. 4.422 E: ἑάστη γὰρ αὐτῶν πόλεις εἰσὶ πάμπολλαι, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ πόλις, τὸ τῶν παιζόντων: with the Scholia. These passages show that the game was really called πόλεις παίζειν: and Becq de Fouquières is not happy in his conjecture that the πόλις was a particular part of the board. Compare Plat. Rep. 6.487 B, ὑπὸ τῶν πεττεύειν δεινῶν οἱ μὴ τελευτῶντες ἀποκλείονται καὶ οὐκ ἔχουσιν τι φέρωσιν, where “hemming in” the enemy is of the essence of the game and φέρειν is a technical word for “to move,” another being θέσθαι. Plb. 1.84, πολλοὺ ἀποτεμνόμενος καὶ συγκλείων ὥσπερ ἀγαθός πεττεντής. The giving of odds (κρεῖσσον) is alluded to (Eur. Supp. 409); and taking back a move (ἀναθέσθαι, [Plat.] Hipparch. 229 E). The number of ψῆφοι in the developed form of this game seems to have been thirty on each side: this rests on Phot. Lex. p. 439, 1: παίζειν τὰς νῦν χαρὰς [χώρας is an obvious correction] καλουμένας ἐν ταῖς ζ᾽, where Porson corrects ξ᾽. In Pollux (7.206), Eustathius (ad Il. 6.169), and Hesychius (s. v. διαγραμμισμός), perhaps by a confusion, sixty men are also assigned to games with dice. The Greeks used simple materials: the πεσσοὶ were merely round or oval stones (ψῆφοι. calculi,) and, as with us, the same men might be used for draughts and backgammon [DUODECIM SCRIPTA].

In none of the Greek forms of draughts is there any mention of pieces more powerful than the rest, like the crowned kings or dames of the modern game. This distinction first appears in the Roman latrunculi, which in other respects were very like the πόλεις just described. The calculi, a name common to this with other games, were here specially called latrones, i.e. not robbers, but soldiers; the word comes from λάτρον, “pay” (Varro, L. L. 7.52; Fest. Epit. p. 118 M.); more commonly the dim. latrunculi, or in verse milites (Ov. A. A. 2.207-8, 3.357; Trist. 2.477): for the game may be said to represent a miniature combat between two armies. That they stood on the squares of the board (tabula latruncularia, Sen. Ep. 117.30), not on the lines, is proved by another passage of Varro (L. L. 10.22): “Ad hunc quadruplicem fontem ordines diriguntur bini, uni transversi, alteri directi, ut in tabula solet, in qua latrunculis ludunt.” Neither the number of squares nor of men is anywhere mentioned: the latter are conjectured to have been thirty a side as in the Greek game. Glass was a common material (Ov. A. A. 2.208; Mart. 7.72, 8); when “gems” are mentioned, imitation jewels of glass are probably meant (Mart. 12.40, 3; 14.20); sometimes they were made of earthenware, ivory, or the precious metals. The colours are distinguished (Ov. Trist. l.c.; Paneg. Pis. 182; Mart. 14.17); a set of stone calculi of a hemispherical shape found in a tomb at Cumae are curiously enough of three colours,--white, black, and red (Bullett. Nap. 1852, p. 132).

The distinction between “officers” and “men,” noticed above in Egyptian draughts, is also proved to have existed in the Roman game; see Isid. Orig. 18.67: “Calculi partim ordine moventur, partim vage. Ideo alios ordinarios, alios vagos appellant. At vero, qui moveri omnino non possunt, incitos dicunt;” and the passage quoted below from the Panegyric on Piso. Here ordine seems to mean “one square at a time,” vage “in any direction so far as the range was unobstructed;” though a leaping movement has also been suggested (Marquardt, p. 833). The officers probably stood on the first rank, the men as a “row of pawns” (Bauernreile) in front of them; but we must beware of pursuing too far analogies derived from chess. The superior pieces were called latrones, the inferior very probably latrunculi; the doubtful term mandra comes in here for discussion. We find it in Mart. 7.72, “Sic vincas Noviumque Publiumque, Mandris et vitreo latrone clusos;” and in Paneg. Pis. 191, “fracta prorumpat in agmina mandra.” The sense of “sheepfold” or “cattlepen” passes easily into that of “a drove of cattle” (Juv. 3.227) or “a string of mules” (Mart. 5.22). As applied to the game of latrunculi, mandra may mean a square of the board, and so it is usually explained in the line of Martial: in Paneg. Pis. it undoubtedly means the row of pawns, which is broken through in order to afford scope to the more powerful pieces; a sense which will equally suit the former passage. But even the high authority of Becker (Gallus, p. 471) and Marquardt (Privatl. 833) will not convince us that mandra could be applied to the single pawn. As in the Greek game, the object was to get one of the adversary's men between two of one's own, and then take it off the board (Ov. ll. cc.; Mart. 14.17); or else reduce him to a dead block (ad incilas redigere). In this phrase, so often used figuratively (Plaut. Poen. 4.2, 85; Trin. 2.4, 136) the word to be supplied is calces, an older form for calculos, not lineas, as sometimes stated. To attack a man is usually alligare (Sen. Ep. 117.30); but we shall find also obligare and the simple ligare.

The most important passage on the game of latrunculi is in the Panegyricus ad Pisonem, printed in old editions of Lucan, and subsequently ascribed to Saleius Bassus, but now regarded as the work of an anonymous young poet of the age of Claudius (Teuffel, Röm. Lit. § 296). The poem will be found in the Poetae Latini Minores of Wernsdorf or Bährens, or in the Corpus Poetarum of Weber (pp. 1411-1413). We reproduce this passage (vv. 180-196) with a few [p. 2.13]comments: one phrase in it, we think, has never yet been correctly explained.

Callidiore modo tabula variatur aperta
Calculus et vitreo peraguntur milite bella,
Ut niveus nigros, nunc et niger alliget albos.
Sed tibi quis non terga dedit? quis te duce cessit
Calculus? aut quis non periturus perdidit hostem?
Mille modis acies tua dimicat: ille petentem
Dum fugit, ipse rapit: longo venit ille recessu,
Qui stetit in speculis: hic se committere rixae
Audet et in praedam venientem decipit hostem.
Ancipites subit ille moras similisque ligato
Obligat ipse duos: hic ad majora movetur,
Ut citus et fracta prorumpat in agmina mandra
Clausaque deiecto populetur moenia vallo.
Interea sectis quamvis acerrima surgant
Proelia militibus, plena tamen ipse phalange,
Ant etiam pauco spoliata milite, vincis,
Et tibi captiva resonat manus utraque turba.

V. 184, periturus perdidit hostem: i.e. Piso sacrificed pieces which his opponent could not take without suffering a greater loss; ἀνταναιρεσις in Eustath. p. 1397, 45. V. 186, longo venit, &c. This is a “discovered check” from one of the superior pieces by moving a pawn. But the officers all move alike in the Roman game, a fundamental difference which must prevent its being confounded with chess. V. 189, Ancipites subit. One man exposes himself to a double attack or cross-fire, mora being a technical word for attack. In the words which follow, similis ligato has always been understood as if it were simply ligatus; and Becq de Fouquières gives a diagram (p. 449), any number of which might be invented, to show how an attacked piece may move to the other end of the board and attack two enemies. This, however, leaves ancipites moras without a meaning; as we explain it, he is not really en prise of two pieces, but places himself between them, so that he attacks both, while either could take him if it were not for the other; he is similis ligato, but not ligatus; the well-known manœuvre called the lunette at draughts, and a further point of resemblance with the modern game. V. 191. For et fracta of the MSS. effracta or ecfracta is now read; the verse has been explained above. It is clear that if the pawns moved straight forward, they captured diagonally; otherwise the line could not be broken through. V. 194 f. The fewer pieces the winner had lost, the more glorious the victory: this is illustrated by a story in Seneca (de Tranq. An. 14.7), and furnishes an additional proof, as Becker has remarked, that the game was more like draughts than chess, notwithstanding a superficial resemblance to the latter. The winner was called rex or imperator (Vopisc. Proc. 13).

After all, it must be pronounced impossible to form an adequate conception of the game; we must admit, with Becker, that many questions remain unanswered. Becq de Fouquières has been decidedly less successful in explaining this game than in the Duodecim Scripta. While treating of games of skill among the ancients, it may be as well to say that, since the history of chess was written by the Englishman Thomas Hyde at the end of the 17th century, no scholar has held that it was known to the Greeks or Romans. Chess cannot be traced in the West before the time of Charlemagne and Harun-al-Rashid (A.D. 800); the Greek words for it, ζατρίκιον and σάντραξ, are found only in late Byzantine writers; both are derived from the Arabic shatranj, and that from the Sanscrit chatur-anga.

(The older learning is collected, very copiously but without sufficient discrimination between the different games, in a note of Salmasius on Vopisc. l.c., Hist. Aug. 2.736-761, ed. 1671. Modern authorities: Becq de Fouquières, Jeux des Anciens, ed. 2, 1873, chaps. 18, 19; Becker-Göll, Charikles, ii 371 ff.; Gallus, 3.468 ff.; Hermann-Blümner, Privatalterth. 508 ff.; Marquardt, Privatl. 832 ff.)


hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Euripides, Suppliants, 409
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.107
    • Polybius, Histories, 1.84
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 12.3
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 12.40
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.17
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.20
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 5.22
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.72
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.8
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