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NUCES It seems most convenient to include under this head several Greek and Roman games of skill, which were played with nuts, though frequently (and indeed usually in Greece) missiles of other material were used, such as pebbles, shells, knuckle-bones (ἀστράγαλοι, tali), or, in some cases, coins. The love of the Roman boy for these amusements makes the phrase nuces relinquere = “to pass out of childhood” (Pers. 1.10; cf. Catull. 71, 131). Five of these games (we cannot think Marquardt right in making out six) are given in the poem Nux, ascribed to Ovid, and, according to Teuffel, the work of some writer not much later than Ovid. It will be seen that very similar Greek games are mentioned by Pollux and others. It is asserted by some scholars that marked nuces were used in the same way as dice by those who could not afford tali or tesserae. Considering that, even if the trifling cost of these was too great, pieces of wood would make much better dice than the awkwardly rounded nut, this seems antecedently improbable, and the passages adduced from Latin writers do not really support the contention. It is true that if ocellatis nucibus is read in Suet. Aug. 83 (see below), the obvious sense will be, nuts marked with dots, presumably as dice, but that is not a reading of authority. As regards the passages mainly relied upon, in Mart. 4.76, “Alea sed parcae sola fuere nuces,” the meaning is that nuts are the only property staked and lost, because he played only in the games of nuces described below and not at dice: if he could have used nuces for dicing, the whole point would be lost. In Mart. 5.84, the nuces in the first line are one amusement, the fritillus in the third are another and a different one; and the case is the same in Mart. 13.1, 7. The nuts themselves were won and lost in the games just as marbles are in children's games of the present day, but there is no reason to think that numbers could be thrown as with a gambler's dice, or that they were thrown from a dice-box: except in the game of par impar, the games with nuces were trials of skill, not of chance.

1. The simplest game of skill played with these materials consisted in pitching the nuts (or, as Pollux gives it, astragali or acorns) into a hole, from which the players stood at some distance ( “spatio distante,” Nux, 85). The usual Latin name for this game was probably orca, so called because the nuts were pitched into a narrow-mouthed jar which the author of Nux calls “vas cavum,” Persius (3.50) “orca” : some indeed assert that Persius in this passage (where there is no direct mention of nuces) is using orca to mean dice-box. We think this less probable; Persius has finished the subject of dice in the two preceding lines, he now speaks of nuces, and of tops in line 51. In this game the Greeks pitched their astragali not into a jar, but either (a) into a circle drawn on the ground called ὤμιλλα, whence the game itself was called εὶς ὤμιλλαν (Poll. 9.102) and ὤμιλλα (Schol. Plat. p. 320, Bk.), for Marquardt is, we think, certainly wrong in identifying the ὤμιλλα with the delta mentioned below: or (b) into a hole dug in the ground, called βόθρος (Poll. 9.103) or βόθυνος, whence the game, essentially the same as ὤμιλλα, was called εἰς βόθυνον (Schol. l.c.). It is to be noted, however, that Pollux calls this form of the game τρόπα, while Hesychius says of τρόπα simply, that it is a game καθ᾽ ἣν στρέφουσι τοὺς ἀστραγάλους εἰς τὸ ἕτερον μέρος. The explanation by which Becq de Fouquières (p. 115) attempts to make Hesychius and Pollux describe the same game, is forced and unnatural, nor could the words εἰς ἕτερον μέρος bear the sense which he gives them. It is stated by Grasberger, apparently on good authority, that in Greece at this day the same game is called τρούπη, τρύπη, or λάκκα (i.e. a hole), and it is ingeniously suggested that the game which in Pollux we find as τρόπα should be τρύπα. We may offer the further suggestion that Hesychius is not speaking of any game at all similar, but by τρόπα is either describing what Pollux calls στρεπτίνδα, which consisted in throwing a shell or coin or ἀστράγαλος in such a way as to turn over to the reverse side a shell, coin, &c., already lying on the ground, or else is alluding to one branch of the astragali game where the bones are to be reversed in the air before they are caught [TALI]. The name ἐφετίνδα (from ἐφίημι) might probably be applied to any one of the variations of the above-mentioned game: Pollux (9.117) makes it the same as ὤμιλλα, except that it is played with shells. It is clear that in all these games the nut or other missile which fell outside the jar or hole or circle was forfeited.

2. Castella.--In Nux 73-76 there is a game which has caused some difficulty, but which may be explained as follows:--Three nuts are placed on the ground with a fourth resting on them, so as to form a pyramid: (when Pliny, Plin. Nat. 19.112, speaks of planting bulbs “castellatim” in grumuli or heaps, he follows this meaning.) The first player aims with his nut so as to scatter (dilaminare) the pyramid (rectas), and having overthrown this he has at most two more shots (bisve semelve), in which he may win all four, presumably by making two cannons, flipping (digito) his nut at them on the ground (pronas). If we read rectus, pronus, which Becq de Fouquières prefers, the sense must be that he takes his first shot standing (rectus), his two next kneeling (pronus), as in what is called “knuckle-down” at marbles. For the name castella, or ludus castellorum, we have Trebell. Poll. Gallien. 16, 2, “de pomis castella composuit.” In the passage of Suet. Aug. 83, [p. 2.248]where Augustus is described as in his old age playing “modo talis aut ocellatis nucibusque,” some read castellatis nucibus, which would mean the game of castella as described above. By ocellati, which is the authoritative reading, Becq de Fouquières understands agate or onyx marbles, and no doubt nuces and marbles would be played in the same way: the dictionaries translate ocellati “dice,” as being marked with dots, but, if so, they would be coupled with tali rather than with nuces. Marquardt is certainly wrong in taking lines 75, 76 to describe a separate game: in the sequence of lines the words alter, etiam, quoque obviously mark the transition to different games: nor does his rendering make satisfactory sense, and he confesses that he finds line 74 unintelligible.

3. A variation in aiming at the nuts was introduced by rolling the missile down a sloping board ( “tabulae clivus,” Nux, 77), as is shown by a relief in the Blundell Collection (Rich, s. v. Tabula). The kneeling boy is probably arranging the pyramid for a shot.

4. Delta (Nux, 81-84).--This game was played by chalking on the ground a triangle (which the author of Nux compares to the Greek letter and the constellation named after it). This triangle is divided by bars or lines drawn parallel to the base and called virgae (cf. virgatus= “striped” ): the nut is rolled into the triangle and the player wins as many nuts as he crosses bars, provided he does not roll it out of the triangle. Obviously the best possible throw is to pitch the nut just within the base line and make it stop just within the apex: it will thus in its course have touched all the parallel bars, and will win an equal number of nuts ( “quot tetigit virgas, tot rapit inde nuces” ). This is, in the main, the view of Becq de Fouquières. Barth, reading virgo, gives a strange explanation, imagining a blindfold girl groping for nuts.

5. For the game of chance, odd and even, commonly played with nuts (Nux, 79), see PAR IMPAR.

(Becq de Fouquières, Jeux des Anciens, 114-126; Grasberger, Erziehung, 1.68 ff.; Marquardt, Privatleben, 839 f.)


hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (5):
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 83
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.1
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.7
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 4.76
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 5.84
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