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TALUS (ἀστράγαλος), the name of a bone in the hind leg of cloven-footed animals which articulates with the tibia and helps to form the ankle-joint (Aristot. Hist. An. 2.1.34). In the language of anatomists it is still called astragalus; the English name is sometimes “hucklebone,” but more commonly “knuckle-bone” (Germ. Knöchel). The astragali of sheep and goats, from their peculiar squareness and smoothness, have been used as playthings from the earliest times, and have often been found in Greek and Roman tombs, both natural and imitated in ivory, bronze, glass, and agate (Propert. 3.24, 13; Mart. 14.14; Ficoroni, Tav. 2). Those of the antelope (δορκάδειοι) were sought as objects of elegance and curiosity (Theophr. Char. 5; Athen. 5.193 f). They were used to play with, principally by women and children (Plut. Alc. 2), occasionally by old men (Cic. de Sen. 16.58). A painting by Alexander of Athens, found at Resina, represents two women occupied with this game. One of them, having thrown the bones upwards into the air, has caught three of them on the back of her hand (Ant d'Erc. i. tav. 1). See the following woodcut, and compare the account of the

Tali. (From a painting at Herculaneum.)

game in Pollux (9.99). Polygnotus executed a similar work at Delphi, representing the two daughters of Pandarus thus employed (παιζούσας ἀστραγάλοις, Paus. 10.30.1). But a much more celebrated production was the group of two naked boys, executed in bronze by Polycletus, and called the Astragalizontes (Plin. Nat. 34.55). A fractured marble group of the same kind, preserved in the British Museum, exhibits one of the twe boys in the act of biting the arm of his playfellow, so as to present a lively illustration of the account in Homer of the fatal quarrel of Patroclus (Il. 23.87, 88). To play at this game was sometimes called πεντελιθίζειν, because five bones or other objects of a similar kind were employed (Pollux, l.c.; Hermipp. fr. 33 M.); and this number is retained among ourselves. This game was entirely one of skill; and in ancient no less than in modern times, it consisted not merely in catching the five bones on the back of the hand, as shown in the woodcut, but in a great variety of exercises requiring quickness, agility, and accuracy of sight.

The name was also given to dice for playing games of chance [ALEA]; et first, no doubt, merely the natural bones marked with pips, afterwards of a conventional shape reproducing the peculiarities of the knuckle-bone. The length was greater than the breadth, so that they had four long sides and two pointed ends, one of them called κεραία (Aristot. l.c.), the other without a name. Of the four long sides, which alone were marked, two were broader, the others narrower. One of the broad sides was convex (πρηνὴς or πρανής), the other concave (ὑπτία); while of the narrow sides one was flat and called χῖον, the other indented. This was called κῷον, and as the rarest was also the luckiest throw, marked 6: the χῖον was marked 1, the broader sides 3 and 4, so that the numbers 2 and 5 were wanting. From the difference of their shapes they did not absolutely require to be marked, and sometimes the pips were dispensed with (Poll. 9.99, τὸ δὲ σχῆμα τοῖς κατὰ τὸν ἀστράγαλον πτώματος ἀριθμοῦ δόξαν εῖχεν). It was the under side of the die, not the upper, that counted, as must be inferred from the fact of the narrowest side giving the highest throw (Marquardt, Privatl. 828).

The Greek and Latin names of the numbers were as follows (Pollux, l.c.; Eustath. in Hom. Il. 23.88; Suet. Aug. 71; Mart. 13.1, 6):--1. Μονάς, εἷς, κύων, Χῖος (Brunck, Anal. 1.35, 242); 2. Ion, Οἴνη: Unio, Volturius, canis (Propert. v. (iv.) 8, 45; Ovid, A. A. 2.206, Trist. 2.473); 3. Τριάς: Ternio; 4. Τετράς: Quaternio; 6. Ἐξάς, ἑξίτης, Κῷος: Senio.

As the bone is broader in one direction than in the other, it was said to fall upright or prone (ὀρθὼς πρηνής, rectus aut pronus), according as it rested on a narrow or a broad side (Plut. Quaest. Sympos. 5.6, p. 680 a; Cic. de Fin. 3.16.54).

Two persons played together at this game, using four bones, which they threw up into the air, or emptied out of a dice-box [FRITILLUS]. The numbers on the four sides of the four bones admitted of thirty-five different combinations. The lowest throw of all was four aces (jacit volturios quatuor, Plaut. Curc. 2.3, 78). But the value of a throw (βόλος, jactus) was not in all cases the sum of the four numbers turned up. The highest in value was that called Venus, or jactus Venereus (Plaut. Asin. 5.2, 55; Cic. de Div. 2.5. 9, § 121; Propert, Suet. ll. cc.), in which the numbers cast up were all different (Mart. 14.14), the sum of them being only fourteen. It was by obtaining this throw that [p. 2.760]the king of the feast was appointed among the Romans (Hor. Carm. 1.4.18; 2.7, 25) [SYMFOSIUM], and hence it was called Basilicus (Plaut. Curc. 2.3, 80). Certain other throws were called by particular names, taken from gods, illustrious men and women, and heroes. Thus the throw, consisting of two aces and two trays, making eight, was denominated Stesichorus. A multitude of these names of throws are given by Pollux (7.204 ff.), who quotes the following lines from the Κυβευταὶ of Eubulus (fr. 57 M.):-- Κεντρωτός, ἱερός, ἅρμ̓ ὑπέρβαλλον πόδας
κήρυνος, εὐδαίμων, κυνωτός, ἅρτια,
Λάκωνες, ἀντίτευχος, Ἀργεῖος, δάκνων,
Τιμόκριτος, ἐλλείπων, πυαλίτης, ἐπίθετος,
σψάλλων, ἀγυρτής, οἳστρος, ἀνακάμπτων, δορεύς,
Λάμπων, κύκλωπες, ὲπιψέρων, Σάλων, Σίμων.

The number of names far exceeds that of possible throws, so that some must have been identical. When the object was simply to throw the highest numbers, the game was called πλειστοβολίνδα (Pollux, 9.117). Before a person threw the tali, he often invoked either a god or his mistress (Plaut. Capt. 1.1, 5; Curc. 2.3, 77-79). These bones, marked and thrown as above described, were also used in divination (Suet. Tib. 14).

For the cubical die marked on all six sides, see TESSERA (Eustath. ad II. 23.87, p. 1397; Becq de Fouquières, Jeux des Anciens, ed. 2, pp. 325-356; Marquardt, Privatl. 826 ff.)

[J.Y] [W.W]

hide References (11 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (11):
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10.30.1
    • Plutarch, Alcibiades, 2
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.87
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.88
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 71
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 14
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 34.55
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.5
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.1
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.6
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.14
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