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TE´SSERA dim. TESSE´TULA and TESSELLA (κύβος), a square or cube; a die; a token.

The use of small cubes of marble, earthenware, glass, precious stones, and mother-of-pearl for making tessellated pavements (pavimenta tessellata, Suet. Jut. 46) is noticed under EMBLEMA in Vol. I.; cf. PICTURA p. 397.

The dice used in games of chance [ALEA] had the same form, and were commonly made of ivory, bone, or some close-grained wood, especially privet (ligustra tesseris utilissima, Plin. Nat. 16.77). They were numbered on all the six sides like the dice still in use (Ovid, Ov. Tr. 2.473 ff.); and in this respect as well as in their form they differed from the tali, which are often distinguished from tesserae by classical writers (Gellius, 18.13.2; Cic. de Sen. 16.58). [TALUS] Whilst four tali were used in playing, only three tesserae were anciently employed. Hence arose the proverb, τρὶς ἕξ, τρεῖς κύβοι, “either three sizes or three aces,” meaning, all or none (Plat. Legg. 12.968 E; Schol. in loc. p. 946 a, ed. Turic.; Pherecrates, fr. 123 M. = Zenob. Cent. 4.23); for κύβος was used to denote the ace, as in the throw δύο κύβω καὶ τέτταρα, 1, 1, 4 = 6 (Eupolis, fr. 358 M.; Aristoph. Frogs 1400; Schol. in loc.). Three sizes is mentioned as the highest throw in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (33). As early as the time of Eustathius (in Od. 1.107) we find that the modern practice of using two dice instead of three had been established.

The ancients sometimes played with dice πλειστοβολίνδα, when the object was simply to throw the highest numbers. For other games with dice, see DUODECIM SCRIPTA, LATRUNCULI, TALUS; for the boards on which they were played, ALVEUS, TABULA LUSORIA; cf. Becq de Fouquières, Jeux des Anciens, ed. 2, pp. 302-324.

Objects of the same materials as dice, and either formed like them or of an oblong shape, were used as tokens for different purposes. The tessera hospitalis was the token of mutual hospitality, and is spoken of under HOSPITIUM p. 981 b. This token was probably in many cases of earthenware, having the head of Jupiter Hospitalis stamped upon it (Plaut. Poen. v. 1, 25; 2, 87-99). Tesserae frumentariae and numariae were tokens given at certain times by the Roman magistrates to the poor, in exchange for which they received a fixed amount of corn or money (Suet. Aug. 40, 42; Nero, 11). [FRUMENTARIAE LEGES] Similar tokens were used on various occasions, as they arose in the course of events. For example, when the Romans sent to give the Carthaginians their choice of peace or war, they sent two tesserae, one marked with a spear, the other with a CADUCEUS requesting them to take either the one or the other (Gellius, 10.27).

Various tesserae are preserved in museums, the British Museum being particularly rich in such specimens: the materials are ivory, bone, porcelain, and stone, One class of these are theatrical, i. e. were used as tickets of admission, and answer to the σύμβολα of the Greeks; another class are agonistic, thought to have been issued on the occasion of public games or contests. Others, again, are believed to have been distributed as sortes convivales or as sparsiones. The sortes convivales were a kind of lottery drawn by guests at a banquet, through which they were entitled to prizes varying in amount (Lamprid. Heliog. 22). In the sparsiones the tickets were scrambled for, instead of being drawn (D. C. 61.18; Martial, 8.78, 7). There are other miscellaneous tesserae, not included under the above headings. The most interesting class of tesserae are the gladiatorial, of which the British Museum contains about a dozen probably genuine, and other doubtful examples. These are usually carved out of a piece of ivory or bone, of a long shape, and inscribed on the four long sides (cf. TALUS). On the first line is the gladiator's name in the nominative case, on the second his trainer's in the genitive; the third gives the letters SP, followed by the date of the month and day; the fourth the consuls, marking the year. At one end is a hole by which it was suspended. The abbreviation SP stands for SPECTATUS, as is proved by the letters SPECTAT. on a tessera found at Arles. These tesserae were given by the munerarius, or exhibitor of the games, to a gladiator when spectatus or approved by passing successfully through a certain number of contests (cf. Hor. Ep. 1.2, 2). In one or two exceptional instances the word is SPECTAVIT, explained to mean either (1) that the gladiator, fighting no longer (emeritus), became “a spectator” of the games, or (2) that he became an “inspector” of other gladiators. For special discussions of this subject, see Ritschl in Abh. Bayer. Akad. 1866, pt. ii. p. 223; Hübner, in Monatsbericht Berl. Akad. 1867, p. 747; Mommsen, in Hermes, 21.266; A. Elter, in Rhein. Mus. 1886, p. 517; P. J. Meier, ib. 1887, p. 122; Guide to the Second Vase Room, British Museum.

From the application of this term to tokens of various kinds, it was transferred to the word used as a token among soldiers. This was the tessera militaris, the σύνθημα of the Greeks. Before joining battle it was given out and passed through the ranks as a method by which the soldiers might be able to distinguish friends from foes. Thus at the battle of Cunaxa the word was “Zeus the Saviour and Victory,” and on a subsequent engagement by the same troops “Zeus the Saviour, Heracles the Leader” (Xen. Anab. 1.8, § 16; 6.3.25). The soldiers of Xenophon used a verbal sign for the same purpose when they were encamped by night (7.3.34). Aeneas Tacticus (100.24) gives various directions necessary to be observed respecting the word. On the tessera or watchword in the Roman camp, see CASTRA p. 377 b.

[J.Y] [W.W]

hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Aristophanes, Frogs, 1400
    • Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.8
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 40
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 42
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 16.77
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 10.27
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 18.13.2
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 8.7
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 8.78
    • Horace, Epistulae, 1.2
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