Latrunculi was the most popular thinking man's game in the Roman Empire. The name comes from the word latrones which originally meant 'mercenaries' and which referred to 'soldiers' in early Roman times, according to Varro. However, in later Roman times the term came to be used for highwaymen, or 'robber-soldiers' as they were known. Numerous boards have been found and they vary in size, but the most common size is 12 by 8. Archeological finds in Italy and Britain suggest that Latrunculi had two playing pieces, distinguishing this game from the earlier single stone version the Greeks called Petteia (aka City or Polis). Latrunculi most certainly derives from the Greek game Petteia, which means "pebbles" or "stones". Plato tells us that Petteia originally came from Egypt. If so, he was probably referring to the Egyptian precursor game called Siga (or Seega).

      Boards varied in size; some boards were 8 x 8, 8 x 7, or 9 x 10. It may be impossible to determine which of these boards were for what game, but the size of the board may not have affected the style of play. Boards for all these games, therefore, may have been interchangeable. Boards were made of wood, but some were made of stone, marble, or even silver. The image at left shows a fragment of what may be a Petteia board and stones found at Athens. Latrunculi is first mentioned by Varro (116-27 B.C.) but is probably much older, and is last mentioned by Macrobius around 400 A. D., when he rebukes those that "played at Tabula and Latrunculi." Ovid tells us that the pieces were of different colored glass, sometimes precious stones. He also states that a piece is taken by custodial capture (sandwiched between two other pieces) and that "backward moves" were allowed.

      Latrunculi is played with two types of pieces, the stones and an extra piece called a King (per Hnefatafl) or a Dux (Duke) per some sources (previously called an Eagle or Aquila here), and it is distinct from Petteia in this regard. Except for the special characteristics of the king it is played by essentially the same rules. Here is a peculiar description of a game that appears to be Latrunculi from the Persian writer Firdawsi (300 AD?), who presumed to describe the origin of chess in the East. This is the description of the King of India answering the King of Persia's challenge to learn this game.

        He arranged an army similar to that of chess; he placed the two sides in order of battle and distributed the troops, ready for battle and for the assault of the town, among eight houses. The field was black, the battle-field square, and there were two powerful kings of good disposition who should both move without ever receiving injury. Each had at his side an army in its arrangements, collected at the head of the field, and ready for the fray. The two kings advanced upon the field of battle, their troops moved on all sides around them, each trying to outgo the other; now they fought on the heights, now on the plains; when two on one side had surprised a man by himself, he was lost to his side, and the two armies remained face to face until it was seen who was beaten.

      This particular game was supposed to have been played on an 8 x 8 board with 8 men and a king on each side, although this description seems to exaggerate all the proportions and actions. This passage suggests at least two types of players, the king and the ordinary troops, which makes it distinct from Petteia. Note that the two sides were first placed "in order of battle" (lined up in starting position) before he "distributed the troops" (moved into opening positions). This colorful description of what is most definitely Latrunculi is strikingly similar to that given in a poem known as Laus Pisonis which was written by Saleius Bassus during the middle of the Ist century A. D.:

        Cunningly the pieces are disposed on the open board and battles are fought with soldiery of glass, so that now White blocks Black, now Black blocks White. But every foe yields to thee, Piso; marshalled by thee, what piece ever gave way? What piece on the brink of death dealt not death to his enemy? Thousand-fold are thy battle tactics: one man in fleeing from an attack himself overpowers him, another, who has been standing on the look-out, comes up from a distant corner; another stoutly rushes into the mle and cheats his foe now creeping on his prey; another courts blockade on either flank and under feint of being blocked, himself blocks two men; another's objective is more ambitious, that he may quickly break through the massed phalanx, swoop into the lines and, razing the enemy's rampart, do havoc in the walled stronghold. Meantime, although the fight rages fiercely, the hostile ranks are split, yet thou thyself are victorious with serried lines unbroken or despoiled maybe of one or two men and both thy hands rattle with the prisoned throng.

      The phrase "Cunningly the pieces are disposed on the open board" strongly suggests that opening formations are important to subsequent play in the game. This is typical of most strategy games in which the first few moves are used to create strategic positions with which to begin more detailed (direct contact) engagements. In Chess these are called "openings" and in Japanese Go they are known as "Fuseki."

      Other clues as to the nature and play of Latrunculi come from the Vikings, who enjoyed a similar game called Hnefatafl. This game is related to a group of games played by the Danes, the Swedes, the Lapps, the British and the Irish. Although the initial arrangements are different, in all other respects this games is played almost the same as Latrunculi. Since the players in this game all have the move of a rook, we can conclude that the same must be true in Latrunculi. Also, the king in Hnefatafl cannot be captured, but can be immobilized, and the sides cannot be used for captures.

      One source misinterprets the phrase of Bassus, "pieces are disposed" (or sometimes "pieces are distributed") to mean that the stones were deliberately placed in these opening positions during a preliminary phase of the game. This hypothetical first phase necessitates the invention of an unlikely rule -- that no captures could take place during this phase. In fact, the first quotation, which says "He arranged an army similar to that of chess..." makes it evident that the two sides began on opposite sides of the board before they "distributed the troops." The contention that a separate opening phase existed in Latrunculi is an unnecessary artifice that seems to have been inspired by a modern version of the Egyptian game Seega, although there seems to be no evidence that the ancient version of Seega was played in this way. If Chess were played this way, by alternately placing pieces on the board during an opening phase while disallowing captures, it would be seen by players as an useless contrivance. Furthermore, any realistic position that could be created by alternately placing pieces on the board could also be achieved by moving pieces into place from the starting position, making such a postulated "opening phase" as redundant as it is pointless. In any event, the Stanway game below proves beyond doubt that there was no opening phase without captures in Latrunculi.

      Varro makes reference to Latrunculi in the following passage:

        "Ad hunc quadruplicem fontem ordines deriguntur bini, uni transversi, alteri derecti, ut in tabula solet in qua latrunculis ludunt."
        "To this fourfold spring two sets of lines are drawn up, the ones crosswise and the others vertical, as is the regular arrangement on a board on which they play with movable pieces."

        In 1996 a game in progress, shown in the above photo, was discovered at Stanway in Essex, England. The arrangement of the stones clearly indicates the starting position. The board which had a length of 12 spaces, and a width of 8 has disappeared, but the hinges and metal fittings were still present and the stones remained essentially in place where they were left. Several moves had already been played. The extra white and black pieces, the kings, were placed on the second line, asymmetrically opposite like the kings in Chess. The kings must have been moved once each, and the only symmetrical positions they could possibly have moved from are shown in the diagram and photo below.

        Although in Hnefatafl the king could only move only one space at a time, it is clear from the Stanway game that the kings have moved several spaces in one move, like the other pieces. The photo below illustrates the opening moves in the Stanway game.

        A layout of the gameboard is shown below, based on the game found at Stanway in Essex, England. The kings are located symmetrically opposite one another, like the kings in modern chess. Each king is placed right of center in front of twelve latro on a 12 x 8 board. Furthermore, the king cannot be captured, but can only be penned up. In all other respects, this game is played by the same rules as Petteia. Two men may capture an enemy player by enclosing him on two sides, horizontal or vertical. When the king is immobilized, the game is over, regardless of how many stones are left on the board.


        PROPOSED RULES FOR LATRUNCULI

        1. Use a 12 x 8 board with the starting arrangement as shown above.
        2. Black plays first.
        3. All pieces may move any number of spaces in the horizontal or vertical direction.
        4. A single stone is captured if it is surrounded on two opposite sides.
        5. The outside walls cannot be used to capture men.
        6. A stone in the corner can be captured by two stones placed across the corner.
        7. Multiple stones can be captured along a line.
        8. The king (or dux) cannot be captured but can be immobilized by being surrounded on all four sides.
        9. First player to immobilize the enemy king wins.
        10. The king is immobilized if it is blocked by an enemy stone such that it has no place left to move.
        11. If the game stalemates, the player with the most captured enemy stones wins.
        12. Sequences of plays that repeat endlessly must be prohibited (this is usually obvious to both players after two series of moves repeats -- any move initiating a third repeating series of moves is illegal).
        13. Players must announce when they 'squeeze' a stone in-between enemy stones (to avoid any later dispute).

        DISCUSSION OF THE PROPOSED AND ALTERNATIVE RULES FOR LATRUNCULI

        Various alternative rules have been suggested by others, but none of these have a sound basis in literature or logic and they do not produce a truly playable game. The assumed rule that lets a stone jump over other stones as in Checkers adds nothing to the game and seems to contradict the concept of "blocking" opponents stones. A related alternative rule that suggests that the king (or dux) may jump over enemy stones also seems to contradicts the fact that a king can be immobilized. The assumed rule discussed earlier that would place stones on the board in an opening phase can be dismissed based on the evidence from Stanway. The use of dice in this game is similarly absurd. The use of a double row of stones in the opening position, as in Checkers, is most improbable, as is playing the stones on the intersections rather than inside the squares.

        Another rule has been suggested in which the stones in contact with the king form a mandra and cannot be captured along the same line as the king. This is not a rule but a direct consequence of the fact that if a king is present in a line of stones a multiple stone capture by the opponent is impossible along that line. Proposed Rule 7 above has been adopted based on the similar game Shogi, as discussed previously, but has no major impact on the game. Rule 11 is based on the anecdote at the end of this webpage where a player was ahead by one point -- the score wouldn't be kept if it didn't mean something.

        Proposed Rule 10 above represents a literal interpretation of the term "immobilization" and is also based on the mode of play in the derivative game of Hnefatafl. Rule 10 allows a single white stone to capture an enemy king by blocking it against its own stones and/or the sides, as shown in the figure at right where a white move to 'A' immobilizes the king and wins the game. This rule changes the focus of the game from capturing enemy stones, as in Petteia, to cornering the king with clever forcing moves, and can furthermore make for sudden victory, even by an outnumbered force. Without Rule 10 it is difficult for either player to make progress unless someone makes a mistake, and the game often becomes a drawn-out standoff like Petteia. Readers are encouraged to try the game with and without this rule to see for themselves that it not only makes the most sense but also produces the most engaging and delightful version of the game possible.

        Given the above proposed rules, there seems to be room and opportunity for strategic openings that would give players the ability to carry on a fighting struggle, but what the opening strategies are that work best remain to be rediscovered. Likely, the Romans knew various strategic openings as Chess players do today. The rook-like moves allow each stone to 'cover' lanes on the board (or create points that it would be death to occupy), and it is likely that players would try to initially maximize coverage before embarking on attack strategies. The Stanway opening strongly suggests the players were positioning their stones in an opening formation that would give each control over different areas of the board. Also, the descriptions of the game suggest that placing a roving player behind enemy lines is a probable necessity since the board can easily be blocked off by the enemy. Perhaps the best piece to send behind enemy lines is the king, since it cannot be captured. The photos below shows the author's Latrunculi board with pyramidal shaped kings in the starting arrangement on a 12x8 board.

        In one of his epigrams called Calculi, Martial describes the play in Latrunculi:

          Insidiosorum si ludus bella latronum, gemmeus iste tibi miles et hostis erit.

        Which translates as:

          If you play the war-game of robbers in ambush these glass pieces will be your soldiers and their enemies.

        The large Greek amphora at right shows the legendary game of Petteia played between Achilles and Ajax at Troy. This amphora was painted by Exekias, the greatest artist of his generation and a pupil of Klitias, in 530 BC. It has been suggested that this recurring theme represents a famous lost epic poem in which the two heroes, Achilles and Ajax, became so absorbed in the game that, although in full armour, they forgot about the ongoing battle. This amphora came from Vulci and is in the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican City.

        In the following epigram by Martial called Tabula Lusoria, he makes reference to a Tabula board that had a Latrunculi board on the opposite side, speaking from the point of view of the board itself:

          Hac mihi bis seno numeratur tessera puncto; calculus hac gemino discolor hoste perit.

        Which translates as:

          On this side of me dice are counted by double sixes; on this other the piece of hostile color is taken by twin foemen.

        In another epigram Martial says to his friend Paulus:

          "So may you beat Novius and Publius hemmed in by your mandras and glass soldiers."

        During the reign of Caligula, the mad emperor sentenced a noble Roman named Camus to death over a disagreement. When the centurion charged with the execution came to arrest Camus, he found him relaxing over a game of Latrunculi with friends. Camus took pause to count up the score and said, "See that after my death you don't claim victory." He then asked the centurion to verify that he was indeed ahead ahead by one point. Camus went calmly to his execution remarking that although others wondered endlessly if the soul was immortal, he would shortly find out. (from Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind).

        See these websites for additional and alternative information:
        Hnefatafl
        Roman Glassmakers
        Latrunculi
        Greek Board Games


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