Ancient 'Game Boards' Etched In The Roman Forum

by Walter Muzzy, April 6, 2003 (original post)

I love the Roman Forum and have spent many hours just wandering around looking for little things that remain or left their mark from the past. These game boards are one of them, they were played by the poor average Roman citizen just idling away the one thing he was rich time :-) . Below is a trip report on the location of the games I've found.

There are game boards (tabulae lusoriae) etched into the marble steps and pavements in and around the Roman Forum. "...boards for games of skill and dexterity, used by the boys, loungers, and idlers who, as ancient sources record, crowded into the Forum every hours of the day and night." ["The Roman Forum" Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma] I don't think anyone really knows exactly how they were played. A guess? Because they were in public places vs homes perhaps some could be played at the "spur of the moment". Meaning the board is already there and the game pieces would have had to have been easy to access, such as coins or small stones. Or they could have been played by regulars who would have say the game pieces (metal or marked bone poker-like chips, dice, etc) and possibly entice passers-by in a little game of chance? Rather like the "Three-Card Monte" dealers on street corners in major cities. The majority are what I'll call "Hole Games", these are holes usually bored into steps. They are deep enough to catch something that could be pitched (or possibly rolled...small ball?) like a small stone, a small coin, dice, etc.

They are mostly found where there would be a backstop such as the next step or a wall. They are sometimes in a neat order [::::] or scattered [:.:.].

They went to a lot of trouble to bore these deep holes into the marble steps whereas the other game boards are just etched into the marble. That and the backstops leads me to believe that something was tossed in this type of game.

Next were "Circle Games", usually a circle cut up like a pizza (in eighths) and usually on a pavement or a wide step, although there is a large version in a rectangle in the Forum of Nerva and two half circles on the steps of the Basilica Julia with a backstop. And finally "Rectangular Games". These are rare; I've only found a few. The rectangle is usually divided either vertically or horizontally by lines and between the lines are symbols. The best one is on the pavement in front of the altar steps in the Forum of Augustus, it is groups of laid-down eight's like the infinity symbol and groups of X's.

I'll start at the Via dei Fori Imperiali entrance to the Roman Forum. Before you enter turn right and walk down the sidewalk along the main street over to between the second and third lamppost. Walk over to the sidewalk railing and look down on a large section of large marble pavement slabs. The distant two slabs have a rectangular game cut up into eighths on one and a circle game on the other with another faded circle game just below that one on the same slab. Now look to your left and the second slab from the far end also has a circle game on it.

Look over your right shoulder 45°, far across the street is the Forum of Augustus. Viewed from the sidewalk over there looking straight down in front the steps to the altar towards the left end is a rectangular game with symbols and two circle games (faded) on the small remaining sections of pavement, one just above it and the other to the right of that one.

Walk back over and enter the Forum down the ramp. Turn right and walk towards the "Arch of Septimius Severus" down the Via Sacra, all along your right are the remains of the "Porticus of Giaus and Lucius" this was a columned walkway (with steps). Behind that was the "Tabernae Novae" merchant stalls, mostly money changers (bankers) and behind that was the "Basilica Aemilia" (these were all connected and formed one large building). Now just past the halfway point of the Porticus after an open entranceway into the Basilica you will see a marble base of what looks like a headless man with outstretched arms. In front of that is a step (fragment) with the half remains of a "circle game".

Keep walking and you will come to a marble ring with a plaque. That is the "Shrine of Venus Cloacina", look over past it to the left and you will see a "hole game" on the steps. Also to the left of the Shrine closer to you a step fragment with another "hole game".

Now turn around and face the fenced-off Forum Square. You will see pedestal bases, walk over to the right of the second one and peer over that large stone block. The stone block behind it has a "hole game" on it.

Now walk to the Arch of Septimius Severus, the archway on the left has three games in it. When in the middle archway look at the left side of the doorway that goes into the left arch there is a "hole game" there. Walk out of the middle arch and look into that same left archway, there is a "hole game" on the right side of the doorway and a faded circle game on the pavement.

Now look over to the "Temple of Saturn", the road on the right is called the "Clivus Capitolinus" and goes uphill to the Capitoline Hill. Oddly there are two "circle games" on the pavement stones at the top section of this road. The first is faded and just past the "Portico of the Dei Consentes" and the second clearer and just before the end where the modern steps are. A guess?: This wasn't a crowded roadway because it lead mainly to the "Temple of Jupiter" on the hill and was mainly used for Triumphs (military victory parades). And I believe there was a more direct access via a staircase behind the Arch of Septimius Severus that led to the Tabularium and the middle of this hill (Arx) which was between the two major temples. Also in the winter this section of road was probably exposed to the Sun for most of the day, if you're going to hang around all day might as well be in the warm Sun :-) .

On the left side of the "Temple of Saturn" is the marble protruding base of the Temple (like a step) and directly beneath the left/rear column on that side is a "hole game".

Walk past the Temple of Saturn over to the other Via Sacra section which runs down the other side of the Forum Square. The Forum Square will be on your left and the Basilica Julia on the right. They have found about 80 game boards on the steps and on the floor of the Basilica Julia. The basilica is fenced-off so only the games on the steps are viewable. In the basilica they held civil tribunals (court cases), the interior could be curtained-off into multiple court rooms or opened up for larger high-profile cases.

I suppose if there were no chariot races or gladiator combats going on this would be the place to go for entertainment especially during a high-profile court case :-) . I have read that lawyers sometimes would hire these "loungers and idlers" to cheer their defendant and jeer the opposition. Cicero (not in this basilica) once hired orphans off the street to play the dependent children of his client :-) . On the steps are where most of the games in the Forum can be found. You will come across the first and most famous in about 10 m No one seems to know what the letters mean but that odd "A" I have seen in a word on an ancient pot in the Forum Museum. Also a few inches above the "R" there is a piece of metal fused into the step. This basilica has burned down a few times, most notably in the 410 AD Visigoth sacking and burning of Rome.

Walk slowly along the steps and you will see a lot of "holes games". Also in the Forum behind you between the second and third large brick column bases, about 2 m from the fence you will find a "circle game" on the actual Forum pavement.

The last section of steps at the end of the basilica have some interesting games. On the top step (hard to see) between the third and fourth column stump from the end is this game And on the steps in the area of the second column stump are two half circle games (faded) on the third step.

And if you walk down the short side of the basilica on the Vicus Tuscus there are some hole games on the second entrance stairs, and also farther down is a single step in the grass with a "hole game". In this area on the steps of the basilica you will notice what looks like molds cut deep into the steps. In the Middle Ages the basilica was used as a lime kiln. My guess is that these were molds for hammers or wedges to split the marble. Also there is a deep bowl-like mold on the second side staircase, could this have been used for crushing/pounding the finished lime from the burned marble? Fill the bowl with molten metal and stick a metal rod into in and you would have a large pestle "----l)"? I hope to find out someday, I'm very curious and someone went to a lot of trouble to cut these into the marble steps.

Now walk over to the nearby corner of the Forum Square, there is what looks like a small brick building. That is the remains of the "Rostra ad Divi Julii (Divine Julius)". There is a fragment (next to the waste bin :-) of a "hole game". Turn left on that short street that connects the two Via Sacra's. Looking into the Forum Square you will see a "hole' and "circle game" on fragments. Now on the other side of this street there is a large rectangular block of stone directly in front of the "Temple of Julius Caesar" right alongside this street. That was the base of the equestrian statue of Julius Caesar. There is a "hole game" on top of it and some type of graffiti. On the ground on the other side of it is a fragment with a "hole game". Now walk over to the Temple of Julius Caesar, on the steps to the right of the entrance over to the corner are two "hole games". And on the right side of the building there is another "hole game" and a small graffiti on those steps.

Now walk over to the "#27: Temple of Antoninus and Faustina". The steps have been reconstructed in brick with the few remaining marble steps in place. On the third step on the extreme left is a "hole game". The next games are at the other end of the Forum area. They are on the marble steps that lead into the "Temple of Roma and Venus". They go from the "Arch of Titus" over to the modern building that houses the Forum Museum. On them are "hole games" at each end and a "rectangular game" on the sixth step along the metal railing on the arch side.

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