#16.1: Basilica Julia Game Boards, Via Sacra

[Warning: I am calling these Forum Square sections of street the Via Sacra although it isn't really (street name unknown) but I have to call it something :-) ]

Ok we are still at the end of the Via Sacra with the Temple of Saturn just behind us, Vicus Jugarius on the right and the Rostra about 25 m to the left. What we are going to cover is the front of the Basilica Julia, the Via Sacra and the seven large brick column bases (last two have columns on them). This covers about 100 m but we will only walk as far as between the third and fourth column base. Because there is a small fenced-in area between them that allows you to enter a short distance in the Forum Square and that will be another section.

NOW before you move look down the Via Sacra and just after the second column base to just after the third column base right in the middle of the Via is a long rectangular section marked-off with bricks with just dirt inside and not paving stones. Between you and that rectangle is a line of five 'Pozzi Rituali' pits, like we saw earlier. Remember it's just usually four paving stones that form a square dirt center. The first one closest to you will have a small modern stone block with a metal pin in it (placed there after an earlier excavation, I assume), the second pit is not there just an empty space but the next four going to the rectangle are very easy to see. I've read that these were put in by Julius Caesar when he built the Basilica Julia. So just keep them in mind as we do this short walk down the Via.

OK, the main sites on the Basilica Julia side are the 'Tabulae Lusoriae' these are 'Game Boards' etched into the stone, I've already pointed out a few on this walk. Here they are mainly on the steps of the Basilica.

OK NOW start walking down the right side of the Via Sacra, in the first 10 m of the Basilica you will see a fairly famous and mysterious circle game on the Basilica's step (The Basilica is fenced-off with a thigh-high rail fence, just walk along it looking down to where the steps start): sights.seindal.dk/img/orig/8313.jpg (the link on this site doesn't show this exact location just a photo of the steps). During Autumn of 2014, this unique game board had decayed into this photo. It can be found surrounding the first obvious crack in the second step pointing straight at the camera to the right of the exit sign in this photo.

Ok ancient Romans loved to gamble on everything but it is illegal except during the few days in December during Saturnalia. I assume they legally played these games using game pieces and at the end the loser pays the winner. In the US in blue-collar bars and social clubs in my younger days I have gambled. The police would occasionally check on the bars and clubs and as long as there was no money in view (card tables or on pool tables) it was ok as no laws were being broken at that moment :-) . Now the men playing these outdoor games are the Plebeian 'Bread and Circus' crowd. They are second Class Roman citizens given free food, free entertainment and free public baths (if not free *very* cheap). The Patricians are the elite rich aristocracy Romans who know they must keep this majority content with this Welfare/Dole system or they will have an angry Mob to contend with.

Now these Plebeians have a lot of spare time on their hands but they live in crowded hot-to-cold, smelly, dark, firetrap apartment houses called Insulae. So during the day they want to be out in the sunny open air in places like the Games, Forums, public parks, etc and just idle their time away. And if there were no chariot races at the Circus or violent entertainment at an amphitheater some would also hang out here at the Basilica and listen to any trials going on, if not they could play these board games passing their time petty gambling. With 80 etched games found here (there surely were many more now lost) this seemed to be *the* place to play perhaps being on the shady-side of the Forum had something to do with that? First off nothing was pitched or tossed onto these board games as the tour guides in the Forum usually claim, they were played with game pieces by seated players on the steps.

There are three types of game boards, Hole boards, Circle/Round boards and rare chessboard-type boards (I'll point out one of these later). What I call 'HOLE GAMES' are usually (but sometimes scattered) two even rows of four holes [ :::: ] bored fairly deep into the stone's step or pavement and the most popular. They look like this but usually the holes are deeper www.vedute.fi/imbas/roma/startpage.php?lang=fi&action=1pages/350_002B.HTM (if url is dead try) www.vedute.fi//imbas/roma/themepage.php?lang=en&action=2&themeid=fbiulia My guess is they were a version of these games but with less holes?

This is from East Africa circa 1850:

"Children usually prefer the game called indifferently Togantog and Saddikiya. A double line of five or six holes is made in the ground, four counters are placed in each, and when in the course of play four men meet in the same hole, one of the adversary's is removed. It resembles the Bornou game, played with beans and holes in the sand".
From another website:
"the Bedouins still (i.e. today) play this game in the sand with pebbles".

But as you will read below it was played widely except with five to six sets of holes vs. four Roman sets. Info and pictures of this game are here. The second most popular and with a cooler design are what I call 'CIRCLE GAMES' others call 'Round'. They usually look like a pizza cut up into eighths, and example photos are here (upper-left corner of the pavement) and here. No one knows definitely how they were played but it seems likely it was a sort of tic-tac-toe type of game. This website: www.romanglassmakers.co.uk/games.htm shows it was possibly a round version of the "Three Men's Morris" game because if you made that square game into a circle you would have the same eight positions around the edge and one in the center? In my opinion It would be a very easy and boring game unless there were also plays to be made around the edge of the circle? Like three in a row or boxing in or jumping your opponent and winning the center position?

I have written a trip report named Ancient 'Game Boards' Etched In The Roman Forum on the locations of these games all around the Roman Forum but back then I went along with the pitching or tossing onto these game boards so disregard that info.

OK NOW STILL STANDING IN FRONT OF THAT GAME BOARD sights.seindal.dk/img/orig/8313.jpg another view penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/Forum_Romanum/Basilica_Julia/ORACVLO_graffito.html Notice the graffito etched within the circle which spells ORACVLO, this is the only circle game where I have ever seen a word within it. ORACVLO is the Latin word for ORACLE. You can see this word on this bronze medallion from Emperor 'Philip the Arab' reign (244-249 AD). books.google.com/books?id=SooMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA347&lpg=PA347&dq=oracvlo&source=web&ots=5jvV9oKpfl&sig=qAJjKIhn6N46FmjBzz6HZuak2qk#v=onepage&q=oracvlo&f=false On the front Philip, wife and son with the words 'CONCORDIA AVGVSTORVM' (Harmony in the Imperial Family) and on the flipside ET ORACVLO APOLLINIS (And Oracle Apollo) books.google.com/books?id=VTYGAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA59&lpg=PA59&dq=oracvlo&source=web&ots=EK6CN2bNrs&sig=fbBGagorbpiOojjljPQF2-hL5bs#v=onepage&q=oracvlo&f=false

Now the graffito is odd enough but also notice the unusual 'A' in the photos, it's a bit hard to see but you can make it out. It's like today's and the ancient Roman A, except here /\ there is no horizontal connecting line '-' instead in its place there is a small 'v'. There is also a pot or bowl shard in the Roman Forum Museum (Room 4-center case) from the 'Pozzo Repubblicano A' era, that has this same odd 'A' on it and reads ANI. From memory and the official Italian Roman Forum guidebook which says of this Room 4 center case which is labeled 'Pozzo Repubblicano A'. "...material from the Via Sacra and Republican wells". 'Pozzo' is Well (water?) or do they mean 'Pozzi Rituali' for those 'Wells' when especially referring to the Via Sacra where Pozzi Rituali pits have been excavated and bowl shards (believed to have been used in auguries {fortune-telling} by the Priests to examine an animal's organs, like bird's entrails, etc?) have been found? Or just plain water wells pre-aqueduct supplied water (there are a few well-like structures within the remains of the Domus Publica and other areas. Although I wonder if some/all of these might be Medieval or later?) or maybe there were ancient public water wells *alongside* the Via Sacra?

I assume this odd 'A' on this bowl/pot shard from the 'Reppubbicano A' is from the earliest Republican Era (post 509 BC, Reppubbicano B would be a later era)? Also I have never seen that type of 'A' on any inscriptions or in any other museums. And the stele below the Lapis Niger has only standard 'A's on it, although the horizontal '-' connecting line is at a bit of an angle (this stele is written in the earliest form of Latin). Now this A seems to be archaic and if that pot/bowl shard *is* from an augury perhaps it's a ritualistic lettering? And maybe its use many centuries later in the word for Oracle would make the word more mystical and ancient? Like we still do today for movie titles, book covers, Ye Ole English Pub, etc.

[I'm intrigued by this game board and for what it's worth, here's another one of my off-the-wall theories :-) ]

Now why put a graffito in a game board or a game board over a graffito, they *must* be connected somehow? There are hundreds of meters of steps to place one or the other, so why both together? Also a graffitist wants his message to be seen and read and would have placed his message parallel to the steps === ( -- ) === to be read by passers-by on the Via and people going into the Basilica rather than vertical and tilted with the letters sideways? === ( \ ) === These circle games had two players and nine positions for the game pieces (eight around the edge and one in the center). The vast majority/all of these games are like a pizza cut into eighths. This game board however doesn't have the intersecting lines etched through it but if you look close you will see small lines (about 1 inch) at four of the eight points of the circle where those lines would have intersected the etched circle. Now this game seems to have its eight positions in the circle and although unmarked the center would still be the ninth position. So no reason this game couldn't be played like the others it seems?

No one knows the rules for certain but it's believed to be some form of three in a row type game like tic tac toe? If so something would have had to also go on in the outer circle like jumping or boxing in your opponent and taking his game piece (replaceable?), if not it's a very easy and boring game :-) . Now the odd direction === ( \ ) === of the word ORACVLO on the steps could only be properly viewed by the player sitting on the right side of the game board ( \ ) *. And that side is easiest for a right-handed person to play, so probably first choice to sit (possibly the winner's position?).

We'll never know but I wonder could this be someone's personal addition to this type of game? Like a side bet, each win buys a letter with one of your extra game pieces, first to spell oracvlo wins the pot? A different way or rules to play this *particular* game board where guessing or predicting (oracle) the moves was involved (also no intersecting lines)? A player's nickname? Perhaps so good and always winning they called him the Oracle :-) . Just an aimless doodle? A religious statement from a closeted (late fourth - early fifth Century) Pagan (ask the Oracle vs that Christian God) ? Or was this just some ancient crazy person's personal Oracle where he/she would cast bones or peer into the circle and shout predictions to the passers-by... "The End Is Near Romans" :-) .


I noticed this about 6 years ago, roughly in the center of this circle there is a small (size of a small orange seed) piece of metal fused into the step. I wet my finger to shine it up and my first thought was brass, later possibly copper or bronze (if I recall correctly, it did have a slight green tarnish like brass gets). At that time I had read that later in the Empire small thin metal tokens were used in these board games instead of round marked bone chips, colored stones or small colored glass tokens. I *closely* searched all of the exposed steps of the Basilica Julia (on this trip and others) and haven't found any other small pieces of fused metal on them.

I was intrigued that *only* within this small round game board a piece of fused metal was found in hundreds of meters of steps! And according to this site (sorry, broken link) about 350 AD and later small thin brass commemorative unofficial tokens were produced.

"Whatever their original purpose, it would seem that in practice the contorniates may have ended up being used as 'men' for a board game played on the Tabulae Lusoriae, such as those which now decorate the floor of the Basilica Julia in the Forum Romanum, palm and 'barred P' symbols commonly being incised on the flans presumable so as to differentiate the tokens".

If? this fused metal is the remains of a Contorniate, how did it get fused into the step and why? And why would this Contorniate (and possibly others that didn't fuse) be left behind by the player? It had to be something that *suddenly* happened as no one walking by picked up these unattended tokens in the *very crowded* Roman Forum?

Also it's not likely the Forum suddenly just burst into flames and the player and everyone else ran for their lives :-) . Now a fire could easily fuse just a *single* thin brass token into the Basilica's step. Because like in the Basilica Amelia's 410 AD fire not all the coins fused into the pavement, the vast majority of coins were intact and I believe found during a Renaissance excavation/looting. This in my opinion is because it needs a small space between a piece of flaming fallen debris and the metal coin/token, add oxygen being sucked into the fire from ground level and you have a blast furnace effect. Flaming debris like a large wooden roof beam falling *flat* onto a coin/token and step would not be burning on the bottom. Now we need a fire in the Basilica Julia after these tokens are first produced, so post-350 AD. And that one I believe could only be Alaric's Visigoth 410 sacking and burning of Rome where the Basilica Julia was put to the torch.


It's August 24, 410 AD after months of siege someone opens the Gate and the Visigoths suddenly storm into Rome. Their first logical shopping stop :-) would be the Roman Forum, Imperial Forums, Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill and surrounding area for the money and valuables. Now if they were bee-lining from that Gate (about NE of the Forum) they would have first entered the Roman Forum from the Curia / Basilica Aemila area. So if some poor staving Roman on the other side of the Forum was just idling his time away playing this game board, he would suddenly hear shouts and screaming from his fellow citizens as they were running into the Forum just ahead of this invading horde. Around this time he would have to make a very quick decision. Do I pick up my basically worthless brass Contorniates or do I run for my #@%! life :-) ? Assuming the latter :-) these worthless tokens would lay there for three days untouched, as everyone now is very busy playing either sacker or sackee :-) .

Likely on the third day just before the Visigoths leave, the Basilica Julia is torched. And did flaming debris fall down upon this game board and token??? THE LOCATION of this small piece of fused metal can be seen as dense cluster of marks in these two photos: sights.seindal.dk/img/orig/8313.jpg It is roughly in the exact center of the photo (not the circle). If you run a line from between the O and the R on the *same angle* that they tilted on \ you have very few marks/pits in the marble until you hit a cluster. The same goes for this photo penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/Forum_Romanum/Basilica_Julia/ORACVLO_graffito.html clear sailing from the O and R on that same angle \ until the cluster. Also remember earlier I mentioned those about 1 inch lines *inside* the circle on the etched circle that seem to divide it into eighths. In that photo you can see one below the 'A' (3 o'clock) and another to the left on the edge of the photo (4:30). In that other photo (remember it's taken at an angle) you can see the 3:00 and 4:30 plus 6:00 and 7:30. 9:00 o'clock is maybe a faded possibility there or not there at all and I think 10:30 can be see just before the green grass covers the circle. I do see some other shorter lines and a couple on the outer side of the circle. I don't know if they are just marks or what but the 3:00, 4:30, 6:00 and 7:30 seem spaced about right and in the right positions when looking at this game head-on.

Often you will see Roman Forum tour guides standing in front of *this* game board explaining it. And at one point they usually pick up a small stone and toss it on the game board :-) . But this photo (location unknown) shows deep holes in the locations where the game pieces would have been placed by hand. (sorry, broken link) I assume it's an earlier game board (before contorniates) where perhaps colored stones, bone/glass/etc game pieces were used? This photo from the Basilica Julia (sorry, broken link) shows just shallow etched circles for the game pieces, perhaps for the contorniates? But most games didn't bother, no need to I assume, just place your contorniate where the lines intersect? Another version used a small square board (called nine Men's Morris www.romanglassmakers.co.uk/games.htm) which was definitely played with game pieces.

Next: #16.2: Seven Honorary or Honorific Columns (Brick Bases)
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