The ancient Greeks were known for their sports, their spectacles, and the invention of theatre. However, that does not mean they had zero interest in more sedentary pursuits of entertainment.
On the contrary, the Greek poets and philosophers often referred to board games and children’s activities as creations of the gods, reflecting morality important to learn, and holding great metaphors for leading an empire.
The ancient Greeks played early versions of checkers, backgammon, dice, and knucklebones. The games developed would later become the games of Rome, while some would never leave our culture. While today’s children may not chase after “brazen flies”, they still play the same blindfolded games of their ancient ancestors.
To explore the games of ancient Greece, you must accept that there is a lot we do not know. Names often referred to a game as much as they did the pieces or boards it was played upon. Poets would take the license with the words used, and history would mix with myth. Under all the stories, however, lies games worth exploring.
Also called “Petteia”, Pesseia is one of the most written-about games in Greek literature. Sometimes mistaken for the later Roman game of “Latrunculi”, Pesseia was said by Plato to be a creation for the gods. Specifically, he believed that Theuth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, was to be honored by its playing. The suitors of Penelope play the game in Homer’s The Odyssey, and the word is most commonly translated as “draughts” or “checkers”.
The complete rules of Pesseia are unknown, but we know Greeks played it on rectangular boards, involved groups of pieces for each player equal in number, and the aim was to destroy pieces by having your own flanking either side of theirs. Most historians have agreed the final objective would be to eliminate or trap all pieces of the opposing player.
Recreationists today tend towards using eight by eight boards with sixteen pieces per player, while their pieces can move one step in any direction at a time. However, these additions come with little evidence from primary sources.
Later versions of the games, adopted by the Romans, included a “leader piece” and may have incorporated elements from new games brought in by Eastern traders. Part of the problem with exploring the game’s history comes from the discovery that Greeks used the same name for many different variations over the centuries.
2. Pente grammai/“Five Lines”
Pentre Grammai was a popular board game in Ancient Greece, especially Attica, with images of the board being found in many excavations (including the floors of temples). Over one hundred and sixty Attic vases have been discovered with an image of Achilles and Ajax playing the game together during the battle of Troy. Based on these images and poetry that alludes to the game, it can be dated as far back as 600 BC.
While we have not found any complete rules, we know that dice were used to determine how markers would move from outer lines to rest in the central, “sacred line”. Greek Poet Alcaeus wrote, “now he takes the upper hand, having moved the [close-packed] stone from the holy line”, and a similar metaphor is used by Plato when discussing the political machinations of the Athenian leader in Laws.
However, the concept of moving away from the line suggests to many historians that the game was far more strategic than it might first sound. It may be that Pente Grammai may have been an early form of Backgammon, played around the outside of the board rather than within rows.
Just as Pesseia is often confused with Latrunculi, the Greek game of Tabula is often mistaken for “Duodecim Scripta”. It certainly doesn’t help that “Tabula” simply means “board”, and so researching the Greek precursor to Backgammon is difficult at best.
Tabula was played on a board with two rows of twelve spaces and used fifteen pieces for each player. In fact, only a few rules separate the ancient game from modern backgammon: you start with your pieces off the board and use three dice instead of two.
The Spanish scholar, Isidore of Seville, believed that the game of Tabula was invented by a Greek soldier of the Trojan War, who went by the name Alea. For this reason, some modern versions of the game have taken the soldier’s name instead.
While examples of the game exist from the Greek empire, most of the written evidence we have comes from much later. For example, the game was played by Emperor Zeno, of whom an epigram was written about a particularly rough match.
Fivestones, Knucklebones, or “Jacks” is a truly universal game and is still played today. The ancient greeks would use the astragalus bones from animals to play their version of the game, which gave them the name “Astralagoi”. While popular worldwide, few cultures were obsessed with the game, or put such spiritual and religious meaning into the activity, as the ancient Greeks.
According to the historian Appolonius, Zeus was the creator of the game. Seeing that the baby Ganymede was lonely, he gave him Eros as a friend and a set of golden knucklebones to play with. He even joined them in a game. Plato believed they were invented by the Egyptian god, Theuth (or Thoth). At the same time, a painting in Pompeii showed representations of the goddesses Latona, Niobe, Phoebe, Aglaia and Hileaera, the last two being engaged in the game.
According to Diogenes Laërtius, philosopher Heraclitus was a great fan of the game. He wrote:
Being asked to make laws [by the Ephesians], he disdained to do so, on account of the
city’s already being ruled by a wicked constitution. And [instead] he withdrew to the
Temple of Artemis and played knucklebones with the boys. And when the Ephesians gathered around him, he said, “Why do you marvel, Oh worst of men? Is it not better to do this than to participate in the city with you?”
5. Brazen Fly
While not a board game, a popular children’s game in ancient Greece was an early version of “Blind Man’s Bluff”.
A child would have their eyes covered and call, “I shall chase the brazen fly!” to which the others would call, “You may chase, but you won’t catch him!”.
The blindfolded child would then try and grab one of the others while getting hit by light whips made of papyrus husks in return.
6. Oyster Shell
Another popular child’s game uses oyster shells and teams of children. They would split themselves into “light” and “dark”, and the shell would be tossed. If the dark side landed upwards, the “light” team would chase the “dark” team, trying to catch as many as possible.
If a child was caught, they were expected to carry their captor back to the starting position on their back.
This game was said to have evolved from children watching adults who would eject fighting politicians from the city by writing their names on oyster shells and letting the gods decide who should be removed.
Ancient Greece was better known for its more physical activities – the Olympians, theatre, and dance. However, a few board games and activities originated in Greece, informing future cultures. Some of these games may have had even earlier histories, but the contribution made by not only players, but those who wrote about them, is invaluable.
Through poetry, art, and the first historians, we can learn a little about the games played at home by the ancient Grecians, what those games meant to them, and the lessons they may have learned by playing.
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