Ludus Latrunculorum, or Latrunculi is an ancient Roman game of pure strategy. Typically, it was played on boards with grids of 7×7, 7×8, 8×8, 8×9, 9×9, or 9×10, all of which have been found archaeologically. It is a game of military tactics, a little similar to checkers. The name of the game, Ludus Latrunculorum, means The Game of Mercenaries.
Latrunculi found at Housesteads Roman Fort or Roman Corbridge, complete with pottery counters and dice containers. 2nd-3rd century CE. Corbridge Roman Town and Museum, English Hertitage. Photo: Historic England Archive.
The earliest mention of Latrunculi in the Roman writings was made by Varro (116-27 BCE) in his book De Lingua Latina (On the Latin Language), Book X, 22, with regard to the grid on the board. Although, none of the Roman writers provided a detailed account of the rule of the game, there is one account which provides enough detail about the rules and strategy of Latrunculi, for the rules to be reconstructed with some what accuracy. The anonymous Roman poem Laus Pisonis (Panegyric on Piso) (lines 190-208), written in the 1st century CE, says the following about Latrunculi:
te si forte iuvat studiorum pondere fessum
Latin text from Duff, J. Wight, and Arnold M. Duff. “Minor Latin Poets”. Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press (1935). pp. 310-311.
If mayhap you please, when weary with the weight of studies, to be nevertheless not inactive but to play games of skill, then on the open board in more cunning fashion a piece is moved into different positions and the contest is waged to a finish with glass soldiers, so that white checks the black pieces, and black checks white. But what player has not retreated before you? What piece is lost when you are its player? Or what piece before capture has not reduced the enemy? In a thousand ways your army fights: one piece, as it retreats, itself captures its pursuer: a reserve piece, standing on the alert, comes from its distant retreat — this one dares to join the fray and cheats the enemy coming for his spoil. Another piece submits to risky delays and, seemingly checked, itself checks two more: this one moves towards higher results, so that, quickly played and breaking the opponent’s defensive line, it may burst out on his forces and, when the rampart is down, devastate the enclosed city. Meanwhile, however fierce rises the conflict among the men in their divided ranks, still you win with your phalanx intact or deprived of only a few men, and both your hands rattle with the crowd of pieces you have taken.
English translation from Duff, J. Wight, and Arnold M. Duff. “Minor Latin Poets”. Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press (1935). pp. 310-311.
As can be seen from the poem, it mentions the capture of pieces, trying to position them in a line to avoid capture, moving backwards and forwards on the board, removing pieces from the board once captured without bringing them back into the game, and bringing back a piece on the board when it was moved too far forward.
Latrunculi board in Sabratha, Libya. Photo: Pablo Novoa Alvarez, 2011.
From two poems by Ovid, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) (lines 357-360), written in 2 CE, and Tristia (lines 479-481), besides other rules, we learn that the pieces were captured by the player surrounding their enemy’s piece with two of their own pieces. And that if there were two or more of the same pieces placed in a row they could not be captured by the opponent.
Cautaque non stulte latronum proelia ludat,
Latin text from Mozley, J.H. “Ovid: the Art of love, and other poems.” Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press (1957). pp. 142-145.
Let her cautiously and not foolishly play the battle of the brigands, when one piece falls before his double foe, and the warrior caught without his mate fights on, and the enemy retraces many a time the path he has begun.
English translation from Mozley, J.H. “Ovid: the Art of love, and other poems.” Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press (1957). pp. 142-145.
sciat et revocare priorem,
Latin text from Wheeler, Arthur Leslie. “Ovid: Tristia, Ex Ponto.” Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press (1939). p. 90.
how the variegated soldier steals to the attack along the straight path when the piece between two enemies is lost, and how he understands warfare by pursuit and how to recall the man before him and to retreat in safety not without escort;
English translation from Wheeler, Arthur Leslie. “Ovid: Tristia, Ex Ponto.” Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press (1939). p. 91.
Bishop Isidore of Seville (560–636 CE) in his encyclopedia, Etymolgiae (The Etymologies), also known as Origines, Book XVIII, lxvii, described Latrunculi, and gave names in Latin to various types of pieces and moves, as mentioned below in the rules section.
De calculorum motu. Calculi partim ordine moventur, partim vage: ideo alios ordinarios, alios vagos appellant; at vero qui moveri omnino non possunt, incitos dicunt. Unde et egentes homines inciti vocantur, quibus spes ultra procedendi nulla restat.
Latin text from Isidoro de Sevilla, and Wallace Martin Lindsay. “Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX.” Oxford University Press (1911). Volume II, Book XVIII, lxvii.
The moving of counters (De calculorum motu):
Counters (calculus) are moved partly in a fixed order (ordo, gen. ordinis) and partly at random (vage). Hence they call some counters ordinarius, and others vagus. But those that are entirely unable to be moved they call ‘the unmoved’ (incitus). Hence people in need are also called inciti – those for whom there remains no hope of advancing farther.
English translation from Barney, Stephen A., Wendy J. Lewis, Jennifer A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof. The etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, 2006. p. 371.
Besides Roman writings, a possible initial position of the playing pieces has been found archaeologically in 1996, in Stanway, UK, in a Druid tomb, that later became known as The Doctor’s Grave in Stanway. There is some dispute whether this game was the Roman Latrunculi or a local Celtic game. There are 13 counters to each player and one of the blue counters is placed upside down. Most counters are placed in straight line on the first row of the board, but some are moved towards the center, indicating an initial placement strategy of some sort. The wooden board has rotted away, but metal corner brackets and hinges of the folding board are still in their original position.
Doctor’s Grave in Stanway Game. Notice the initial position of the white and blue glass pieces of the game, possibly Latrunculi, and metal brackets and hinges of what remains of the playing board. Photo: Colchester Archaeological Trust, 1996.
As I announced on the blog, there has been a recent discovery of a much larger Latrunculi board that was ever known before. The Poprad Game Board with 17×18 grid, has been tentatively identified by Ulrich Schädler as the largest board of Latrunculi ever found anywhere. The game was found with black and white glass playing pieces, typical of Latrunculi.
Poprad Game Board with 17×18 grid.
In the last 130 years there have been made a few different attempts to reconstruct the detailed rules of Ludus Latrunculorum. In my opinion, the best and most accurate rules reconstruction was made by Ulrich Schädler in 1994, in German, and in 2001, in English. I have quoted his rules below.
Ulrich Schädler’s Ludus Latrunculorum Rules:
- The game is for 2 players.
- Use a standard 8×8 chess board with black and white checkers that have two different sides. Such checkers were called by the Romans Counters, or in Latin, Calculus (plural Calculli).
- Before the game begins the players decide how many pieces each of them is going to have. The allowed range is 16-24 pieces per player.
- The pieces start off the board.
- The first turn is decided by lot, such as toss of a coin. Then, each player takes a turn to place one piece onto any empty square on the board. In this phase, no captures are made. The individual pieces placed in this phase are called Vagus (plural Vagi).
- Once all of the pieces have been placed, the players take turns to move their pieces. Pieces can be moved orthogonally (i.e. horizontally and vertically, but not diagonally) to any adjacent square. The pieces moved in this phase are called Ordinarius (plural Ordinarii).
- A piece can jump over another piece of either color, if the square behind the piece being jumped over is unoccupied. Several jumps can be made in one move, just like in checkers.
- A player can trap enemy pieces between two of their own pieces. A trapped piece cannot be moved, but stays on the board. The trapped piece is called Alligatus (plural Aligatii) or Incitus (plural Incitii). To make it clear that a piece became Alligatus it is turned upside down.
- Once an enemy’s piece became Alligatus, on their next turn, the player can capture it and remove it off the board, as long as both pieces that are trapping it are still free and did not become Alligatii themselves on the opponents following move. Once a piece is removed off the board it does not return into the game.
- If the opponent surrounded one of the enemy pieces trapping their Alligatus, then their Alligatus is made free and flipped back to its original side, where as the enemy trapped piece becomes Alligatus and is flipped over.
- A player can move their own piece between two enemy pieces only if by doing such a move will trap one of the enemy pieces. Such a move is called Suicide.
- The player who remains only with one piece on the board loses the game.
Latrunclui Board carved on the steps of Basilica Julia, Roman Forum, Rome. Photo: Eric Livak-Dahl, June 16, 2004, Wikimedia Commons.
- Schädler, Ulrich. “Latrunculi, a forgotten Roman Game of Strategy reconstructed.” Abstract Games, Issue 7, Autumn 2001. pp. 10-11.
- Schädler, Ulrich. “Latrunculi–ein verlorenes strategisches Brettspiel der Römer.” Homo ludens: der spielende Mensch 4 (1994): 47-67.
- Schädler, Ulrich. “The doctor’s game–New light on the history of ancient board games.” Stanway: An Elite Burial Site at Camulodunum, Britannia Monogr Ser 24 (2007): 359-75.
- Crummy, Philip. “Your move doctor. The gaming board and other discoveries from Stanway.” The Colchester Archaeologist 7, no. 10 (1996-1997): 1-9.
- Bell, R. C. Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations. Courier Corporation, 2012. pp. 84-87.