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Roman dice - pieces from Roman games

Roman dice were involved in many Roman games

Neither cards nor chess…

Roman people played most of the different kinds of games that people play today. There are two important exceptions. The first one is  chess. Chess did not come to Europe from India until the Islamic Empire, about 1000 AD. The second one is card games, which did not reach Europe from China until the late Middle Ages.

So what’s the story of chess?
How were playing cards invented?

Playing with dice in ancient Rome

The most common games were probably dice games, where you threw the dice and bet on the results. These were essentially gambling games.

Who invented dice?

The Romans played marbles

The Romans also played marbles, using small balls of clay, or (more expensively) small balls pecked out of marble (which is why we call the game “marbles”). There weren’t any glass marbles yet in ancient Rome.

And the Romans played knucklebones (like jacks)

Roman boys and girls both played knucklebones. Knucklebones are actually the ankle bones of sheep or goats. Sometimes Roman kids played with actual knucklebones, but more often they played with pretend knucklebones made out of clay, like the ones in the picture here.

Roman knucklebones for playing games

Knucklebones made of clay for playing Roman games (and some game pieces)

The game of knucklebones is like jacks today. You throw up one of the knucklebones and try to scoop up some of the other knucklebones and then catch the first one before it hits the ground. You can (and Roman kids did) also play with with any small stones.

Sometimes Roman kids said that playing knucklebones would predict your future – girls played it to predict whether they would get married, and how many children they would have, and that sort of thing.

Pieces from Roman games

Pieces from Roman games like checkers

More Roman games: checkers

The Romans also played games like checkers, and a lot of games where you moved pebbles from one square to another in a grid. We find these grids scratched into floor stones and floor tiles all over the Roman Empire, in houses, and by guardhouses, and in amphitheaters, wherever men or women, boys or girls, had some time to waste.

Men gambling in an inn at Pompeii

Roman games: Men gambling in an inn at Pompeii

Did ancient Roman games use balls?

Sure, the Romans also played more active games. They played ball games, sometimes with a small ball and sometimes with a big heavy ball that was more exercise. They skipped seashells into the ocean, the way we skip flat stones.

(Mosaic from Piazza Armerina, Sicily, 300s AD)

Roman games: girls throwing a ball (Mosaic from Piazza Armerina, Sicily, 300s AD)


Roman games compared to Greek games

Even though the Romans did play a lot of games, these games did not have the same religious importance for the Romans that they did for the Greeks.

To the Greeks, physical fitness was something that made the gods happy, and physical beauty was the delight of the gods, and so exercise and athletic competition were religious activities, meant to please the gods.

Men gambling in a mosaic from North Africa

More Roman games: Men gambling in a mosaic from North Africa

leather knuckle covers like brass knuckles: Roman games

Roman boxing gloves from Vindolanda in northern England (from the BBC).

For the Romans, physical fitness was not so much about the gods, but more about being able to fight in a war, and so it was not as much about being graceful and beautiful as it was about being tough.

Roman boxing matches

People in ancient Rome liked to watch boxing matches, for example. Roman boxers wore leather padding over their knuckles to keep from breaking a bone in their hand. But when they had a real fight – not just for practice – they added bits of metal to the padding to make padded brass knuckles, so they could really hurt each other.

Learn by doing: play knucklebones with small stones
More about gladiatorial games

Bibliography and further reading about Roman games:

Spend the Day in Ancient Rome: Projects and Activities that Bring the Past to Life, Ages 8-12 by Linda Honan (1998). But the project to make knucklebones seems silly. Ask your butcher for real bones, use pebbles, or buy jacks. Easy reading.

Ancient Rome (Eyewitness Books), by Simon James (2004).

Kids Around the World Play!: The Best Fun and Games from Many Lands, by Arlette N. Braman (2002). Easy reading. There are lots of ancient games in here too, even though the title doesn’t say so.

Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, by Beryl Rawson (2003).

More about Roman games
Ancient Rome