Ancient Greek heroes at play

An Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias

A scene on an Attic amphora depicts the ancient Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a game to while away the hours at Troy. But what kind of board game are they playing?

Josho Brouwers

The collection of the Vatican Museums includes a beautiful Attic black-figure vase by Exekias. Dated to ca. 540-530 BC, it depicts two ancient Greek heroes playing a game. The heroes are helpfully labelled: the one on the left, with a helmet pushed back on his head, is none other than Achilles; the warrior on the right is the mighty Ajax.

According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War was prophesied to last ten years, with victory only secured in the final year. Homer’s Iliad is set during this tenth and decisive year, when the Greeks and Trojans were actively vying for victory. While the other nine years weren’t exactly uneventful, they weren’t as blood-soaked as the final year, and many Greeks found themselves with time to spare.

In order to while away the hours, the Greeks are said to have played games, which some say were invented by Palamedes (e.g. Sophocles fr. 429 R), a Greek hero who was later framed as a traitor by Odysseus. Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer of the second century AD, says of a temple in Argos that it “must be very old if it be the one in which Palamedes dedicated the dice that he had invented” (2.20.3).

According to Plato, Socrates claimed that games and dice had been invented by Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, who also “invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters” (Phaedrus 274d). Archaeological evidence suggests that dice, at least, in Greece date back to the seventh century BC, and knucklebones of sheep and goats were probably used even earlier than that. In Egypt, dice have been found that date back to at least 2000 BC.

There are a number of vases from the sixth and early fifth centuries BC that depict warriors playing a game. In some instances it’s possible to make out playing pieces on the board. On the vase by Exekias, the heroes are also talking, as indicated by the words written close to their mouths: Achilles is uttering the word tesara (“four”), while Ajax says tri (“three”). They are undoubtedly reading out the results of their die rolls.

So the heroes are clearly playing a game that involves a board, playing pieces, and dice. Is there any way to find out more about this game and maybe even how it was played?

Ancient Greek board games

Students of ancient Greece have typically shown little interest in ancient Greek games. One of the few who has done extensive research into this field is Ulrich Schädler, a German archaeologist and game historian, who is also a member of the editorial board of the journal Board Game Studies.

In an article available on his profile, Schädler summarizes the evidence regarding ancient Greek board games based on the Onomasticon by Pollux (9.97), who himself apparently took the information from Peri ton par Hellesi paidion, a lost book on ancient Greek games written by Suetonius. Not exactly an ideal source, but as usual, it’ll have to do.

Schädler summarizes the three main types of games as follows (p. 173):

The first one is Polis (city) or poleis (cities), which according to the method of capture mentioned by Pollux – trapping one piece from two sides – seems to be theforerunner of or identical to the game the Romans called Ludus Latrunculorum […]. The second game, Diagrammismos, is completely unknown, but could have been a game of the Backgammon family. The name could perhaps best be translated as “through (or along orover) the signs”. The third game mentioned Pollux leaves without a name, but scholars conventionally use [sic] to call it Five Lines.

The game referred to as Polis is probably identical with the game referred to elsewhere simply as petteia (or a variant thereof). Petteia means “pebbles”, and it’s also used to refer to board games in general. I’ll use petteia in the rest of this article, as this is the most commonly used term in modern discussions that refer to this specific game. Regardless of what it was called, it was clearly a game with a military theme, making it, at first blush, an ideal candidate for something played by the warlike Achilles and Ajax.

Sadly, we know relatively little about how petteia was actually played. We know that it involved a board divided into squares and that each player had a number of counters. A key element in the game was capturing an opposing piece by moving one of your own pieces next to it, in such a way that a second of your own pieces is located immediately on the other side, thus “sandwiching” the opposing piece (i.e. what today we’d call “custodial capture”).

There are references to this method of capturing pieces in the ancient sources, as well as to skilled players being able to box in less skilled players. For example, Plato alludes to the game at one point as he draws an analogy: “just as by expert petteia players the unskilled are finally shut in and cannot make a move” (Republic 6.487d).

Petteia appears to have been very popular, and a version of the game was still played in Roman times, called latrunculi. There are references to this game in Latin sources that, like the Greek texts, emphasize the capturing of opposing pieces by pinning them between two of your own. Archaeologists have also unearthed examples of probable latrunculi boards (of different sizes) as well as counters from graves. A game similar to petteia and latrunculi, known as seega, is known from ancient Egypt.

Many of the rules for petteia can only be guessed at. Some suggest that at the start of the game, pieces were lined up on either side of the board in the manner of chess, either one or two rows deep, and that each piece was allowed to move as many spaces as desired either horizontally or vertically (like the rook in chess). Unlike petteia, most reconstructions for latrunculi posit that pieces were only allowed to move one space orthogonally, and the game usually features a setup phase during which players take turns to put their counters on the board. For an interesting take on petteia (and lactrunculi), check out the proposed rules written by José Carillo that are available on the Chess Variants website.

Regardless of the specific rules for petteia, it’s clear that it was played without dice. Of course, it’s possible that in some variant of the game a roll of the dice was used to determine e.g. how many spaces a piece was allowed to move. The dice may also have played a role in gambling on the outcome of the game, with the result indicating how many coins someone gained if, for example, they managed to capture an opposing piece or perform some other sort of beneficial move.

But as it stands, the presence of dice in the vase painting makes it unlikely that the heroes are enjoying a game of petteia. So let’s turn our attention then briefly to the second type of game, Diagrammismos. If this is indeed a precursor to backgammon, it must have been, essentially, a racing game, where dice rolls determine how many spaces one’s pieces are allowed to move. Related games include Egyptian Senet and probably also the Royal Game of Ur. It’s possible that the heroes are playing a game similar to this, even though I don’t think there’s much (any?) evidence that Diagrammismos was played in the Archaic or Classical eras.

The game of five lines

If the game played by our heroes is neither petteia nor Diagrammismos, that leaves only one possible candidate: the game known as Five Lines or Pente Grammai. Compared to the other two games, there’s a comparative wealth of information available about the game, although, again, many of the particulars are lost in the mists of time.

The earliest known reference is in a fragment attributed to Alcaeus (ca. 600 BC), in which there’s a reference to a “sacred line” (fr. 351 Voigt; see also the note by R.M. Rattenburry in The Classical Review 56.3 (1942), pp. 116), though some translators, like M.L. West, render it as if it’s referencing a card game instead (since the reference to the sacred line is used proverbially in a sense analogous to playing a trump card). This sacred line was key to winning the game, and was most likely located in the centre of the board. Other sources add that Five Lines is a game of chance; it stands to reason that it would have involved dice. A board from an Attic grave of the mid-seventh century BC included a cubic die (Schädler, Op. cit., p. 175).

Further evidence suggests that Five Lines is indeed the game played by the heroes on Exekias’ vase. A similar scene on a black-figure kyathos of the early fifth century BC shows what the board actually looks like from above. It features five (!) parallel lines, with playing pieces or counters, five each, placed on or at each end of the lines. Other iconographic evidence, such as an Etruscan mirror, demonstrates that the game could also be played on a larger board, featuring seven or more lines.

As regards to how the game actually played: we cannot know for sure. Schädler suggests some rules for Five Lines in the article cited earlier, but emphasizes that these are no more than a guess: “it must be kept in mind that the only thing we can say for sure is that the rule suggested here was certainly not the one played by the ancient Greeks” (p. 195).