Ancient Roman Board Game Not As Grim As Archaeologists Suspected

A reconstruction of a Alquerque game with helmet and horn. Image Credit: Nir Wild

In the 1980s, the board for a game was found scratched onto the second-century stones of a Jerusalem city square, inspiring speculation as to the nature of the game played on it. Many of the ideas proposed have been brutal, reflecting the fact the players were probably soldiers in the occupying Roman Army. However, a new explanation proposes what we are seeing is actually the ancestor of checkers (draughts).

The scratchings are located near Hadrian's Gate, built by the Romans to celebrate their crushing of yet another Jewish bid for freedom. In this context, it's understandable some of those looking at the small board thought it was used to play a game to honor the god Saturn, with a prisoner chosen in the process executed at sunset.

Nir Wild isn't an archaeologist or professional historian, but an organizer of historical reenactments currently working on a set of events around Jerusalem based on archaeological finds there as part of this year's Hanukkah celebrations. Hanukkah, after all, celebrates a more successful Jewish uprising against foreign occupiers.

In this context, Wild was keen to identify the nature of the game played at the site so it could be played again 1,800 years on. Fortunately, he concluded, that didn't mean even having to pretend to execute anyone at sundown.

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Instead Wild claims the game is one known as Alquerque, which eventually evolved into checkers. Like so many things, the Romans pinched it from elsewhere. "Alquerque originated in Ancient Egypt," Wild told Haaretz. We know this because there are representations of the game on the walls of tombs. "A board was never found, only pictures of it. It always looks the same, with the triangles.”

The board has turned up various places since, including a 10th-century book of poetry. Wild is confident we know how it was played, at least approximately, because 1,100 years after the Romans carved the board into the stones near Hadrian's gate the King Alfonso X of Castile commissioned the Libro de los Juegos, or the Book of Games, with rules. Alquerque was one of those included.

Each player had 12 pieces or "soldiers" and the aim was to “eat” the soldiers of one's opponent. The winner was the one to eat all the opposing soldiers. “We know about a few versions regarding the rules and different names to the game but basically all the same target and manner of victory,” Wild told IFLScience. All moves were similar to checkers, but with less capacity for pieces to move backwards once they had reached the other side. The original version also did not allow the taking of multiple pieces in a single move, which must have made the game considerably less satisfying.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority confused the game with Nine Man Morris, which Wild calls “A more common board game” with a somewhat similar board, and although some were aware of the Libro de los Juegos, he said they were not aware of the Roman and Egyptian records of Alquerque so did not make the connection.

Violence and torture may have been more common in the ancient world than today, but killing prisoners wasn't a requirement for resting soldiers to have fun.

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