Gambling History – Rome

Tabula was the Roman version of today’s backgammon. The Latin word “tabula” means “table” or “board,” and it refers to the special board on which the game was played. A popular gambling game, Tabula dates to about the third century B.C. and appears to have evolved directly from the Roman game called Duodecim Scriptorum. It is also similar to Egyptian Senet.

The game was popular with soldiers in the Roman army. It reached Arabia during the Roman expansion into the Mideast in the first century A. D. The Arabian game Nard appears to be a version of Tabula that included aspects of Egyptian Senet. Nard spread to the Far East in the third century A.D. and became extremely popular. Tabula was also apparently the ancestor of a series of games throughout Europe, including Ad Elta Stelpur in Iceland, Taefle and Fayles in Middle Ages England, Tourne-case in France, and Sixe-Ace in Spain.

Tabula was one of the games that was responsible for the gambling craze that swept Rome during the time of the Republic. The situation became so bad that the practice of gambling was declared illegal. The fine for gambling at any time except the Saturnalia festival was four times the amount of the bets, although this law was poorly enforced.

The Rules of Tabula

Information about the rules of Tabula comes mostly from the record of a game played by the Emperor Zeno in the fifth century A.D. The emperor apparently found himself in such a poor position that the scholars of the day saw fit to preserve the details of the game so that others could avoid the emperor’s mistakes.

The board is essentially the same as a modern a backgammon board. Each player has 15 pieces. The colors for these pieces appear to have been mostly black and white, or possibly blue and white. Some other colors have been found, however, and some players apparently used colored glass pieces.

All the pieces entered from the first square and traveled around the board counterclockwise. Three dice were thrown, and the numbers on the dice provided the moves for some or all of the pieces. If a player landed a piece on a point already occupied by an opponent’s piece, the opponent’s piece was removed from the board and had to re-enter the game on the next turn. If a player had more than one man on a point, this position was safe from the opponent; these men could not be captured. A player’s pieces would not be permitted to enter the second half of the board until all the player’s men had entered the board. Players were not allowed to exit the board until all pieces had entered the fourth quarter.

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