Ancient Roman Board Game Not As Grim As Archaeologists Suspected

A gaming board discovered scratched onto the second-century stones of a Jerusalem city square in the 1980s, sparking debate about the nature of the game played on it. Many of the concepts presented were severe, reflecting the reality that the players were most likely Roman occupying soldiers. However, a new theory claims that what we are witnessing is the progenitor of checkers (draughts). 

The scratchings are near Hadrian’s Gate, which constructed by the Romans to commemorate their defeat of yet another Jewish attempt at independence. In this environment, it is reasonable that those who saw the little board assumed it used to play a game honoring Saturn, with a prisoner picked and killed at sunset.

Nir Wild is not an archaeologist or a historian, but he is a historical reenactor who is planning a series of events in Jerusalem based on recent archaeological discoveries for this year’s Hanukkah celebrations. After all, Hanukkah commemorates a more successful Jewish revolt against foreign occupiers. In this context, Wild was particularly interested in determining the nature of the game that played at the location so that it might recreate 1,800 years later. Fortunately, he reasoned, this did not imply that he had to act as though he was about to execute someone at dusk.

Instead, Wild says that the game is Alquerque, which developed into checkers through time. The Romans snatched it from somewhere else, as they did with so many other things. “Alquerque has its origins in Ancient Egypt,” Wild said to Haaretz. 

We know this because tombs have depictions of the game on their walls. “A board was never discovered; only photographs of it were uncovered.” With the triangles, it always looks the same.”

Since then, the board has discovered in several locations, including a 10th-century book of poetry. Wild is convinced that we know how it played, at least roughly, since King Alfonso X of Castile commissioned the Libro de los Juegos, or Book of Games; containing rules 1,100 years after the Romans etched the board into the stones beside Hadrian’s gate. One of the cities featured was Alquerque.

Each player had 12 pieces, or “troops,” and the goal was to “devour” your opponent’s soldiers. The one who ate all of the opposing soldiers was declared the winner. “We know of a few different variations of the rules and different titles for the game,” Wild told IFLScience. 

“But they all have the same aim and method of winning.” All movements were identical to checkers; pieces could only go backwards once they reached the other side of the board. The old version also did not enable you to take many pieces in a single move, which had to make the game less enjoyable.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority mistook the game for Nine Man Morris, which Wild describes as “a more common board game” with a “slightly similar board,” and while some were familiar with the Libro de los Juegos, he claims they were unaware of the Roman and Egyptian records of Alquerque and thus did not make the connection. Although violence and torture were more widespread in ancient times than they are now, murdering captives was not a necessary for resting troops to have a good time.