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Text By R C Bell: Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations
During the first century A.D. Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (Duocecim Scripta for short) became obsolete in fashionable circles and was replaced by Tabula, a variant with only two rows of points. Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) was very fond of the game and Suetonius states that he wrote a book on the subject and had a board fixed to his chariot so that he could play while travelling.
Four centuries later Emperor Zeno (A.D. 475-81) suffered so remarkable a misfortune in a game that the position was described in an epigram half a century later by Agathias, a scholastic of Myrine in Asia (A.D. 527-67). The position has been recovered by M. Becq de Fourquiere and this sixth-century record enables us to reconstruct the game of Tabula with a fair degree of certainty.
The Emperor was playing white and the throw of his three dice was 2, 5, 6,. As he was unable to move the men on (6) which were blocked by the black men on (8), (11), (12): or the singleton on (9), which was blocked by the black pieces on (11), (14), (15): he was forced to break up his three pairs, a piece from (20) going to (22), one from (19) going to (24), and one from (10) going to (16). No other moves were possible and he was left with eight singletons and a ruined position.
All gambling games were forbidden by law except during the festive licence of the Saturnalia at least as early as the time of Cicero (106-43 B.C.) but the laws were never rigidly enforced, and under many emperors were entirely disregarded.
Towards the end of the sixth century the name Tabula became replaced by Alea. Isidore of Seville who was born in the sixth century and died in the seventh, wrote in his Origines, ‘Alea, id est ludus tabulae….’ (Alea, that is the game of tabula….)
The Codex Exoniensis, a collection of Anglo-Saxon verse given to Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the city’s first bishop, about A.D. 1025, contains the first English reference to Tables. Two lines run:
‘Hy twegen sceolon
Meaning in modern English:
‘These two shall sit at Tables.’