Roman Rules? the Introduction of Board Games to Britain and Ireland

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In recent years Antiquity has addressed the subject of Roman and indigenous or native interaction--a wider process than Romanisation--through board games in the context of the Eastern Empire (Mulvin & Sidebotham 2004; de Voogt 2010). With this paper we seek to move the debate to the Western Empire, particularly the frontier zone of Britain and Ireland and explore the question of the Roman introduction of board games and their subsequent development by Celtic-speaking peoples.

Literary and archaeological evidence combines to indicate that the playing of board games was a widespread, popular and culturally significant phenomenon among the Celtic-speaking peoples of Britain and Ireland in the first millennium AD. Yet little attention has been given to the origin of such games in these islands. Previous writers (e.g. Sterckx 1970; Schadler 2007 with circumspection) appear to have taken it for granted or at least allowed that it was possible, that board games were a feature of ancient Celtic society from earliest times. The view presented here, however, is that board games arrived in Britain and Ireland through contact with the Roman world and that they are part of the wider picture of cross-frontier material cultural interaction (Galestin 2010: 64-88).

Moving the pieces around: the role of Rome

Sterckx (1970) was mistaken in his assumption that the playing of board games is a human universal and that Celtic-speaking peoples are therefore likely to have played them since time immemorial. This idea is rooted in Huizinga's (1950) proposition that play was a universal human given. We root our proposition here in the ideas of Caillois (1958) and Dumazadier (1968) who argue for a culturally contextualised view of play. Board games then are not universal in origin but appear, as far as their Western history is principally concerned, to have a specific origin and dissemination from mid-fourth-millennium BC Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, around the Mediterranean and thence to temperate Europe (Murray 1951: 226-38). Cultural contacts with and within the Roman Empire were a particularly important means of diffusion and it was through contacts with Rome that board games entered the Germanic world, reaching far beyond the limes to Scandinavia (as Murray [1951: 230] long ago suggested). Were this not already clear from the archaeological evidence (Whittaker 2006; Sodberg 2007), it would be obvious from the names for such games in the Germanic languages. As Schadler explains (2007: 372) the Germanic name tafl, board game (hence, Anglo-Saxon tofl, Norse tafl and later hnefatafl), derives from Latin tabula (gaming) board or counter. The name travelled yet further north, into Saami culture where the playing of tablut, ultimately, it seems, an Iron Age loan via Norse, was noted by Linnaeus in 1732 and observed among the Saami as late as 1884 (Murray 1913: 445-46; Helmfrid 2000).

The process of dissemination was not one of wholesale borrowing or slavish imitation, but rather a creative indigenous response to stimulus in which games were adapted to local cultural and social contexts. The most recent analysis of tafl in Scandinavia suggests it was derived from Roman imports or gifts of ludus latrunculorum (Sodberg 2007; Whittaker 2006). The Scandinavian variant hnefatafl retained ludus latrunculorum's basic mode of capture--by flanking--but changed its two equally matched armies into a king protected by his warband from a larger opposing force of attackers, this innovation perhaps resonating better with the indigenous social and political institution of the comitatus.

The introduction and diffusion of board-gaming throughout temperate Europe is in many ways analogous to the introduction and spread of literacy throughout the same area at approximately the same time. Both followed similar trajectories, in similar social contexts--of elite emulation--and manifest a similar variety in responses to stimulus (see Woolf 1994; Williams 2002; de Hoz 2007). …