Tabula was the Roman form of the game played today as backgammon. It was called tabula, which means 'table' or 'board', since it was played on a special board. Being most popular as a gambling game, Tabula was often called or classified as alea, which means 'gambling'. Alea actually referred to gambling in general, including dice (Tesserae) games. The term for dicing, tesserarum, could also refer to Tabula. Tabula dates back to several centuries BCE and appears to have evolved directly from Duodecim Scriptorum. Tabula bears some similarity to Egyptian Senet, which dates back to at least 3000 BCE and which was the forerunner of Duodecim Scripta (aka Duodecim Scriptorum).

    On the back of a bronze Roman mirror from 200 BCE shown at the right, we see two young people playing on a 12-lined board that is clearly a Tabula board, although it might possibly be an artist's rendition of a Duodecim Scripta board. The boy seems to be holding the dice, but what he says, ofeinod, is not known. Perhaps it should be rendered o fe ino(d) and roughly translates as, "Oh, aren't you playing on?" as if the young man was tipsy or distracted by the girl's charms. The girl, however, is definitely saying, "I believe I've won." This humorous exchange seems appropriate for a ladies grooming mirror, suggesting as it does that a woman can triumph over a man through her charms.
    Popular with soldiers, Tabula reached Arabia by Roman expansion into the Mideast in the first century AD. Tabula spawned a series of games throughout Europe, such as Ad Elta Stelpur in Iceland, Taefle and Fayles in England (1025 AD), Sixe-Ace in Spain (1251 AD), and Tourne-case in France. The Arabian game Nard appears to be a slightly modifed version of Tabula, perhaps incorporating aspects of Egyptian Senet. Nard spread to the Far East in about 220 AD and became widely popular. Chinese tradition attributes the invention of Nard to western India. The considerable diversity of these types of games, called race games by Bell, all center around common themes of play, and therefore parallel development and mutual interchange of ideas over the millennia may preclude assignment of absolute credit. Surely, the Egyptians were the first to play such games (i.e. Senet) and the Greeks developed more refined versions (i.e. Diagramismos or Grammai). Finally, the eclectic Romans perfected the most enjoyable version of all -- Tabula.

    Our knowledge of the rules of Tabula comes primarily from the record of a game played by the emperor Zeno in 480 AD, which is illustrated above. Zeno found himself in such a remarkably untenable position, that the details of the game have been preserved by posterity. Zeno, playing white, threw a 2/5/6 with the dice and was forced to break up his three pairs, as his men were blocked across the board. No other moves were possible, and the result is ruinous for white.

      In the Roman relief at left can be seen two Romans playing Tabula on a board across their knees. The organized arrangement of the chips or counters in rows indicates that this game is Tabula, as opposed to Duodecim Scriptorum, in which the chips would have been stacked (on 30 squares). Compare the board in this image with those shown across the knees of players on the Duodecim Scriptorum and Tesserae webpages.

    In the letters of Sidonius, circa 473 AD, he makes a number of references to tabula and dicing, such as the following:

      "Thereupon we raised a two-fold clamor demanding according to our ages either ball or tabula, and these were soon forthcoming.I was the leading champion at ball, for as you know, ball no less than book is my constant companion. On the other hand, our most charming and delightful brother, Domnicius, had seized the dice and was busy shaking them, as a sort of trumpet-call summoning the players to the battlements of the pyrgus."

    The pyrgus was a dice-box, usually wooden and shaped like a tower with inlaid steps, which was used to cast the three dice. Because the various references in Latin literature are sketchy, on expert suggests that there was no such game as Tabula and that the name merely referred to dicing, but in another letter Sidonius clearly makes reference to the fact that Tabula used a board, bicolored playing pieces, and dice:

      "Here there await you a couch built with cushions, a tabula board laid out with bicolored stones, and dice ready to fly from the ivory steps of the pyrgus.

    Tabula is the gambling game of which the Emperor Claudius was most fond. About 50 AD, Claudius wrote a history of the game of Tabula which, most unfortunately, has not survived. His imperial carriage was equipped with an alveus, a Tabula playing board, so that he could play while travelling. Some think that this board was for only for playing dice rather than the more engaging game of Tabula. Now although Claudius is derogatorily depicted in the Apocolocyntosis as a dice-player, this was a satire in which Claudius was painted in the most unflattering terms. In spite of being called Claudius the Idiot, he was in fact no idiot at all, and was somewhat of a scholar. His mere survival in the turbulent empire, as Robert Graves points out, and success at being one of the better emperors, is clear evidence of his intellect. It is no more likely that Claudius played only dice and not Tabula, than it is that he would have "metamorphosed into a pumpkin" per the said satire, which should not be taken more seriously by modern scholars than it was by the Romans themselves.

    Tabula is one of the games that was primarily responsible for the gambling mania which swept Rome prior to gambling being declared illegal under the Republic. The fine for gambling at any other time except the Saturnalia was four times the stakes, although this law was only weakly and sporadically enforced.

    The gaming pieces used in Tabula were evidently similar to, or the same as, the bone roundels used in other games such as Duodecim Scriptorum and Ludus Calculorum, as shown at the right. The colors seem to have been mostly black and white, or blue and white, but some other colors have been found. Occasionally colored glass pieces were used, such as those shown below.


    The Rules of Tabula

    1. The board, as illustrated above, can be a backgammon board. Each player has 15 pieces.
    2. All pieces enter from square 1 and travel counterclockwise.
    3. Three dice are thrown, and the three numbers determine the moves of between 1 and 3 pieces.
    4. Any part of a throw which could not be used was lost, but a player must use the whole value of the throw if it is possible. Zeno's fatal situation resulted from this rule.
    5. If a player landed a piece on a point with one enemy piece, the enemy piece was removed from the board and had to re-enter the game on the next throw.
    6. If a player had 2 or more men on a point, this position was closed to the enemy, and these men could not be captured.
    7. No player may enter the second half of the board until all men have entered the board.
    8. No player may exit the board until all pieces have entered the last quarter. This means that if a single man is hit, the remaining pieces may be frozen in the last quarter until he re-enters and catches up with them again.


    The diagram below illustrates the succession of board games as they appeared in the ancient world, and how their similarities suggest the evolution towards modern backgammon, which is played on virtually the same board as Roman Tabula. The form of the board for Grammai (Diagramismos) is not certain but is believed to be similar to that of Duodecim Scriptorum.

    In the following epigram by Martial called Tabula Lusoria, he makes reference to a Tabula board that had a Latrunculi board on the opposite side, speaking from the point of view of the board itself:

      Hac mihi bis seno numeratur tessera puncto; calculus hac gemino discolor hoste perit.

    Which translates as:

      On this side of me dice are counted by double sixes; on this other the piece of hostile color is taken by twin foemen.

    In another epigram we obtain a clue as to why the fritillus, or turricula, is inlaid with ivory steps. Apparently these grooves served to prevent cheating.

      Quae scit compositos manus inproba mittere talos, si per me misit, nil nisi vota feret.

    Which translates as the following, again with Martial speaking from the point of view of the turricula, or dice-box:

      If the cheating hand, that knows how to arrange and throw the dice, has thrown them through me, he will achieve nothing beyond prayers.

    At right are some playing stones, a bowl used as a dicebox, a fragment of what is most likely a Tabula board, and a die that was in perfect condition but was weighted. These were found in a settlement in Roman Britain in Vindolandia. Bone gaming counters have also been found in Bermondsey in London.

    In a letter by Sidonius he makes reference to Tabula as follows:

      "In the hours when the tabula board attracts him he is quick to pick up the dice; he examines them anxiously, spins them with finesse, throws them eagerly; he addresses them jestingly and calmly awaits the result. If the throw is lucky, he says nothing; if unlucky, he smiles; in neither case does he lose his temper, in either case he is a real philosopher. As for a second throw, he is too proud either to fear it or to make it; when a chance of one is presented he disdains it, when it is used against him he ignores it. He sees his opponent's piece escape without stirring, and gets his own free without being played up to. You would actually think he was handling weapons when he handles the pieces on the board; his sole thought is victory."