Ludus latrunculorum

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Ludus latrunculorum
Museum Quintana - Räuberspiel.jpg
Modern reconstruction. Museum Quintana of Archaeology, in Künzing, Germany
Genre(s) Board game
Abstract strategy game
Players 2
Setup time 1 minute
Playing time Unknown
Random chance None
Skill(s) required Strategy, tactics
Synonym(s) Latrunculi

Ludus latrunculorum, latrunculi, or simply latrones (“the game of brigands”, from latrunculus, diminutive of latro, mercenary or highwayman) is a strategy board game played by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is said to resemble chess or draughts, but is generally accepted to be a game of military tactics.


The game of latrunculi is believed to be a variant of an earlier Greek game known as petteia, pessoí, psêphoi, or pente grammaí, to which references are found as early as Homer's time.[1]

Among the Romans, the first mention of latrunculi is found in the Roman author Varro (116–27 BC), in the tenth book of his De Lingua Latina (“On the Latin Language”), where he mentions the game in passing, comparing the grid on which it is played to the grid used for presenting declensions.[2] A detailed account of a game of latrunculi is given in the Laus Pisonis, and allusions to the game are found in the works of such writers as Martial and Ovid.[citation needed] The last mention of latrunculi that survives from the Roman period is in the Saturnalia of Macrobius.[3][4]

For a long time, it was thought that the eighteenth book of Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae contains a reference to latrunculi,[5] but later research has shown this to be unlikely.[6]


When chess came to Germany, the chess terms for "chess" and "check" (which had originated in Persian) entered the German language as Schach. But Schach was already a native German word for robbery. As a result, ludus latrunculorum was often used as a medieval Latin name for chess.[7]

Board geometry[edit]

Since, in archaeological excavations, it is usually hard to tell what game a gridded board was used for, it is hard to determine the size of the board on which latrunculi was played. R. C. Bell, writing in 1960, mentioned boards of 7×8, 8×8, and 9×10 squares as common in Roman Britain. W. J. Kowalski refers[8] to the "Stanway Game", an archeological find of 1996 in Stanway, Essex, England, and believes the game was played on a board of 8×12 squares; the same size that was used a thousand years later for courier chess.[9] He later[10] allowed a board of 10×11 squares. The rules may have varied much across the width of the Roman Empire and through time.

Game rules[edit]

Bell's conjectural rules[edit]

  1. Using an 8×7 (or presumably 8×8) board each player has 17 pieces, one blue, the others either white or black. The white and black pieces are placed two at a time by alternate turns of play anywhere on this board. During this first phase no captures are made.
  2. When the 32 pieces are in position each player adds his blue piece, the dux.
  3. The pieces move forwards or backwards or sideways one square at a time. There is no diagonal movement.
  4. A piece is captured when the opponent brackets it orthogonally between two of the opponent's pieces, or between an opponent piece and a corner (but not side) square. The dux is captured like any other piece. A piece that makes a capture gains an immediate second move.
  5. The dux can move like the rest of the pieces, or can jump over an enemy piece that is in an adjacent square. The jumped piece is not captured by the move. Of course, the move can have as consequence the capture of another piece.
  6. If a piece is moved voluntarily between two enemy pieces, it is not captured.
  7. A player who loses all his pieces loses the game. If no captures are made in thirty moves, the game is ended, and the player with more pieces on the board wins.

Kowalski's conjectural rules[edit]

  1. The board has eight ranks and twelve files. Each player has twelve men and a dux, black on one side and white on the other. In the starting array the men fill the first rank and the dux stands on the second, on the square just to the right of the center line (from each player's point of view). On the board of ten squares by eleven, the dux starts in the center of the back row, flanked by five men on each side. Black moves first.
  2. Each piece may move any unobstructed distance along a rank or file (like the rook in chess).
  3. A man is captured if the enemy places a piece adjacent to it on each side in an orthogonal line. Multiple men in a line can be captured together (Kowalski later abandoned this feature).
  4. If a piece is moved voluntarily between two enemy pieces, it is not captured, but the player so moving should point out the fact, to avoid later disputes.
  5. A man in a corner is captured if the opponent places his men on the two squares adjacent to the corner.
  6. Repeating sequences of moves are not allowed: if the same position occurs three times, with the same player to move, he must vary his attack.
  7. The dux cannot be captured. It is immobilized if blocked on all four sides. A player who immobilizes the enemy's dux wins the game, even if some of the obstruction is by the dux's own men. If the game cannot be won by immobilizing either dux, the player who has more men left on the board wins. (Kowalski later changed this to say that play continues until one player cannot move, and so loses.)

A German reconstruction[edit]

These are the rules from the German museum set pictured above:

  1. Two players have sixteen pieces each, which are arranged in two rows facing each other. The goal of the game is to capture all of the opponent's pieces.
  2. The pieces move orthogonally any unobstructed distance. A piece is captured when it is caught between two opposing pieces on adjacent squares in a rank or file. The captured piece is removed from the board. Victory is by capturing more pieces than one's opponent, or by hemming in the opponent's pieces so that movement is impossible.

Other similar games[edit]

In China the various board games in the family of Fang Qi (方棋, Square Game) have similar rules. Typically board size varies from 4 x 4 in Korea (Gonu) to 17 x 17 in Tibet. Most varieties have the initial "Placing Stone" phase, followed by the "Removing Stone" phase (if any), and then finally the "Capturing Stone" phase.


  1. ^ Peck, Harry Thurston (1898). "Latruncŭli". Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. New York: Harper and Brothers. Retrieved 2006-11-23. 
  2. ^ Bell, R. C. (1980). Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations. Dover. ISBN 0-486-23855-5. 
  3. ^ Kowalski, Wladyslaw Jan. "Latrunculi". Archived from the original on 2006-09-15. Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  4. ^ Theodosius, Macrobius Ambrosius; Thayer, W. P. (transcr.). "Saturnalia". Retrieved 2006-11-26. "Sed vultisne diem sequentem, quem plerique omnes abaco et latrunculis conterunt, nos istis sobriis fabulis a primo lucis in coenae tempus, ipsam quoque coenam non obrutam poculis, non lascivientem ferculis, sed quaestionibus doctis pudicam et mutuis ex lecto relationibus exigamus?" 
  5. ^ Tilley, Arthur (October 1892). "Ludus Latrunculorum". The Classical Review 6 (8): 335–336. doi:10.1017/s0009840x00186433. JSTOR 690534. 
  6. ^ Austin, R. G. (February 1935). "Roman Board Games. II". Greece & Rome 4 (11): 76–82. doi:10.1017/s0017383500003119. JSTOR 640979. 
  7. ^ Murray, H. J. R (1913 et seq.). A History of Chess. Oxford University Press. pp. 397, 400.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ Kowalski, Wladyslaw Jan. "Latrunculi". Retrieved 2008-07-14. 
  9. ^ "Chess Variants: Courier Game". 
  10. ^ Kowalski, Wally J. "Latrunculi Directions". Retrieved 2008-07-31. 

External links[edit]