Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dice Game Cheats? The Solution is the Roman Dice Tower


Ever have a guy that wants to use his “personal lucky dice” for a game and when he does he makes his roll every time?  How about the gamer who had a “special” way to hold dice so he wins consistently or the guy that rolls wildly so that he hits “dead” dice that were already thrown to change the outcome?  Everybody who has gamed has seen this problem player. 
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a partial cure for this abuse in the fritillus, which was a dice box or dice cup.  The best way from keeping somebody from using slight of hand or using English (if you will) on the dice throw was to put the dice into a cup and shake them around.  Keep in mind that these “boxes” were generally cylindrical, so don’t let prejudice lead you to think that all dice boxes are square, in fact they were generally circular like a cup or bowl shaped.  In fact a common shape for the fritillus was one that looked a like a long cylinder and it was called a turricula, some tapering slightly to the mouth.  To help matters, some of these dice cups had grooves inside to help agitate the dice for greater randomness while shaking them up.
An amusing recurring theme from the film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) was the slave Pseudolus, who cheated at dice constantly even when using a dice box, because he has his personal turricula rigged for cheating.

The dice box, however, was a useful curb on cheating as Martial, the first century Roman poet wrote in the Tabula Lussora, saying of the use of the fritillus or turricula: 
    Quae scit compositos manus inproba mittere talos, 
    si per me misit, nil nisi vota feret.

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


Now the ultimate cure for cheating dicers of all types was created by the Romans and it was the pyrgus, which was a hands-free dice rolling device we call a dice tower.  This clever device had baffles inside to mix up the dice as they descended by gravity and then they rolled down a stair, randomizing them even more to obtain fair throw.  Additionally, some pyrguii had little courtyards or enclosures at the base to keep the dice that tumbled down the tower from rolling out father into the play area.  Remember back when you were gaming and you had players throwing dice into a box top to keep them constrained when some gamers were notorious wild throwers.  This courtyard was the ancient cure for enthusiastic or wild throws.   Nobody wants their miniatures knocked about by errant dice.

There are only a couple of intact dice towers found to date, one is wood and the other is made of metal, a copper alloy.  I suspect that there were once a large number of wooden dice towers, but all that exists of these now of these are some bone inlay as the wood has long deteriorated with age [1] . 

Here’s an article with a contemporary Roman era quote from letters of Sidonius Apollinaris that cites the use 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, . . . but in another letter Sidonius [Apollinaris] 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.’

Discovered in 1985, some 30 years ago, this amazing metal prygus shown was found in what is now modern Germany near the villages of Vettweiss-Froitzheim, for which this dice tower was named.  This outstanding metal prygus, made from a copper alloy and now resides at the Reinisches Landesmuseum at Bonn, Germany.  

The dice tower was found near the remains of a Roman villa located 25 miles southwest of Cologne, which was then called Colonial in ancient times and was the capital of the Roman province of Germania Inferior.  The site is also about 20 miles straight due west of modern Bonn, which was once ancient Bonna.  It had a major Roman military complex called Castra Bonnesis, housing a large, permanent military presence to guard the west bank of the Rhine. The Legio I Minerva was stationed at Castra Bonnesis from 82 to 359 CE.  Previously it was manned by the Legio I Germanica, which was disbanded in 70 CE for cowardice during the Batavi Revolt.

You’ll note this metal dice tower has a inscription on the front which translates:
     The Picts are defeated
     The enemy is destroyed
     Play in safety

The sides and back has only a single inscription repeated:
    Use it and live lucky.

Clearly the Pict reference on the tower suggests it was owned at some time by a Legionaire or officer who served on the frontier against the Picts, possibly at one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall.  Who knows how long it was used and changed hands until it was carefully hidden away in its box in the waning years of the Roman presence in Germania, 400 miles from Hadrian’s Wall, having crossed the channel from the British Isles.  Given the proximity of its final resting place near a villa close to the Roman super-fort on the Rhine, my guess is that the dice tower with its military reference had a closer association with Castra Bonnesis or was owned by a retired officer who was given land in Germania as reward for service.  Then again, it might have been won in a dice game.

The photo above is of the original restored artifact prygus.  Note that it originally had three bells (only one now exists) which would ring when struck by a die on exiting.  You’ll also notice that the dice tower has a lot of perforations much like lattice work on a wooden on a Roman window lattice.  I suspect that this is a form of gaming transparency to show that the same set of dice that entered the tower have run the course and exited.  Since the dice tower was an anti-cheater device, this extra step of showing that the dice box was not rigged and it was used in a fair game.  That may seem a bit excessive, but remember the rigged fritillus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the period references to cheating at dice cited in this blog entry.

I suspect the most common dice towers were more than likely wood, probably with bone or ivory inlay according to taste and pocketbook.  But it’s not beyond the realm for a really wealthy person to have one in silver or even gold, but given the chances of one in precious metal surviving being melted down would be pretty slim.  About the only material that probably wasn’t used in a dice tower is terracotta as there have been no fragments found.  Although there are only two identified, complete dice towers discovered, the one in Germany and the other in Egypt (probably Ptolemaic or Roman era) housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo [2].   Archeologist R. E. Cobbett suggests that decorative bone fragments found at the Richborough Roman fort in the UK are fragmentary remains of a wooden dice tower used in ancient Britain [1].

Here is an article in Portuguese about a new find, which may prove to be a portion of another metal dice tower.  If so, it would be only the second metal prygus known to date.  My Portuguese is very poor, so I leave it to a reader to help me with a translation and maybe some additional information on this new find.

In the past few decades Roman style dice towers have made a small comeback with gamers and they can be seen on occasion.  Some are of new design and others are quite good reproduction of the originals.  Amusingly there are even some made of Legos.  If you Google around a bit on the internet, you’ll turn them up.  Check out the links at the end of the post for some that I found.  Check out the photo at the very end of the post of an outstanding reproduction of the Vettweiss-Froitzheim pyrgus.  Kudos (κῦδος) Steven!

Anyway, I hope this post about dicing cheats wasn’t too dry or esoteric.  I just wanted to give a brief overview of early devices to curb dice fudging and cheating, which is something I know you gamers out there have experienced over the years.  I really enjoy the historical context of games and eventually I want to make a post about just the dice themselves, but I felt it would make this post over long.  Happy gaming!

                                                 CoastConFan
Footnotes:
[1]  Article from Britannia, A Journal of Romano-British and Kindred Studies, Vol XXXIX, 2008, Pgs 219-235, R. E. Cobbett:  A Dice Tower from Richborough.   This article shows a suggested reconstruction of a dice tower from bone fragment decoration found at an archeological dig.
[2]  Other than a very old photogravure from an unknown publication showing this wooden Egyptian dice tower, I can’t find any recent information or images.  I suspect it may not be on display anywhere, but in storage.  Hopefully a reader will help me out with a better photo and more information about where it was found & etc.  I really hope it wasn’t destroyed in the recent round of looting by cultural barbarians. 

Additional notes:
The famous image shown at the start of the article of two Greek soldiers playing a board game on an amphora shaped vase is attributed to the Athenian painter Exekias, circa 540 BCE showing Achilles and Ajax sitting down playing a game during the siege of Troy.  Mind you, this particular vase was painted a thousand years after the famous siege.  Although anachronistically depicted in armor of a type dating thousand years after the Siege of Troy, it shows the popularity of board games and dice even at an early time.  This vase (#344) now resides in the Vatican Museum.

Links of interest:
On collecting RPG dice  http://www.rpgcollecting.com/dice/



The dice tower and the fritillus must have seen heavy use, see this article on gambling and cheating in ancient Rome  https://archive.org/stream/jstor-25102412/25102412_djvu.txt

See the Wikipedia article on the famous Vettweiss-Froitzheim dice tower  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vettweiss-Froitzheim_Dice_Tower

An article about the Richborough dice tower find

The Earlyworks blog has a nice reproduction of the metal Vettweiss-Froitzheim dice tower made by Steve Wagstaff

See the article, Literate Games:  Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea

Even more links about Roman games


Repro dice tower by Steve Wagstaff

Letters of Sidonius Apollinaris who lived in  Roman Gaul:   http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sidonius1.html

Roman soldiers and the Picts as mentioned on the German dice tower http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/01/2014/manning-the-ramparts-a-hillfort-on-the-edge-of-empire

For more information about Romans fighting Picts, which begins in 80 CE and drags on for 300 years see below:
Constantius I repelled a Pictish invasion and campaigns beyond the Antonine Wall in 305 CE dies in 306 CE:  
Maximus defeats an incursion of Picts in 381 
 
A German article on gaming with both dice towers shown.

Here’s a dice tower made of Lego blocks  http://www.daemonstorm.com/role-playing/accessory/Lego-Dice-Tower
 
A modern laser cut dice tower for sale  http://danbecker.info/games/articles/FlyingTricycleTower.html

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting & entertaining read as always.

    Might have to have a go at making a reproduction one....it would look great to have one of these sitting alongside the gaming table!

    Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. wonderful, very informative. I will share is on our facebook page

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent article! Well done! I have also made a blog about dice towers. You can check it here: www.woodendicetower.com

    ReplyDelete