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Petteia and Latrunculi

Opening Position

Alternate Names
Petteia was also called Pessoi, Poleis, or Polis. Petteia and pessoi may be translated as “pebbles”, “stones”, or “pawns”, an obvious reference to the gaming pieces. Poleis and polis means city or cities, but these terms may have been used to refer to the playing board or the cells of the playing board. This was a game of the ancient Greeks, vaguely described by Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, possibly Homer, and others. Latrunculi, the Roman Empire derivation of the earlier Greek game translates as “soldiers” or “mercenaries”. Latrunculi is also known as Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrones.

No. of Players

Most historical artifacts and reconstructions of this game are played on a 8x12 square grid, although many other boards of various size have been used in both modern times and historical. The 8x8 square grid is common. When playing on the 8x8 square grid, eight each of black and white counters are required for play. Most reconstructions for the 8x12 grid utilize twelve each of black and white counters, but some variations require twenty-four. Some reconstructions also utilize another differently shaped or marked counter, referred to as the King or Dux, in addition to twelve regular counters. Depending on the reconstructed rules, the King is either the most important piece in the game (when it is blocked, its owner loses the game) or the most powerful (it is given a jumping move).

No complete set of rules has been discovered for either of these games. A great deal of information concerning Petteia comes from Plato, who mentions that it originally came from Egypt. This could certainly imply that Petteia is at least partially derived from the game known today as Seega.
  In The Republic, Plato compares Socrates' victims to “bad Petteia players, who are finally cornered and made unable to move by clever ones.” In the same work, Plato clearly states that Petteia involves long training if skill is to be achieved. This statement is rather contrary to most modern reconstructions of the game (including the one given here) in which it is typically a simple game with little depth of play. Another reference indicating a game of great complexity comes from Philostratus in his Heroica, in which he discusses a game assumed to be Petteia as “no idle sport, but one full of shrewdness and needing great attention.”  Other references to the game come from Polybius (ca. 203 BCE-120 BCE), the Greek historian, who praises his student Scipio Aemilianus by saying that “he destroyed many men without a battle by cutting them off and blockading them, like a clever petteia-player." A most notable maxim of Aristiotle himself states that “a citizen without a state may be compared to an isolated piece in a game of Petteia.” The great games historian HJR Murray(1) based much of his reconstruction of Petteia upon the Alexandrian historian Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon, which describes Petteia as “the game played with many pieces is a board with spaces disposed among lines: the board is called the ‘polis’ and each piece is called a 'dog'; the pieces are of two colors, and the art of the game consists in capturing pieces of one color by enclosing them between two of the other color". Although this description is far from complete, it almost certainly describes a two player game of custodianship capture.

Further, at least nine Greek vases and one cup have been found that show variations of the image of the Trojan War heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a board game while dressed in armor. It is believed that a lost epic poem described this situation, in which the heroes were so absorbed in the game they forgot about a critical battle that was raging. The most likely candidate for the game they are playing is Petteia. Like all things regarding the details of the legendary Trojan War, this may be anywhere between entirely mythical or mostly factual. And thus, no certain statement may be made that two great war heroes of a time more than 2,000 years before the present played the board game described here, but neither may such ideas be ruled out entirely. Regardless, such thoughts are indeed exasperatingly entertaining in nature.




This game may also be played on an 8x8 square grid, utilizing eight each of black and white counters.

Many other ancient boards that have been found have been connected to this game.  There are many various sizes of square or rectangular boards of 8x7, 8x8, 8x12, 10x9, 11x10, 7x7, 10x12 or 10x13 cells.

This game may have been the same or similar to an enigmatic game known as Ficheall or Fidchell from Ireland and Wales.  

  1. Murray, H.J.R.  A History of Board Games other than Chess.  Oxford University Press, 1952.