April 28, 2021

It’s all fun and games in the gymnasium of Ancient Messene, by Matthew Evans

dsc_0004_3.jpg GB2

Incised gaming boards in the gymnasium of Messene on the interior steps of the propylon (left) and the benches of the palaistra’s exedra (right).

(Author's own photographs).

Pictured here are three incised gaming boards found in the stadium-gymnasium complex of the city of Messene in southern Greece. The two best preserved of the three boards each consist of a square (ca. 27cm on each side) neatly separated into six columns and six rows of smaller squares; two diagonal lines then form a cross through the board. The third board is slightly smaller (ca. 15 cm on each side) and is in a poorer state of preservation though it seems to follow the same basic design.

Messene Map

Aerial image of the stadium-gymnasium complex at Messene showing the location of the incised gaming boards (Google Earth 7.3.3 2020, Archaia Messene Gymnasium, 37˚10’21”N 21˚55’08”E, elevation 767m, 2D map, viewed 28 April 2021).

The complex, built in the late third century BCE and used until ca. 360/370 CE, is situated in the south of Messene and consists of a stadium with stone seating, surrounded by Doric colonnades on the east, north and west sides; the city wall provides a limit to the south. A palaistra (wrestling-school) is situated through the stadium’s west colonnade, suggesting that the complex functioned as a gymnasium (a place of athletic training and education) at least when athletic games were not being held in the stadium. Access to the complex was provided by a monumental Doric propylon (gateway) in the north-west corner, built in the Augustan period (late first century BCE to early first century CE), and it is on the surface of its interior steps that two of the gaming boards were discovered. The third was found in the palaistra, specifically on the surface of a stone bench located in an exedra (a hall with seating and a wide, columned-opening) on the building’s west wing.

A two-player strategy game not dissimilar to modern chess would have been played on these incised gaming boards, each player using an equal number of coloured pieces or pessoí (πεσσοί). Greek literary sources such as Plato (The Republic, 6.487d), Polybius (Histories, I.84) and Julius Pollux (Onomasticon, 9.97) causally reference these types of games using various names including petteia, pessoí, psêphoi (all three names meaning pebbles), pente grammaí (five lines) and poleis (cities). According to Plato, these games originated in Egypt before being adopted by the Greeks (Phaedrus 247d). In the Latin sources, the most well-known game of this type is called ludus latrunculorum or latrunculi (meaning the game of brigands or mercenaries) which is a variation of the earlier Greek games, referenced by Varro (On the Latin Language, X.22) and Ovid (The Art of Love, ll. 357-360; Tristia, ll. 479-481) among others (see the anonymous poem Panegyric on Piso, ll. 190-208). The precise rules of these different games are not clear in the literary sources, though they all seem to be based on military tactics: a player captures the opponent’s pieces by trapping an enemy piece between two pieces of his own. The pieces can only move vertically and horizontally though it is uncertain whether or not movements are restricted to one square per move; for the purposes of the game, it at least seems unlikely that a piece is able to land on, or jump over, another. The game is won when an opponent is left with a single piece.

Similar incised gaming boards have been discovered in various forms and places across the ancient world, from the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum to the numerous examples in the agora (marketplace) and streets of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Glass game pieces and the metal hinges of a wooden game board were even discovered in a mid-first-century CE grave in Stanway, Essex near Colchester, though there has been scholarly debate about whether these were used for latrunculi or a variant of the Celtic game called fidchell or gwyddbwyll. The incised examples from Messene and elsewhere, in any case, demonstrate that certain public places in ancient cities were often the settings of informal games among friends or those passing the time together.

The findspots of the gaming boards in Messene can inform us about the uses of these spaces within the gymnasium. The example on the bench in the palaistra is interesting since current scholarship strictly associates the type of room (exedra) where it appears with intellectual lessons, following the account of Vitruvius (On Architecture, 5.11). The gaming board here, however, indicates that the room was also used for relaxing and as a space in which people could spend their spare time with their friends. This is also supported by Plato’s description of youths playing a game of odd-and-even (ἀρτιάζω) in the corner of an Athenian palaistra’s changing room (apodyterion), a room apparently similar to this exedra at Messene. The examples on the steps are more informal in their setting, located at the entrance of the complex. Why would someone stop here on the steps, in the main circulation space of the complex, to play a game on these incised boards? The Basilica Julia gameboards, which are also located on the steps, are at least out of the way of circulation points and enjoy a good view over the Forum. Perhaps at Messene, this shaded spot under the propylon was the perfect place to relax and play games when athletic events were taking place in the stadium or perhaps it was a good place to hang around with your friends on the way in/out of the complex.

Finally, the association between the type of games played on these incised boards and their setting is significant. The gymnasium of Messene was the place where citizen youths and men would come each day to train in athletics and to receive a formal paramilitary/athletic education as part of the ephebeia, a two-year military service of 18 to 20-year-old citizens. The possible games outlined above, whether the Greek petteia or Roman latrunculi, were military in nature and followed basic battle tactics. Such games, therefore, would have been particularly suitable for the ephebes (those taking part in the ephebeia) who were receiving their military education in these spaces, allowing them to put their newly acquired tactical skills and knowledge to the test against their peers, (check)mates and future comrades on the battlefield.

If you want try your own hand at latrunculi, you can play an online version at: https://locusludi.unifr.ch/ludus-latrunculorum/


Austin, R.G. (1934). Roman Board Game I. Greece & Rome, 4.10, 24-34.

Austin, R.G. (1940). Greek Board-Games. Antiquity, 14, 257-271.

Kurke, L. (1999). Ancient Greek board games and how to play them. Classical Philology, 94, 247-267.

Lamer, H. 1927. Lusoria tabula. Realencyclopädie, 13.2, 1900-2029.

Locus Ludi (Accessed 28.04.2021). Inside Ephesus. https://locusludi.ch/inside-ephesus/

Schädler, U. (1994). Latrunculi – ein verlorenes strategisches Brettspiel der Römer. Homo ludens: der spielende Mensch, 4, 47-67.

Schädler, U. (2007). The doctor’s game – new light on the history of ancient board games. In P. Crummy, Benfield, S., Crummy, N., Rigby, V. and Shimmin, D. (Eds.), Stanway: an elite burial site at Camulodunum. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. 359-375.

Themelis, P.G. (1995 [1998]). Ἀνασκαφὴ Μεσσήνης. Πρακτικά της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, 150, 55-86, πίν. 13-42. For the gaming boards, see p. 73.

Themelis, P.G. (1998/1999). Die Statuenfunde aus dem Gymnasion von Messene. Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie, 15, 59-84.

Themelis, P.G. (2001). Roman Messene: The Gymnasium. In O. Salomies (Ed.), The Greek East in the Roman context: Proceedings of a Colloquium Organised by the Finnish Institute at Athens, May 21 and 22, 1999 (pp. 119-126). Helsinki: Bookstore Tiedekirja. For the gaming boards, see p. 122.

matt_pic.jpg This post was written by Matthew Evans, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Matthew’s research focuses on gymnasia in Greece and Asia Minor between the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, seeking to understand how space (architecture, statues, inscriptions) mediates the interrelationships between these complexes and cities/society.

March 28, 2021

The Monarchy and Magic at Nimrud, by Emily Porter–Elliot

Nimrud relief smaller

Relief panel from Nimrud, Iraq. (229.9 x 187 x 5.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art No. 31.72.3. OA Public Domain.

This relief panel is from Northwest Palace at Nimrud, which is situated in modern day Iraq. Nimrud was a monumental site of various palaces and temples, with the most magnificent and perhaps the best understood archaeological remains, being that of the Northwest Palace, built by Ashurbanipal II (883-859 BC). The palace was decorated with an elaborate series of reliefs which boasted of the achievements and power of the Assyrian state. The panel was originally acquired by H. C. Rawlinson who gifted it to William Frederick Williams in 1854. The panel eventually ended up in the care of Union College, who sold it to C.E. Wells for J.D. Rockefeller. It was eventually gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1931 by J.D. Rockefeller, where it is now on display along with other Assyrian antiquities in Gallery 401.

The panel portrays a winged supernatural figure, which faces left, and has the head of an eagle with a male human body. These figures appear throughout the palace in a series of reliefs which were originally painted in vivid colours, but these pigments have sadly not survived. The figures are representative of the supernatural population rather than representing divine beings and are slightly different in form with some being human-headed and others eagle-headed figures. They appeared in the doorways and in close proximity to the throne room. Figurines were commonly buried under doorways for protection in this period and had some similarities to the ones in the Northwest Palace relief scenes. The figures, therefore, have complex meaning and significance and there has been much speculation about the symbolism contained within the relief series.

What the figure holds has been highly contested. The object in its right hand has been thought to be a purifier, but others have argued that it is in fact a bucket. The object in the left hand has proved more puzzling but is thought to be a cone, representative of a special implement used by Mesopotamian farmers in a ritual action whereby the date-palm tree was fertilised. This tree is thought to be representative of prosperity and alludes to the idea of protecting the Assyrian state. The figures’ presence within the palace hints at the extent to which the king has gone to ensure the state is protected. The figure is elaborately dressed and bedecked in jewellery which makes references to divinity and was ostentatious in its design.

These relief panels are unique in that they contain an inscription which cuts across the imagery. This inscription runs throughout the entire relief series, often in the middle of the image. The inscription was in cuneiform script and written in Akkadian, although it is unlikely that many people who frequented the palace would have been able to actually read the inscription, they would have been aware of its significant and powerful presence. The inscription details the achievements of Ashurbanipal II, and discusses the heritage and royal titles of Ashurbanipal, before detailing his extensive military and building campaigns. It has been suggested the inscription was also used in the palatial decoration, as it had magical connotations and contributed to the protection of the palace, king and more widely the Assyrian state.


Cline, E. and Graham, M.W. (2011) Ancient Empires from Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crawford, V.E and Harper, P. O and Pittman, H. (1980) Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Palace Reliefs of Assurnasirpal II and Ivory Carvings from Nimrud. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Relief Panel- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322595 (2021) Accessed 14th March 2021.

Seymour, M. Nimrud- https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nimr_1/hd_nimr_1.htm (November 2016) Accessed 14th March 2021.

Emily smaller This post was written by Emily Porter-Elliot, who is currently studying for an MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture at the University of Warwick. Emily did her undergraduate studies in Archaeology at Cardiff University. Emily’s research interests are in museums and their collection histories and is especially interested in how museums sometimes controversially display artefacts.

February 24, 2021

Limestone Herakles from Nineveh, by Robert Schoenell

Herakles Limestone statue of Herakles from Nineveh, Iraq. Height: 52.9 cm. British Museum No.1881,0701.1.Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

This limestone statue of Herakles was discovered in Nineveh, Iraq in 1880 and is on display in the British Museum. Herakles is aligned facing the front of the plinth and is depicted as a bearded man, seated on a rock, using the skin of the Nemean lion as a cushion. His left hand originally held a club, the top of which is still visible on the plinth, and in his right hand he held a drinking vessel, like a skyphos or a kylix. Herakles has a ribbon wrapped around his head, with his eyes being carefully designed with an incision on the eyeball, indicating the iris and a drilled hole for the pupil. Stylistic and typological analysis of the statue make a dating to the 2nd century AD very likely.

Two Greek inscriptions are present on the plinth. The larger and more prominent of the two is on the front of the pedestal and reads:


‘Sarapiodorus son of Artemidorus (dedicated this) in fulfilment of a vow’

A small inscription on the left side of the plinth reads:


‘Diogenes made (this)’

Traces of red paint are visible in the cut letters of the inscription which increased the visibility of the inscription.

This statue was a votive offering to Herakles, the son of Zeus, famous for his twelve labours, who was worshiped for his outstanding strength and courage. Other Greek gods were present in the city of Nineveh as well, for example there is another limestone figure which is of Hermes on display in the National Museum of Bagdad.

Artemidorus and Diogenes are common Greek names that are not unusual in a well-connected city like Nineveh. The name Sarapiodorus has a strong connection to the god Sarapis and Ptolemaic Egypt. Nineveh was abandoned after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 609 BC. The city was resettled under the Seleucid Empire, beginning in the 3rd century BC, and later by the Parthian Empire. It was then taken by a claimant to the Parthian throne, who was supported by Rome in 50 AD, and this opened the city to trade relations throughout the Greco-Roman world.

The statue has been identified as a copy of the Herakles Epitrapezios (Epitrapezios meaning ‘on the table’). The Epitrapezios is mentioned by Martial, in the Epigrams 9.43-44,and Statius, in the Silvae 4.6,who describe a small bronze statue in the possession of the wealthy Roman, Novius Vindex. According to Martial and Statius, the Herakles Epitrapezios was made by the famous sculptor Lysippus, for Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). It was a small table decoration, depicting the wine drinking Herakles seated on a rock, holding the club in one hand and a drinking vessel in his other. The statue accompanied Alexander on his conquest and was later in the possession of Hannibal Barka and Sulla, before finding its way into the collection of Novius Vindex.

The stylistic and typological features present in the Herakles from Nineveh are a striking example of a Roman adaptation of a Hellenistic statuary type. The frontal orientationand the incision indicating the iris are also present in 2nd century AD depictions of Herakles in Rome. The ribbon used as a headband for the Nineveh Herakles is present in depictions of Hercules on a Hadrianic relief tondo, used as a spolia for the Arch of Constantine and on a Hadrianic aureus coin.

The Nineveh Herakles was not only influenced by Roman but by local workshop traditions. The stylistic features in this statue are very similar to that present in other sculptures from the region, especially to the limestone statues from Hatra. The statue is, therefore, the result of a Roman adaptation of a popular Hellenistic statuary type, heavily influenced by the local workshop traditions of Mesopotamia.


This post was written by Robert Schönell who is currently participating in an Erasmus exchange and is studying Ancient Visual and Material Culture at the University of Warwick as part of his Masters studies in Classical Archaeology at Freie Universität Berlin. Robert did his undergraduate studies in Archaeology at Universität zu Köln, Cologne. Robert's research interests are sculpture and iconography, and he is especially interested in Hellenistic art and how it was copied and reinterpreted by Roman artists.


British Museum. Online at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1881-0701-1

Bartman, E. (1992) Ancient Sculptural Copies in Miniature(Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 19) (New York, E.J. Brill).

Invernizzi, A. (1989) ‘L'Héraclès Epitrapezios de Ninive’, in: Archaeologia iranica et orientalis: miscellanea in honorem Louis Vanden Berghe, eds L. vanden Berghe, L. de Meyer, E. Haerinck (Gent: Peeters) pp. 623-636.

Reade, J. E. (1998) ‘Greco-Parthian Nineveh’, Iraq 60, pp. 65-83.

January 19, 2021

Fortuna and a legate's wife in Roman Britain – by Jacqui Butler

Fortuna Altar Altar/statue base dedicated to Fortuna by Sosia Juncina, York Museums Trust, museum number YORYM: 2007.6194. Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

This freestanding stone, measuring approximately 381 x 655 cm, records a dedication to the Roman goddess Fortuna, and is currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum. Dating to the mid-second century AD, it is constructed from magnesium limestone and would either have been used as a votive altar or statue base. There is some damage to the top and side of the stone as can be seen in the image, and it was removed from its original context and reused as a building stone in later centuries. The lettering of the first two lines of the inscription is slightly larger in height, measuring 50mm, than the remainder of the lettering, which measures 45mm. The inscription (RIB644) reads and translates as follows:

Deae | Fortunae | Sosia | Iuncina | Q(uinti) Antoni | Isaurici | leg(ati) Aug(usti)

To the goddess Fortune Sosia Juncina, (wife) of Quintus Antonius Isauricus, imperial (legionary) legate, (set this up).

The dedication is interesting for the socio-cultural information it reveals, especially as there are only a relatively small number of extant altars with female dedicants in Roman Britain. These provide important evidence that women dedicated altars in a similar way to men, independently choosing the deities they addressed. There are at least two other extant altars dedicated by women in Roman Britain to Fortuna in different guises, and this may suggest that the personification of this Roman virtue could possibly have had some specific appeal to women. This is plausible given that Fortuna was favoured in Roman Britain for luck-bringing to dice games, but also as an apotropaic force in both military and bathing contexts, and she was also further associated with state or imperial power.

The altar was found in the locale of the public bathhouse, and it has been suggested that this indicated separate gendered baths. However, as there is no direct evidence of this, it seems more likely that the intention behind the dedication was an appeal for protection, due to the vulnerability entailed by being in a state of undress in the bathing context. Equally, the dedication may also have been intended to reflect state power, or even the protection of imperial property. The inscription appears to support this interpretation, as it identifies Sosia Juncina as the “wife of Quintus Antonius Isauricus, imperial legate”. It also demonstrates her status via that of her husband: Isauricus had command of the Sixth Legion and was suffect consul around 143 AD. However, it is also possible that Sosia Juncina was related to the family of Quintus Sosius Senecio, who was Roman consul in 99 and 107 AD, which would further establish her within the ruling Roman elite, and indeed independently of Isauricus. If this is correct, then it is feasible that she travelled with Isauricus to Britain, from Italy, and therefore the dedication can be further understood in several ways: it functioned to both promote and display her own personal identity, but also ideas of continuity and stability via Roman cultural and religious norms, which were significant in such a remote province. Identifying herself via Isauricus, also evidences another Roman cultural norm, that of female status and identity being derived from male relatives. However, it is important to note that although altar dedications certainly functioned to project personal identity, this was undoubtedly subordinate to their central role as prayers; Sosia Juncina’s dedication would either have resulted from asking or receiving divine intervention from Fortuna or was part of a ritual of request.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that the inscription appears to foreground DEAE andFORTUNAEwith the slightly larger height lettering. This visual emphasis on the deity’s name may reflect the connotations of the location of the altar/statue base within the bathing context, or equally it may have been intended to highlight Sosia Juncina’s claim on a relationship with Fortuna, whilst simultaneously memorialising it for posterity. Regardless, the altar/statue base clearly evidences female religious participation which is similar to male dedications in a public context, and the ability to commission and dedicate in this way, suggests some level of female autonomy within the religious sphere.

Jacqui Butler This post was written by Jacqui Butler, part-time M/Phil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Jacqui’s research interests are in the depiction of both mythical and real women in the Roman world, and more specifically how they are represented in art.


RIB644, Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume 1. Online at: https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/644

York Museum Trust. Online at: https://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/collections/search/item/?id=11543

Aldhouse-Green, M. (2018) Sacred Brittania, The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain(London, Thames and Hudson).

Birley, A. R. (2005) The Roman Government of Britain (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Campbell, J. B. (2012) “Sosius (RE 11) Senecio, Quintus” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary(4 ed.), eds. S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth and E. Eidinow, (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Cooley, A.E. (2012) The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Henig, M. (1995) Religion in Roman Britain, (London, B.T. Batsford Limited).

Hope, V.M. (2016) “Inscriptions and Identity” in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, eds. M. Millett, L. Revell and A. Moore, (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Parker, A. (2019) Assistant Curator of Archaeology, York Museums Trust. Information from private correspondence in March 2019.

Rives, J. B. (2007) Religion in the Roman Empire(Oxford, Blackwell Publishing).

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 1, Eburacum, Roman York(London, 1962).

Tomlin, R.S.O. (2018) Brittania Romana, Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain(Oxford, Oxbow Books).

Woolf, G. (1996) “Monumental Writing and the Expansion of Roman Society in the Early Empire”, Journal of Roman Studies, Volume 86, pp.22-39.

About the Blog

Welcome to Material Musings!

This is a new monthly blog which will feature a variety of subject matter related to material culture from the ancient world. It aims to highlight and showcase some aspects of research work done in the Department of Classics and Ancient History and bring these to a wider audience.

We hope that you will find the posts interesting, informative and enjoyable!

Jacqui Butler and Matthew Evans

Co-Editors of Material Musings

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  • Dear Giles, excellent presentation. Just a clarification: the Arras medallion is a unique piece that… by Eleni Papaefthymiou on this entry

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