Culture and Civilisations

Did Roman Emperors play chess?

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Did Roman Emperors play chess?

Fall of Constantinople in 1453. By Mehmet.

The Western Roman Empire fell definitively in 476AD, when the barbarian Germanic King Odoacer deposed the last Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus and despatched the imperial insignia to the Emperor of the East, Flavius Zeno. The Eastern Empire then went on to survive for a further 977 years under the guise of the Byzantine or Greek imperium, though the denizens very much regarded themselves, right to the end, as officially Roman citizens.

Although there is no evidence that Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Nero or Hadrian knew anything about chess, the later Roman emperors ruling Byzantium, which only finally fell in 1453 to the Turkish forces of Islam, certainly did play the game. Indeed, the Scandinavian Isle of Lewis pieces were part of the wider Nordic cultural world which also embraced the imperial elite Varangian Guard, composed exclusively of Norse warriors. One notable commander of this crack squad was Harald Hardrada, who challenged unsuccessfully for the English throne at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in 1066, a mere 19 days before William the Conqueror’s more fortunate bid at Hastings.

The most popular games of ancient Greece and Rome fall into the category of dice-controlled race games. “Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum” was played on three rows of 12 spaces, with three six-sided dice thrown through a dice-box. A simplified version in two rows, called “Tabula”, appeared during the first century AD, and is probably the direct ancestor of backgammon. Such classical dice-based games were generically known as “kubeia”.

Nevertheless, an entirely different branch of great board games existed in Classical Greek culture, collectively known as “petteia”. These were games of a battle-type that demanded skill, logic and pure reason, not just the fortune associated with a throw of the dice. It is my opinion that the petteia form of the game was the forerunner of chess.

The Greek writer Cratinus mentions petteia as early as the fifth century BC. References to it are widespread in classical Greek literature. For example, Plato states quite clearly in The Republic that petteia involves long training if skill is to be achieved. In another section of The Republic, Plato also compares Socrates‘ victims, who are finally trapped and made helpless by dialectic, to “bad petteia players, who are finally cornered and made unable to move, by clever ones“.

Aristotle, at one time the tutor of Alexander the great, writes in his Politics that, “a citizen without a state may be compared to an isolated piece in a game of petteia”. All this sounds uncannily like a modern chess pedagogue discussing the necessity of proper training and the evils associated with getting an isolated pawn!

Petteia was a board game, or group of games, demanding pure reason, symbolising warfare and played without dice. However, it was not yet chess. Around 330BC, Alexander the great invaded Persia and marched on towards Asia Minor and India. En route he founded Hellenic colonies which lasted for centuries. Many of these, by the way, were named “Alexandria”; the name still persists in corrupted versions: Kandahar in Afghanistan, İskenderun in Turkey. The Greek colonists, assuming they were good students of Plato and Aristotle, would have played petteia and Hellenic influence in the Arabic and Indian regions would have been considerable.

The centrality of gambling in ancient India was reflected in their giant national epic The Mahabharata. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that a powerful element of gambling and risk should have invaded the space of their social games. This epic poem, written in the fourth century BC, is central to Indian culture. It is the longest poem ever written, extending for more than 100,000 stanzas, around 15 times the length of The BibleThe Mahabharata even contains within itself a shorter version of the other great Sanskrit epic, The RamayanaThe Mahabharata goes back to the sixth century BC. Through this vast poem runs the ineluctable pressure of predestination in human affairs. Typically, human action is puppet-like, in the hands of the gods. Indeed, the Pandava Prince in the Mahabharata loses his entire kingdom on the throw of dice. A culture which produced such an epic is liable to have as its predominant mode of board games, those which are determined by chance, by the throw of dice, rather than by free will. On the other hand, a culture which believes essentially in free will, that human beings are in charge of their own affairs, will play quite a different type of game. These will be games where strategies are conceived totally by the players, without the intervention of the chance element of dice. This was precisely what characterised the Greek petteia.

Sure enough, chaturanga has been identified as just such a dice game, played in India during the long period when The Mahabharata (an epic of battle) was achieving its definitive form. Chaturanga is the earliest precursor of chess that has been clearly recognised. The Sanskrit name, meaning “Divided into Four”, was also a term for the Indian army of the time, which was composed of four divisions: the elephants, the chariots, the cavalry, and the infantry. The word “chaturanga” looks alien, but it becomes less so if one thinks of the Latin, French, Spanish or Russian words for “four” (quattuor/quatre/cuatro/четыре aka chye-tir-ye). Indeed, dwell on “quarter angle” for a moment, and the linguistic roots in the Sanskrit become even more obvious. Documentary evidence for this dice game exists from the beginning of the seventh century AD. It is, however, more than likely that its ancestry is vastly more ancient.

Indeed, it is my contention, based on intelligent speculation by the respected Russian Grandmaster Yuri Averbakh that in the centuries after the establishment of the Hellenic colonies on the route of Alexander, chaturanga, the Indian war game of chance met petteia, the Greek game of reason and from this concatenation of cultures, chess was born. The liberating affect of petteia was, according to Averbakh’s theory, to eliminate the dice element from chaturanga.

The terminology of chess was certainly current in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire, and even better known in the world of Islam, where it was by the ninth century referred to as Shatranj. When Caliph Harun held court in Raqqa Syria, Shatranj was considered an important element of court etiquette. The Caliph was fond of Shatranj/chess and he paid professional chess players a pension. In 802AD, according to Arabic sources, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I sent the Caliph a letter revoking the peace treaty that the Caliph had previously closed with the Empress Irene. The new Byzantine ruler allegedly rejected his predecessor’s concordat with the Caliph in style, using chess language, stating proudly that he would no longer behave as a pawn versus a rook, as the Empress (Irene) had done in her relations with the Caliph.

Further evidence for the playing of chess comes from The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, and her biography of her father, the cunning Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056–1118 AD). I quote:

“A military group, namely the Anemas brothers, the Antiokhoi and their accomplices, conspired against the Emperor‘s life and waited for a favourable opportunity so that they could carry out the murder of the sovereign without further ado. But when Providence afforded them no chance and time slipped past, the discovery of the plot became an alarming possibility. However, they thought they had found the moment they had been waiting for. When the Emperor woke up in the early morning, he liked sometimes to play chess with one of his kinsmen (this was an Assyrian game, which came from them to us); in any case, it alleviated the bitterness of his many worries. The rebels intended to pass through the Emperor‘s bedroom, a small room, as if they were looking for him; really, they were hoping to murder him.”

Anna was doubtless correct in that chess might have reached Constantinople via Assyria, but by the time it did arrive it was more commonly described as Shatranj, or Zatrikion in Greek, a variation on the Islamic word, and wrongly described by various authorities as a circular subroutine of chess popular in Byzantium. As leading chess historian HJR Murray has pointed out in his monumental History of Chess, though, this is unlikely and Zatrikion was simply the common Greek word for Shatranj/chess.

Anna Comnena continued:

“Now the Imperial bed chamber, where my mother and father happened to be sleeping, lies on the left side of the palace chapel. On the right there was a marble atrium in the open air, and the door of the chapel which gave access to it was free to all who wished to go there, and it was from that place that they planned to enter the chapel, break down the doors shutting off the imperial bedroom and then, after getting inside in this way, kill the Emperor with their swords. Such were the plans of these wicked men against one who had done them no wrong.”

However, being a cunning master of chess, the Emperor thwarted the conspirators’ dastardly plot and instead meted out a suitably horrendous punishment:

“Solomon, a leading plotter, was imprisoned at Sozopolis. Anemas and the other prominent rebels, after having their heads completely shaved and their beards cut, were paraded through the agora, before the order was given that their eyes be gouged out. Those in charge of the spectacle grabbed them, clothed them in sackcloth, decorated their heads with ox and sheep entrails to imitate crowns, put them on oxen, not astride the beasts, but riding sideways, and drove them through the courtyard of the palace… for the public to see the rebels wearing horns, the rebels who had whetted their swords against the Emperor.”

With the plot against the chess playing Emperor Alexius duly foiled, the Eastern Roman Empire went on to survive for almost a further four centuries. So, could it be said that the Western Roman Empire fell, because its emperors did not know how to play chess, while those of the Eastern half did possess that knowledge? Probably not, but why the empire fell and why the eastern half so dramatically outlasted the western, is a question which regularly puzzles me. Various reasons have been put forwards, such as increased malaria in Rome and the Tiber region, adverse climactic and volcanic conditions ruining crops and driving barbarians from the east. Even the rise of Christianity and lead piping in Rome have been identified as causes.

Blaming the fall on the adoption of Christianity seems particularly unreasonable, since the eastern half was self avowedly Christian more or less ab ovo, while elements in Rome itself had for some time clung obstinately on to pagan polytheism. Yet it was Christian Byzantium which survived for a further nine centuries.

When Byzantium did succumb to Islam on this very day, 29 May 1453, at the battle of the Fall of Constantinople, the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (pictured below) first paraded the protective icon of the Virgin Hodegetria around the ramparts, before himself dying on the battlements with his boots on, in ultimate futile defence of the name of Rome and Christianity. His courage was a far cry from the feeble efforts of what had become a Roman rabble in 410AD, a rabble with no conviction or passion for civic pride and self worth or for the value of their traditional and historic identity.

Statue of Constantine XI, Athens. (Shutterstock)

It is clear, though, that some of the more outlandish explanations for Rome’s decline and fall, such as lead piping, have no more validity than whether the emperors could play chess or not.

My answer is as follows. While lunching with Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the peer asked me where I thought we stood in parallel to classical times. I replied that it was the period surrounding 410AD, when Alaric King of the Goths sacked Rome, a response later echoed by eminent historian Niall Ferguson. Let us examine some evidence, and for that we need to start with another great crisis which threatened to engulf the nascent Roman imperium.

By 216BC Hannibal, the Carthaginian military genius and Rome’s worst enemy, had gained three great victories of annihilation against the consular legions at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. So great was the slaughter that one might have been excused for thinking that Rome had no troops left. Yet the Dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as the Cunctator, or Delayer, succeeded in raising, training and deploying yet a fourth citizen army, with which Fabius shadowed the Carthaginian forces, preventing them from capturing Rome, while always avoiding direct battle.

In 410AD, by which time over the years, the population of Rome must have considerably increased, a terrible contrast arose, when the demoralised mass of citizenry utterly failed to defend themselves against Alaric’s Goths. They simply opened the gates, let the Goths in and offered the most supine resistance imaginable. It is, therefore, my contention that civic virtue and Roman identity had, during the intervening six centuries, wholly deserted the Roman state.

This abject condition is what I fear now for the West, with termites, both from the highest and most menial echelons of the “woking class”, determined to dismantle the traditional fabric of western values. “Beware the Ides of March” warned Shakespeare’s soothsayer to Caesar. I say: beware the recurrence of 410AD with the concomitant dangers of cancel culture, erasure of historic memory, disdain for tradition and consequent fragmentation of our national identity.

Granted, my phrasing cannot compete for eloquence with England’s greatest poet. Shakespeare, who was very good at warnings, also declared (in Richard II) that England was in danger, as John of Gaunt predicted, of making a shameful conquest of itself and, as Odysseus/Ulysses further put it in Troilus and Cressida: “take but degree away, untune that string and hark what discord follows.” We need to listen.

I regard the strategy of Quintus Fabius Maximus as the original template for the Duke of Wellington’s “Fabian” retreating campaign against André Masséna in the Napoleonic Peninsular war, which culminated in the army of the French Marshal being pinioned against the impenetrable defensive lines of Torres Vedras. As I explained in an earlier column “War games: Battlefield strategy and the game of chess”, Wellington was the inspiration for my early chess strategy, so this week’s games are two of my own, where a delaying strategy of lengthy manoeuvre harvested rich dividends. The first, a school match: Keene vs Terance Hart (1966). The second { } Keene vs Jeff Horner in the English Counties Final of 1970.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from The Article, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwell’s .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 99%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 93%
48 ratings - view all

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