The game of backgammon is believed to have originated from Mesopotamia in the Persian empire, and it is thought to be the oldest game that is still played today. In ancient times, the game would be played on stone or wood surfaces using pieces that could have been made from stone, bones, wood or other materials.
Some of these pieces have been found and traced back thousands of years, played by as diverse as Romans, Sumerians, Persians and Egyptians.
Throughout the history of this game, it has had associations with leaders and aristocrats of ancient civilizations. There have been many successful excavations of archeological sites in Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Far East, that have yielded artifacts and documented references of the game.
Boards with 3x10, 3x12, and 3x6 squares were found in Egypt known then as the Game of Thirty Squares or Senat. Some of these artifacts have dated back to 3000-1788BC, however the rules as well as the use of dice for this game remain unknown.
Wooden boards were also found in the royal tomb of the Ur al Chaldees, the centre of Sumer dated around 2600BC along with a tetrahedral dice. There were known as The Royal Games of Ur . A set of rules for the game played at that time was found on some cuneiform tablet dated at about 177BC.
Backgammon in the Roman Empire
Excavations revealed that the Romans played a game called Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum "The Game of 12 Lines". This seem to be played with leather boards and sets of 30 markers, typically half made from ebony and half of ivory, with some artifacts dating back to 600AD. It is thought to be derived from the Egyptian game Senat.
In the 1st Century AD, Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum was replaced by a variant with 2x12 lines instead of 3x12 lines as it grew closer to the version played today. The game came to Britain with the Roman conquest in the 1st Century and was also referred to as Tabula, a generic name given to the board on which it was played.
This pastime was quite popular and a favoured game by Emperor Claudius. Around 50 AD, Claudius documented a history reference of the game of Tabula which, unfortunately, has not survived. His imperial carriage always carried an alveus, a Tabula playing board, so that he could play whilst traveling.
A sweeping mania over gambling was initiated by the game of Tabula, which was eventually decreed illegal when Rome became a Republic. A fine of 4x the stakes was introduced for gambling at any time except on the Saturnalia. By the 6th Century the game was called Alea, "the art of gambling with dice". Alea is the most likely father to contemporary backgammon although there were several variations around starting positions and piece movement.
Backgammon in Asia
Around 800AD, a game called "Nard" appeared somewhere near southwest Asia or Persia. Nard was a very similar game to Alea and used only 2 die to move the pieces. Other names it was also known by include Nardshir, Nardeeshir, and Nard-i-shir, with "Nard" being the Persian translation for wood product based on the board which it was played. The game was also called "Takhteh Nard" meaning "battle on wood". An ancient document describing the symbolism of the game tells us the following:
The board represents a year; each side contains 12 points for months of the year; the twenty-four points represent the hours in a day; the 30 checkers represent days of the month; the sum of opposing sides of the die represent the 7 days of the week; the contrasting colours of each set of checkers represent day and night.
T'shu-pu was the Chinese variation on Nard, thought to be invented in Western India and arrived in China during the Wei dynasty (220-265AD). Nard was introduced into Europe through Italy or Spain following Arab occupation of Sicily in 902AD. The name "Tabula" was used by many cultures making it likely that the game was spread by the Romans while "Nard" was similarly spread through Asia by the Arabs. The Arabian game Nard appears to be a slightly modified version of Tabula, perhaps incorporating elements of Egyptian Senat. The difference between the two games was that Tabula used 3 dice while Nard used 2.
From Empires to Standardization
The first mention of these games in English literature was seen in The Codex Exoniensis in 1025 as Nard or "Tables", as it was to be called, was played throughout the middle ages, popular in English taverns. However, the popularity of chess super seeded Tables around the 15th Century, due partly to the banning of Tables for it's addictive gambling nature. The game was later reintroduced during the reign of Elizabeth I.
The term "Backgammon" is said to have been derived in 1645 from either the Saxon "baec-gamen" (back-game) or the Welsh "bac-cammaun" (little-battle) with the Saxon derivation being more likely. Another theory was that it got its name because it was often found on the "back" of chessboards.
By this time 2 dice Tabula together with the rule of playing doubles twice, became more like the modern version with the exception of the doubling dice and the counting of gammons and backgammons. It was only in 1743 when Edmond Hoyle finally wrote down the rules of play with his Treatise on Backgammon, the first official set of modern rules in existence.
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