Friday, 2 December 2011

For readers of Mystery Magazine

I've just received my copy of the October's issue of Mystery Magazine. The gremlins were at work with the typograpy and lack of space (it was an issue covering the British Ring Convention and so I was lucky there was any room for my article at all) meant that the explanation to the illustration was dropped. So, for those, wondering what the heading to the second paragraph was, it was meant to read "Dice In the Ancient World."
And here's the illustration again and the explanation that was dropped for those readers who are interested (if any) what the numbers on the illustration mean.

(1)    Acetabulum/Acetabuli. There can be ornamental handles on these; it was the handles that prevented stacking. This vessel was a small dipping bowl, usually filled with vinegar.
(2)    & (3) Examples of micras paropsidas. These were small dishes that held sweets on a dinner table. (2) could sometimes be no more than 4cm or 5cm high. Note the similarity of (2) to a Hindu cup and (3) to an oriental rice bowl; both of which have a lengthy history of being used for cups and balls routines.
(4) A boxwood cup. Around 5cm high.
(5) Knuckle bones. These are the basic, unpolished type. They were sometimes carved and polished into better shapes.
(6) A miniature dice set with cup/container. From base to lid the cup might only be 2cm to 2.5cm high. Only three dice are shown but occasionally ten or more might be in the set. The material the container could be made of varied from leather to metal. The dice, like larger dice, would be made of wood, ivory, stone or metal.
(7) Dice. The length of one edge might be up to 1cm. They could be bigger but it was unusual.
(8) Calculi made of polished stone.
(9) Calculi/calculum or stroggula lithidia (in Greek). A natural pebble. There were no industry standards on calculi and so a board game might have the shapes of both (8) and (9) making up the game pieces.
(10) Ivory calculi. The size could be about that of a penny or a little larger, say of a 10p piece. The smaller kind appear to be more common.
Seneca the Younger mentions (1) and (9) when referring to the cups and balls being performed.
Alciphron mentions (2) or (3) and (9) when describing a performance of the cups and balls.
Martial mentions (5) and (7).
Ovid mentions (7), (8), (9) and (10).
Juvenal mentions (6).


  1. Hi John,

    could you give more exact bibliography for various references (letter or chapter numbers, for example).

    Matthew Martin

  2. Hi Matthew,
    The references are in the article in Mystery Magazine. This blog post was merely an addenda to the article.
    The text of the ancient sources and their translation will be available in a book next year. It's details will be announced in December.


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