TAVLI - Greek Backgammon

 

Tavli is played in every kafeneion all over Greece, often played for money but mostly played just for fun. Tavli is similar to backgammon and is the one of the oldest known recorded games in history. It is widely believed that the origin of the game was in Mesopotamia in the ancient Persian Empire, which is modern day Iran, Iraq and East Syria. The game was played on wooden boards used like a table, stones were initially used as checkers, and dice were crudely made from bones, wood or pottery.

  

Historic relics indicate the popularity of the game mainly amongst the rich and famous aristocrats of Persia, the Far East and Rome. Albeit, the Greeks were also playing a form of the same game. Plato mentions the game and comments on its popularity. Sophocles accredit its invention to Palamedes, who was said to have been captivated by the game and was whiling his time away by playing, during the long siege of Troy.  Homer also mentions the Greek game in the Odyssey. (see also below)

 

Greeks called sixes 'Aphrodite' and referred to ones as 'dogs'. Whilst the Persians call the game Takhteh Nard meaning 'Battle of the Wood'. Years later in Egypt after the Persians had invaded it was known as 'Tau'  played then in wooden boxes thought to be the ancestor of 'Senat' the Roman game which is also thought to have derived from 'Senet which later became 'Tabula' (table). The name 'Tavli' is derived from the Greek word 'tavla' meaning wooden board or table.

  

When the Romans conquered Britain in the 1st century A.D. they introduced the game around the same time, which was referred to as 'Tables'. The game of Backgammon we know today was refined in England in the 1743 when Edmond Hoyle standardised the rules, it is believed to have come from the words 'Back Game'. This then became popular in most European countries with the rules unchanged until 1931 when the Americans revised the game.

 

One of the most famous vase paintings of the mid-6th century B.C. is that of the two Mycenaean heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a game which is thought to have been tavli. The figure on the left is Achilles, his name written upside down behind his bent head, and Ajax is on the right, his name appearing over his bent head near the decorative band encircling the neck of the vase.  
The two are at Troy, taking a break from battle. There is an incredible story implied in this scene, bringing the setting alive, here are these two legendary figures needing to rest and relax prior to another battle.
 

 

The original vase in the Vatican collection.

 

The men have their spears and shields ready for action, Ajax’s helmet is resting on his shield behind him, ready to be put on swiftly should they come under attack.  Holding spears in one hand, and playing the game with the other, you can just imagine the tension as these two men seem never to be able to let their guard down completely.  The next battle will begin again, and both by the end of the conflict die - Achilles in battle, and Ajax by his own hand.  All ancient Greeks, knowing the story of the Iliad, would then look upon this bittersweet scene with the knowledge of what was to come for Achilles and Ajax, this then is the confirmation even of today that most Greeks believe you can not escape fate.

 

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