Tali, knucklebone dice
Fantasy Chariot Races
De Ludi Circenses Imaginarî
Part 1 - At the tavern
“Is it time to pick the draft order?”
I wanted to put harshness in my voice but I detected only whine. Why am I the only one who is antsy to know the order of the draft?
“Fine, Decimus, fine, let’s do it now.” My quick tempered friend Bassus retorted dryly.
Calvus stood up, took one last swig of his watered wine, grimaced and dropped his clay cup noisily on the table. Then he moved towards the nearest wall and beckoned us to follow him.
Attalus, Bassus, Calvus and I were at the Hungry Rooster Inn, a tavern on the Esquilinus side of the Subura. We had decided to spend the evening at the tavern and leave for Circus Maximus by the seventh hour of the night. You must arrive by the crack of dawn to find a seat at the Circus on a race day.
We would not had waited for tonight to draft our fantasy teams had the race cards been distributed earlier than this afternoon. Not that we absolutely need the race cards. We know who the best charioteers are. We know how many races they had won with two-horse drawn chariots and with four-horse drawn chariots. We know the horses and their pedigrees. And yet, race cards advertising drivers and horses and listing who is racing when and against whom are an indispensable memory tool.
We had a choice of drafting in the afternoon, sleep for a couple of hours, get up grumpy and probably stay grumpy for the rest of day. Clearly, spending the evening at the Hungry Rooster Inn was a more appealing option.
“May my new tali bring me luck.” said Bassus while opening the small wooden box where his knuckle-bone dice were kept.
“I do not like to use new tali.” complained Attalus.
“These are the only ones we have” I replied as we approached the wall.
Dice are thrown in the reverse order of the standing of the last race. Bassus will start with Attalus, who won the previous time, casting the dice last. While Bassus was shaking the dice in his hands, I thought I saw him whisper a quick prayer. Our eyes darted after the dice as they hit the wall and rolled back.
“Dog throw.” said the laconic Calvus calmly
Sure enough, dice were showing four ones. Too bad for Bassus. Good, I said under my breath. I will not be the last one to pick. Calvus was next.
“Venus throw” exclaimed Attalus who was the closest to the wall as the dice cast by Calvus came to rest showing I, III, IV and VI.
Lucky Calvus. Venus throw is the best possible throw. Unless Fortune smiles upon me, Calvus will be the first one to pick.
I was next. I thought of calling upon Neptunus Equester to whom the races are dedicated. Not remembering when I made a sacrifice in his name, I decided against it. I threw the dice. My eyes darted after them.
“Stesichorus” I yelled excitedly when I saw two I’s and two VI’s.
Most likely stesichorus will give me the second draft pick.
I noticed that a tavern girl had approached us and was standing behind me. With a voice that would make any guy feel strong, invincible and horny she asked:
“Who is winning?”
Brilliant question, right to the point. Pay attention. Wherever there are dice, there is gambling. Wherever there is gambling, there is money. Whoever is winning has what she is after. How can the winner resist his vanity and not reply to her?
“We are not playing for money.” I indicated solemnly after half-turning to face her. She was no more than twenty years of age. She looked older when I noticed her earlier across the poorly lit room.
I added “We are picking the order for our serpentine draft.”
“Sure, now you are going to tell me that this is some kind of a religious service”
“No, no, a serpentine draft is when the picks snake back and forth from round to round.… ah, forget it” How do you explain a snake draft? In any case, she was not interested. Not seeing any coins on the ground, she had reached a quick and I must sadly add, accurate opinion of us and had left. By the time I had turned my attention back to my friends, Attalus has thrown the dice. As I had hoped, he will pick after me.
On the way back to our table, even before we sat down and had a chance to take our styli and wax tablets out of our satchels, Calvus uttered a single word.
Darn Calvus. Diocles is the best charioteers there is, head and shoulder above anyone else.
“I wish Scorpus were alive“ I yearned with melancholy for the greatest charioteer of my youth.
"But he is not“ said Calvus while giving a quick shoulder shrug.
“Nor is Thallus“ added Bassus
I must think fast. I have the second pick. Who should I choose? A chariot faction or another charioteer? Our fantasy teams consisted of eight charioteers and one of the four chariot teams. No other charioteer stands out as Diocles. He will do well for his team. I concluded that I should pick his team.
“Reds“ I said while sending quick looks around to see if any of my competitors had any reaction to my choice. Everyone was busy writing on their wax tablets although I thought I saw Bassus swear silently.
“Your turn, Attalus “ I suggested, knowing that even in the first round Attalus will take his own sweet time.
Two hours later our draft was completed and teams were transcribed from the wax tablets to four small pieces of parchment. Everyone gave me 20 sesterces to keep, not a large amount of money and yet a considerable sum for Attalus who, working as a tutor, was paid poorly. The winner will get 60 sesterces; the runner up will get his money back.
Clamor of voices and of shuffling feet coming from the street told us that it was time to pay the bill and leave. A tavern slave filled half of a wine-skin with wine; we will fill it up with water from one of the many fountains along the way.
We stopped at the door and helped Attalus drape his toga over his shoulders to ensure that he is not excluded from the Circus. Only citizens were allowed. Attalus was a freedman.