Pente Grammai and the ‘Holy Line’

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A great deal of the literary evidence surrounding the ancient Greek board game pente grammai has to do with its central and proverbial ‘holy line’. Although it seems that the goal of the game was to reach this holy line, the proverb always refers to ‘moving away from’ this holy line not toward it. But why would players move away from the line which is the goal? This paper argues that there was a strategic element to the game: just like in modern backgammon and in Zeno’s ‘table’ game from late antiquity, in pente grammai a player could knock an opponent’s ‘blots’ (azuges) off the board. This explains why a player might make the odd move of leaving the holy line: the aggressive and risky act might bring an advantage if the opponent has left a number of vulnerable pieces exposed. At the end, a possible reconstruction of the game is offered.

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