Basileus (Game)

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Basileus, from Greek βασιλεύς literally meaning a monarch, was an ancient Roman board game. The origin of the game may have been the Saturnalian worship festivals, where a scapegoat was selected and decorated as a "mock king", subsequently taunted, tortured, and finally sacrificed.


Basileus or Basilicus, also known as the Game of the Kings was a favourite pass-time activity for the Roman soldiers. A large number of such etchings are known to exist, at least three "Basilicus etchings" are known from the Roman flagstones of Ecce Homo Convent. Most of these games were played out of boredom, and to relieve the soldiers of becoming weary.

In the Roman Army’s version of Basilicus, the winner of each round of the game would get to choose different ways to torture the prisoner in the guards’ collective charge. This included dressing the prisoner up as a king and in turn mocking and abusing the victim, prior to the act of execution.

Inscription Details

circa 150 CE

The entire inscription is composed of five etchings on a single flagstone. The largest one being a circle, representing the crown of a king.

The circle (inspect) in the middle is the largest part of the whole inscription, representing the crown. It is the largest and most notable section of the ancient Roman inscription. This circle has eight spokes inside it, connecting in the center.

Near the lower left corner, there's a "B" (inspect) etched for Basileus, refering to the name of the game.

The semi-circular line (inspect) near the upper right right corner represents the life line, with a triangular shape dagger cutting it in the middle. This part of the game meant death for the prisoner.

The triple square represents a dice (inspect) and the soldiers would have thrown sheep knucklebone markers into this square.

The inscription bears an etching of a scorpion (inspect), which was the symbol or emblem of the Praetorian Guard, the Roman emperor's personal army.

Mechanism of the Game

circa 150 CE

Plautus, mentions of this game in his Curculio, as "throw of the king" (meaning to throw dice to become a king). The name of this throw is only attested in the Roman world and is most probably related to the game of knucklebones. It indicates a lucky throw, if not the luckiest, similar to the throw of Venus or Aphrodite.

Another interpretation suggests that the premise of the game is that the dice or tali are thrown to advance through a series of boxes and circles on a board, in this case an etching in pavement flagstone. Whoever is the first to get to the king’s tower in the center, is the winner and therefore declared a king. The others in the game then have to obey his command.


circa 150 CE

Today the "King's Game" etching is found below the Ecco Homo Convent of sisters of Zion. It has also been suggested that when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem, these stones might have been re-used here from the Gabbatha.

See Also


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