Learning to Seize the Moment through Ancient Greek Boardgames

To the classical Athenians, leisure was a chance to better oneself through refinement in technai (skills) and virtue. It was argued that those privileged few – young, wealthy, males – who had time and resources to spare became model citizens and warriors through pursuits such as athletics, music, and philosophy. A similar line of reasoning may have been applied to the playing of boardgames (pessoi), which Plato insisted required significant practice from youth to master (Resp. 374c). If this assertion is correct, the playing of boardgames would be an example of a leisure pursuit which taught the allusive value of kairos, the opportune moment.

The precise styles and intricacies of classical Greek boardgames are difficult to decipher; the lacunose nature of the evidence is such that we can be certain of little. The most recent (and to my mind, most promising) study, by Max Nelson, proposes that there were just two distinct boardgames: naumachia, ‘Ship-Battle’, and polis, ‘City-State’. Both functioned through a set of counters, with the aim being to capture your opponent’s counters through a combination of dice rolls and strategic movements. It was the blend of fortune and skill which made these boardgames the perfect exercise for instilling a knowledge of kairos.

Five Lines board on the eastern pediment of the temple of Leto, Delos (photograph: Ulrich Schädler used with permission)

Kairos was the concept of making the right move, at the right time, and in the right place. It also required a great deal of fortune – itself a virtue rather than mere chance – since the opportunity had to present itself to the individual. This moment was considered so crucial that by the 5th century BCE, kairos had been personified and elevated to the status of deity, Kairos. He was depicted with a tuft of hair at the front of his head, yet bald at the back, suggesting that ‘the moment’ could only be seized as it approached, never after it had passed. A statue of the god was setup at Olympia, and according to Leslie Kurke, it may have sat atop a base in the shape of an astragalos (knucklebone), a symbol of good fortune and an implement used in Greek boardgames.

Attic marble sarcophagus fragment depicting the god Kairos c.160-180AD. Museum of Antiquities, Turin

The kairos taught by the boardgames of classical Athens was battle kairos. The combination of temporal and spatial awareness made it a key skill of military leaders. The elite youth of Athens who played boardgames (likely with older, experienced partners) were the budding leaders of the city’s military forces. It was crucial that they could recognise opportunities when they arose in battle. One particular battle emphasises how a knowledge of kairos may have figured into Athenian battle strategy: Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon, at which a small force of Athenians and Plataeans fought off the Persian invasion of Darius, was a case of seizing upon opportunity. There are three main theories as to how the battle was initiated: the Athenians waited until it was Miltiades’ turn to lead the forces; they waited until the Persian cavalry were boarding the ships; or the Persians initiated battle by deploying their forces on the field. The first two entailed waiting for kairos to present itself; the third was a reaction to kairos bearing down upon the Athenians. This is where the game of polis comes into play.

Polis was played on a grid board and focussed on capturing an opponent’s pieces from the side, though such a move required two pieces to be flanking one enemy token. Like chess or checkers, it was also crucial to wait until an opponent exposed themselves, rather than to capture whatever pieces were on offer – since keeping your own pieces was just as important as taking others. At Marathon, the Athenians extended their battle formation to ensure they could not be flanked by the larger Persian force. When the two forces met, the Persians began to push through the centre, though this left them exposed to a flanking manoeuvre. Kairos had presented itself, and the Athenians snatched it by the hair, enveloping their enemy to win the battle, much as in a game of polis.

There was also a warning inherent in the kairos of boardgames; do not miss your opportunity. This is displayed on the famous pottery collection of Exekias, displaying Achilles and Ajax playing a boardgame. Produced in the late archaic period, these pots often included scenes of surprise attacks occurring on the wings, flanking the unaware heroes. Boardman has suggested that this scene is a response to one of Athens’ great humiliations: their defeat by the tyrant Peisistratus, who attacked the Athenian forces whilst they were resting and playing dice games. The irony of this scene may well be that by playing games of strategy, the Athenians (and the mythological subjects of the motif) missed kairos as he flew past.

Achilles and Ajax playing a boardgame by Exekias, c.540-530 BC, Vatican Museum

A more urgent appeal to kairos was raised by Demosthenes in his Olynthiacs and Philippics, pleading with the Athenians to take the last opportunity to halt Philip II of Macedon. ‘When will you do your duty, if not now?’ (Dem. 3.16). This sentiment recalls the unique rule in naumachia (‘Ship-Battle’) that once a player was down to his last counter, he had to declare ‘I move from the sacred line,’ justifying the extreme measure required in such a dire circumstance (Poll. Onom. 7.206-207). It was the final roll of the die. To Demosthenes, any person must recognise the do-or-die moment. And once you have moved from the sacred line, there is no going back.

Rory Ardill-Walker is a postgraduate research student at the University of Queensland. He is completing an MPhil thesis on the leisure pursuits of elite young men in classical Athens, analysing the pedagogical value and rhetoric of games of chance and strategy, as well as hunting. His research interests include leisure, age-class, and the environment in ancient Greece.

Further Reading

Boardman, J. 1978. ‘Exekias,’ American Journal of Archaeology, 82(1): 11-25.

Kurke, L. 1999. Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nelson, M. 2020. ‘Battling on Boards: The Ancient Greek War Games of Ship-Battle (Naumachia) and City-State (Polis),’ Mouseion 17: 3-42.

Schädler, U. 2009. ‘Pente grammai – the ancient Greek board game Five Lines’ in Jorge Nuno Silva (ed.) Board Game Studies Colloquium XI, Proceedings, CreateSpace.


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