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In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the sixth instalment, Ziemowit Jóźwik goes in search of a lost goose...

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Julius Caesar - a fan of the Game of the Goose?

"Alea iacta est" – the die is cast, muttered Gaius Iulius Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon on 10 January, 49 BC, to begin the war with Pompey that was to crown his temples with the imperial laurels. Was he afraid? Did he hesitate for a while in the face of coming civil war? Or was he thinking about that blind fate, Fortuna, who would decide the outcome instead of ordinary people? Perhaps he was thinking all these things - but I reckon he was just brooding over the lost Game of the Goose, the oldest European pastime.

From the times when the Continent was trudged through by pre-historic peoples who created some vivid labyrinthine patterns and circular drawings, Europeans have been playing it.

Nevertheless some researchers claim that the emperor in fact didn't say that "the die is cast" but "let the die be cast" - suggesting that the game had only just begun. They say he was speaking not in Latin but in Greek, which leads us back to the very origins of the game...

"The Great Augur is cheating"

Those were the words of the Greek king Agamemnon, when he lost a game to the famous Calchas, a prophet who could foresee the future from the way birds fly. Anyway that's the version suggested in the comic opera La belle Hélène. I do not want to say that Calchas didn't swindle: after all, playing fair is probably pretty impossible if you're a soothsayer. If it is true, the story of Agamemnon's game with Calchas might be evidence that the Game of the Goose was a great deal older than the eagle-nose Roman emperor.

And it may not be the only evidence. There's also the Phaistos Disc – one of the most hotly debated archaeological souvenirs of our civilisation. The 6-inch plate made of clay ornamented with no less than 240 mysterious signs in a sinuous spiral pattern may have been used as a board for the Game of the Goose. Was it left by some bored hoplites somewhere on the south coast of Crete? Or maybe they lost it by accident?

Perhaps these very soldiers were depicted by the Greek potters on amphoras and plates. Of course it could only have happened a moment before their loss. Below we can see two kalos kagathos Hellenes leaning over a board, moving their pieces.

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Are these two Greek soldiers playing the Game of the Goose?

You can say that according to some scientific caution, they might be playing a different game or were just looking at a map on a small table. But the rules of the Game of the Goose are slightly different from those of rational sciences. Your free will is only illusory in your own hands. When you throw the dice and they awkwardly roll out from your palm, your lot depends on the number of pips on the dice, so "from goose to goose I move as I choose..."

A noble game renewed from the Greeks

In the remote past the Game of the Goose was always particularly popular among people who had to travel a lot. Apart from the ancient Greek soldiers who played it during their heroic, epic but sometimes tedious odysseys, 11th century knights also spent their free time over the board. But then the game was already not just a nice pastime. For the Knights Templar, who had a relatively similar travelling lifestyle to the hoplites, the Game of the Goose embellished with the pictures of the glorious architectural gems from Alfonso I el Batallador's reign served as a secret guide to the route of Santiago de Compostela. I'm just curious whether they were actually throwing the dice – if not, it'll be better and more careful to stay for a longer while on the Iberian Peninsula.

In the 16th century the Game of the Goose was presented to the Spanish King Philip II. The gift from the Florentine duke and ambassador Francesco de Medici soon became the greatest entertainment in the Spanish Habsburg court. It might be difficult to believe that Philip, in his cheerful youth, was an excited fan of the game: after all, this is the same gloomy and introverted "Satan of the South" who terrorised the Protestants, and whose favourite music was the swish of the denunciation documents. But in fact he is the first historically confirmed player of the Game of the Goose. However, let's leave the sunny peninsula just in case, to avoid a rather uncomfortable meeting with the Spanish Inquisition. As fast as possible, blow on the dice and "from dice to dice I slide and get by..."

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