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Mendax! and the Veracity of Card Games in Class

I still clearly remember one of my early lessons in classroom methods with the late Gareth Morgan, a pillar of the U.T. Classics Dept. and internationally renown professor of classics. He sat before me in his office and picked up a deck of cards. He began flashing them before me one at a time with the clear expectation that I was to respond with the corresponding Latin term for the number before me.

I was struck at the profound simplicity and brilliance of this scheme. The goal was to connect a Latin word with a concept, an image, the idea of a quantity as opposed to another English word. It also took a very familiar and comfortable representative of that number, an image of delight, to accomplish this goal.

Since gaining my own classroom, I regularly use Dr. Morgan’s lesson with my own students and with great success. Often, this lesson comes as a nice ice breaker in the first days of the school year, a great way to shake off the dust and warm the gears in the Latin part of the mind to start turning anew.  After reviewing the numbers and adding color (ruber and ater), we then begin to use this skill to play a couple card games. The first is Mendax! (more commonly known among students as B.S.).

The rules of the game are fairly simple.  The students set in a circle and cards are distributed until the deck runs out. The player to the left of the dealer begins by placing all of their 2 face cards in the middle, face down. The player must declare, however, how many 2 cards he has. The next player must do the same for her 3 face cards. The next with his 4 face cards, and so on through the proper sequence all the way through the Aces. It is inevitable that at some point someone will not have any of the cards he is supposed to place in the middle, forcing that player to “lie” about how many of what kind of card he is placing in the middle pile. When anyone suspects a player of such an untruth they are to cry out MENDAX (liar)!

Our Latin twist of course requires that as each set of cards is placed in the middle, the player must declare her cards in Latin. If a player mistakenly declares in English, she loses her turn.  Thus:

Playing Mendax!


Player 1:  unus duo (one 2-cared)

Player 2: unus tres (one 3-card)

Player 3: duo quattuor ( 2 4-cards)

Player 4: tres quinque (3 5-cards)

et cetera . . .

The player who rids himself of all his cards first wins and should victoriously shout VINCO!


The terms we use for the royal cards.

Ace = Primus ( We use “alpha”)

King = Rex

Queen = Regina

Jack = Dux (cf. duke, a derivative of dux)





For an added educational benefit, teachers should consider choosing decks of cards with images tied to Rome or Latin. This summer I happened upon a wonderful deck of cards produced by a company called Midnight Cards.

Photos are from Midnight Cards website.

This company prizes itself on beautifully designed playing cards. Among their treasures is a set of two complementary decks called Rome. The red deck is titled Caesar and the blue deck Antony. The back of each card is adorned with artwork featuring these two heroes (or villains depending on which side you take). The face cards (Jack, Queen, King) are historical personages caught up in the dynastic rise of the Caesars and their political enemies.

Face cards feature historic rivals such as Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar (shown here) as well as Octavian/Augustus (hearts) and Antony (spades).

This beautiful teaching tool not only provides a great lesson in numbers, but also in history, and even art. Once the students know the connections of all these figures and images, each time they “play” they are caught up in a wonderful review integrating all these disciplines. Truly marvelous.

Follow this link to Midnight Cards for more information on their Rome Decks and other beautiful card designs: Midnight Cards

Follow this link for instructions within this blog site on how to play another card game, Go Fish in Latin: Go Fish

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