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Gambling of ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman dice for games
Roman dice for games | Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alea iacta est, the famous words of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, could be symbolically interpreted as starting a game where the stake was the state. Alea means “bones”. Later, all gambling games were referred to as this term. This type of entertainment was a large part of the ancient Romans’ leisure time. Their popularity was mainly determined by the emotional factor. The games gave a man both the feeling of excitement about the vision of winning and the fear of losing the pledged amount. This element of risk caused an increase in adrenaline, which was addictive because it made everyday life much more interesting. Hence gambling in ancient Rome was so common.

Games were everyone’s favourite form of entertainment. They were played by patricians and commoners, the older ones having a lot of free time and the younger ones just after finishing work, and even children in hiding. Of course, only men were allowed to gamble. However, women were allowed to play during the Bona Dea festival. They played indoors and outdoors. Engraved game boards were found under porticoes, in front of basilicas and in other public places. To this day, they can be seen at the Forum Romanum, in the Basilica of Juliet, the Colosseum, at the entrances to ancient temples, and even in the houses of Roman vestals. The soldiers were also irresistible to gambling. Remnants of games were often found in the barracks. Taverns were such a prototype of modern casinos. Special rooms were created in them where people could play and place bets at will. People met there not only for good food but also for adrenaline. Gambling has moved from public places to private homes. He entertained the community especially at parties and banquets were the arbiter bibendi – as Horace calls him – made sure that the rules of the games were adhered to.

Roman dice. The small metatarsal bones of ungulates (sheep, donkeys) were used for the waist. They had four faces marked with numbers 1, 3, 4, 6. To play in a deck, four such dice were needed. And during the tesserae game, three of them were used. But they were already cubic bones made of bronze, marble, gold or amber.

The range of games during which bets were made was quite large. Board games were very well known, such as tabula lusoria, the board of which was made of a circle divided into eight parts. Each player had three pieces, which he tried to arrange next to each other, diagonally or along the perimeter. And the duodecim scripta game board consisted of two rows of twelve fields. Each player had 15 pawns. Three dice were thrown and three pawns were moved. The goal of the game was to pass all the pieces on the board. Its rules were similar to today’s backgammon. In turn, the most popular among Roman soldiers was latrunculi, also known as the robbery game. The game was played on a 12×8 field board and each player had twelve pebbles. Its rules are not well known because no text with its description has survived. Some see it as analogies to modern chess or checkers. On the game boards found, you can often find unique inscriptions, sometimes ironically describing the essence of gambling or encouraging to play, e.g.

Venari lavari ludere lidere occest vivere
[To hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh, is to live]
Ludite Securi Quibus Aeset Semper Inarca
[Play freely as long as you have money in your pocket]
Sperne lucrum versat mentes insana cupido
[Throw away wealth, end deception, madness and greed]

It is also worth mentioning par et impar which was meant to indicate whether the number of, for example, nuts held in the hand is even or odd. Also quite common was capita aut navia, the modern game of “heads or tails”. Roman coins depicted the head of the deity (Capita) on the obverse and the bow of the ship (Navia) on the reverse, hence its name. However, dice remained the most popular gambling game in Rome. We know two types of it. The small metatarsal bones of ungulates (sheep, and donkeys) were used for the waist. They had four faces marked with numbers 1, 3, 4, 6. To play in a deck, four such dice were needed. And when playing tesserae, three of them were used. But these were already cubic bones made of bronze, marble, gold or amber. The bones were mixed in the hands or in a special cup called frittillus. The scoring is not quite clear today, but it is known that the best throw was called “venus”, the worst was “dog throw” (even today, when talking about a mediocre player, the phrase “plays like a dog” is used).

Tabula lusoria
Tabula lusoria it was a board game, the board of which was a circle divided into eight parts. Each player had three pieces, which he tried to arrange next to each other, diagonally or on the perimeter line.

The universality of these games meant that gambling was seen as a serious social and moral hazard (more on this later). This type of entertainment was universally condemned and associated with dishonour. But despite its social disapproval, even those in the prime of power succumbed to the charm of gambling. Suetonius reports that Octavian Augustus was a fan of games to the extent that he invited his friends and family to each with a sum of 250 deniers and thus encouraged the game. And he was not disturbed by his own legal restrictions introduced in this area. The player, however, was not very good. In his letters, he complained that he had suffered numerous losses due to gambling. Also, Nero loved to play and was known to bet high. Supposedly, they were as high as 400,000 sesterces. On the other hand, Claudius had a specially adapted dice table in the carriage to play with while travelling. He is said to have even written a book on its principles. Seneca, in a parody to the death of the ruler, portrayed him in hell, doomed to play with dice forever using a bottomless cup. Another gambling freak was Commodus. When he noticed the voids in his treasury, he came up with the idea of ​​setting up a casino in the palace. And the mad emperor Caligula confiscated the property of several of his soldiers to pay off his gambling debts.

The scale of gambling must have been significant since it was decided to seriously address the problem and began to legally prohibit or restrict gambling and betting. The reason was the threat posed by addiction. It was believed that a man, under the influence of the game, lost control of himself both due to the euphoria associated with winning and the despair of failure. Especially if the stake in the game was sometimes all your assets. This led to the loss of honour, good name and dignity not only as a citizen but also compromised the social group he came from. Losing often led to a change of status, which threatened to violate the social hierarchy. Gambling also violated the traditional moral order. The result was a general degeneration of society. Hence, efforts were made to limit its scale.

The first law that tried to combat gambling was issued in 204 BCE – Lex Alearia. Another law – Lex Talaria – already explicitly forbade dice games, it was legal to play at meals. This law, however, permitted gambling during Saturnalia, a joyous holiday celebrated in December when slaves were allowed to play dice. Lex Cornelia probably published Sulla in 81 BCE, who wanted to limit the extravagance of citizens that they displayed during the games. Lex Titia and Lex Publicia allowed gambling only during sports competitions where players showed strength, such as boxing, wrestling, and running. It was legally possible to place bets during gladiator fights and chariot races. In all other cases and times of the year, gambling was prohibited. In particular, this prohibition applied to public places. The penalty for non-compliance was imprisonment, exile, a fine of at least four times the sum of the plant. The consequence of the court ruling in the gambling case was infamia. Moreover, the law did not recognize gambling debts or property damage caused by it. Therefore, they could not be pursued in court.

Despite the legal ban on gambling and its social condemnation, entertainment was doing well. The law has not been successful, as evidenced by numerous archaeological finds. Gambling continued to be popular. A completely new moral code based on greed, disrespect for money and extravagance has already taken root in the society, which the law was unable to destroy. Gambling seemed to be more attractive, hence there was no will in society to fight it.

  • Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars
  • Toner J. P., Leisure and ancient Rome
  • Wikipedia

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