Gambling has been around for hundreds of years in all of its shapes and forms. What’s more, research has shown that gambling has played an active role in people’s lives since the beginning of civilization.
But why exactly does gambling attract so many people? It might be because it allows you to make a profit without putting in any hard work or because it provides a perfect way to escape reality. Whatever it is, one thing is certain — gambling has remained a popular pastime even today.
Which Gambling Games Were Popular in Ancient Rome?
Archeologists and historians found that gambling was deeply rooted in ancient Roman traditions. It was not an activity meant only for those of higher status. In fact, everyone participated in this kind of pastime. Knowing this, you might be surprised that gambling was illegal. The truth is, though, that it was only permitted during the Saturnalia festival, which was held every December.
This festival celebrated Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Romans believed Saturn once reigned over Earth and provided a bounty for people who led innocent lives. The festival was an opportunity to relive that time. It was celebrated in two ways — namely, there was a day for public celebration and two days for private household celebrations. The private celebrations featured reverse roleplaying, where slaves dined as masters and masters took on other roles. This also brings us to dice playing — a type of gambling that was otherwise prohibited but allowed during this festival.
What did dice playing involve? Romans enjoyed two types of dice games. The only difference between them was the introduction of a gaming board. Basically, one game featured only players and dice, while the other featured players, dice, and a board. The board usually had 36 squares with various symbols drawn on them. Most of the time, these symbols were additional squares, leaves, crosses, letters, etc. The die looked similar to what we have today. It had six sides, and it was thrown on a flat surface.
Most games from that period required three dice. Naturally, people believed three sixes — or 18 in total — was the luckiest throw. The Romans also believed that losers should pay fines or move their piece backwards if at least one die showed a single dot.
Although dice games were illegal outside of the festival, people still enjoyed them. Moreover, this was considered a typical daily activity for Romans back then. Interestingly, people did not hide their gambling tendencies. Taverns advertised gambling, and tables even held signs that said, “Make room for better players.”
Some professionals even made a living by throwing dice. Furthermore, frequent fights occurred due to cheating and unfair gambling practices. If you travel to Italy and visit Pompeii, you’ll see graffiti on the wall that says, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” That’s how important ethical gambling practices were in ancient Rome.
You’ll also come across drawings on the walls and floors of people gambling and throwing dice. One particular illustration shows two men sitting on chairs and holding a game board on their knees. This drawing depicts a possible fight between two gamblers. The text in it translates to statements like, “I am out!” and “Not three points but two.” The second drawing introduces the tavern owner, who says, “Leave my place if you want to fight.”
Now that we’ve discussed gambling let’s see what other games ancient Romans were fond of.
Other Board Games
Romans loved any opportunity to play board games in which they could gamble. One of the more popular choices was an early version of backgammon or the so-called game of twelve. The game required three dice and 15 pieces for each of the two players.
The game of brigands is another popular game Romans enjoyed. It was a strategy game played with different colored glass pieces. Those players who wanted to win and be proclaimed the king had to capture the most pieces.
Another interesting fact is that soldiers played an important role in creating game boards. Namely, as they had a lot of time on their hands, they used it to make boards out of various materials. These were found in Italy, North Africa, and England.
What’s more, even if some Romans did not have boards, they managed to find ways to play games. They took advantage of any available surface, so you might see traces of ancient boards on the floors of bathhouses, temples, and even courthouses.
Romans also used knucklebones instead of dice — more precisely, ankle bones from sheep and goats. These were used for two types of games. The first one involved plenty of skill. Namely, five bones were thrown into the air, and players had to catch as many as possible using the back of their hands.
The other game was a game of chance where players used four bones with values from one to six. However, the bones were marked only with one, three, four, and six. The highest throw, named Venus, required all numbers to be different, while the lowest one, named dog, included all aces.
Even children were encouraged to gamble. In one of the more popular games, children were required to throw nuts into a jar. The game was conveniently called nuts.
A game variant included a traced triangle on the floor, with different sections representing various values. Another version of this game required the fourth nut to be stacked on top of three nuts, with the fifth one thrown to knock down the so-called castle.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of gambling, I recommend you try your hands on online casinos, as this will give you a lesson on gambling with its many games on offer. This will make you feel like the Roman emperor, who was quite fond of gambling, which is why he enjoyed it during Roman festivals. He even wrote a letter to Tiberius, his son-in-law, depicting a typical gambling day.
The letter says, “We have passed, my dear Tiberius, the feast of Minerva, in great merriment, gambling every day and warming up to the occasion. Your brother distinguished himself by the great noise he made, and, after all, he did not lose very much, for fortune turned in his favor just as he faced ruination. I have lost thirty thousand sesterces, because, as usual, I was liberal to my guests and partners. Had I taken all that was due to me, I would have cleared fifty thousand.”
After Augustus, young Romans became more interested in gambling. Horace stated that they avoided habits of hunting and riding and instead turned to forbidden gambling practices.
Although we cannot find any official record of anti-gambling laws, we know that there were at least three of them. The most notable law against gambling was Lex Talaria, but we don’t know when it was passed.
You should keep in mind that the Roman term for gambling was “alea” and that Romans used the word “aleator” to describe a despicable person. Yet, although some people were not fond of gambling, the activity was omnipresent. The same attraction to gambling is hard to deny even today.