Ancient Rome

Roman Gambling: Chance and Deception

Discover the intriguing world of luck, probability, and wealth through divine intervention, and clever strategies in ancient Roman gambling.

ancient roman gabling

The ancient Romans had a complex relationship with gambling, with both disapproval and widespread participation. Archaeological evidence and written sources show that dice games were the preferred form of gambling in ancient Rome. Roman dice had unique shapes due to the materials used and the belief in divine intervention affecting random outcomes. Cheating methods, like loaded dice, were also common among Romans to manipulate results.

The Popularity and Prevalence of Ancient Roman Gambling

Six-sided playing dice, similar to those used today, have been in use for over 4,000 years and have been found in various ancient civilizations. However, they were particularly prevalent in ancient Rome, where dice made of wood or bone have been discovered at Roman sites throughout the empire. These dice were used for both board games and gambling by Roman citizens.

Ludus duodecim scriptorum, Roman board game played with dice. c. 2nd century CE, Aphrodisias, via Wikimedia Commons
Ludus duodecim scriptorum, Roman board game played with dice. c. 2nd century CE, Aphrodisias, via Wikimedia Commons

Gambling in Ancient Rome was both frowned upon and widely embraced by society. It was a popular activity among the people and often took place in inns and taverns. Archaeological findings from Pompeii have uncovered artifacts like dice, game pieces, symbols of wealth, and terms related to Roman dice games, highlighting the prevalence of gambling in Roman society.

Despite the widespread practice of gambling in ancient Rome, some prominent figures like Cicero strongly disapproved of it. They viewed gambling as a wasteful pastime and a ruinous vice that could damage one’s reputation and social standing.

Although aristocrats generally looked down upon gambling, there were exceptions among the senators and elite who engaged in high-stakes gambling. However, excessive gambling was seen as potentially leading to legal and political corruption by the majority of aristocratic elites. They associated dice games with lower classes, hustlers, and petty criminals.

While betting on sporting events was acceptable in Roman society, dicing was frowned upon. Dicing formed a significant part of the gambling industry in the Roman Empire, with dedicated spaces for gambling found in backrooms of inns and taverns. Inscribed gaming boards and mosaics discovered in Rome, Pompeii, and other towns indicate the prevalence of gambling. Private homes or rented premises also served as venues for small-scale casino operations where money could be won or lost.

The Curious Asymmetry of Roman Dice

Roman dice are unique due to their asymmetrical shape, which has intrigued scholars from the University of California, Davis and Drew University. A surprising 90% of these dice found so far are slightly flattened, some even resembling parallelepipeds rather than perfect cubes. This feature affects how the dice land when rolled.

Roman bone dice from Calleva Atrebatum, via Wikimedia Commons
Roman bone dice from Calleva Atrebatum, via Wikimedia Commons

The researchers dismiss the idea that Romans couldn’t produce perfect cubes due to lack of technology, considering their other impressive achievements. They also reject the notion that misshapen dice were intentionally made for manipulation. Instead, they believe the shape resulted from a combination of intentional and unintentional factors.

Two main reasons explain the asymmetry of Roman dice. Firstly, the raw materials like bone and antler were naturally uneven, leading to longer dimensions along certain axes. While it was possible to shape them into perfect cubes, Romans didn’t see the need due to their views on probability.

In ancient Rome, the average citizen did not have a concept of probability as we do today. They believed that random outcomes were determined by gods like Fortuna, the embodiment of luck. Each number on dice was thought to be equally influenced by divine will, making all outcomes equally likely. The shape of the dice was not considered important; instead, it was believed that divine intervention determined the result.

Fortuna, Braccio Nuovo, via Wikimedia Commons
Fortuna, Braccio Nuovo, via Wikimedia Commons

The asymmetry of the dice did not affect their function in Roman society. Rolling dice was not just for games but also a way to communicate with or seek guidance from the gods. People believed that favorable gods could influence the outcome of dice rolls to bring them success or fortune.

This Roman perspective allowed for a variety of dice shapes, guided by the idea of “fate” rather than statistical probability. While we can now analyze probabilities statistically over many dice rolls, individual throws remain unpredictable. This helps explain the enduring popularity of gambling despite the odds being against the player. For Romans, achieving equal probability across numbers one through six, as in modern gaming, was not the main goal. Fate made each roll unpredictable, and the shape of the dice was not thought to impact specific outcomes. Most users were unaware of any connection between dice asymmetry and the frequency of certain numbers.

Throughout history, efforts to manipulate luck for an unfair advantage in games of chance have been prevalent. The Romans, for instance, attempted various deceptive methods to sway luck in their favor. Two common cheating techniques have persisted over the centuries.

The Roman Perception of Luck and Probability

The first method involves using dice with two identical numbers on opposite sides. This strategy allows a dishonest player to skew the odds in their favor. For example, by having sixes appear more frequently than other numbers while never rolling ones, the cheater gains an advantage. However, experienced gamblers can quickly catch on to this tactic, reducing its effectiveness over time.

Roman bone dice, c. 1st – 3rd century CE, via Antiquities.co.uk
Roman bone dice, c. 1st – 3rd century CE, via Antiquities.co.uk

The second method, employed by more cunning cheaters, entails using weighted dice. By adding lead or other heavy materials inside the dice, the cheater can ensure that a specific side carries more weight, leading to that number being displayed more often. Yet, even this approach loses its effectiveness as observant gamblers become more cautious and vigilant against such cheating tactics.

While cheating in games of chance has a long history, both these methods have limitations. Skilled and attentive players can eventually detect these dishonest practices, making it harder for cheaters to deceive opponents. Recently, evidence has emerged of a third, more sophisticated cheating method involving specially crafted dice. The existence of such dice showcases the remarkable craftsmanship of the Romans in dice production, dispelling the notion that most dice were crudely made due to technological limitations.

In 2000, a unique type of dice was discovered when a group of Belgian schoolchildren visited a Roman site. A ten-year-old girl accidentally broke a bone-made dice, revealing mercury inside. Two decades later, Belgian archaeologists uncovered the secrets of these rare mercury dice, which were found in Gaul and Germania during ancient times.

The mercury dice, as explained by the researchers, were similar to lead dice but had a key difference. They provided more flexibility for players to manipulate their chances of getting a desired number. By subtly tilting the dice before rolling it, players could control where the mercury flowed, allowing them to adjust the outcome. This method of cheating was difficult to detect, giving players an advantage over traditional lead-filled dice.

The precision and craftsmanship required to create these dice is truly remarkable. Skilled goldsmiths had to carefully drill and fill the dice with mercury, ensuring they maintained their weight. The holes were then sealed with the same material, showcasing the expertise needed for this process. These dice were considered valuable due to the intricate work involved, leading scientists to believe they were worth a significant amount.

The discovery of these dice in former Roman villas, where the wealthiest residents lived, further supports the theory of their high value. It suggests that some Romans engaged in gambling with substantial sums of money, as only those expecting a great return would invest in such luxurious items. It seems that ancient Romans may have found a way to transform mercury into gold, fulfilling the dreams of alchemists. Luck may have played a role, but wealth likely played a more significant part in their success.

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Sophia Dimitriou
Sophia Dimitriou graduated with an M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Thessaloniki. Her writings delve into the daily life and significant events of ancient Greek and Roman societies.

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