We know man has been fond of gambling since the beginning of civilization, based on the archaeology, but, most likely, he has been gambling since his intellect developed the capacity. What is it that drives the human desire for gratification achieved when you combine game playing with the award of a prize based on chance? Is it the thrill of earnings without labor? Whatever the motivation, gambling remains a popular human pastime across the ages and into the present day.

In the ancient world, the Romans were inveterate gamblers. All classes participated, from slave to emperor, artisan to Senator. During the time of the Republic, gambling was prohibited except during the festival of the Saturnalia which was held in December of each year. The Saturnalia was a celebration in honor of the Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and, according to Roman myth, there existed a time when Saturn reigned over the earth and provided a bounty for mankind, who lived in a state of innocence. The festival was an attempt to relive that time by turning convention on its head. Featured was a day of public revelry followed by two days of private celebration within the Roman household. The private celebrations included a “reverse meal” where slaves dined as their masters, possibly even served by them. Dice playing was permitted as another kind of reversal because that which was normally unlawful was now permitted.

What were these dice games? Generally there were two types: games with dice only and games with dice and a board containing pieces that were moved by throws of dice. The boards typically had 36 squares with various symbols such as squares, leaves, letters, and crosses marked on them. Three die, identical to the six sided type we use today, were thrown. The luckiest throw was three sixes or eighteen “spots”. Fines were paid or pieces moved backward if the dice thrown showed one or more single dot.

Outside of the Saturnalia, and despite the official government position, gambling was a daily activity for the Roman people. The ruins of a tavern near the praetorian camp held a sign that said, “Good food and gambling within.” Tables have also been found with wording inscribed on them – “make room for better players.”

One imagines “loaded” dice being employed by professionals who made a living taking other people’s money and frequent fights must have resulted from attempts at cheating. There is graffiti on a wall in Pompeii where the writer states with pride, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” The ruins of a tavern in the same city have a cartoon painted on the floor. In the first picture, two men sitting on chairs with a game board sitting on their knees. The first man says “EXSI” (I am out). He’s thrown the dice. The second man points and says “NON TRIA DV AS EST” (not three points but two). In the second picture, the men are standing up as if to fight over the score, but the tavern keeper steps in. “ITIS FORIS RIXSATIS” (Leave my place if you want to fight).

Augustus was a joyful gambler and made a practice of playing during all Roman festivals. A letter written to his son-in-law, Tiberius, states “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, the rise of imperial Rome produced a drop in moral standards. Horace states that “the young Roman is no longer devoted to the manly habits of riding and hunting; his skill seems to develop more in the games of chance forbidden by law.” We know of at least three laws forbidding gambling, the most notable being the Lex Talaria, but we don’t know when these laws were passed. We do know, however, that the Roman term for gambling was “Alea” and early, when the pretense of morality mattered, “Aleator” was used to describe a despicable person.

Laws or no laws, the Roman people played on because nothing could dent the attraction its people had for games of chance.

From a gender standpoint, women would have been excluded from any gambling activities with men but one can assume the richer ones played in groups like the men did.

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