Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gambling in Ancient Rome

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.

If you’re interested in reading more about women and gambling, check out the following link:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Roman Fighting Techniques

I wrote an article on July 26th 2011 called Roman Battle Tactics Versus the Phalanx, and last week, a reader commented on that post in a very thoughtful and reasoned way. You would not be able to see his comment unless you looked back at the original article, so I decided to post it here. I will have more to add about this subject shortly.

Posted as a comment by M. Teague

Your points are good but they are strategic advantages, not tactical. To continue, the Romans were full-time professional soldiers who carried an enormous variety of tools and gear to allow them to march far, fast, and fight almost anywhere. Barring dense forest and cliffs, on any sort of open ground and not having to deal with cavalry archers the Romans seemed invulnerable. And I wondered for the longest time why.

I knew that the Roman legion was much more flexible and maneuverable than phalanx, could accommodate men in various positions but that still doesn't account for trying to get past a head-on collision with a (very strong) pike formation. But it sort of came to me when a few months ago I learned that the Roman Gladius is actually only a half-decent stabbing weapon. It is relatively fast, but compared to other weaponry (as actually tested against other swords) it is poor in stabbing. But this was how the Romans were taught to fight. Why would the Romans equip their troops with a poor stabbing weapon and tell them to stab with it all the time? There are even curved swords not designed for thrusting that do better against the gladius. The gladius is a fat sword and it can only penetrate up to a specific point.

Then just recently I saw the documentary (view-able on Youtube) Conquest: Roman Weapons. Peter Woodward in conjunction with reenactors made an excellent examination. A longsword is a better all-around weapon but it required room to wield and the techniques are either tiresome and you fare better with a smaller shield. A spear was good for holding off infantry charges but while cheap is useless afterwards in the thick of a fight. A large ax requires both hands, and a smaller ax while a good tool, requires swinging. The gladius is small and allows a lot of quick thrusts. A falcata or heavy sword was great at chopping and cutting but that is not only tiresome, it is slow compared to rapid short thrusts.

But beyond this was a technique for battle I never considered. The Roman legion was a highly offensive force. Contrary to what I believed (a counter-attack force that received the enemy) they push and drive into an enemy with that large scutum shield, preventing enemies from properly mounting their large attack. It as a weapon drove enemies into the ground and pushed them back into enemy lines. Romans were not tight-fitted in fighting formation, but had a little space 3 feet from man-to-man) between each other which never made sense to me until the demonstration as why.

AND THE BIG conclusion was this: the Romans at the front would use their large curved shields to hold off the initial bunching of a spear formation. Lots of people don't realize the scutum uses a horizontal grip, so when your arm is hanging loosely at your side, you're holding the scutum. This means you didn't have to hold up your arm across your chest or stomach to support that large shield; your shoulder did it for you. Two scutum close together curving around you could hold off 10 thrusting spears. The rank interwoven from behind moved forward, while the spears are planted in or busy working the front Romans, allowing the second rearward to step into gaps (remember, 2 scutum Romans are holding off 10 spears) and then use their gladius to hack apart the spears or drive them out of the way. No more phalanx. If the Romans had a dedicated thrusting weapon, this tactic would be impossible.

The Roman legion could fight the phalanx head-on and decimate it. Playing straight into the phalanx preference of fighting and force it into buckling destruction. The phalanx is a tightly packed bunch of men in which, almost irregardless of your weapon (you can pick any one of 100 around the world in any combination) you were destined to loose. The tight formation is used against itself and loses all advantages from the first advance.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This Blog named one of 10 History Blogs to Follow

Recently, The Ancient History Encyclopedia named us one of 10 history blogs to follow. See the following link:


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Inland Navy of the Roman Empire

In modern times, we think of great navies patrolling the oceans of the world. The British Empire, for example, owes the advent of its naval superiority to its victory over the Spanish Armada and the subsequent focus on providing protection for its trading partners and colonies. In Roman times, the naval landscape was principally the Mediterranean Sea, or as the Romans liked to call it, Mare Nostrum.

As I have discussed in other posts, the Romans came late to the game of sea trade and naval power following the successes of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians. They had no navy until the first Punic War (264 B.C.) when it became an important instrument for the capture of Sicily. By the time the empire began, naval power was a critical element of Roman strategy.

A remarkable yet mostly obscure part of the Roman naval story concerns the fleets of the inland frontier. I know of no other case in history where a large scale power deployed a navy for the control of rivers. By accident or design, the northern boundary of the empire would be marked by the great rivers of Europe; the Rhine and the Danube, so a naval force was required to act in support of the army. The Rhine was the western boundary of the empire from the time of Julius Caesar with the Danube following during the time of Augustus, who sought to move the boundary north to avoid attacks emanating from the Alps. Augustus had Drusus and his brother Tiberius push east from the Rhine as far as the Elbe, but following reverses like the Massacre at Teutoburg, Rome retreated to its
old boundary on the Rhine.

With rivers as a physical boundary, Rome needed a naval force to protect it: protect merchant traffic, quickly ferry the army to vulnerable locations, and control any adversarial movement on the waterways. Below is a map of the Rhine and Danube Rivers showing where the Roman fleets were located.

The Iron Gates are a physical landmark in the Lower Danube which divides the river. Its waterfalls and rapids made ship navigation during antiquity problematic, and it was not until 1831 that a successful channel was dug. See the photograph below.

The Roman solution to this Iron Gates problem was to deploy two navies. Classis Moesica on the eastern side and Classis Pannonica on the western side. These fleets were responsible for supporting the volatile Balkan frontier. The upper Danube, running from the Alps through modern Hungary was a more stable boundary which did not require a naval force during the first two centuries AD. A third naval force, the Classis Germanica was based near modern Bonn and was responsible for the Rhine region.

These Roman frontier fleets used a smaller class of ships than those used in the larger bodies of water, principally the Liburna, which was essentially a bireme with two rows of oars, possibly similar to the old Greek pentekontor. The crew was organized as a century like the army but not subdivided into cohorts because there was no tactical movement necessary at sea. A centurion was responsible for training the crew and took orders from a Praefect who acted as an administrator for the navy. These men were of high standing usually members of the equestrian class. The naval administration linked ships and sailors directly to Caesar rather than acting through the army chain of command. This peculiarity was an artifact of the time of Augustus when he placed so much trust in Agrippa as his naval commander and then assumed personal control following the death of his friend.

Actions undertaken by the northern fleets were sporadic and depended on the whether there were pressing threats to the frontier. For example, there were significant actions from 20 B.C. to 10 A.D. under Augustus when he was trying to establish provinces in the Balkans, but peacetime idled the navy from 15-69 A.D. After 85 A.D, the Dacian Wars occupied the fleets of the lower Danube for twenty years. 

There are no real descriptions of the northern fleets in battle, only their support of the efforts of the army. Lack of historical detail and the fact that the indigenous people lacked navies, leads one to believe there few independent actions that one could label noteworthy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Roman Empire and Dacia

The history of Rome and Dacia is another example of friction at the edge of the Empire causing a confrontation with people who refused to be subjugated. It took the Romans nearly twenty years to defeat Dacia once hostilities broke into the open.

With the eastern European frontier the Romans employed, as elsewhere, the same strategy. First, they required that the frontier facilitate traffic flowing between the various parts of the Empire. Second they rejected areas that were difficult to settle. Third they specified that the frontier include lands that could provide food and natural resources for the Romans settled there.

The tribe of Dacians was located north of the Danube River in southeastern Europe in what is today Romania and Moldova. At various times in their history, The Dacians, called Getae by the Greeks, expanded south of the Danube to the edge of the Balkan Mountains in what is now modern Bulgaria. The Dacians had a propensity for centralization which was rare for the peoples of the region and this trait made them a dangerous adversary for any power operating in the vicinity of the Danube.

During the first century AD, before Trajan, the Roman frontier in southeast Europe had its northern boundary at the Danube River stretching from Vienna all the way to the Black Sea. The Danube was fortified along its entire length with large forts, watchtowers, and auxiliary units assigned to reconnaissance, while two naval fleets, the Classis Pannonica and Classis Moesia, patrolled the river itself.

The map above shows the geography of the Balkans area.

Dacian raids against Rome were somewhat controlled under Augustus through reprisal operations. Tiberius tried diplomacy but was unsuccessful, possibly because the Dacians possessed gold and refused to be bought off. Then, during the middle of the first century AD, the Romans used Sarmatian Lazyges as a buffer by having them occupy areas Between the Tisza River and the Danube. The Lazyges, a nomadic people, were willing to take as payback for their territorial commitment Roman help in suppressing internal rebel activity.

In 85/86, during the reign of Domitian, the Dacians came together under the rule of Decebalus and became more belligerent. A Dacian attack on Moesia in 87 led to a Roman pursuit across the Danube and a serious Roman defeat, later avenged by Roman victory at Tapae in 88. Domitian had designs on attacking the Dacian capital at Sarmizegethusa but delays caused by matters needing Roman attention elsewhere resulted in a lost opportunity. By the time Rome turned its attention back to Dacia, the client kingdoms of the Danube had crumbled, making a large scale attack no longer possible. Uncertainty in the region required that Domitian treat with the Dacians, including the offering of a technical aid program, so things remained quiet along the eastern Danube up until the time of Domitian’s assassination in 96 AD.

Trajan attacked Dacia in the 101-2 period, defeated Decebalus, and exacted severe concessions on the losers. Almost immediately, the terms of the treaty were abused and a second war commenced in 105. This time Trajan laid siege to Sarmizegethusa and destroyed it. Decebalus committed suicide to avoid Roman capture.

Trajan made Dacia a Roman province extending its land as a deep wedge north from the Danube, a design intended to separate the local tribes and decrease their ability to organize together. This Dacian wedge survived until 270, when Aurelian abandoned the territory to conserve military resources.