The ancient Romans had a complex relationship with gambling, involving both disapproval and widespread participation. Archaeological findings and written sources reveal that the preferred form of ancient Roman gambling was dice games. Roman dice possessed unique shapes due to the inherent asymmetry of the materials used and the Romans’ belief in divine intervention influencing random outcomes. Romans were also known for employing various cheating methods, including the use of loaded dice, which enabled players to manipulate the outcomes.
The Popularity and Prevalence of Ancient Roman Gambling
Six-sided playing dice, featuring numbers one to six marked on each side — the same kind we still use today — have been in use for over 4,000 years. They have been discovered at sites in Egypt, India, and Persia, but it appears that nowhere in the past were they as prevalent as in ancient Rome. Dice made of wood or bone have been unearthed at Roman sites across the former empire. Archaeological findings and written sources reveal that the Romans utilized them for both board games and gambling, which was a widespread indulgence among Roman citizens.
Gambling in Ancient Rome occupied a curious place in society. It was both disapproved of and enthusiastically embraced by the people. Undeniably, gambling held significant popularity among the ancient Romans. The act of gambling often took place in inns and taverns, which served as common venues for such activities. Archaeological findings from Pompeii have revealed depictions of dice, game pieces, symbols of wealth and good fortune, and terms commonly used in Roman dice games (Faris, 2012). These artifacts shed light on the prevalence of gambling in the Roman world.
Despite its widespread practice, some Romans strongly disapproved of gambling. Even in the face of their fellow Romans’ apparent addiction to it, figures like Cicero condemned gambling and those who partook in it. Educated and upper-class Roman writers of the late-republican and imperial periods largely viewed gambling as a wasteful pastime, and at its worst, a ruinous vice capable of tarnishing an individual’s reputation and social standing.
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Despite the prevailing view that aristocrats generally frowned upon gambling, there were notable exceptions within the ranks of the senators and Roman elite, who indulged in high-stakes gambling. However, for the majority of aristocratic elites, excessive gambling or public engagement in such activities was considered a potential source of legal and political corruption. The majority of aristocratic elites associated dice games with the lower classes, and they often connected them to hustlers and petty criminals.
It is worth noting that not all forms of gambling were illegal or disapproved of in Rome. Betting on sporting events, for instance, was an acceptable practice. However, the situation differed entirely when it came to dicing, which formed the core of a thriving industry within the Roman Empire. Backrooms of inns and taverns were frequently dedicated to gambling, which is evident from the numerous inscribed gaming boards and mosaics discovered in Rome, Pompeii, and various Italian and North African towns. Private homes or rented premises could also function as small-scale casino operations, providing spaces where money could be both won and lost.
The Curious Asymmetry of Roman Dice
Roman dice possess a curious feature that distinguishes them from other dice: their striking asymmetry. This distinctive characteristic has captured the interest of a pair of scholars from the University of California, Davis and Drew University. Close examination of these dice has unveiled a remarkable fact — an astounding 90% of the dice discovered so far display (at least) are slightly flattened in shape. In fact, some of these dice deviate so significantly from the ideal cube that they more closely resemble parallelepipeds. This intriguing observation also holds practical implications, as the dice are more likely to land on their wider sides rather than the narrow ones when rolled.
How can we explain this intriguing phenomenon? The researchers find the simple explanation that the Romans lacked the advanced technology to produce a perfect cube unacceptable. After all, we are talking about a civilization that left us aqueducts and thousands of kilometers of paved roads, among other remarkable achievements. At the same time, they reject the hypothesis that Romans intentionally produced misshapen dice to manipulate the outcomes. Their explanation reveals the interplay between intentional and unintentional elements that influenced the curious shape of Roman dice.
The asymmetrical shape can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the raw materials used, such as bone and antler, were inherently asymmetrical, resulting in objects that were longer across certain axes. While it was possible to grind or shave down the longer sides to create a true cube, this step was largely deemed unnecessary due to the second factor: the Roman view on probability.
Divine Intervention: The Roman Perception of Luck and Probability
In ancient Rome, the concept of probability, as we understand it today, was not prevalent among the average citizen. Instead, they believed that random outcomes were decisions made by gods like Fortuna, the personification of luck. From their perspective, if any of the numbers shown on the dice were equally influenced by the will of the gods, then each outcome would be considered equally likely. The shape of the dice, therefore, was not seen as the determining factor for the outcome; rather it was divine intervention.
As a result, the asymmetry of the dice did not hinder their overall function. Rolling dice served purposes beyond mere games; it was a means of communication or engagement with the gods. For instance, people would roll dice to seek guidance or gain insights into the outcome of future events. Moreover, players often believed that gods favoring them would influence the dice rolls to grant them victory or fortune.
This Roman worldview allowed for a wide variety of dice shapes, as the concept of “fate” rather than “probability” dictated the outcomes. While we can now estimate probabilities statistically when analyzing a large number of dice rolls, individual throws remain unpredictable. This partly explains the continued popularity of gambling casinos today, despite the long-term odds being stacked against the individual player. For the Romans, producing an even probability of rolls across the numbers one through six, which is typically the main purpose of dice in modern gaming, was not the primary concern. Fate rendered each roll unpredictable, and the shape of the dice was not believed to be linked to specific outcomes. Most dice users were unaware of any connection between the frequency of particular numbers and the asymmetry of the dice they used.
Cheating the Gods: Deceptive Practices in Ancient Roman Gambling
However, as old as games of chance are, attempts to manipulate luck to gain an unfair advantage have existed for just as long. Historical evidence shows that even the Romans attempted to deceive the gods in various ways. There have been two well-known methods of cheating that have persisted throughout the centuries.
The first method involves using dice with two identical numbers on opposite sides. This clever trick allows a deceitful player to tilt the odds in their favor. For example, an unsuspecting opponent may not notice that the cheater gets sixes slightly more frequently than any other number, while never rolling ones. However, experienced gamblers quickly catch on to this scheme, making it less effective over time.
The second method employed by more cunning swindlers involved using weighted dice. By filling the dice with lead or other heavy materials, the cheater can ensure that a specific side of the dice carries more weight, resulting in that particular number being displayed more often than any other. Nevertheless, even this method becomes less effective after several games, as cautious gamblers become more observant and wary of such cheating tactics.
While attempts to cheat at games of chance have existed for centuries, both of these cheating methods have their limitations. Skilled and attentive gamblers can eventually detect these dishonest practices, making it increasingly difficult for cheaters to fool their opponents. However, as of recently, we know that there existed a third, much more sophisticated method of cheating that required specially manufactured dice. The presence of such dice demonstrates the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Romans in producing dice and it once again disproves the notion that the majority of dice were crudely made due to a lack of technology.
Ancient Roman Gambling and the Secrets of Mercury-Filled Dice
This particular type of dice came to light by a stroke of luck (or by the will of Fortuna) in 2000 when a group of Belgian schoolchildren embarked on an educational trip to a nearby Roman site. During their visit, a ten-year-old schoolgirl accidentally broke a bone-made dice, causing a mysterious grayish liquid, none other than mercury, to seep out. Although an interesting incident, this anecdote would have been forgotten if not for the efforts of a pair of Belgian archaeologists over twenty years later. They managed to unravel the secrets of this unusual dice. Through their research, they found that mercury dice, although rare, were present in various regions of Gaul and Germania during ancient times.
According to the authors, these dice served a similar purpose to the lead dice mentioned earlier, yet with one important difference. The mercury dice offered greater flexibility, enabling gamblers to enhance their odds of achieving any desired number. The trick was remarkably subtle, as the player merely needed to discreetly tilt the die to a specific side just before rolling it. For instance, when aiming for the number six, they would skillfully tip the die so that the mercury gracefully flowed toward the side displaying one. The liquid nature of mercury enabled them to reuse the same die for subsequent throws, adjusting it to show different numbers depending on their needs. This method of cheating was nearly impossible to detect which is another significant advantage over lead-filled dice.
What is particularly remarkable about these dice is the incredible precision required in their craftsmanship. The dice had to be carefully drilled and filled with mercury, ensuring they did not become noticeably heavier. The hole would then be closed using the same material. This entire process demanded the skills of experienced goldsmiths, along with precise instruments and hard-to-obtain materials. As a result, scientists conclude that each dice must have been worth a small fortune. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that most of these dice were discovered in former locations of Roman villas, where the wealthiest citizens resided.
If these findings are accurate, they reveal something else about the Romans: some of them likely gambled very large sums of money. Those willing to invest significant amounts in such an item would have done so only if they expected it to yield an even greater return. It appears that some Romans long ago managed to fulfill the alchemists’ dreams and discovered a way to turn mercury into gold. Fortuna may have favored the bold, but it is even more likely that she favored the rich.
Eerkens, Jelmer W., de Voogt, Alex (2022). Why are Roman-period dice asymmetrical? An experimental and quantitative approach. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 14(134).
Faris, Suzanne B. (2012). Changing Public Policy and the Evolution of Roman Civil and Criminal Law on Gambling. UNLV Gaming Law Journal 3(2). 199–219