The Ancient Ages of Gambling

Gambling is a hugely popular activity and has been so for as long as the old tales can retell. It is one of mankind’s oldest activities and evidence of the art has been found across the globe throughout the ages. Gambling is as old as history itself.

One of the first mentions of gambling was in Ancient Roman and Greek history. Everyone, from the upper elite to the peasants and slaves enjoyed gambling and while it was illegal at the time, many still regularly practised it.

The Romans worshipped many gods, and among them, the goddess named Fortuna was considered to be the ruler of fortune and chance. Several temples were erected throughout the Velabrum and the Roman Forum in her glory and she became known as Felictas, meaning “good fortune” or “good luck”. She became a symbol of wealth and prosperity in the Roman Empire, and was called upon by gamblers when wagering and making bets.

The Greeks, much like their Egyptian predecessors, also believed that the act of gambling had been born from the Gods. According to Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades cast lots to win parts of the Universe. After the final wager had taken place, Zeus won the Heaves, Poseidon the sea and Hades, who got the short straw, won over the Underworld. Many mentions have been made in history as to the gods betting over the power of mere mortals.

There is also a famous story regarding Poseidon, the sea God and earth shaker and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strength. They wagered and contended for the city of Athens and after losing, Poseidon punished the people by not sending any water to the mortals.

The Roll of the Dice

Various artefacts throughout history have also been found that give evidence to the ancient art of gambling, one of them being the dice. The Greek poet and tragedian, Sophocles (496 – 406 BC) claimed that the dice was invented by a mythological hero, Palamedes during the siege of Troy. While this is the first mention of the dice in Greek history, dice have been found in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 6000 BCE.

In the ancient age, the throwing of dice was not just considered to be a game of luck and chance, but was believed to be controlled by the gods. The casting of dice was a way of choosing rulers, making predictions and betting on circumstances. Games later developed which became pleasurable forms of gambling and grew in popularity through to the middle ages and right through to the present day.

One of the most popular games was called Par Impar and was in actual fact a simple form of odds or evens. The game was simple and involved hiding nuts or stones in one’s hand, while the opponent had to guess whether is contained an odd or even number. This lent itself to placing small wagers and the game eventually grew to many variations and forms. There is a famous Greek pot on display in the Vatican Museum, which was painted by the famous vase painter, Exekias. It depicts Achilles and Ajax hunching over a table clad in armour, throwing the dice in a wager over the board.

It was forbidden to take part in dice throwing gambles, and the penalty for the perpetrator was either time in jail or a fine which was usually a multiple of the money being bet. The law didn’t recognize gambling debts or damages to property as a result of gambling and the only time when it was legally ok to throw the dice, was during the carnival feast known as Saturnalia when such games were allowed.

Ancient Emperors

Many emperors in Ancient Rome and Greece were also recorded as having gambling problems. Emperor Augustus was a tireless gambler and even admits to having suffered from heavy gambling losses. Emperor Nero was also a great lover for all types of sporting and gaming activities, and Emperor Commodus was famous for his bad gambling habits. He went bankrupt when he plundered the state treasury, and decided to turn his palace into a casino to make back his money on debts.

Gambling and the need to wager for a potential winning outcomes is a part of human nature and people have reared it and embraced it, throughout the ages in history.

Jessica Cheng
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