Gambling in Ancient Rome

Gambling is as old as history. All ancient peoples had some form of gambling, and the Romans was no exception to this rule. Everyone, from nobles to ordinary citizens down to slaves, liked to gamble and play games in ancient Rome.

To suppress gambling, the Roman government under Emperor Augustus had imposed laws against it. The vice was officially permitted only on Saturnalia, a week-long festival in honor of the god Saturn. Saturnalia was one of the major festivals in ancient Rome, and a predecessor of Christmas. During this period, slaves and masters would switch roles and the former would have the rare pleasure of gambling at the table while the latter served them. The masters, too, would gamble and have fun, of course.

For the rest of the year, gamblers could be fined for indulging in their favorite pastime. However this law was not strictly enforced, for aristocrats including Augustus himself were hooked on gambling. This subjected the emperor to ridicule among critics, but he did not seem to mind. Most of ancient Rome tolerated this vice and at least one writer, the satirist Horace, never attacked the Augustinian court for its gambling propensity.

Later Roman emperors were also given to games of chance. Among these were Commodus (portrayed in the movie “Gladiator”), who used the imperial palace as a casino and whorehouse to finance his bankrupt regime; and Nero, who would bet outrageously high amounts of sestertii (Roman currency) on one roll of the dice. Caligula would have noblemen arrested or killed, and their properties seized, whilst boasting about the fact at the gaming table. And Claudius was so fond of alea (dice) that the playwright Seneca imagined he would be condemned in hell to perpetually cast dice into a bottomless box. Such royal examples could not have resulted in anything less than a whole empire being addicted to gambling.

In ancient Rome, men gambled both in their homes and in public houses. Chips, not unlike what are used today, were employed in place of money. Popular games included board games like Tabula (a type of backgammon), coin toss, and dice-throw or Tesserae. Betting on horse-racing and gladiator bouts were popular too. With gambling, of course, came cheating. Archeologists have found ancient dice that were “loaded” to fall as desired in Pompeii’s ruins.

To be an adept gambler came to be a status symbol in ancient Rome. An expert in “the art of tessarae” was expected to rise in the social ranks higher and faster than one who shied away from gaming.

Like many other pleasures, gambling as a rule was for men only. Roman women would play only during the Bona Dea festival. This was a holiday for ladies only, equivalent to an “all girls’ night-out” of modern times.

Juvenal, a harsh critic of ancient Rome’s decadence, once wrote, “Isn’t it insane to lose 100,000 sestertii in one bet, yet deny clothes to a slave who is dying in the cold?”

In time, just about all Romans had yielded to the allures of gambling. Not only the citizens of Rome, but the people of other Roman provinces were infected with the habit.

So matters stood when Constantine the Great moved the imperial office from Rome to Constantinople. The fall of Rome into vice, corruption and gaming was complete, and she would never regain her old glory.

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