How Ancient Civilizations Gambled
Gambling goes back as far as history itself – right to the very dawn of mankind on this planet – after all ancient hunters took the ultimate gamble every time they stalked and tried to kill any of the bigger beasts that roamed the earth at that time. You can’t say that there’s not an element of luck involved when pitting a small band of hunters armed only with sticks, stones and basic spears against a mountain lion or bear. This is probably why most of the meats eaten by our ancient ancestors will have been smaller creatures that could be caught safely in traps.
Ancient Hindu poetry such as Mahabharata and the Gambler’s Lament demonstrate the popularity of gambling in India. The Arthashastra, a 4th Century Indian treatise actually recommends control and taxation of gambling, proof of both the activity’s popularity and economic potential at a really early stage.
Sticks and Stones and Knuckle Bones
Evidence of gambling dates as far back as the Stone Age, when knucklebones were rolled before the Mesopotamians invented the six-sided dice. The oldest dice belonged to a 5000 year old backgammon set and were excavated at the Burnt City site in Iran. Dice were originally crafted from the talus (or knucklebones) of hoofed animals and modern Mongolians still use these for both gaming and fortune telling.
Biblical references to casting lots indicate that playing with dice was common in the reign of King David who certainly took on a massive gamble when he faced Goliath!
The Romans were passionate about gambling and, although forbidden, dice were popular. Gambling was officially allowed during the week long Saturnalia festival just before Christmas when masters and slaves would exchange roles. Professional gamblers were commonplace and there are examples of their loaded dice in museums around the world. The Romans were also fond of board games like tic tac toe and latrunculi which was similar to draughts or chess. They also had a type of backgammon called Duodecim Scripta which combined playing dice with a word game.
Caligula was a regular visitor at the gaming tables – whether as himself or one of the gods he loved to masquerades as more often as his sanity came into question.
The Romans bet on horse racing and gladiator bouts and a trip to the Coliseum was a popular entertainment choice, probably much like a day at the races or going to the dogs is today. Emperor Nero was renowned for his gambling skills but gambling was taken to an extreme when Emperor Commodus plundered the state treasury and then attempted to pay back the monies by turning his palace into a casino!