Understanding gambling in ancient Greece and Rome

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In ancient Greece and Rome, gambling was a prevalent and multifaceted aspect of daily life, permeating various social, economic, and cultural spheres. Both civilizations had a penchant for games of chance, and the practice of gambling was deeply ingrained in their societies.

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In ancient Greece, gambling was not only a form of entertainment but also held religious significance. The Greeks engaged in various games of chance during festivals and religious ceremonies, believing that the outcome could be influenced by divine forces. Dice games, such as “astragaloi,” were particularly popular. These six-sided dice were often made from bones or precious materials, and the outcomes were associated with different gods and their symbols.

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The remnants of these bones have recently been discovered by archeologists in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park located in the Judean Foothills—also known as the Shephelah—in Israel

The Greeks also enjoyed playing board games like “petteia,” an early form of chess, where strategic skill combined with luck played a role. Additionally, betting on athletic competitions, such as the Olympics, was common. The Greeks believed that placing bets on athletes could invoke good fortune and enhance the spirit of competition.

Moving on to ancient Rome, gambling continued to thrive, and various forms of games emerged. Dice games were immensely popular, with “tesserae” being six-sided dice, similar to those used in Greece. Romans engaged in games like “knucklebones,” where players tossed small animal bones, attempting to land them in specific patterns or sequences. Betting on these games was widespread, and people from all social classes participated.

The Roman elite also had a penchant for wagering significant sums on various contests, including chariot races and gladiator battles. Gambling dens, known as “tabernae aleatoriae,” were established throughout the empire, offering a space for individuals to indulge in games of chance. These establishments were not only places for gambling but also hubs for socializing, fostering a sense of community among participants.

However, as gambling became more pervasive, concerns about its social implications began to surface. Philosophers like Seneca and Plato expressed reservations about the addictive nature of gambling and its potential impact on individuals and society. Despite these concerns, the practice endured, reflecting the complex relationship between chance, entertainment, and religious beliefs in the ancient world.

In conclusion, gambling played a significant role in both ancient Greek and Roman societies, manifesting in various forms and contexts. Whether as a religious ritual, a form of entertainment, or a social activity, games of chance permeated the fabric of these civilizations, leaving a lasting imprint on their cultural legacy.

Feature image credit: Israel Antiquities Authority