Gods and Gambling in Ancient Greece
When you talk about gambling usually your mind goes to casinos, baccarat, roulette, lottery, dice etc. But have you ever thought about when or how gambling first originated? The fact is that some forms of gambling have existed in virtually the same form for thousands of years.
Gambling with the Greeks
Gambling has been of interest to the Greeks since ancient times and it seems that we haven’t forgotten the bad habits of the past. Who would think that the origin of poker goes back to the Minoan civilization , more than 3,500 years ago? Nowadays, we consider that throwing a double six in a dice game is lucky, and this too has its ancient origins. Thousands of years ago, rolling two sixes was called the ‘throw of Aphrodite’ and would indicate victory in a game.
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Greek bronze miniature die from Volimos, 7th-6th c. BC (Dan Diffendale / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
From references in Homer and other ancient texts we can find out that gambling games have been used widely in ancient Greece. Dice games, heads and tails, and other games based on ‘luck’ have always been played by different groups. Special places even existed where people passionate about gambling would go to play. However, like the casinos of today, those places carried a bad reputation and it was considered shameful for someone to go there.
People would lose fortunes in gambling, exactly in the same way that we do today. However in ancient Greece gamblers had the support of a couple of gods - Hermes and Pan. Even the gods were said to have played a game or two. In Greek mythology, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon played ‘throw the dice’ in order to split the Universe between them.
Most ancient Greek authors and philosophers condemned gambling and they mention that at some point gambling became like a plague resulting in government measure to reduce those activities. Obviously whenever gambling exists, cheating goes hand in hand, and that was the case in ancient times too.
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Gambling Games of chance and skill
Checkers is a game that was called ‘tilia’ in ancient Greece and in the Roman era it was called the game of the 12 lines. Scenes on pottery show that betting on animal fights (including chickens, birds and dogs) was also active and animals would be bred for that reason.
Heads and tails was also popular and was played with a shell and later on during the roman period with a coin, as it is today. Dice was a popular ancient Greek game where they used three cubes made of clay and later on the game continued in the Roman Era but the number of dice was reduced to two, and in this forms it continues today.
Men playing dice in Rome shown on a Pompeii fresco. (Public Domain)
In ancient Rome, gambling was practiced amongst slaves and masters and for a period of time it was popular even amongst the Emperors. In ancient China, Egypt and Islam, gambling was also popular. We can also find references in the Jewish Talmud and Buddhism. In all cases at some point it was regulated and severe punishment would come upon the gamblers. The ‘casting of lots’ was a popular gambling practice in ancient Rome and there are even references in biblical texts that Roman guards cast the lots for the garment of Jesus during the Crucifixion. Gambling was used to settle disputes or reveal ‘gods’ answers to questions.
In China we have the game of keno, which is played with cards with numbers from 1 to 80 in squares. You were allowed to circle a set of number and then a lottery would take place (like in the lotto today) to identify the ‘lucky’ numbers. The origin of this game goes back to 2,000 years ago and the original game was called ‘white pigeon ticket’. The game would be allowed to be played in gambling houses with the permission of the province governor, who would receive a percentage of the profits. Another game of chance was invented by the Chinese in 2,300 BC using tiles and by 900 AD the Chinese had invented card games decorated with human forms, which later expanded throughout Europe by the Mamalukes (Islam followers) who used shapes, and later on the Europeans adjusted the cards to show the Kings and Queens that we see in card decks today.
Incredibly, dice objects have been found going back 40,000 years and cave drawings of games provide further evidence that games and gambling have been around for a very long time. It seems that gambling is very much in our nature.
Top image: Evidence of ancient gambling is shown on this 540BC ceramic illustrating Achilles and Ajax playing dice . Source: Nick Thompson / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
By John Black
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Luck Games in Ancient Greece (GR), Arxaia-ellinika blog . No longer available online.
The Popularity Of Gambling in Ancient Cultures, The History of Gambling.com. Available at: https://www.thehistoryofgambling.com/. Accessed 29 March 2022.