Gambling Habits Of Ancient Romans

Many seem to think that gambling is a modern invention. And, in the case of some specific casino games, and casino game regulations, this is indeed true. But, it just so happens that gambling, in one form or another, has been with humans since long before casinos were even a vague concept. There is evidence that our distant ancient ancestors were playing gambling games with dice made of animal bones. I mean, back when a day at the office was still going out and clubbing an animal to death for dinner.

And if that doesn’t already blow your mind, wait until you hear about some of the gambling games participated in by ancient Romans

Those Wacky Ancient Romans

When I think of ancient Romans, I instantly think of Asterix comics. If you’re not aware of Asterix comics, or haven’t read any, shame on you, go read a few right now, I’ll be waiting.

Done? Good. Now that you’ve read a few you already know that Asterix comics were absolutely brilliant. The humour is smart, each comic has a satisfying story arch, and you’re basically guaranteed to see a few ancient Romans get the snot beaten out of them. Dare I say; “paf.” (If you disobeyed and did not read a few Asterix comics, paf is the common sound effect used to indicate a Roman has taken a fist to the face.)

What’s most interesting about Asterix comics to me, however, is how bizarrely historically accurate they are. That’s not to say that the Gauls really went around bashing Romans into orbit with their bare hands, of course, but that the daily habits of ancient Romans are very accurately represented. In many Asterix comics the Roman soldiers can be seen participating in games of dice, which happened to be the most popular form of gambling at the time. It was, in fact, very common for idle soldiers to play dice to pass the time, in much the same way we do today.

There are displays of ancient Roman dice at many museums, which were generally made of clay, and in varying sizes. Astonishingly, you will notice that the pips on each dice face are arranged exactly as with modern dice. It’s mind blowing to think that the standard dice design has survived over so many centuries.


Another common Roman gambling game was called Knucklebones. Although sounding morbid, and indeed using the knucklebones of sheep, the game is far more recognisable than might be thought. The aim of the game was simple; throw one bone up in the air, grab up bones off the table with the same hand, and catch the thrown bone again before it lands. Anyone who has played the modern game of Jacks will instantly recognise the rules.

In terms of betting, wagers were placed on how many bones a person could pick up before dropping the bone.

Gladiator Arenas

But, of course, we can’t talk about ancient Romans without talking about the favourite, family friendly sport that the era is most well known for; gladiator fighting. There is just nothing more satisfying than seeing two men wail upon one another in a huge arena, and keep wailing until one or the other is incapable of moving. Betting on gladiator fights was a common practice back in the days of old Rome.

Really, though, the thing that often bothers me is just how much the people in the back rows could see. Given how big the Coliseum is, I’d sure be annoyed seeing each event like it was being fought between mini GI Joe action figures. How cheated would you feel if not even being able to be hit in the face by stray droplets of blood? Rip off.

Seriously though, having done a fair amount of research, I’ve come to realise that fights of this nature were not as brutal as has often been made out in movies. Which is not to say they weren’t brutal, they certainly were, but dying in the gladiator arenas was not as common as might be thought. In fact, gladiator fights often went on until one of the two fighters gave up, and raised a hand for mercy. And, should that fighter have put on a good show, mercy was almost always granted. After all, fighters were valuable commodities, and killing them left and right would have been bad for business.

Gladiator Betting

As would be expected, gladiator betting was done in the most logical fashion. Bet makers simply put down wagers on which fighter they thought would win. The only real difference between this sort of betting and, say, modern MMA betting, is that there were few gladiators with long, illustrious careers. Most were retired after only a few fights due to injuries (or they died), and many others won their freedom. This meant that it was difficult to gauge how well fighters would do, and placing bets was largely a guessing game.

Either way, when they threw the lions into the arena, most punters probably bet on the lions. Those were executions though, and not gladiator fights, but my point remains the same.

Marc Armstrong - Signature

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