The Origins of Gambling in Ancient Rome

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a statue of Ancient Rome leader, Julius Caesar, against a black background
BetMGM Jul 04, 2023, 7:59 AM

We have a lot to thank the ancient Romans for. After all, they innovated aquifers, viaducts, straight roads and more — so much of the modern world can be traced back to them, including some of today’s favorite online casino games. 

The ancient Romans had a complex relationship with gambling. Successive emperors decreed that it was prohibited but made it permissible once a year during the December Festival of Saturnalia. On that day, only men were allowed to gamble, although women got a break during the Festival of Bona Dea, celebrating the goddess of fertility and chastity. On this day, they could indulge not only in gambling but in strong wine and blood sacrifice, denied to them at any other time of the year.

Roman emperors, it seems, knew little about self-denial; despite laws banning gambling, they themselves were among the most profligate gamblers. Claudius was such a skilled dice player he wrote a book about it. Commodus bankrupted the treasury by losing the empire’s money gambling in Ancient Rome. Both he and Caligula turned parts of the imperial palace into a casino to indulge their passion. (It makes one wonder what they might have done had online casinos had been around back then.)

In fact, gaming in one form or another was everyone’s pastime in Ancient Rome. Archeologists have discovered early forms of dice, chips and stone tablets on which different board games were played. They’ve also discovered miscellaneous other artifacts which indicate that the Ancient Romans loved to game.

Despite gambling being illegal (and because the Ancient Romans were highly superstitious,) there was even a goddess of gambling named Fortuna. She was much invoked and prayed to by everyone from commoners to senators to bring them good fortune. Today, people have their own beliefs and superstitions that they use when playing online casino real-money games. 

When not fighting, Roman soldiers would while away their time playing a variety of games and in some tavernas, there were special rooms for gambling that were the precursors to the modern casino. Signs have been found in ancient taverns, including “good food and gambling within.” The words “make room for better players” were inscribed on one table. The ruins of Pompei revealed graffiti that read, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating,” which begs the question of how prevalent cheating might have been in Ancient Rome gambling practices.

Early Sports Betting

The Colosseum would have been a place for early bookmakers to ply their trade. Wagers were certainly placed on which of the fighters (whether two gladiators or a gladiator and a lion or even a tiger) might win in a fight to the death, as well as on the outcome of chariot rates. And if you’re in any doubt as to the competitiveness between charioteers and the enthusiasm of the crowds, you only have to watch the famous scene in the 1959 movie “Ben Hur” or Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic “Gladiator” to understand.

Origins of Modern Board and Casino Games

 “Alea” became the general term for gambling in Ancient Rome and is derived from the word’s literal meaning of “bone.” Many dice were fashioned out of bone, as well as wood or stone, but the wealthier Ancient Romans had theirs made from amber or ivory.

Some of the Ancient Romans’ dice and board games were highly complex, but they can still be seen as the early form of many of the games people enjoy today, including backgammon, poker, chess and even tic-tac-toe.

Tali or Poker

The Ancient Roman game of Tali paved the way for today’s poker by using four-sided dice. Each player threw four dice; depending on which of the faces were showing when they fell, a player would win or lose their wager or claim the pot.

Duodecim Scripta or Backgammon

This game is played on tables made from limestone, marble, leather or wood. The tabletop is divided into three horizontal lines with 12 spaces. Players then moved any one or a combination of their 15 pieces around the board according to a throw of the dice. The objective was to move all your pieces from one side of the table to the other in a clockwise direction.

Ludus Latrunculorum or Chess

This game, with counters of different values, was extremely popular with soldiers. The goal was to capture your opponent’s pieces in much the same way as chess today is played.

Terni Lapilli or Tic-Tac-Toe

Played on a board drawn out with a nine-square grid, terni lapilli (or “three pebbles”) was similar to tic-tac-toe, played using stones rather than naughts and crosses.

The phrase “Alea Iacta Est” has famously been attributed to Caesar as he led his army across the Rubicon River into northern Italy. Both its translation, “the die is cast,” as well as “crossing the Rubicon,” are sayings that have become synonymous with “no going back.” In online roulette, you may recognize it as something the croupier calls as he spins the wheel and no more bets may be placed.

And once you’ve had a taste of modern gaming as it’s known today, in all its forms, there’s definitely no going back. With so many casino table games and online gambling options to choose from, you’re spoilt for choice.

Play Online Casino Games at BetMGM

Enjoy the modern versions of Ancient Roman and learn more about how to play them when you register with BetMGM. You can also enjoy live dealer online games, online slots, bingo and sports betting.

Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.