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Gambling in Ancient Rome

Gambling in Ancient Rome

The origin of gambling goes back in time much earlier than you would think. It is obvious from the excavation findings that citizens of ancient Rome liked gambling as much as they did enjoy the gorgeous feasts, sumptuousness and life itself in the heyday of the empire. Regardless of status occupied in the society, people were mad for gambling. Nobles, ordinary citizens, slaves and even emperors themselves were addicted.

After a while the habit became so widespread and the habit of gambling polluted so much that although he was an assiduous gambler himself, Augustus decided to impose laws against it. Gambling was declared to be a vice and since it was impossible to ban it totally, the time when risking assets was legal was reduced to a week-long festival, called Saturnalia. The event was organized in honour of the God Saturn and it was one of the major events in ancient Rome. Within this one week everybody could gamble as much as they wanted and the highlight of the event was that slaves and masters switched roles and the former ones had the rare pleasure of gambling at the same table with the ones they otherwise served. Apart from Saturnalia, engaging in any gambling activity was considered to be illegal and those who were caught were fined. However, anything could happen in the gorgeous Rome and no need to say that aristocrats were not under the scope of the gambling regulation. The law was not enforced if they were involved and Augustus himself was an exception, of course. Critics played hardball on the emperor for this, but he did not seem to care at all and the gambling propensity could not be relegated from the empire.

Nevertheless, it was not only Augustus who could not resist temptation, his successors were also affected. Commodus, for example, turned the imperial palace into a casino and a kip in order to finance his bankrupt regime. Nero the fearful also liked to place huge bets on a single roll of the dice and Caligula could not stop boasting at the gaming table.

Before the gambling restriction, citizens or more precisely men could gamble in their homes and public houses were opened for this reason as well. Women were allowed to play only during the Bona Dea festival, an event just for ladies. Chips were used the same way as they are today and the most popular game was Tabula which can be considered a type of backgammon.

The institution of sports betting was flourishing as well. Horse races and gladiator bouts provided the perfect occasions for that. With gambling, however, cheating usually goes hand in hand. In Pompeii, for example, archeologists have found convincing proof for the existence of loaded dice which fell as desired. In such an environment not only Romans yielded to the allures of gambling, citizens of the provinces became involved as well.

Decline of the habit of gambling started only when the empire itself started to fall due to Constantine the Great’s idea to move the imperial office from Rome to Constantinople. Since then, Rome has been waiting for the gambling industry to flourish as much as it used to.

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