History 1: Roman dice games


The Romans loved gambling, although at times there were laws against it. So grand was the Roman love of gambling that the poet Horace (65-8 BC) was worried that young Romans preferred the forbidden roll of dice over better habits. He complained that they did not even know how to hold their seat on a horse and that they were afraid of hunting. (Hor. Ode., III. 24)

In the dialogue you just read, set before Pugio Bruti begins, Terentia's father is caught up in gambling, a game of dice to be precise. This was the most common type of gambling in Rome, dice, and there were two types of Roman dice - the tessera and the talus.

Tali, or knucklebones, to the left and tesserae to the right. From the Museum of Delos.

The tessera, was six-sided and looks just like the die we use today.

The talus, was a knucklebone of a sheep or a goat. The Romans sometimes made the talus out of metal, marble, ivory, wood, gems etc, but the most common one was just a knucklebone. The talus had two rounded ends and 4 sides with different values; one side was called canis and was valued at 1; the opposite side was called senio with a value of 6; the two other sides had a value of 3 and 4 and were called ternio and quaternio respectively. The sides could be engraved with symbols, ornated or be kept bare.

In a game with tesserae you used 2 or 3 tesserae (often 3), in a game with tali, 4 tali were used.

The simplest game was throwing the highest number. But there were of course more complicated games.

The act of throwing dice might seem straightforward, however, the Romans put the tesserae or the tali in a dicebox to be shaken before they threw them onto the table. These have different names, fritillus, pyrgus, orca or turricula. Many times they looked like a sort of cup or a small tower.

Gambling itself took place in taverns, in gambling houses, brothels, and on the street. But, as mentioned, gambling was not always allowed.

The laws against gambling lead to the use of tokens or chips, which are commonly used in today’s casinos, seeing that this was a loophole in the law. When using tokens, you were no longer playing for money — you were playing for tokens and thus not breaking the law.

Tokens, or chips, to the right, a talus at the top, and the three remaining objects are tesserae. Museo de Albacete.

Some Romans just didn’t care about the regulations, even if they got caught time and again.

During the feast of Saturnalia however, every kind of game of chance was allowed!

The regulations against gambling didn’t stop the emperors of Rome, who enjoyed a game of dice as much as anyone (if not more in some cases):

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Emperor Claudius (reign 41-54 AD) had his carriage equipped with a game board so that he could gamble when travelling. He was so devoted to his gambling that he even wrote a book about games. This book has unfortunately been lost to us and we only know about it thanks to Suetonius. (Suet. Caes. Cl. 33)

Caligula (reign 37-41 AD) on the other hand, was known for cheating. He is also supposed to have opened a brothel in his palace. (Suet., Caes. Cal. 41)

Emperor Commodus (reign 177-192 AD) is reported to have pretended that he was planning a trip to Africa so that he could get funds for the journey. Instead, he spent all this money on banquets and gambling. (Hist. Aug., Commodus, 9)

Augustus (reign 27 BC-19 AD) even lost 20.000 sestertii in one night, that is about 20–30 times a soldier's yearly wage. (Suet., Caes. Aug., 71) You’ll learn more about this further on in this course when you get to listen to the actual passage from Suetonius.

Dice players. Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii.

About Alea.

You probably know about Julius Caesar’s alleged exclaim ”Iacta alea est” as he was about to cross the Rubicon. (You can read more about this in one of our articles on Latinitium.com which you'll find here.)

The word alea is usually used to describe games of chance in general, and not exclusively to a die or even a game of dice.

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