Gambling throughout history
Gambling today is a highly popular activity. Casinos can be found all over the world, from Las Vegas to Europe and beyond. The games offered at casinos are endless and many even date back to some early civilisations.
Technology has advanced so much that, in some countries, you can even play mobile casino games featuring jaw-dropping graphics or fun new gameplay. It’s incredible to see just how much gambling and its related laws have changed over the years, but where did it all start?
Believe it or not, gambling actually has roots that date back to Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and even China. Read on to find out what gambling was like for these ancient civilisations.
Gambling has been popular with the Greeks since ancient times. In fact, the origin of poker actually dates back to the Minoan civilization over 3,000 years ago. Back then, rolling two sixes was called the “the throw of Aphrodite” and indicated a win.
There have even been references to gambling games in Homer and other ancient texts. According to reports, dice games, heads and tails and any other games based on luck were played by different groups of people. Ancient Greece even had special places where people passionate about gaming could go, thought it was somewhat considered shameful for someone to go.
Though Ancient Greeks often lost their fortunes playing these games, they believed that throwing dice wasn’t just a game of chance, they believed it was controlled by the gods. Despite its popularity, many Ancient Greek authors and philosophers condemned the practice, claiming that gambling had become “a plague” and led the government to introduce measures to reduce the practice.
Even the Greek gods themselves were thought to have dabbled in gambling. In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon drew lots to split the universe between the three of them. Zeus received the sky, Poseidon took control of the sea, and Hades claimed the underworld.
Another tale from Greek mythology involves Poseidon and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strength. The pair competed and wagered over the patronage of Athens, but when Poseidon lost, he punished the people of Athens by refusing to send them water.
In Ancient Greece, checkers was referred to as Tilia and was reportedly played on a chessboard before being developed to a game with 12 pieces on each side. Pottery also depicts Greeks betting on animal fights such as chickens, birds and dogs. In fact, many animals were bred explicitly for fighting and betting games.
Another popular game was called Par Impar which simply involved hiding nuts or stones in your hand while the opponent attempts to guess whether the amount is an odd or even number. Eventually, Ancient Greeks began placing wagers on the outcome and the game grew in popularity from there.
Dice was also a popular game throughout Ancient Greece. Back then, however, Greeks used three cubes made of clay as dice and a famous Greek artefact, painted by Exekias and displayed in the Vatican museum, depicts Achilles and Ajax sitting at a table throwing dice.
Meanwhile, Greek poet and tragedian Sophocles (496-406 BCE) claimed that dice had been invented by a mythological hero named Palamedes during the siege of Troy. While this is the first mention of dice in Greek history, dice were actually found in Ancient Egyptian tombs dating back as far as 6000 BCE.
As mentioned above, four-sided and six-sided dice cubes were some of the first ever found in Egypt. The dice, which were marked with pips, were discovered at several archaeological sites. Ancient Egyptians enjoyed playing board games similar in structure to backgammon and research suggests that Egyptians loved gambling as many tombs were adorned by sculptures depicting gambling scenes.
However, hieroglyphic records suggest several anti-gambling laws were established somewhere between 3,000-4,000 BCE, indicating that many Egyptians may have developed a gambling problem.
An early and popular game from Ancient Egypt is heavily related to religious rituals in which people would throw sticks or pebbles and then count the number to see if the result was even, which meant good, or odd, which meant bad.
New reports claim that Egyptians did this to communicate with the gods. Back then, it was believed that the result of a dice throw could reveal an answer from the celestials for specific questions. People later began to bet on the outcome.
Other evidence suggests that Egyptians played board games with two dice and a board. The game pieces were moved across the board based on the result of the dice throw and a discovery from 2012 revealed that Egyptians had also used a 20-sided dice, though it’s unknown why.
Senet, which translates to “the game of passing”, was a hugely popular game in Ancient Egypt. To this day, historians are unsure about the game’s rules but it’s thought that players moved a set of their pieces along the board according to the dice. It was so popular that ancient paintings depict Queen Nefertari playing Senet.
Meanwhile, archaeologists discovered a reconstruction of the Royal Game of Ur, a board game found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq during the 1920s which made its way to Egypt under the name of Asseb.
Many reports suggest that gambling in Ancient China dates back to the Xia dynasty reign sometime between 1900 and 1600 BCE. Back then, however, games of chance were under strict control. Other reports, however, claim that the earliest indications that gambling started as a form of entertainment dates back to around 2,300 BCE.
One thing historians do agree on is that Ancient China is responsible for inventing card games decorated with human forms. The Ancient Chinese were responsible for inventing paper, which later led to the invention of paper money. Soon after that, people learned how to shuffle paper money, which later became the foundation of shuffling playing cards.
Ancient China have also been credited with the creation of the first ever tile-based games which later became dominos.
A popular game throughout Ancient China was Keno, a game played for more than 2,000 years. According to some reports, Keno was originally named “white pigeon ticket” because results of the games in large cities were sent to outlying villages and hamlets by carrier pigeons.
According to several legends, the invention of Keno helped save an ancient city in the time of war and helped produce the funds required for the Great Wall of China. On top of that, it’s thought that the basis of popular modern games such as blackjack and poker were invented by Ancient China.
Other famous games that were popular in Ancient China include Wei-Qi, Mahjong, Yue Har Hai and domino game Xuan He Pai which, along with Ma Diao Pai (A game invented during the Ming dynasty), became the basis for the modern-day Mahjong game.
While gaming was popular among the Ancient Chinese, many rulers believed that gambling would lead to serious social problems if it became an obsession. Gambling was often associated with secret societies, corruption and drugs, so it’s no surprise that it was once banned. However, gambling was soon legalised after rulers realised how much it contributed to the country.
Just like Ancient Greece, the Romans enjoyed gambling. They worshipped several gods, including Fortuna who was thought to be the goddess of fortune and chance. She later became known as Felictas, meaning good fortune or luck, and was called upon gamblers whenever they made bets or wagers.
Gambling became so popular in Ancient Rome that everyone, including nobles, ordinary citizens and even slaves, became addicted. The practice became so widespread that Emperor Augustus, the first Ancient Roman emperor, imposed laws to ban it. It became forbidden to take part in dice throwing and anyone caught doing so faced jail time or a fine which was usually made up of the money that had been bet.
Strangely enough, laws in the ancient city of Rome didn’t recognise gambling debts or damages as a result of the practice, and the only time it was legal to throw dice was during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a festival held on December 17 in honour of the god Saturn. This was the only time gambling was actually allowed.
Despite the strict laws on gambling, several Ancient Roman emperors allegedly struggled with gambling problems. Despite implementing the strict laws against gambling, Augustus struggled with a gambling addiction. Meanwhile, Emperor Commodus became famous for his bad gambling habits as he reportedly went bankrupt after gambling away the state treasury. This led him to turn his palace into a casino in order to pay back his debts. Emperor Nero also enjoyed gambling and, according to reports, loved placing huge bets on a single role of the dice. Emperor Caligula also liked the practice and couldn’t stop boasting at the gaming table.
The strict laws against gambling led Roman citizens to create the first ever gambling chips so if they were ever caught by guards, they could claim to be playing for the chips rather than real money.
Before the gambling restriction, Roman citizens were allowed to gamble inside their homes and at public houses. Women, however, were only allowed to gamble during the Bona Dea festival, an event created for women.
What’s even more interesting is that archaeologists in Pompeii discovered proof of the existence of a loaded dice which fell as desired, proving that some Romans cheated when playing gambling games. Archaeologists also discovered graffiti in Pompeii advertising food and gambling at an ancient tavern, suggesting that the gambling ban hadn’t been strongly enforced.
Gambling seems to have a long history with India according to several reports. Gambling was first written about in the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem that tells the story of divine Prince Rama’s journey to rescue wife Sita from the demon king Ravana.
The ancient text is thought to date back to 7,300 BCE and describes gambling with dice as well as gaming boards, which many today believe to be a game of chess. The text also described how Ancient Indian people used the nuts of the Vibhitaka trees as dice due to their five flat sides.
Gambling is said to have been passed on through generations in India and, along with an interest in dice games, the Indian people enjoyed animal related sports betting involving cock or ram fighting.
A game that was popular during that time was Passa. The game involved two four-sided dice which both have the numbers one, three, four and six written on them. Players would throw the dice repeatedly until they land on a double, winning the game.
A double four or six was called Jeetae and a double one or three was called Hare. Shortly before the game begins, the two opponents would wager on the outcome of the game, either Jeetae or Hare.
Gambling was also popular during the Americas as the Mayans and Aztecs loved to gamble. According to historians, the Aztecs worshipped Macuilxochitl, the god of gambling, feasts, music and dance. Legends state that Macuilxochitl, who was also sometimes known as Xochipilli, would bring doom on anyone that insulted gambling or cheated during games.
A popular game the Aztecs loved to play was Patolli, a board game played by both common people and the nobles. The name comes from the word for small red beans which were used to play the game. Patolli saw players move their pieces on and off the cross-shaped board based on the throws of the beans or stones.
According to reports, Aztecs made sacrifices to the “dice” in the hope that their gods, in particular Macuilxochitl, would bring them victory. Aztecs also enjoyed betting on games and it was a central part of Patolli. Players would bet precious metals, stones, plants or even themselves on the outcome of the game.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Native Americans had built ancient casinos inside caves. In 2015, archaeologists discovered what appeared to be a casino built into a cave in Utah, potentially making it the first casino established on US territory.
Reports suggest the ancient casino dates back to the 13th century and researchers revealed they had found around 10,000 objects in connection to gambling, including carved sticks. It’s thought that the Native American gamblers would throw the sticks and guess whether they landed face-up or face-down.
Later research suggested that the main users of the sticks were actually women who used the game as a way of assigning tasks. Meanwhile, Native American men would place bets on the outcomes of the stick throwing.