The founding of the city of Rome by the legendary Romulus in 753 b.c. offered a fine assembly point for the extension of Etruscan influences-amoung them the Etruscans’ feverish love of gambling.  They brought with them the cubic die; the of the lottery as a free-for-all prize distribution to assist any celebration the seduction of children into gambling by means of a game people played with nutshells; and coin tossing.  (The Greeks had tossing game called night-and-day, which they played with a flat shell that was black on one side and white on the other.  The Roman version was called ship-and-head, because the coin had the prow of a galley on one side and the head of Janus on the other.)backgammon

While embracing the pleasures of gambling, the Romans at the same time denounced it in law.  The noun aleator (gamester) was a pejorative one, and its utterance was taken as an insult; and the laws forbidding gambling promised little but loss.

since the winners couldn’t legally claim their winning, but losers could recover their losses.  Case law, however, was very different from state law.  By the time a few emperors had come and gone, gambling was an established feature of Roman social life.  It was legal during the December feast of Saturnalia, and was encouraged by the example of such rulers as Augustus, Domitian, heliogabalus, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

The 14th century Persian miniature depicting a chess game played between a Hindu envoy and a Persian noble in the court of the 10th century Persian King Khusrau I (center).  Chess was played in Persia as early as fifth century b.c.

The Department of Archaeology in the University of Rome has on exhibition many an excavated fragment testifying to the Roman love of chance.  These include a sign from the doorway of a tavern in a praetorian camp, telling the customers that food and gaming tables were always available; some loaded dice from beneath the lava of Pompeii; a triptych depicting two men in a tavern playing backgammon, quarreling over the game, and being thrown into the street by the landlord; gaming tables engraved with the 36 squares of a form of checkers (or draughts); and slabs of paving stones and columns that have had gaming scores and bets scratched on them by itinerant aleators pausing for a quick throw of the dice.

One game the ancient Romans (or the ancient Greeks, for that matter) didn’t know about was chess.  And no one seems to know very certainly about its origin.  A Sanskrit manuscript dating from 800 b.c. mentions four-handed chaturanga-  which means, literally, “four parts” in which the moves of elephants, horses, chariopts, and men are decided by throws of dice.  But the closest forerunner of chess as we know it was a game called shah-mat, played in Persia in the fifth century b.c.

In modern deauville version of chess –which is at least a thousand years old and has 169, 518, 829, 100, 544, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 possible ways of playing the 10 opening moves-the only time the element of chance takes over is in the casting of a lot to decide who will play white and thereby gain the advantage of opening.  All else is mathematics, logic, and psychology.  But like every other event of which the outcome is uncertain, stakes can be laid on the result and frequently have been – not least by such colorfulgamblers as Ivan the Terrible of Russia, who on his deathbed in 1584 played Boris Godunow at chess for the entire contents of his treasury.

But the history of chess doesn’t really beling to my story.  Most of the major developments in gambling (as distinct from just games) appeared in the thousands of years before the birth of Christ.  Games of skill that included some element of chance (wei-ch’i and its derivatives), games of pure chance that simulated contests of skill (dice and its variants) or speed (backgammon and similar games)- all those had been evolved.  Lotteries-also unequivocal appeals to chance- had made their appearance in simple forms.

Everything to come would be an elaboration of the basic themes.  Card games, which would have to wait more than a millennium to appear more or less in their present form, and contests that combine both chance and skill.  Roulette and similar forms of gambling are, like lotteries, entirely games of chance.

It could hardily be suggested that Rome declined and fell because of the Romans’ weakness for gambling.  The weakness was there, all right, and was recognized by the stern rectitude of the law; but there were other contributory causes of the fall-notably, the amorality of the emperors and the continual invasive prodding into Italy by the Goths and Teutons.
These same Goths and Teutons undoubtedly failed to make their European conquests wider and more complete because so many of them gambled themselves into slavery.  In a.d.250 one of their patrols fought and defeated a Roman patrol but couldn’t resist risking a reversal of the battle on the toss of a coin.  The Romans won, and the Goths allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.  A Roman soldier who fought the Huns in Batavia (the ancient name for the Netherlands) reports: “They are quick to anger, but easily appeased with game of dice or a stake upon a race of chariots.  Not one of them, as in Italy is so often the case, was ever known to cut off his thumbs to avoid the service of Mars; but they have tumbled themselves into our very prison camps for the sake of the wily Fortuna.”


At about the same (between the first and fifth centuries a.d.), sailors form Phoenicia and Arabia were being flung by monsoons toward the eastern seaboard of Africa, probably onto the islands of Zanzibar and Kilwa Kisiwani.  Both Phoenicians and Arabs record that they found the natives playing “a game of stones of uneven shape, which are moved about a number of marked depressions in the sand toward a ‘castle’ in the middle, which represents the prize put up by the challenging player.” (This sounds very much like a pre-cursor of mbao, which was mentioned in Chapter 1.)

About a.d. 1000 the Nordic explorer Leif Ericson took an expedition to the coast of Labrador and tried to establish a colony in Nova Scotia.  But he and his compatriots were driven out by natives and forced to return home to Green-land, taking with them the idea of a crude poker game they has found the American Indians playing.  There is no record of what precisely this game was, but it seems unlikely that it was very different from the game that had become well known in Greenland by the time the first Christian bishop established his see there in 1126.  The bishop reports with some dismay that “in Estribygd the men use holy time to play at the game Leif Ericson brought from this travels, and would God he had not.  For it is of evil chance.  They spin a stick upon an  axis, and to the man it points at when it rests go all the coins that each have contributed.”

Other primitive societies sometimes gambled for greater stakes than money.  Human sacrifices were often chosen by lot.  And a criminal who had been condemned to death might be allowed to gamble, if not for his life, at least for the nature or time of his execution.  In some South American Indian tribes, for instance, the fated man was allowed to “choose” the day of his own death by shooting an arrow at a palisade of trees the trees being marked with a series of dates on the sides he couldn’t see.  And aboriginal societies in Central Africa, Malaya, the West Indies, and Polynesia all had- and for that matter still have various methods of trial by ordeal in which chance (as we should interpret it) plays a big part in deciding the guilt of the accused.

In one Congo tribe, for instance, a wife accused of adultery must plunge her hands into one of a series of bowls, and her guilt is proved if she chooses of water.  It seems a little hard that an innocent woman might by chance lose both her reputation and the skin off her hands.  But all trials by ordeal are in essence a shrugging off of the guilt felt by the accusers; and what better to shrug it onto but the intangible persona of chance?

At the time of the Roman conquest of Britain by Claudius in a.d.43, there were no trials by ordeal, but both Cymbeline and Boadicea (tribal rulers of Britain) are mentioned in the annals of Roman history as practiced dice players.  Presumably dice had been brought in by the earlier Celtic invaders.  And a much later historian, Ordenicus Vitalis, gloomily says in his 11th –century chronicle (if  I may paraphrase him slightly for 20th century readers): “Since the beginning, the spread of Christianity has been hampered by the devilish practices of the bishops in encouraging gaming among the clergy.”

By this time, with Britain invaded in turn by Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen, and Normans (all the heaviest gamblers of Europe), gambling must have got a strenuous grip on the precious little spare time the populace had.  In 1190 those crusading kings Richard of England and Philip of France found it necessary to have a low drawn up settling just who could and who could not gamble, and for how much.  The two kings naturally exempted themselves from knights, could play games for money.  And they were limited in their stakes to 20 shillings in any consecutive 24 hours.  If they staked more, they had to forfeit punishment they were stripped naked and whipped.

In many primitive societies a suspected criminal’s fate depends on chance in a trial by ordeal.  Left, a witch doctor of the Digo tribe in Kenya applies a white-hot piece of metal to a suspect’s hand.  Presumably the metal caused a burn, providing the man guilty.