Friday, May 4, 2012


A Mosaic of Gamblers Playing Dice

Hello My Friend and Welcome.

God does not play dice with the universe,”- Albert Einstein. “God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen,”- Stephen Hawking. Do we sense a difference of opinion here? 

Today we’ll be taking a look at Roman dice and dice games, or Tesserae. We have already done previous posts on the Roman game of Hounds and Jackals, the chess-like game, Latrunculi and most recently the line game known as Calculi that you may enjoy.  

We must always keep in mind that the early Christians lived in a world dominated by Roman culture. Paraphrasing the old maxim, one could say, “When in the Roman Empire do as the Romans do.” And, in matters other than faith, that’s most likely what they did.  

In Biblical terms, the rolling of the dice is known as casting lots. It’s a rather popular term, appearing in Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, 1 Samuel, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, 2 Esdras, all four of the Passion narratives, and, finally, in Acts where the Apostles must choose a replacement for Judas. The Biblical view of dice is probably best expressed in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.”

A Shaker Cup and a Pair of Dice

In addition to using dice to settle disputes or distribute goods impartially, they were also used for entertainment and gambling. One popular game was Tali. Like the familiar dice game Yahtzee, the count of the dice was scored like poker hands. No special board was needed. If you didn’t have dice, you used animal bones. A round consists of each player throwing and the winner of that round was the one with the best hand. Multiple hands could be added for a total score to determine the winner. A Venus was the highest hand and consisted of a one, three, four, and six. A Senio was a six with any combination of other numbers. Vultures were all the same numbers and the worst score you could get Dogs, was all ones.

Like the dice we use today, opposite sides of the ancient Roman dice always added up to seven.  (In case it’s been a while since you played Monopoly, the opposite sides of our dice are one and six, three and four, and two and five.) Dice were shaken in a cup then tossed, as croupiers do today. Bets were placed in much the same manner as they are today.  

Dice games were played in taverns as well as gambling houses, brothels and on the street. The emperor Commodus, who was especially fond of gambling with dice, turned the Imperial Palace into a brothel and gambling house to raise money for the treasury when he bankrupted the Empire.  

Gambling with dice was forbidden in the streets of Rome and Roman soldiers often fined the gamblers or made them move inside. Under Roman law, games of chance played for money were forbidden with the penalty being a fine of four times the value of the stakes. This led to the invention of another Los Vegas staple, gambling chips. Now the gamblers weren’t playing for money; they were playing for chips. That the chips were marked with specific symbols indicating their value didn’t seem to bother the authorities.

These chips, called roundels, have been found throughout the Roman Empire. They were made by turning and grinding sections of bone on a lathe, and then slicing it into discs. They carried numerical markings on one side, most commonly X, V and I. Many of the chips marked with an X have an extra vertical line through the middle, symbolizing a denarius. Chips have also been found labeled remittam libenter —I will gladly repay— the Roman equivalent of an I.O.U. Presumably, the repayment would have been made to or from the tavern or gambling club, much the same as is done with gambling tokens in Las Vegas today.  

In a final aside, the Romans flipped coins just as we do. Coin tossing was known as capita aut navia, which means heads or tails. Early Roman coins always had a portrait of the Emperor on the face and ship on the tail side. Recall the words of Jesus when asked about the legality of paying taxes in Matthew 22:19-21.
“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

 Next time we’ll return to Foods of the First Century for a study entitled Fish and Fowl.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings

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