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Gambling in Ancient Times

When you think of gambling, your mind probably conjures an image of a fabulous casino in Vegas or Monte Carlo. You might even picture some of the snazzy online video slots millions of us enjoy every day. But gambling, believe it or not, is not a modern pastime. Though it may not have always looked as glamourous as it does today, it’s something that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.

Ancient China       

It’s supposed that gambling began way back in ancient China during the Xia Dynasty (which ruled between 2070 BC and 1600 BC) before spreading to other parts of the world.

As well as early types of lottery and bingo-like games such as Keno, historians have found evidence to suggest board games were popular ancient Chinese activities. Liubo (which translates to ‘six sticks’) saw two plucky players race one another around a board using sticks to perform the same function as dice. It flourished right up until the end of the Han Dynasty, when it was replaced with the game of Go.

In Go, players move pieces (called ‘stones’) to try and surround more territory than their opponent. It’s a little more complex than chess, but the rules are fairly simple and, even today, it’s still a widely enjoyed test of luck and strategy.

Ancient Greece

Gambling was also popular in ancient Greece. References to it can be found in the works of Homer (the Greek writer who penned The Iliad and The Odyssey) as well as other literature of the period. The Greeks believed that their gods controlled luck, and there are even tales of how the rulers of Mount Olympus cast lots to divide the universe between them. It’s said that Zeus won the heavens, Poseidon won the sea and Hades drew the short straw, walking away with the underworld.

The ancient Greeks enjoyed betting on Tilia (a game similar to checkers), Heads and Tails (though at first not a coin, but a shell was tossed to determine an outcome) as well as many different dice-rolling games. Ancient artefacts reveal that bets on dog, chicken and bird fights were also common.

But despite being so widely practiced during the period, many ancient Greek philosophers strongly opposed gambling, describing it as a form of plague. In fact, it was so heavily condemned that laws were enforced to control it.  

Ancient Rome

Gambling was the subject of similarly mixed opinions a few hundred years later in ancient Rome. From the poorest slaves to the wealthiest masters, many Romans fell prey to the addictiveness of gambling, including Emperor Caesar Augustus.

The ruler therefore decided to outlaw the practice, branding it a vice. However, the gambling ban was lifted during the week-long festival of Saturnalia (held in honour of the god Saturn) and many continued to engage in risk-taking games despite the threat of being fined. Augustus himself was a frequent violator of the ban.

Amongst some of the most popular kinds of Roman gambling were bets on chariot racing. Although it was a particularly dangerous event, and the cause of many fatalities, chariot racing flourished around 735 BC. The Circus Maximus, one of the largest areas built for the sport, could seat over 200,000 Roman gamblers.

Gambling today

The forms of gambling popular during the ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman civilisations have undoubtedly influenced the way we bet today. However, thanks to dramatic advancements in technology and the passage of time, gambling has evolved phenomenally.

The move online a few decades ago means we can now place bets with just a few taps on our smartphones. Sites like bgo online casino give us access to hundreds of slot, table and bingo games wherever we may be. And as the industry continues to grow, the future only looks to get even more exciting.

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Last Updated 31 May 2018

Gambling in Ancient Times