Playing Dice was very popular game among
the Romans. The Romans called these tesserae, but they
also had a type with only four marked faces called tali.
The only difference between these Roman dice and modern dice
is that the numbers were arranged such that any two opposite
sides would add up to seven. Dice were shaken in a cup then tossed,
as croupiers do today. Bets were placed the same manner as we
place them today. Greeks played with three dice, but Romans played
with two, except for the board game Duodecim
game was played in taverns as well as gambling houses, brothels
and on the street. The emperor Commodus was fond of gambling
with dice, and once turned the Imperial Palace into a brothel
and gambling house to raise money for the treasury he bankrupted.
In this he may have followed a precedent set by the mad emperor
The game of dice could be played with other
pieces, such as knucklebones, or Senet sticks, which would be
tossed in the same way. The Romans, in fact, played a variety
of games of chance for the purpose of gambling. Coin tossing
was known as capita aut navia, which means "heads
or ships," (early Roman coins always had a ship on the tail
side). These games were often played in the streets.
The wall drawing shown below comes from
a tavern in Pompeii. The image was redrawn from Gusman's Pompeii,
the City, its Life and Art. Treatments were provided by the
author. The Latin captions read "Exsi" and ''Non tria
duas est," in the first frame. In the second they appeared
to read "Noxsii amii tria iigo fui," then "Urtii.
Piillatorii hgo tui," and the barkeeper says "Itis
foras rixsatis." Though this Latin seems archaic, it is
charmingly slang-like and was probably all cliches to the Romans.
Below at the left is provided an English
equivalent colloquialized by the author. Bell and others considered
this to represent Duodecim Scripta,
and "exsi" makes sense in this regard. However, how
a two can be rolled with three dice has never been explained
by anyone, but then, one should not underestimate the Roman sense
Gambling became such an obsession for some
Romans, and such a social problem in general, that the government
was forced to restrict it. This was indeed unusual for the Romans,
as they rarely restricted any type of civil or business activity.
The Republic restricted gambling to the week-long festivities
surrounding the Saturnalia (the modern Christmas and New Year's
Under Roman law, games of chance played
for money were forbidden under the penalty of a fine fixed at
four times the value of the stakes. We can imagine how effective
this must have been. It probably caused most gaming tables to
simply be moved indoors to so-called private clubs. Furthermore,
gambling chips would have replaced actual money in the games.
Considerable evidence for this exists in the large number of
marked gambling chips that have been found throughout the Roman
Empire, examples of which are shown here.
These chips, called roundels, are generally
made of bone and carrying numerical markings on one side. The
most common markings are X, V and I, with only a small proportion
marked with other numbers such as II, III, VIII, IX, or other
numbers up to 18. Many of the chips marked with an X have an
extra vertical line through the middle, which symbolizes a denarii,
or a Roman coin. Some of the chips are even labeled remittam
libenter ("I will gladly repay"). This is the Roman
equivalent of an I.O.U. and, 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. These
chips bear a great similarity to those colored roundels that
would have been used for other board games, such as Calculi
and Tabula. This should
not be surprising since they were made by the same process, turning
and grinding sections of bone on a lathe. In fact, many of these
gaming pieces could have served dual purposes.
Betting on horse races and gladiatorial
combat was never restricted and this left the gamers some leeway
in satisfying their gambling habits legally. In the later Empire
it seems enforcement was spotty or neglected altogether, since
even the emperors would gamble. Augustus Caesar regularly played
dice or knucklebones with his family in the Imperial Palace,
giving them handfuls of coins to start with.