Gambling seems to have existed in one form or another for literally thousands of years. Today when we think of gambling our minds usually go to sports bets or casino games, but these evolved from much older customs. There is even mention of drawing lots in the Bible which, all religious debate aside, is an important record of beliefs and practices in the ancient world.
Like so many themes in human culture, gambling existed in many different parts of the world, in many different ways, but with remarkable similarities. It’s a fascinating subject, and will show you the proud heritage you are continuing when you play your favourite games at online and offline casinos.
Gambling seems to go back to before the Bible and the other cultures we’ll mention here. Cave paintings depicting the games have been found, as have dice objects that are at least 40,000 years old including bone.
Games of chance seem to be part of human DNA, and were originally probably used to determine what should happen or what the gods wanted; Baccarat is actually thought to have originated from a game of dice that a virgin would play to determine her future. By the heyday of Ancient Greece, the intertwined relationship of luck, money, good fortune and shame that has characterised so much of modern gambling was already in place.
The Ancient Greeks were just as interested in gambling as the modern Greeks are today. Poker can actually be traced back more than 3,500 years, to the Minoan civilisation, and throwing dice was a common practice too. Landing a double 6 on a pair of dice is still considered lucky today, and the Greeks started this by naming it the “throw of Aphrodite” and using it to indicate that the game had been won.
References to gambling can be found in several ancient texts such as those of Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These show that dice and other luck-based games like heads and tails were widely played. Dice was the commonest game, first with 3 dice and then with 2 in the Roman era, but betting scenes on pottery have also been discovered, and it is known that animals were bred specifically for that reason.
There were even dedicated places where those passionate about the games could gather to play. And just as some casinos have bad reputations today, it was considered shameful to visit these old establishments. People lost their fortunes, just as often happens nowadays. Gamblers in Ancient Greece believed in luck as much as today’s players too, and they were in the company of some serious gods; it was believed that Hades, Zeus and Poseidon threw the dice when deciding how to divide the universe between the 3 of them.
Gambling was practiced among masters and slaves in Ancient Rome, and some historians believe that soldiers played an early form of Roulette to help pass the time. If this was the case the infantrymen probably picked the game up from another culture during their conquests, as they adopted Grecian gods and aspects of many other civilisations that they came to govern.
Gambling continued to be used to reveal the answers or wishes of the gods, or to settle disputes, in Roman times. Centuries later the first casino, as the world understands the word’s modern meaning, was built in Italy. The word originally meant a smaller building, or summerhouse, that would stand on the property of the main casa and be used for pleasurable activities. As these became more public, use of the word “casino” spread too.
Shared in Every Culture
As mentioned above, gambling traditions have been found in almost all ancient civilisations, and the uneasy truce between disreputable activity, gentleman’s game, governmental fundraiser (especially lotteries) and communication tool for the fates and the gods exists in all of them too. This is clearly seen in the stories and legends that abound; not only were Zeus, Poseidon and Hades held to be partial to a game of dice, but King Olaf of Sweden is also said to have settled a land dispute with the king of Norway like this, around the 10th century AD.
Games of luck involving throwing stones were seen in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Islam, and there are references in Buddhism and the Talmud too. In Ancient China, Keno was developed by General Heung Leung to fund the battles his army constantly had to fight. It was so successful that there was enough money left over to build the Great Wall of China!
Just as humans exchange ideas, knowledge and language, so they have exchanged gambling games; many were taken to America by immigrants, pioneers or slaves. Card games decorated with human forms also developed in China, and later took Europe by storm. Our story has always been intimately linked to and reflected in gambling practices, from the origins of the games to the puritanical banning that came later to their wide popularity right now.