Gambling in ancient Rome: a contagious entertainment

ancient gambling rome

While games considered as gambling in ancient Rome were treated as illegal, several important exceptions made them blossom

The wide variety of board, dice and gambling games, in general, in ancient Rome were not unregulated. The Romans, who gave us the highly appreciated “Roman law”, thought on gambling too and found it causing more harm than pleasure. Due to this kind of considerations, as gambling news report, gambling in ancient Rome, was considered to be illegal.

Gambling and the Roman laws

Dice games were for a long time forbidden in Rome and there was a special penalty for those who were involved in games that included wagering. Different sources mainly claim that the height of the penalty usually reached about four times of the bet made. As a result of this prohibition the Roman citizens invented the first gambling chips. In this case even if they were caught by the authorities playing dices they were able to claim that everything is just for fun and no real money bet was made. 

• Gambling in general was banned in ancient Rome’s public life

• The celebration of the Saturnalia was also a celebration of dice games

• Many Roman Emperors were passionate gamblers

Since gambling was rather restricted a winner in a gambling game could not legally claim money and also a loser could not be forced to pay his gambling debts. Everything was left on customs when arranging the gambling transactions.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the restrictions on gambling had numerous exceptions, one of them being the celebration of the Saturnalia. Namely during the Saturnalias, a festival in honor of Saturn, all restrictions on gambling were suspended. Gambling was during the festival allowed in public and according to online gambling sites in Italy, even slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work.

The Roman emperors and their gambling passion

Although there was a prohibition for gambling in public, that didn’t prevent the Roman emperors from developing passionate gambling habits themselves. The Roman historian Suetonius, from the second century, reports that Emperor Claudius was very fond of games, and even wrote a now lost book called “On the art of dice” (De arte aleae). Suetonius writes about Claudius that “he played dice most avidly, on the art of which he also wrote a book.”

The emperor Commodus was fond of gambling games with dice too, and it is reported that he once turned the Imperial Palace into a brothel and gambling house in order to raise money for the treasury he bankrupted. In this however he was not really original. The “mad” Caligula, has converted his imperial palace into a gambling house way before him. Roman scholars report that Caligula was great cheater and a terrible loser. It was frequent that right after a big loss he ordered his guards to execute few rich citizens in order for him to continue to bet with their estates.


Roman dices used in playing board games

Emperor Nero is another in the row of emperors enjoying gambling. However, as online gambling sites in EU note, no sources until today report on the games these leaders of the Roman society loved to play in their luxurious palaces.

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