A History of Gambling in Pompeii

Almost 2,000 years ago, the might of Mount Vesuvius unleashed itself on the Ancient Roman world. In a dazzling and devastating display of nature’s power, it erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii forever.

Burying it beneath a layer of ash and rubble, the volcano created a mausoleum for the people who had once lived and worked within its walls. There they lay for over a thousand years, that terrible day in August preserved forever.

In 1784, however, an unsuspecting engineer stumbled across the forgotten city. There, archaeologists found some fascinating insights into the lives lived inside it, from what Ancient Romans ate, to how they enjoyed themselves.

Among the discoveries were a few artefacts that proved particularly interesting for those with an interest in gaming.

Gaming in Ancient Rome

Today, erstwhile gamblers have the freedom to entertain themselves in any way they choose. Whether they want to visit their local casino, or enjoy blackjack online from home, the availability of both land-based and internet providers makes this possible.

Moreover, consumers can game as and when they choose thanks to these sites, and there’s no issue if they would like to gamble publicly. In fact, their rights are even protected by licensing bodies and the strict regulations these impose.

In Pompeii, however, the same freedoms didn’t exist. That’s because gambling was outlawed. Illegal except during the Saturnalia festival, it was associated with immorality, drinking, and violence; in much the same way as alcohol during the Prohibition era.

Much like alcohol 1,800 years later, though, gambling proved impossible to eradicate, with the prohibition on it being widely disregarded by the public, who were immensely fond of gaming. A prime example of this is Pompeii, where numerous gambling artefacts, such as dice, were discovered beneath the rubble.

The treasures of Pompeii

One way we know that gambling was popular in Pompeii is because of a series of frescoes found in several cauponae (the Roman equivalent of modern-day pubs or bars). These show ancient Pompeiians seated around special gambling tables known as tabula lusaria. Made of marble or stone, these were engraved with 36 symbols, and players had to roll three different dice in order to move their pieces.

As well as paintings showing gaming in action, large numbers of dice were recovered, indicating that the activity wasn’t only depicted on walls, but actively enjoyed by the city’s populace. Similar findings have been made at other archaeological sites throughout the Roman world, suggesting these games were widely played and enjoyed.

However, their outcomes weren’t always fair. Unlike modern-day gambling, which is heavily regulated, ancient Pompeiians may have had a penchant for cheating. We know this as some of the dice discovered at the site were weighted in order to give their owner an edge over their rivals.

Indeed, there’s even graffiti alluding to the practice on Pompeii’s walls, with one particular inscription boasting of an especially spectacular win. According to the writer, he won a sum equalling almost four times the annual pay of a legionary soldier, which must have seemed like a vast fortune to this lucky individual.

When it comes to gaming, 21st-century players are not the first to have enjoyed themselves at the tables, nor will they be the last. Rather, gambling is a common theme that runs throughout the history of mankind, and long may it – and the pleasure it brings – continue.

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