By Victor Matheson, Eastern Economic Journal
Gambling in the Ancient World
Gambling likely predates recorded history. The casting of lots (from which we get the modern term “lottery”) is mentioned both in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, most famously when Roman soldiers cast lots for the clothes of Jesus during his crucifixion. In Greek mythology, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus divided the heavens, the seas, and the underworld through a game of chance.
Organized sports also have a long history. The Ancient Olympic Games date back to 776 BCE and persisted until 394 AD. The Circus Maximum in Rome, the home of horse and chariot racing events as well as gladiatorial contests for over one thousand years, was originally constructed around 500 BCE, and the Colosseum in Rome began hosting sporting events including gladiator fights in 80 AD. Variations of the ball game Pitz were played in Mesoamerica for nearly 3000 years beginning as early as 1400 BCE (Matheson 2019).
Given the prevalence of both sporting contests and gambling across many ancient civilizations, it is natural to conclude that the combined activity of sports gambling also has a long history. And, indeed it is widely reported that gambling was a popular activity at the Olympics and other ancient Panhellenic events in Greece and at the racing and fighting contests in ancient Rome. Problems associated with gambling were also widely reported. As early as 388 BCE, the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly was known to have paid opponents to throw fights in the Olympics. Rampant gambling in Rome led Caesar Augustus (c. BCE 20) to limit the activity to only a week-long festival called “Saturnalia” celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, while Emperor Commodus (AD 192) turned the royal palace into a casino and bankrupted the Roman Empire along the way (Matheson et al. 2018).
Just as in the modern day, gambling was often looked down upon by societal leaders in antiquity. Horace (Ode III., 24; 23 BCE) wrote, “The young Roman is no longer devoted to the manly habits of riding and hunting; his skills seem to develop more in the games of chances forbidden by law.” Juvenal (Satire I, 87; 101 AD), well-known for coining the term “bread and circuses” wrote, “Never has the torrent of vice been to irresistible or the depths of avarice more absorbing, or the passion for gambling more intense. None approach nowadays the gambling table with the purse; they must carry their strongbox. What can we think of these profligates more ready to lose 100,000 than to give a tunic to a slave dying with cold.” (Matheson 2019).
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