The Earliest Forms of Gambling in Ancient Greece

Ancient Gambling

You’d be forgiven for thinking gambling is something that came to existence just recently. Love it or hate it, gambling remains one of the most popular forms of entertainment across the globe. But did you know that gambling has been around since time immemorial? You don’t have to delve deep into human history to find clear evidence of fully-fledged ancient gambling activities.

Take, for instance, Augustus, the self-acclaimed first Roman Emperor; he was a known avid gambler who suffered numerous gambling losses in his time. In fact, some historical texts seem to suggest that at some point he was at the verge of becoming a gambling addict. Even before Augustus time, gambling was rife in Ancient Egyptian society, so much so that perennial gamblers were punished through forced labor. Let’s not forget that today’s casino favorite card game of Keno dates back to Ancient China, over 2,000 years ago.

In the Americas, archaeologists recently discovered that Native Americans practiced ancient gambling in caves up to around the 13th century. It’s also believed that Minoan civilization is responsible for introducing the much-loved casino game of poker. The list goes on and on, but one place in history has shown clear evidence of widespread ancient gambling activities: Ancient Greece. According to Britannica, gambling in its rudimentary form was of particular interest to ancient Greek.

The bigger question is, what were the earliest forms of gambling in Ancient Greece? That’s why we have put together this explainer article to walk you through fascinating details about the earliest forms of ancient gambling in this interesting era in human history.

Ancient Gambling and the Greek Gods

From ancient texts, especially in reference to Homer, we can discover that games of “luck” had been widely embraced in Ancient Greece. Head & tails, dice throws, and other games dependent on “luck” were enjoyed and played by a diversity of groups in this time and era. What’s more, dedicated hubs and places where Greek and their visitors would go to gamble seem to exist at the time.

Of course, like today’s places of gambling (read: casinos), ancient Greece gambling hubs received a bad rap. In fact, several scholars, leaders, thinkers, and philosophers rebuked those who practiced gambling. But all was not gloom and doom for gamblers in ancient Greece. It so happens that a few of their gods had their back, namely Hades, Zeus, and Poseidon.

According to Greek mythology, the three gods had a game of dice and straw in a bid to split the Universe amongst themselves. When the dice were thrown, and straws were drawn, Hades snapped up the “Underworld”; Poseidon won the “seas”, and Zeus got the “Heaves.”

That’s not all there’s to gambling among ancient Greek gods. According to another Greek mythology, Athena (the Greek goddess of strength and wisdom) and Poseidon (the god of the seas) wagered a high-stake bet over the patronage of Athens, then the city-state. For some reason, Poseidon lost the bet, and ended up cursing Athens not to ever have enough water!

The Early Gambling Games of Ancient Greece

There are a handful of forms of gambling games that were popular among the ancient Greek, and still widely played today. In Ancient Greece, these games of “luck” were enjoyed by not just the upper echelons and the noble, but also the slaves, peasants, and outcasts. Mind you note that most forms of ancient gambling were prohibited, and in fact punishable by the ruling regimes at the time.

(1) Dice Games – the Cornerstone of Ancient Greek Gambling

The game of dice is as old as gambling itself. The introduction of Dice gambling took Ancient Greece by storm, finding its way into idyllic markets and “gambling” places. Interestingly, there were two forms of Dice games that were widely played in Ancient Greece. The first type of Dice was more or less a board game, and the other one was just played using only dices. In fact, the Ancient Greek typically played the game using 3 or 4 dices, which were shaken in a “special” cup before being thrown (does this ring a bell?)

From archaeological evidence, it shows that Ancient Greece dice were carved from bone, ivory, antler, crystal, and stone. What’s even more interesting is that the cubical dice that’s quite popular today wasn’t the only shape used by the ancient Greek. They also used several other polyhedral dices.

In ancient Greece, any form of dice throwing was taken to have much to do with luck rather than chance. In fact, most ancient Greeks believed that the outcome of each dice throw was controlled by their gods. As such, they threw dices not only to wager but also to predict circumstance and make “informed” guesses. Either way, dice throwing was ancient gambling at its best.

(2) Heads & Tails

Heads & Tails was yet another incredibly popular early form of gambling that took root in Ancient Greece. In the beginning, the gamblers used a shell before switching to coins when they became popularly used for trade.

(3) Checkers

When it comes to ancient gambling, the greek had their own variant of checkers that dates as far back as 1600 BCE. As a matter of fact, checkers was the first board game used for wagering bets by ancient Greek. Then known as tilia, checkers was much akin to today’s simple chess board but later evolved into a 12-piece-aside gambling game.

(4) Betting on Odd Things and Animals

The Greek might have taken gambling of the ancient times a little too far. Historical records show scenes of gambling were people seemed to have wagered on chicken, bird, and dog fights. (Is this where Michael Vick got his sinister idea?)

Wrapping up, it’s worth noting that ancient Greek gambling games evolved over time, and some unfavorite ones might have fallen through historical cracks. Even still, we tip our hats off to ancient Greeks for the gift of dice, checkers, and heads & tail.

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