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Rome’s casino connection

Crime never pays. In Ancient Rome, if you were caught for the crime of gambling (which was illegal at the time) it didn’t pay to the tune of 4 to 1. That was the typical fine levied by the State for a gambling conviction. So, a bet of 100 denarii, (ancient Roman currency) would result in a fine of 400 denarii, and so on. Think of it as an early expression of the phrase, “The house always wins.” Sure, the punishment wasn’t the worst the Roman State could dish out, (certainly better than being fed to the lions or taking on a gladiator), but it did make gambling a high-stakes affair.

Gambling—a pox on all our houses!

Why the Romans banned gambling in the first place isn’t entirely clear. Historical records allude to the fact that gambling disputes were thought to lead to arguments, riots, and societal breakdown in general. Regardless of the reason behind it, the anti-gambling stance lasted quite a while, from Rome’s Republican era (510 – 27 BC), all the way through to the Imperial period (27 BC – AD 476), almost 1000 years. There was one notable exception, however.

Saturnalia sidebar

As it turns out, gambling was permitted in ancient Rome for one day each year. That day? Saturnalia, a celebration of the god Saturn and a precursor to modern-day Christmas. The celebration of Saturnalia saw societal norms turned on their head. Slaves feasted at the head of the table, public drunkenness was celebrated, and for a few brief moments, gambling was allowed. The rest of the year? No dice!

Gambling chips? Si!

Try as they might, Roman authorities were never able to fully stamp out illegal gambling. That’s thanks to an invention so ingenious, it’s still in use today: gambling chips. Presumably made from clay, since metals at the time were extremely precious, gambling chips made it possible to avoid the strong arm of the law. Given the absence of any denarii or sesterces, all one needed to say if caught, was that they were playing a simple game with no real consequences. Who’s gonna riot over a friendly game of dice? 

The clever tactic not only worked, but it also helped popularize and spread the love of gambling throughout what is now Italy, and beyond. 

As an example, fast forward a few hundred years to 1638. In that year, Italy saw world’s first legal casino established, this time to the north in Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo, near the church of San Moisè. Si! Fast forward another hundred or so years however, and the same facility would be deemed illegal and shut down by the Great Council of Venice in 1774. Nooo! Maybe they weren’t using chips? We shall never know.

Thank a Roman

Regardless, the next time you sit down to a game at your local casino, look at the stacks of chips in front of you, and thank a Roman for all the fun you’re having. Iubentium! (“Cheers!” in Latin.)

While casino chips may have been invented over 2500 years ago, there are still many table games that revolve around their use to this day. To learn how to play them, click here