Why Are Dice Important To The Ancient Romans

Although a dice may seem like a simple game element and a recreational tool, it actually has a rich history that is deeply tied to key cultures and events. Ancient Rome is no exception, as dice were an integral part of everyday life – including politics, religion and gambling. Even today, there are stories and references to ancient Roman dice games played in the old Roman Empire.

The first mention of dice is from the time of Venetian Emperors. They are featured in ancient texts, sculptures, artifacts and on coins. Biased and cheating dice have also been found from that period, indicating that gambling and dice-playing took place. During the Roman era, dice often referred to as tali, were commonly made from bone, wood, ivory and clay.

Since games of chance typically involve wagers for money or property, it is understandable why the Romans used dice to symbolize the stakes of playing. In addition, the Romans were also skilled mathematicians which made them very adept in understanding the probabilities and strategies of dice play.

Dice were used in courts of law to determine verdicts, and also to decide who should serve as a witness. Dice had a prominent role in religion as well. In fact, Roman Goddess Fortuna had a temple devoted to dice games, and coins were thrown as offerings there. Dice games were also used to activate and worship the Greek Gods. This was a way to appease the Gods, as the Romans believed that their goodwill was non-negotiable and any sort of good fortune depended upon their approval.

The ancient Roman Emperor, Augustus, favored throwing dice. He often did so to pass the time and also set up a gambling establishment at his palace in Rome. It was also documented that he often gambled in excess, bringing gambling and dice to a new level of critical notoriety during that time.

This type of pleasure was also extended to the common people of Rome, as dice games and gambling houses were often set up in public areas for entertainment. Romans believed that besides the pleasure and excitement of gambling, the practice also brought together people of different social classes in a single place.

Dice were also used to raise money for public works projects and public festivals. In fact, Emperor Nero once organized a dice tournament in order to earn money to restore a ruined temple to Jupiter.

Due to their popularity, the burning issue at the time was how to control people’s passion and their willingness to perform gambling activities, as it tended to be a drain on the public’s resources. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that dice-play was an integral part of Roman entertainment and by extension, Roman culture.

The Popularity of Negative Dice

What makes dice so attractive to the ancient Romans? For one thing, negative dice games were far more popular than positive dice games. Negative games included betting on losing outcomes (more bad luck than good luck) and were extremely popular. This was because the negative games would generally pay out more than the positive ones (where one loses and the other wins). Negativity aside, the Romans also found that the randomness of throwing dice added an element of excitement and suspense, something that was certainly lacking in their day-to-day lives.

The most popular negative dice games included astragalomania and alea. Astragalomania involved throwing three dice and then wagering on the outcome. Alea involved wagering on the combination of the three dice thrown. Both games could be played with two or more players. The stakes could involve money, property, or even slaves in some cases.

Many Romans developed a deep-rooted addiction to the games. Emperor Augustus, known as one of the great gambling addicts, reportedly once wagered a slave during a game of alea; that slave was later freed. Emperors and commoners alike, descended into the world of gambling and succumbed to its notion of reward, pleasure and entertainment.

Dice and Roman Politics

Dice were also used in politics as a way of reaching resolutions. When there was an argument between two officials, they would often resolve the matter by rolling a die, with the winner being declared based on the outcome of the roll. Unsurprisingly, this could cause great frustration to the loser. This is why the Roman Senate legislated that any official who lost three or more times in a row to a die roll should be removed from his post. But the opportunity for resolution remained for those in need of immediate answers to their disputes.

Dice were also commonly used to ascertain the will of the Gods, as Roman culture was heavily based on superstition and religious rites. Dice-rolling rituals were often used as a way of determining outcomes. For example, in a Caesar’s court, a die would be cast to decide the fate of a soldier or prisoner. Even the royal family would often use the toss of a die in times of difficult decision-making. This is a testament to the importance of the game of dice throughout Roman culture and society.

Enduring Legacy

The enduring popularity of dice in Rome is a testament to its importance in the culture. Conveniently portable, dice were a staple at home, in public and were often used as a fun way to determine the fate of a political matter, or a religious ritual. This enduring legacy of dice is evident in today’s gaming in multiple forms, as well as in legal settings, and other aspects of modern life.

It is clear that dice have an important place in ancient Roman history and mythology. Games of chance have captivated countless generations of people throughout history and have become a way to bring people together. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, one thing is certain: the game of chance still holds its reign in society today.

Cheating and Biased Dice

The Romans seems to have been no strangers to cheating in gambling, as there is evidence of dice being manipulated and loaded. This often involved loading a die with a heavier material such as lead. It is not difficult to imagine why more primitive forms such as loaded dice would be encountered in such ancient times, as there was little to no regulation or oversight. Nevertheless, the evolution of dice to more balanced and fair forms has undoubtedly contributed to the continuity of its popularity and its place in Roman culture.

In addition, biased dice were also found in the same period. This was an extension of the notion of cheating to maximize the likelihood of a favorable outcome in a game of chance. This is an important sign that people were very conscious of the outcomes of their games and sought to employ any means possible to increase the probability of success.

Gambling Tax

The Roman Empire also implemented gambling taxes in order to control and regulate the proliferation of gambling establishments and to raise funds for public works. Emperor Nero, who was notorious for his gambling addiction, also charged exorbitant taxes that often confirmed the perception of gambling being for the rich. However, the taxes were still imposed because gambling was generally considered a major source of growth and funds for the nation during that time.

Implicitly understood and accepted by the public, these taxes were accepted as practical means of raising funds for public works and public projects. Aside from taxation, the Romans also implemented legislation that prohibited minors, women, and slaves from gambling, as well as restrictions on the amount of money that could be wagered, and where gambling could take place.

Romans and Mathematics

The ancient Romans are credited with creating a sophisticated system of mathematics and this was reflected in the games of chance as well. Understanding the probabilities of games of chance such as dice play was crucial for the Romans in mastering their gameplay. This led to the development of various strategies to maximize the likelihood of success. Games such as alea, for example, could be calculated to the point of an almost certain win. This mathematical prowess was often the key advantage that the Romans had over their opponents.

The Romans also used their mathematical prowess to figure out the odds of success in any given situation. This was an important tool at their disposal and one that was often employed in both gambling and politics. It allowed them to evaluate the risks and rewards of any given decision and use it to their advantage. This aptitude for mathematics also likely contributed to the development of more complex and intriguing games of chance in later centuries.


Dice have been an important part of Roman culture since the times of the Roman Empire. Used in the courts of law, religion, gambling, and even politics, dice have occupied critical roles in their society. With their sophisticated system of math, the Romans were able to use dice to their advantage in various situations. Today, ancient Roman dice-play lives on as a timeless reminder of the important role of dice in the history of the Roman Empire.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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