Gambling Games at Saturnalia

Knucklebones or Astragalī

On the left is a detail from Peter Brueghel's 1560 painting of Children at Play.  On the right is a photograph of a 3rd century BC Roman sculpture.  In both pictures these girls are playing the same game Astragali or Knucklebones.

This game is a forerunner of many "dice" games and the game younger girls play today which is known as Jacks. The game has many counterparts throughout the Middle East and Asia.

Some historians indicate that the game may have had its origins in some religious rite, while others believe the game was always just a gambling game.

The game was "old" by the time it was played in Ancient Rome, since it had been played in Greece and other parts of the ancient world before it found its way to Rome.

How The Game Is Played

"Knucklebones" are the dried ankle bones of sheep. They have 4 different sides - one flat, one concave, one convex, and one sinuous side. Values were assigned to each side. The game is played with two or more bones. One player tosses the bones in the air and either catches them on the back of the hand, or lets them fall to the ground. As in dice games, assigned values determine the outcome of each toss. In ancient times, adults as well as children played "Knucklebones".

The Greeks and the Romans modified the equipment and play of this gambling game, and eventually passed on to us six sided dice cubes rather than the four sided Astragali.

Left: Roman Statue of a girl playing knucklebones (1st Cent. BC)
Above: Sheep ankle bones used in Astragali.

There were two methods of playing in ancient times. The first, and probably the primitive method, consisted in tossing up and catching the bones on the back of the hand, very much as the game is played today. There is a painting excavated from Pompeii, currently housed in the Museum of Naples, which depicts the goddesses Latona, Niobe, Phoebe, Aglaia and Hileaera, with the last two being engaged in playing a game of knucklebones. According to an epigram of Asclepiodotus, astragali were given as prizes to schoolchildren, and we are reminded of Plutarch's anecdote of the youthful Alcibiades, who, when a teamster threatened to drive over some of his knucklebones that had fallen into the wagon ruts, boldly threw himself in front of the advancing team. This simple form of the game was generally only played by women and children, and was called penta litha or five-stones. There were several varieties of this game besides the usual toss and catch; one being called tropa, or hole-game, the object of which was to toss the bones into a hole in the earth. Another was the simple game of odd or even.

The second, probably derivative, form of the game was one of pure chance, the stones being thrown upon a table, either from the hand or from a cup, and the values of the sides upon which they fell were counted. The shape of the pastern bones used for astragaloi as well as for the tali of the Romans, with whom knucklebones was also popular, determined the manner of counting.

The pastern bone of a sheep, goat, or calf has two rounded ends upon which it cannot stand and two broad and two narrow sides, one of each pair being concave and one convex. The convex narrow side, called chios or "the dog", was counted as 1, the convex broad side as 3, the concave broad side as 4, and the concave narrow side as 6.

Four astragali were used and 35 different scores were possible in a single throw. Many of these throws received distinctive names such as: Aphrodite, Midas, Solon, and Alexander. Among the Romans, some of the names were: Venus, King, and Vulture. The highest throw in Greece counted 40, and was called the Euripides. It was probably a combination throw, since more than four sixes could not be thrown at a single time. The lowest throw, both in Greece and Rome, was the Dog.

Dice or Tesserae

Today we’ll be taking a look at Roman dice and dice games, or Tesserae.
We must always keep in mind that the early Christians lived in a world dominated by Roman culture. Paraphrasing the old maxim, one could say, “When in the Roman Empire do as the Romans do.” And, in matters other than faith, that’s most likely what they did. 

In Biblical terms, the rolling of the dice is known as casting lots. It’s a rather popular term, appearing in Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, 1 Samuel, 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, 2 Esdras, all four of the Passion narratives, and, finally, in Acts where the Apostles must choose a replacement for Judas. The Biblical view of dice is probably best expressed in Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.”

A Shaker Cup and a Pair of Dice

In addition to using dice to settle disputes or distribute goods impartially, they were also used for entertainment and gambling. One popular game was Tali. Like the familiar dice game Yahtzee, the count of the dice was scored like poker hands. No special board was needed. If you didn’t have dice, you used animal bones. A round consists of each player throwing and the winner of that round was the one with the best hand. Multiple hands could be added for a total score to determine the winner. A Venus was the highest hand and consisted of a one, three, four, and six. A Senio was a six with any combination of other numbers. Vultures were all the same numbers and the worst score you could get Dogs, was all ones.

Like the dice we use today, opposite sides of the ancient Roman dice always added up to seven.  (In case it’s been a while since you played Monopoly, the opposite sides of our dice are one and six, three and four, and two and five.) Dice were shaken in a cup then tossed, as croupiers do today. Bets were placed in much the same manner as they are today. 

Dice games were played in taverns as well as gambling houses, brothels and on the street. The emperor Commodus, who was especially fond of gambling with dice, turned the Imperial Palace into a brothel and gambling house to raise money for the treasury when he bankrupted the Empire. 

Gambling with dice was forbidden in the streets of Rome and Roman soldiers often fined the gamblers or made them move inside. Under Roman law, games of chance played for money were forbidden with the penalty being a fine of four times the value of the stakes. This led to the invention of another Los Vegas staple, gambling chips. Now the gamblers weren’t playing for money; they were playing for chips. That the chips were marked with specific symbols indicating their value didn’t seem to bother the authorities.

These chips, called roundels, have been found throughout the Roman Empire. They were made by turning and grinding sections of bone on a lathe, and then slicing it into discs. They carried numerical markings on one side, most commonly X, V and I. Many of the chips marked with an X have an extra vertical line through the middle, symbolizing a denarius. Chips have also been found labeled remittam libenter —I will gladly repay— the Roman equivalent of an I.O.U. Presumably, the repayment would have been made to or from the tavern or gambling club, much the same as is done with gambling tokens in Las Vegas today. 

In a final aside, the Romans flipped coins just as we do. Coin tossing was known as capita aut navia, which means heads or ships. Early Roman coins always had a portrait of the Emperor on the face and ship on the tail side. Recall the words of Jesus when asked about the legality of paying taxes in Matthew 22:19-21.“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”“Caesar’s,” they replied.Then he said to them, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”