If you think of Ancient Rome, you might well think of the likes of Caligula, or of lounging back on a chais lounge, being fed grapes. That is because our idea of the Roman Empire is one based in gratification above all else.
When we think of Roman times in a sporting context, we will picture gladiators and chariot races. Whilst that is mostly thanks to the influence of Hollywood, there is also a degree of truth in the way in which they portrayed the goings on in Rome, if the history books and professors are to be believed, which they are.
The Circus Maximus, which translates to ‘Biggest Circus’, was the host of many events and was reportedly large enough to fit 300,000 people. When chariot races took place there, around 200,000 people turned up to watch. It is more than just a little bit likely that at least some of those people decided to have a flutter or two on the races that were taking place in front of them. It is certainly fair to say that that number of people is indicative of a culture that enjoyed racing as a pastime. The question is, how much did the Romans give us?
Ancient Greece As A Starting Point
When it comes to most of the sports that we enjoy today, there is no question that Ancient Greece takes on the primary responsibility. They original version of the Olympic Games were hosted as far back as 776 BC, existing as athletic competitions that took place between city-states. The Olympics were given a mythological origin on account of the fact that they were held to honour Zeus, with the original Games taking place every four years in much the same way as the modern version of the Olympic Games tends to work out.
Even after Greece came under Roman rule, which was believed to be at some point in the 2nd century BC, the Games continued. Records show that the final version of the ancient Olympic Games took place in AD 393, at a time when Theodosius I was ruling. There is even some evidence to suggest that the Games took place beyond this point, too. In other words, the Ancient Greeks loved sporting achievement so much that they carried it on long after the civilisation had been overtaken by another. It also means that many of the sports were introduced to the Romans by the Greeks.
Making Sport Into Entertainment
The Greeks might have introduced the concept of sports, but it was the Romans who made it into entertainment. They loved watching sporting achievements, but also placing a wager or two on the outcome. Indeed, it seemed as though the Romans would place a bet on anything, up to and including the playing of simple board games. The richest of the Romans were not shy about placing bets worth large sums of money, with the sheer volume of board games and the likes that existed meaning that they had ample opportunity to do so.
The use of sports in Ancient Rome was often done in order to entertain people. Anyone that could afford to would head to the likes of the Circus Maximus or to the coliseum in order to catch a glimpse of their favourite gladiator or chariot racer. In fact, one of the biggest differences between sport in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome was that the Greeks used it for the sanctity of sporting integrity, whilst the Romans pitted the participants against one another for the ultimate prize of all: the right to keep their lives.
There were plenty of basic versions of sports that were played in Rome, but it was the bloody and dangerous ones that gained the most popularity. The likes of wrestling and boxing became well loved, whilst the art of Pankration, which was a Greek sport that mixed boxing and wrestling together, truly hit the prime time. It was this love of the violent that led to the creation of gladiators, who would take part in events in large amphitheatres around Europe. Those in the crowd didn’t just watch and cheer, they also placed bets on the outcome.
For the duration of the Roman Empire, the mixture of drinking and gambling was there for all to participate in. It allowed them to relax and enjoy themselves, even though it led to an earlier demise than is ideal for many of the participants. Games of chance were also popular in Rome, including those that saw pairs of dice thrown from a cup. There is a wall painting that can be seen in Pompeii showing two men sat at a wooden table, playing some sort of dice game. There are inscriptions in the wall, with one exclaiming, “At Nuceria, I won 8,552 denarii by gaming – fair play!”
Betting On Dice Games
Known as Tesserae, a game of chance using die was popular throughout Ancient Rome. Players would wager everything from money to other possessions on the outcome of the game, which would involve throwing dice out of a cup. The player that guessed the outcome correctly won the money. It was a basic game, but is considered by some to be a pre-cursor to the modern casino game of craps. The game tended to be played in gambling houses, but could also be enjoyed in the likes of brothels and taverns.
According to historians, Caligula was a sore loser and would often revert to cheating in order to win back his money. It was said that a big loss for the ruler would result in rich citizens being executed, so that Caligula could continue to bet with their money. Commodus, who came after, reportedly turned the Imperial Palace into a casino in order to be able to re-gain money that he had stolen from the treasury and lost. Soon, a gambling problem broke out throughout Rome, causing Commodus’ successor, Augustus, to restrict the act of gambling to one week a year, known as Saturnalia.
Gladiators & Tabula
Of all of the events that were popular in Ancient Rome, perhaps none caught the imagination quite like gladiator fights. Often, these would involve two men going up against one another in a battle to the death, but sometimes a Battle Royale would also take place. This involved a number of men fighting against one another, with only one of them still being alive at the end. For the watching crowd, this was the perfect sort of event to place bets on, given the fact that there would be a definitive outcome and it would add to the entertainment.
The bad news for those looking to make their fortune was that the underdog rarely came out on top. The better fighters would have won better equipment over the time of their fighting, as well as developing better skills to survive. As a result, they tended to win and the odds offered on them doing so weren’t high. It was also not unheard of for those placing the bets to get involved in a fight or two, especially if one of them felt that the other was trying to cheat them. Those involved in betting were almost as likely as the gladiators to end up dead.
It wasn’t just gladiator fights that people would get into fights over. The game of Tabula, which was similar in nature to backgammon, saw players roll die and attempt to remove markets from the board as quickly as they were able to. Emperor Claudius was reportedly a fan, often playing the game for hours on end. He later wrote a book about the game, which was incredibly popular throughout Ancient Rome. As we know, though, as soon as the Romans began playing a game, they also started placing wagers on the likely outcome.
The Romans Even Gave Us Underage Gambling
It isn’t just the act of gambling on sports that the Romans gave us. In the modern gambling industry, one of the biggest concerns is that of underage gambling. In 2019, it was revealed that two-fifths of those aged between 11 and 16 had gambled within the previous year, with fruit machines being one of the most popular forms of it.
In Ancient Rome, gambling by children wasn’t at all uncommon. A game called ‘Nuts’ was the most common way that they were introduced to the world of games and gambling, with participants literally throwing nuts into a jar or a triangle etched on the floor.
There were other games using nuts, including one that involved piling four on top of one another then throwing a fifth one to knock the column over. The game Rota, meanwhile, was akin to the modern game known as tic-tac-toe. Each player had three pieces each and would try to line three in a row on a board with a wheel drawn onto it. Failing that, kids would play, and bet on, the Roman equivalent of heads or tails. To them it was known as Heads and Ships, on account of the copper coins used in Rome having a ship on the other side.
Betting On Racing
For those heading to Cheltenham for the Festival each year, the link to what they’re doing and Ancient Rome will seem miles apart. In reality, though, it is much more similar than many will realise. Chariot racing in Rome might well have been a lot more brutal than modern day racing, but it was just as entertaining and, crucially, just as likely to be wagered on by the watching crowds. Betting tended to be limited to the most rich and powerful in Rome and the other cities where chariot racing took place, with gentleman’s wagers common.
The Emperor was present at chariot races, bearing some similarity to the way in which members of the Royal Family will often turn up at Ascot. For a time, chariot racing was the height of entertainment in Rome, much as the meeting at Prestbury Park is the key event in the English sporting calendar. People tended to be loyal to their favourite teams that took part in chariot races, with factions often developing between the rival teams and their supporters. Teams would have backing from powerful and wealthy people so that they could win more regularly.
Those that understand the machinations of modern day horse racing, where the richest owners will use the best trainers to give themselves an advantage on the track, will more than understand the link. How much money was put into a chariot team would often be the defining factor in terms of their success. Just as the richest owners can afford the best trainers and entice the best riders when the Cheltenham Festival rolls around, the same was true in Ancient Rome, with many then placing bets on those teams and riders to win.
Indeed, one of the richest ‘jockeys’ in racing history lived in ancient Rome, Gaius Appuleius Diocles.
Is It All Thanks To The Romans, Then?
There is no question that our link to sports can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, but it is likely that it was the Romans that first began to really enjoy placing a bet or two on the outcomes of those sporting events. Despite the fact that restrictions were placed on gambling from time to time, the Romans still loved it as a pastime and will have passed it down the line to the empires that came afterwards. There is, of course, an argument that gambling as an activity is innate and that we would have done it regardless.
Whether that is true or not, it is certainly the case that the Romans were the first to really get involved in gambling in a way that is reminiscent of what people enjoy doing today. In fact, one of the biggest differences is that the games that people bet on in the modern era are fair less likely to result in someone dying, even if we can’t rule it out altogether when it comes to certain sport. The Ancient Romans liked to enjoy themselves in whatever way they could, which is also true of people today. Gambling is just one activity from which both they, and us, got their enjoyment.