Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Roman gaming and learning not to sweat the small stuff

Almost every day, I try to share a meaningful quote from the ancient sources such as this one from Marcus Aurelius:

Remember that the attention given to everything has its proper value and proportion. For thus thou wilt not be dissatisfied, if thou appliest thyself to smaller matters no further than is fit.  Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Book 4.

While looking for artwork to illustrate it, I stumbled across this picture and was amazed.  Although I've seen Roman dice, knucklebones, and Romans of all ages playing these games of chance, I've never seen one of these gaming "towers" before!

Roman gaming tower image courtesy of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Germany and Wikimedia Commons. I increased the size of the image with AI software.
This dice tower was found in Germania Inferior near the modern villages of Vettweis and Froitzheim, dating back to the fourth century, specifically around the time of Emperor Constantine.  As well as ornately carved pinnacles and dolphins, the tower contains text reading in translation: ‘Victory over the Picts, the enemies have been defeated, play in safety!’ (sort of the Roman version of 'not suitable for small children).

Along the back is the phrase ‘vtere felix vivas’ which can be translated as ‘use this and live with luck/happiness’ or more loosely ‘live happy and play well’. The tower is designed to eliminate the effects of loaded dice and prevent cheating in a gambling environment. According to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, Germany the top of the dice tower is open, allowing for the introduction of dice, and it contains three levels of projecting baffles which would produce random motion in the dice as they fell through the tower. The dice would then emerge at the base of the tower via a miniature flight of steps. The dice, while emerging, would ring three bells which formerly hung above the exit. (One of these bells survived intact).

"You can almost imagine the situation: a bunch of wealthy and influential Romans lose a lot of money in a provincial gambling house and suspect the proprietors of cheating (after all, why would they be more honest than modern casino-owners?). Faced with a scandal, the gambling house decides to invest in a number of elaborate devices to secure their reputation by supposedly eliminating these foul practices." - Alex Shaw,
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