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Aphrodite’s Throw: The Most Famous Gambling Game in Ancient Greece

gambling ancient greece
The “Vatican Amphora,” which depicts ancient Greek warriors Ajax and Achilles playing a board game. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Gambling, one of the most common vices in the world, has a long history that dates all the way back to ancient Greece.

Records of ancient Greeks playing dice and other luck-based games are found throughout ancient literature, and are even included in the works of Homer, who is possibly the most famous ancient Greek poet in history.

Possibly the most common and popular form of gambling in Greece involved various dice games.

As in many ancient cultures, such as Iran, Egypt, and India, the earliest Greek dice were actually made of the bones of animals, called knuckle bones, or “astragaloi” in Greek.

Aphrodite’s Throw gambling game was a favorite pastime in ancient Greece, Rome

The ancient Greeks played knuckle bones, and even assigned numerical values to each of the four sides of the pieces, much like modern dice. Ancient Greeks and Romans also began to form cubic dice out of clay in later antiquity. These strongly resembled contemporary dice.

While the rules of many of these ancient games have been lost to time, scholars are capable of guessing and estimating some rules based on ancient sources.

A well known element of dice games played first in ancient Greece and then in Rome is called “Aphrodite’s throw,” which involves throwing four knuckle bones at once. If all four landed on a different number, it was considered the best result and called “Aphrodite’s throw.”

In the most simple dice game, groups would throw dice and bet on the results, hoping to get the best throws. According to the ancient Roman writer Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus thoroughly enjoyed gambling with knuckle bones.

Apart from gambling, knuckle bones may have also been used for divination in ancient Greece.

Archaeologists have also uncovered carved wooden boards that resemble contemporary board games. These tablets were likely used for some sort of game that may have also included use of knuckle bones.

Gambling and dice throwing is also a favorite pastime of the Olympian gods, as mentioned in a number of myths.

According to various versions of the tale, the brothers Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon played a game of dice in order to decide who would rule over which realm of the universe.

Practice found across the world

Mankind’s impulse to gamble has been recorded around the world throughout history. Remnants of dice-like pieces have been found in nearly every ancient civilization, and rules imposed to regulate the practice have been recorded for millennia.

Nearly all religions have some sort of rules surrounding gambling, from Judaism to Buddhism. In the Bible, the Roman soldiers are described as “casting lots,” likely throwing knuckle bones, to decide who would acquire Jesus’ robes.

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