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Updated on January 10, 2017
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Dice (which, it may be remarked, is the plural of 'die') are playthings peculiarly well adapted for the satisfaction of man's gambling desires; and they have an uninterrupted history of 5,000 years, whether in the hands of Sumerian courtiers, young Athenians of fashion, Roman emperors and their intimates, English servicemen off duty, Americans shooting craps, or children playing boardgames.

Early History

These six-sided cubes, with the sides marked with dots from one to six so arranged that the sum of the numbers on any two opposite sides is always seven, are normally made of wood, bone or ivory, or a modern ivory substitute; but dice are also known in bronze, lead, amber, crystal, terracotta, and various kinds of stone.

Sumerian dice of 3000 B.C. have been found in Mesopotamia. They were also used in dynastic Egypt, and in fact they appear sooner or later in most parts of the ancient world. Exactly how they were played, one cannot tell. Dice nowadays are played as a game on their own, or as an adjunct to other games. In ancient times they may have been used with gaming boards such as have been found in the earliest dynastic graves at Ur, in tombs in Egypt, in Crete at the palace at Knossos at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, or in a Late Bronze Age tomb in Cyprus.

Possibly they developed from knuckle-bones, which continued to be just as popular as dice in the Greek and Roman worlds. The knuckle-bone (astragalos in Greek, talus in Latin) has four faces, each of which has a different look. One face is convex, one concave. The third is nearly flat, the fourth has an irregular, sinuous profile, so that they can be used equally well either marked or unmarked. In dicing with knucklebones, four bones were used (instead of the three dice which are customary), and the best throw was a set of 1, 3, 4 and 6 (2 and 5 are wanting on the bones). This throw the Greeks called 'Aphrodite', while the worst throw of four ones was called 'The Dog'. As well as actual bones, knuckle-bones were imitated in other materials. According to the Greek lexicographer Pollux, another game played with knuckle-bones was specially popular with women; the player threw five bones into the air simultaneously and tried to catch all five on the back of the hand; any that dropped to the ground had to be picked up in the same hand without dislodging the knucklebones already caught.

If the account in literary sources is to be relied on, dice have always figured large in the expenditure of men's spare time, to say nothing of money that may or may not have been spare. Homer tells us how Patroclus as a boy killed his friend, the son of Amphidamas, in a fury over a quarrel at dice, in consequence of which he was sent to be brought up with Achilles; though, according to one ancient theory, dice were only invented at the siege of Troy, when the hero Palamedes taught his compatriot Achaeans to play as they sat by their tents and their ships waiting for something to happen (dice have always belonged to the boredom of war). Herodotus, on the other hand, maintained that dice and other games as well were invented by the Lydians in a time of famine, so that they played games one day and fed the next. Dice were extremely popular in Classical Greece, so much so that dicing terms passed into everyday speech, especially in the phrase 'Triple Six', the most coveted throw of all.

There is a terracotta model gaming board of about 550 B.C. in the Copenhagen Museum on which lay three dice originally, all with the 6 uppermost, to remind us of the words that Aeschylus, in the Agamemnon, puts into the mouth of the Watchman on the palace roof at Mycenae when he sees the beacon fires heralding the return of his master from the Sack of Troy, Til count my master's fortune fallen fair now that my beacon watch has thrown a triple six.'

The Greek comic poets Antiphanes, Euboulus, Alexis and Amphis are all known to have written plays called The Dicers, none of which have survived. On the road between Athens and Eleusis there was a shrine of Athena Skiras which became so associated with dicers who made it, so to say, their private chapel, that the word for a gambling house came to be a 'skirapheton'. A very popular subject with vase painters was one depicting two heroes of the Trojan war, usually Achilles and Ajax, seated ready for the battle, gaming board between them on their knees, intent on the fall of the dice. At least one vase of this kind has the ancient equivalent of subtitles painted on the background - 'A three for Achilles - Ajax has a four'.

Even theological observations were sometimes expressed in gaminghouse idiom, for a fragment of a lost play of Sophocles preserves the sentiment 'The dice of Zeus always fall well.' Perhaps his dice were loaded, as some Greek dice certainly were. This cheat's device, whereby extra weight is concentrated on one side of the cube so that the highest value will almost always fall uppermost, seems to be nearly as old as the game itself.

Fun with Dice

Finds in Italy show that the Etruscans were much given to dice; it was perhaps from them that the Romans inherited an affection for dicing which became so excessive that strenuous and probably unsuccessful efforts were made to control it by law. Dicing, indeed, was made illegal except during the religious festival of the Saturnalia. Dice are often found in Roman tombs, as if the dead would want to shoot craps in the afterlife. Sometimes also dice appear carved on the facade of a tomb, where they are taken as symbols of the uncertainty and vicissitudes of human life. Many Roman emperors took a keen pleasure in the game, some to the extent of setting aside a special dicing room in the Imperial Palace. Even the staid Augustus wrote to a friend on one occasion describing a game in which he had taken part, and mentioned the special names given to the different throws. The scholar-emperor Claudius went so far as to write a treatise on dice, which was pilloried after his death in the Apocolocyntosis - or 'Pumpkinification', a skit on the deification of the dead Emperor. After the Olympians have refused to have him as one of themselves, Claudius is escorted to the underworld where he is tried and convicted for his alleged offences. When a variety of possible punishments has been considered, it is eventually decided that he shall spend eternity playing dice from a dice-box with no bottom, and pass his time grovelling on the ground after the fallen dice. Dice-making was apparently a fairly lucrative occupation, and there exists a tombstone of a certain Lucilius Victorinus whose profession is given as a 'maker of dice for play'.

Dicing did not remain the prerogative of the civilized Mediterranean, but spread into Northwest Europe, where dice are frequently found in Iron Age sites. Tacitus in his account of Germany records that the tribesmen were so addicted to dicing that when they had lost every possession at play, they would finally stake their own liberty; if they lost, they became the slaves of their successful opponents. In Britain, too, dice were well known; bone dice and a bone dice-box have been excavated at the Iron Age lake village at Glastonbury, in Somerset.

Turning eastward, there is reference to dicing in the Indian saga of the Rig Veda, and the game was common enough in ancient India for a 'Superintendent of the Dicing' to have existed in the Vedic period; treatises were also composed on the game, which preserve the pet names given to the throws, and there were public gaming houses for dice. In America before the arrival of Columbus the Aztecs gambled in a game which they called 'patolli', using four kidney-beans instead of dice or knuckle-bones.

In its 5,000 year history there is little sign that the popularity of dice and dicing is abating.


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