Most prehistoric dice were flat two-sided objects, but the knucklebone with its four sides, probably the oldest of them all, seems to have been the direct ancestor of our present day dotted cubical die. Marked and showing the polish that comes from long use, specimens have been found in American prehistoric Indian mounds. One such specimen, unearthed in Florida was the knucklebone of a fossil llama.
The knucklebone is found among primitive remains throughout the world and is still, according to Culin, “in common use in the Mohammedan East, in southern Europe and Spanish America.” In Arabic, the word for the knucklebones is the same as that for dice.
The Greeks and Romans used the anklebones of a sheep and called them Astragali or Tali.
The Greek word Astragalomancy meaning divination by the astragalus, shows that they were also still being used as fortune telling devices.
In Rome gaming tables have been found engraved or scratched on the marble or stone slabs of the Forum, in the corridors of the Coliseum, on the steps of the temple of Venus and even in the house of the Vestals.
In The History of Gambling in England (London, 1898), John Ashton says, “Gaming tables were especially abundant in barracks, such as those of the seventh battalion of vigiles… and of the police of Ostia and Porto. Sometimes, when camp was moved from place to place, or else from Italy to the frontiers of the empire, the men would not hesitate to carry the heavy tables with their luggage…”
Augustus, Nero and Caligula, who cheated at the game, were passionate dice players.Claudius had dicing tables in his carriages and Seneca describes him as condemned to hell and made to play at dice forever with a bottomless box.Their dice were cast from conical beakers of carved ivory and the dice were sometimes of crystal inlaid with gold.
Professional gamblers were common and although severe laws were enacted forbidding dicing except during the Saturnalia, they were apparently not very strictly enforced. Loaded dice were not uncommon and one misspotted die bearing two fours suggests that the sleight of hand necessary to switch in a die was known and practiced by Roman cheats.
In addition to the anklebone the Greeks and Romans also used the tesserae or cubical six-sided dice, both sometimes being employed in the same game.And “they were thrown from dicing cups which contained crossbars to prevent the cheater from sliding the die out upon the board in a predetermined position.” In Egypt Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie found a very modern appearing six-sided die that was dated at 600 B.C. It was a limestone cube with drilled holes for pips.
The first home of modern dice, however, was probably the Orient. The Korean dice used in the Buddhist game of Promotion bear both a magical formula and directions for the next move, and the game sheet with which it was played bears directions in Sanskrit which suggests India as the origin.
There we find that the custom of fortune-telling with a die is practiced as a science under the name Ramala and the dice used are of a very familiar pattern. They are cubical and marked with the “birds-eye” spots that some of our dice also have. They are strung upon a central axis about which they are spun to determine the magical numbers, reference then being had to the pages of a book of fortunes numbered to correspond [see].
It is also in India that the first written records of dice (loaded ones, no less!) are found in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, in which “Doorjooden, having made a false set of dice, challenged Judishter, the commander of troops he was fighting, to play, which being accepted by him, he, in a short time, lost all his wealth and kingdoms.”
Dicing was a favorite pastime of the Middle Ages and both dicing schools and guilds existed. One of the earliest references in English is that in which Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143) reports that “clergymen and bishops are fond of dice-playing.”
Dice have even played a role in the destiny of nations. King Olaf of Norway, and his contemporary, King Olaf of Sweden, met at Konungahella in Norway in A.D. 1020 to decide the ownership of the isolated district of Hising. They agreed to throw two dice for its possession. The Swedish king threw two sixes, and smiled and said it was hardly worth the Norwegian’s while to make a throw. King Olaf of Norway replied, while shaking the dice in his hands, ‘Although these be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God to let them turn up again in my favour!’ Then he threw and had sixes also. The Swedish king re-threw, and again had two sixes. On the Norwegian king’s second throw, one die showed a six but the other split in two and there were seven pips showing. Norway gained the district and it is reported that the kings parted at the end of the meeting staunch friends.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D. dicing spread throughout England. Hazard was the favorite game in low taverns, and although men could no longer stake their personal liberties on a throw, they played for everything else, even their clothing, on which the tavern-keeper, who acted as a pawnbroker, readily lent small sums of money. There are many accounts of travelers falling into the taverner’s hands and playing and drinking themselves destitute; and in an early fourteenth-century manuscript there is an illumination depicting two such players; the older is stark naked, while the younger is reduced to his shirt!
In 1190 an army regulation prohibited the Crusaders under the command of Richard the First of England and Philip of France from playing at any sort of game for money. However, this restriction applied only to the lowest ranking men-at-arms… knights and clergymen might play for money, but were penalized 100 shillings, payable to the archbishops of the army, if they were caught losing more than 20 shillings in one day and night. Naturally, the noble commanders, Richard and Philip, were completely exempted and had the privilege of playing for whatever sum they pleased, presumably being better able to afford their losses.
References to dice from this time forward become increasingly common, especially in the court records of the day. Elmer de Multone, for instance, was indicted in 1311 “for being a common night walker; and, in the day, is wont to entice strangers and persons unknown, to a tavern, and there deceive them by using false dice.” He pleaded not guilty, but the jury thought otherwise and threw him in jail.