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Why Ancient Romans Used Twisted Dice

Why Ancient Romans Used Twisted Dice

Tuesday, 9 August, 2022 - 07:15
A pair of researchers from the Universities of California and Drew, believe they may have solved the mystery of why people living during the time of the Roman Empire used lopsided dice in their games. (Getty Images)

A pair of researchers from the Universities of California and Drew, believe they may have solved the mystery of why people living during the time of the Roman Empire used lopsided dice in their games.


During the time of the Roman Empire, people played a game called taberna (similar to backgammon), which involved throwing dice. The dice were made out of bone, metal or clay and had symbols shown on the faces to represent numbers, as with modern dice. But they differed markedly in shape. The Roman dice were usually elongated or made into other odd shapes that made them asymmetrical.


In their paper published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, the researchers studied 28 dice from the period and found that 24 of them were asymmetrical. They found a pattern in the irregularity - icons representing one and six were often present on larger opposing surfaces.


Prior research has shown that asymmetry in a die can impact the probability of a given side landing face up. To find out if the Romans made their dice asymmetrical as a means of cheating, the researchers conducted an experiment - they asked 23 students to place marks on reproductions of the asymmetrical Roman dice.


The researchers reasoned that because the students would not know the purpose of the experiment and had no incentive to cheat, they would mostly place the marks randomly. But that was not the case, the students still placed the one and six on the larger sides.


When asked why, many suggested it was easier because starting on a large side meant ending on a large side where they would need to place the most pips - a finding that suggests the Romans were not trying to cheat, but just trying to make life easier for themselves.


Manufacturers and users understood that dice throwing was governed by the fates, not by chances, so the irregular forms were tolerated as an acceptable range of asymmetry.


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