Martius Madness: On Manliness, Roman Gambling Laws, and NCAA Brackets

We are in the midst of the NCAA March madness tournament in the U.S., and, as NPR reported, the American Gaming Association boasted more NCAA Brackets than number of votes for the next president. Now, I identify as both a UVa Cavalier and a UNC Tar Heel, and so my entire household was glued to the screen yesterday. As I read through Obama’s yearly bracket (Side bar: He picked Kansas? Over Virginia?  C’mon!), I began to ponder the social function of gambling in antiquity in terms of food, space, and elite constructions of virtus (‘manliness’). I also wanted to explore whether gambling laws have ever really been an effective means of social control.

President Barack Obama fills out his NCAA bracket in the Map Room at the White House. Image via ESPN, Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

As early as Homer’s Iliad (and likely earlier), people placed bets on sports. In this case, it was on the outcome of the chariot games played during Patroclus’ funeral (Il. 23.485-7). Moreover, as Juvenal’s rather overused term “bread and circuses” demonstrates, there was always a tie between food, gambling, and the “softness” of the masses who indulged in these rather easy pleasures. These are socializing elements: food and sports are paired in history and across people. Anyone who has watched March Madness with a group of people drinking beer and eating Doritos, but supporting different basketball teams, can tell you that it takes a careful negotiation to balance games, alcohol, and friendship successfully. This is why Duke and UNC fans tend to watch games apart from one another, and why circus factions tended to sit in their own sections during ancient games in the hippodrome.

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Attic Black Figure Dinos fragment showing the crowd at the Funeral Games of Patroclus, Sophilos, 580-570 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 15499.

A famous shop sign from Rome visualizes the tie between food, games, and socializing quite nicely. It has an orthogonal display (12 letters x 3 lines = 36 letters with spelling errors to make it fit the board representation) that first hints graphically at the gaming boards housed inside the tavern. It transmits a menu as a game-board:

(H)abemus in cena(m)
pullum piscem
pernam paonem


“For dinner we have [abemus for habemus] :
chicken, fish
ham, peacock


Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 6.25.27 AM.png

What is important to emphasize here are games of chance versus games of skill within the Roman mindset. Betting on sports and games such as alea (a term for various dice games) was a common, yet ultimately mindless endeavor. In other words, it did not take a great deal of skill to bet. Gambling on certain sports or on dice was seen by the elite as a vice of the masses (even if the elite themselves indulged in such vulgar activities on occasion), but more complex mind games that used boards were viewed a bit differently. Well into Late Antiquity, the game-boards outside of the Basilica Julia in Rome focused on games that cultivated the mind, rather than gambling predicated on chance.

Crowds gathered at the Basilica Julia to shop, watch games, and listen to court cases, but the board games played here may have been perceived with more favor (Kalas 2015: 111). Mind games played for money seem to have been more socially acceptable out of doors than games of chance. The more vulgar, socially suspect gambling (e.g., dice) often occurred indoors: in taverns, brothels, and disreputable spaces that commonly served hot food. This is further evidence that legally and in literature, the Roman moral perception of actions often depended on the space within which they happened–was it in the open air of the Forum or in a popina (bar)? In my ancient financial crisis seminar last year, my students learned how to play a number of these ancient games. As I discussed in terms of ancient board game inscriptions, such games could become heated affairs (although an integral part of Roman social life).

Game board on the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum that read ‘oraculo’ (Photo by Roger Ulrich, via Flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A Roman game-board from the Basilica Julia in Rome. Image via Wikimedia.

Much like American legislation, Roman laws often enshrined and perpetuated an elite ideal that cast gambling as predominantly bad. That is, unless it involved a sport seen as masculine. The Lex Alearia was written before 204 BCE. It prohibited dice games altogether. Later, Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de aleatoribus (81 BCE) declared bets valid only in the case of games that involved virtus (manliness). Two excerpts from the 6th c. CE Digest of Justinian tell us more about what types of games these actually were. The 2nd-3rd c. CE jurist Paulus states that it was seen as okay to bet on running, jumping, boxing, wrestling and throwing of the javelins for the sake of virtus (Dig. Senatus consultum vetuit in pecuniam ludere, praeterquam si quis certet hasta vel pilo iaciendo vel currendo saliendo luctando pugnando quod virtutis causa fiat.). Marcianus then states that the leges Cornelia, Publicia, and Titia established this list of manly events (basically, most of the events from the Olympics) (Dig. 11.5.3: ‘In quibus rebus ex lege titia et publicia et cornelia etiam sponsionem facere licet: sed ex aliis, ubi pro virtute certamen non fit, non licet.‘). The manliness of a sport made it more socially acceptable to Romans, and betting on them was seen as less degrading.

Even food came into play in these laws. The Lex Alearia may have had provisions that said that people could only bet during meal times or Saturnalia. As Jerry Toner has pointed out about this legislation, the laws were themselves rarely enforced and the aediles (public officials) tasked with overseeing the gaming houses could do little to stop rampant gambling. As usual, law was used to project an elite ideal, and did not reflect the social reality. Toner notes, “Gambling, it is clear, was not just part of the ’emotional glue’ which brought the crowd together, it also divided them into factions, and thus framed and shaped the context of the game itself” (Toner 1995: 94; Cf. Hopkins 1983: 26). I’d say the same for March Madness pools, which, as many have pointed out, are technically illegal.

Many of the laws on gambling changed under the rule of Justinian (527-565 CE). Edicts from 529 (CJ 3.43.1-2) attempted to curb gambling, particularly games involving dice. It was these games that led to financial ruin, in the emperor’s eyes. Justinian returned to ancient ideas of manliness by encouraging bishops to organize traditional games for betting: “They shall further arrange for five games; leaping, pole-vaulting, throwing javelins or pikes, wrestling and show fighting” (CJ 3.43.1. trans. Blume).  As Suzanne Faris has pointed out about Justinian’s policy in the mid 6th c. CE, Justinian had a vested interest in cracking down on gambling:

(1) In order to protect the assets of tax-paying individuals who were depended on for things like curial service
(2) Out of public morality concerns
(3) A wish to modify the moral behavior of clerics
(Faris 2012: 199).

The power for enforcement was notably shifted from the aediles over to the bishops. It was now clerics who had the power to oversee and enforce such gambling laws.

Bronze Roman dice in the form of squatting figures (1st-2nd c. CE, Roman. Image via the British Museum. 1975,1103.1).
Closeup of a bronze dice in the form of a squatting figure. Photo via the British Museum. Museum number 1975,1103.1

What these laws show us is that gambling played a big part in everyday life in ancient Rome. Just like today, the economy of sports gambling in antiquity incorporated both the rich and the poor. Moreover, much like NCAA brackets office pools, the enforcement of sports wagers often fell outside the purview of the legal system. Sports were then, as now, inextricably linked to notions of what it means to be a man. Consequently, exceptions were made for betting on the sports viewed as integral to the development of young men and the cultivation of manliness. The social good and popularity of the sport lent the gambling a veneer of respectability. Similarly, today we turn a blind eye to the pervasive betting on the NCAA tournament, but we often feel very differently about games of chance played in casinos.


Faris, Suzanne B. “Changing Public Policy and the Evolution of Roman Civil and Criminal Law on Gambling,” UNLV Gaming Law Journal 3 (Fall 2012): 199-219.

Kalas, Gregor. 2015. The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming public space. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Purcell, Nicholas. 1995. “Literate Games: Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea”. Past & Present, no. 147. [Oxford University Press, Past and Present Society]: 3–37. JSTOR

Toner, J. P. 1995. Leisure and Ancient Rome. Cambridge [England]: Polity Press.




2 thoughts on “Martius Madness: On Manliness, Roman Gambling Laws, and NCAA Brackets

Add yours

  1. Really great write-up on some gambling history. It’s interesting seeing how we turn a blind eye to NCAA tournament brackets, but sports betting has been legislated out of existence everywhere in the US other than Las Vegas. But people continue to do it anyway!

    I read an article that an appeals court is taking a look at allowing New Jersey to open up sports betting in Atlantic City casinos:

    But this is in New England, the old heart of Puritan Yankeeism, where some of the main arguments against gambling and other “immoral” activities were carried into the New World. I can see gambling in Vegas, the Wild West and all, but not so much in New Jersey, Massachusetts, or other areas in the Northeast.

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