Who invented the dice game? History of one of the most popular pastimes in history

The first attestation of dice dates back approximately to the 4th millennium BC., but the game developed independently in different populations around the world. The dice were popular in many ancient civilizations, starting at least from the Egyptian one. Although originally objects of different shapes were used, such as astragali, the “classic” configuration of the dice was already known in the ancient world, with a cubic shape and a score from one to six. In the Roman civilization, the game of dice became very popular and Caesar's famous phrase: “the die is cast” is linked, albeit indirectly, to it. In subsequent eras, the popularity of dice has never waned. Let's see the brief history of this game.

What are dice

We all know it: dice are small objects that you roll to determine a score. Typically, you let a die (or dice) roll on a flat surface; the face facing the other is the one that determines the result. In the most classic configuration, the dice have a cubic shape and score from 1 to 6. However, there are also dice of other shapes and with different scores. Dice can be used “alone”, that is, in specific games based on the outcome of the rolls, or to determine the score of other games, particularly board games.

The “invention” of data in the ancient world and the use of astragali

The use of dice is very ancient and they were already in circulation in the ancient world legends about their origin. According to the tragedian Sophocles, the game was created during the Trojan War; according to the historian Herodotus, it was invented by the Lydian people, settled in Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey).

In reality, dice were “invented” by different civilizations independently of each other. The first known specimens, not yet cube-shaped, date back to end of the 4th millennium BC. We also know that in ancient Egypt, about 3000 years before Christ, a sort of cylindrical dice was used to play senetthe oldest known board game.

In various ancient civilizations, the function of dice was performed by astragalithat is, small bones belonging to the tarsus of ungulates (a vast category of mammals) which, due to their tetrahedral shape, were well suited to the purpose.

Natural astragalus
Natural astragalus

However, some peoples of the ancient world already knew dice in the current configuration, with six faces and scores from one to six. The oldest dice of this kind, found by archaeologists in a Neolithic village in what is now Scotland, date back to between 3100 and 2400 BC

Dice, or objects with the same function, were known to many ancient civilizations. Probably, in some places they were not used for playing, but for predict the future. The construction materials were very heterogeneous: first of all bone, but also wood or metals.

“The die is cast”: the dice in Rome

The dice game enjoyed great popularity in Roman civilizations. The game, which in not uncommon cases caused fights and public order problems, it was theoretically prohibited by law (with the exception of some festivals, during which it was legal), but it was still practiced on a large scale. They even existed “professional” players who, sometimes using rigged dice, made ends meet through the proceeds of gambling.

One is also tied to the dice of the most famous phrases of the ancient Roman era: random iacta est (the datum is taken), pronounced by Caesar in 49 BC at the moment of crossing the Rubicon river with his army, to understand that the datum had now been launched and there was no turning back (crossing the Rubicon with the army in weapons was prohibited by law and meant the beginning of the civil war). However, according to another interpretation, the exact phrase would have been alea iacta estowith exhortation value: roll the die.

Dice from the Roman period (credits The Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Dice from the Middle Ages to today

Dice continued to be used in the Middle Ages, during which they were used for numerous games, different depending on the times and places. In Italian territory, one of the most popular was the game of zarabased on the roll of three dice whose score had to be guessed, which is even mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy.

Over the centuries, dice have not lost their popularity and today, in addition to the “classic” ones, they there are countless different types. For example, poker dice, which reproduce the symbols of playing cards, and dice with a number of faces greater than six are popular.

Today, dice are almost always made of plastic, although there are also metal, wood and stone versions. As in the ancient world, they are used for specific games, such as the famous yathzee, or to determine the score in board games.

Poker dice
Poker dice