Betting in Ancient Rome

Among the Romans, Virgil tells us of a wager in his third Eclogue  of the Bucolics , 28-50, between Menalcas and Damœtas, which is virtually the same as that of Theocritus, and Valerius Maximus tells us how a triumph was awarded by the senate to Lutatius, the Consul, who had defeated the Carthaginian fleet. The prætor Valerius, having also been present in the action, asserted that the victory was his, and that a triumph was due to him also. The question came before the judge; but not until Valerius had first, in support of his assertion, deposited a stake, against which Lutatius deposited another. But in classical time they seem to have known little about odds.

Betting in Ancient Greece

The early Greeks betted, as we find in Homer's Iliad, b. xxiii. 485-7 where Idomeneus offers a bet to the lesser Ajax to back his own opinion:

Δεῦρό νυν ή τρίποδος περιδώμεθον, ἠὲ λέβετος̓
Ἳστορα δ̓ Ἀτρείδην Ἀγαμέμνονα θείομεν ὕμφω.
Ὀππότεραι πρόθ̓ ἵπποἰ ἵνα γνοίης ὰποτίνων.

“Now, come on!

A wager stake we, of tripod, or of caldron;
And make we both Atreidès Agamemnon
Judge, whether foremost are those mares: and so
Learn shalt thou, to thy cost!”

In Homer's Odyssey, xxiii. 78, Eurycleia wagers her life to Penelope that Ulysses has returned: Aristophanes in his Equites, 791; Acharnes, 772, 1115; and Nebulæ, 644, gives examples of wagers; and, in the eighth idyll of Theocritus, Daphins proposes a bet to Menalcas about a singing match.

Betting, or rather, that peculiar form of wager which consists in a material pledge in corroboration of controverted assertions, is of very ancient date, and we meet with it in one of the early books of the Bible, see Judges xiv. where in vv. 12, 13, Samson makes a distinct bet—owns he has lost in v. 18, and pays his bet, v. 19.

“12. And Samson said unto them, I will now put a riddle unto you: if ye can certainly declare it me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty sheets and thirty changes of garments.

“13. But, if ye cannot declare it me, then shall you give me thirty sheets and thirty changes of garments. And they said unto him, put forth thy riddle that we may hear it.

“14. And he said unto them, out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not, in three days, expound the riddle.

“15. And it came to pass, on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson's wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father's house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

“16. And Samson's wife wept before him, and said, Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not: thou hast put forth a riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it me. And he said unto her, I have not told it my father, nor my mother, and shall I tell it thee?

“17. And she wept before him the seven days, while the feast lasted; and it came to pass, on the seventh day, that he told her, because she lay sore upon him: and she told the riddle to the children of her people.

“18. And the men of the city said unto him, on the seventh day, before the sun went down, what is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? And he said unto them, if ye had not plowed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle.

“19. And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave changes of raiment unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house.

“20. But Samson's wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.”

Now, in this very ancient story, we find embodied as much roguery and crime as in any modern turf episode. Samson bet without any means of paying, if he lost: he lost, and was a defaulter. But, to pay this “debt of honour,” he had recourse to wholesale murder and robbery—to satisfy men, who to his own knowledge, had (to use a modern expression) “tampered with the stable.”