Ancient Lotteries

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Ancient Lotteries
  • Author:
    William Monroe
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Modern lotteries have been with us for decades, but even in the ancient world, lotteries were an important aspect of daily life for some cultures. In fact, lotteries of one sort or another have been around for thousands of years. Here are some ancient lotteries that demonstrate the human fascination with random outcomes.

Ancient Numbers Games

The popular game of Keno goes back over 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty in China. It was a lottery-style game where players chose a series of characters or numbers. If their picks came up in a random draw, they received a prize. It was so popular that it was not only used as a way of raising funds for the military and public works projects, but might have also been used to help finance parts of the Great Wall of China.

In the ancient Greek city of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the Athenian Democratic Lotteries were used to choose leaders. To select those who would take over the associated responsibilities, the names of free men over the age of 18 who were eligible to serve as leaders were entered into the lottery. As names were randomly drawn, the “winners” would be assigned their terms as members of the citizen council or as jurors. In an odd perception of it all, the Greeks considered the lottery to be more democratic than having elections, which they thought could be easily influenced by other politicians or by money. To ensure a random drawing, they invented a device called a “kleroterion” which was a stone slab that was covered in small slots which held identifying tokens for each individual citizen. Black and white pebbles would be funneled into a tube on the side of the slab, and depending on where they landed, candidates would either be selected or dismissed.

Lotteries as taxation

The French created a lottery in the 1600’s as an easy way to raise money without increasing taxes, which financed everything from military academies and churches, to hospitals, universities, and to help the poor. To establish drawing fairness, a blindfolded child would randomly choose the winning tickets.

In 1567 good ol’ Liz the First of England created The Queen’s Lottery to raise funds for the“reparation of the havens and strength of the Realm, and towards such other public good works.” Prizes were offered for over 10,000 of the participants. In the 1600’s the Virginia Company of London ran a lottery to help finance its Jamestown colony in North America.

In the 1500’s in Italy, lottery prizes included cash, carpets, jewels, servants, real estate, and government contracts to collect tolls and taxes. In the city of Genoa, five public officials from a potential pool of 90 candidates were selected via lottery. People began betting on who would be selected, and the game proved so popular that it was eventually taken over by the state, and run exclusively by it.

The Spanish Christmas Lottery originating in 1812, has been a holiday tradition for over 200 years and still is held each December 22 to this day.. Created to defray the costs of the Peninsular War, orphan boys drew the tickets, and in keeping with the tradition, students from a former boy’s home still draw the tickets and announce the winners.

Not every person in ancient Rome was eager participant willing to win the Decimation Lottery. In this fun venture, if a soldier in the Roman military were found guilty of cowardice or disobeying orders, their leaders would hold a lovely little lottery and randomly select one soldier out of every ten. These “lucky” fellows would then be bludgeoned to death by their fellow soldiers as both a punishment and a deterrent. Surprisingly, interest in the lottery within the regular members of the military establishment never became popular.

As you can see, our modern lotteries operate a little differently today, especially as modern technology is used to administer the draws. Prizes are mostly cash profits are used mostly to finance community objectives. But just like these ancient lotteries, well, except for the Roman Decimation Lottery, players still hope to become winners, especially for the top awards.

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