Dice were probably originally made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals (such as oxen), colloquially known as “knucklebones”, which are approximately tetrahedral. Even today, dice are sometimes colloquially referred to as “bones”, as in “shake them bones”. Ivory, bone, wood, metal, and stone materials have been commonly used, though the use of plastics is now nearly universal. It is almost impossible to trace clearly the development of dice as distinguished from knucklebones, because ancient writers confused the two games. It is certain, however, that both were played in prehistoric times.
The fact that dice have been used throughout the Orient from time immemorial, as has been proved by excavations from ancient tombs, seems to point clearly to an Asiatic origin. Dicing is mentioned as an Indian game in the Rig-veda. In its primitive form knucklebones was essentially a game of skill played by women and children. In a derivative form of knucklebones, the four sides of the bones received different values and were counted as with modern dice. Gambling with three or sometimes two dice was a very popular form of amusement in Greece, especially with the upper classes, and was an almost invariable accompaniment to banquets (symposia).
The Romans were passionate gamblers, especially in the luxurious days of the Roman Empire, and dicing was a favourite form, though it was forbidden except during the Saturnalia. Horace derided what he presented as a typical youth of the period, who wasted his time amid the dangers of dicing instead of taming his charger and giving himself up to the hardships of the chase. Throwing dice for money was the cause of many special laws in Rome. One of these stated that no suit could be brought by a person who allowed gambling in his house, even if he had been cheated or assaulted. Professional gamblers were common, and some of their loaded dice are preserved in museums. The common public-houses were the resorts of gamblers, and a fresco is extant showing two quarrelling dicers being ejected by the indignant host.
Tacitus states that the Germans were passionately fond of dicing, so much so, indeed, that, having lost everything, they would even stake their personal liberty. Centuries later, during the middle ages, dicing became the favourite pastime of the knights, and both dicing schools and guilds of dicers existed. After the downfall of feudalism the famous German mercenaries called landsknechts established a reputation as the most notorious dicing gamblers of their time. Many of the dice of the period were curiously carved in the images of men and beasts. In France both knights and ladies were given to dicing. This persisted through repeated legislation, including interdictions on the part of St. Louis in 1254 and 1256.
In China, India, Japan, Korea, and other Asiatic countries, dice have always been popular and are so still. The markings on Chinese dominoes evolved from the markings on dice, taken two at a time.
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