Ancient Gambling

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Pablo Edronkin

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Betting and gambling were commonplace in ancient Rome; there were many different games with which Romans entertained themselves, including quite a number imported from the provinces that their legions conquered.

But almost certainly, the biggest chunk of the gambling and gaming industry in the Roman world developed around the circus and coliseum. An ancient Las Vegas of sorts. There were many of these old-age stadiums around the empire, albeit the biggest ones were naturally found closer to Rome. The games also had political significance, for emperors used these as means to keep people happy using plainly demagogic means.

The emperor Comodus - for example - organized a series of games lasting more one hundred days in Rome, totally free for the people, and bread and wine was distributed among spectators in order to win their sympathy. These hundred days of games were horrendously expensive, both in financial terms as well as in the number of lives consumed by them. All sorts of animals were used in these spectacles, as well as scores of gladiators.

Games continued somewhat unabated during the early phases after Christian conversion, but began do dwindle for various reasons until they practically vanished. The only modern day example of Roman games is bull fighting; this was one of different types of shows common at the time, which somehow was preserved in Spain and some of its colonies up to its present day.

However, many think that this is a brutal undertaking that has little to do with traditions, and so, in former colonies like in Argentina they were suppressed ipso facto, immediately after they gained independence.

In the particular case of Argentina - then the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata - between 1810 and 1816, bull fighting was prohibited along with slavery, torture, nobility, the gallows, and any interference from the inquisition. It is remarkable that the abolition of slavery, which took place almost a century before other it happened in other celebrated cases, did not meant a civil war, like in the United States, or the fall of the monarchy, like in Brazil. However, this empire soon declared war on Argentina, partly because scores of Brazilian slaves were escaping to the south. Slave trade was a really big business in past centuries; finishing it off was a moral necessity but had a lot of practical disadvantages for the leaders of the time, fearful of the seemingly devastating consequences that such a move would have on their economies. Until the revolutions of former colonies that rejected the ideas and regulations of their former masters began, and until the industrial revolution mae it possible to substitute animal and slave labour with machines, slaves were bought and sold like tools, and for very good money (See Slave Traders).

Despite the self-confidence of the Brazilians about the issue they suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the rather enthusiastic Argentineans who at these times were just finishing up the last Spanish troops in Ecuador after routing them out from their country as well as from Chile and Peru, and remained happy about slaughtering two British invasion armies that came from South Africa a few years before; but for reasons not fully explained, they did not attempt to exploit their success completely in diplomatic or political terms, albeit that war meant the end of any illusions the Brazilians could realistically have about controlling South America.

Brazilian history, understandably, does not tell much about the ill-fated campaign, and slaves were finally liberated by the emperor many years later, who lost his crown for this reason.

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