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How to Gamble in Greek: The Meaning of Kubeia

Stephen Kidd

Brown University

In attempting to reconstruct ancient Greek gambling, one is struck by the near omnipresence of dice.  Lysias speaks of people ‘dicing away their patrimony’ (κατακυβεύσας τὰ ὄντα, 14.27; cf. Gernet and Bizos 1924-6, Lamb 1930, Albini 1955, Carey 1990 ad loc.); Isocrates of youth ‘dicing’ in gambling halls (ἐν τοῖς σκιραφείοις κυβεύουσι, Antid. 287; cf. Norlin 1928-9, Ley-Hutton and Broderson 1997, Too 2008 ad loc.); Xenophon’s Socrates shakes his head about ‘dicing’ (κυβεῖαι, Oec. 1.19-20; cf. Chantraine 1949, Montoneri 1964, Audring 1992 ad loc.); Aeschines rails against his opponent’s history of ‘gambling with dice,’ and the list goes on (κυβεύουσιν, Tim. 53; cf. Benseler 1855, Adams 1919, Martin and de Budé 1927-8, Carey 2000 ad loc.). From such a wealth of references it would seem that Greeks hardly ever gambled with anything other than dice, even though other forms of gambling, like cock-fighting and quail-baiting, are attested.

In a related development, nearly twenty years ago, it was argued in an influential study that kuboi (six-sided manufactured dice) are found to be in a strong ideological opposition to astragaloi (four-sided, talus-bone dice; Kurke 1999: 283-95).  In Classical texts, kuboi are treated negatively while astragaloi clearly evince a more positive charge.  As Kurke writes: ‘the relationship of astragaloi to economic realities was generally mystified’ while ‘kuboi, in contrast, bore the onus of negative associations’ (1999: 283). Although some scholars have pointed out exceptions to the rule (e.g. Fisher 2004: 68-70), this alleged ideological divide has gained widespread acceptance (cf. Diggle 2004: 241; Campagner 2005: 83-4; Ferrari 2002: 251 n. 17).

As I will argue, however, these two phenomena—the apparent ubiquity of kuboi in gambling contexts and the alleged kuboi/astragaloi ideological divide—are both rooted in the same misunderstanding.  The verb kubeuō and its congeners often does not mean ‘play dice’ at all, but rather ‘gamble.’  Not only can one kubeuein (‘gamble’) with astragaloi, but, as I will show, one can kubeuein (‘gamble’) spinning coins, playing kottabos, and even during a cock-fight: that is, one does not require kuboi (‘dice’) to kubeuein (‘gamble’) at all.

I will begin this argument with a close reading of Pollux’s discussion of kubeia which has been generally misunderstood if it has been read at all (7.206). The passage provides clear evidence that for a second-century CE scholar studying classical Greek language and culture, kubeia meant ‘gambling’ and often had nothing to do with dice.  I will then briefly turn to classical texts to show that people could kubeuein ‘gamble’ not only with astragaloi (Theopomp. 115 F 121, Diph. Synoris 47 KA), but, in a long-standing crux of Aeschines’ Against Timarchus, also ‘gamble’ (kubeuein) during a cock-fight (53).  After returning to the more abstract discussions which now make clear why kuboi sometimes are depicted positively (sometimes dice are just dice), and clarifying the nature of fourth-century tirades against kubeia (not against dice per se, but gambling), I will end with some final thoughts about the original meaning of the word.

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