From ancient Greek elections to a famously corrupt contest from 19th century Louisiana, get the facts on eight of history’s most notable lotteries.
Athenian Democratic Lotteries
The ancient Greek city-state of Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy, but its method of choosing leaders bore little resemblance to its modern successors. Rather than relying entirely on elections, the Athenians of the 6th century B.C. selected most of their government officials through a system of random allotment, or “sortition.” Eligible candidates—usually free men over the age of 18—would have their names placed in a lottery. The winners would then be drawn and assigned terms as jurors or members of the citizen council. The Athenians considered the lottery more democratic than elections, which they believed could be easily corrupted by money or political influence. They even devised a special device known as “kleroterion” to ensure a random drawing. This consisted of a stone slab covered in small slots, which held identifying tokens for individual citizens. A collection of 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.
The game of Keno is a fixture in modern day casinos, but its origins go back more 2,000 years to Han Dynasty-era China. Ancient Keno was known as “baige piao,” or “white pigeon ticket,” and usually took the form of a lottery-style game in which players chose a series of numbers or characters and then received a prize if their picks came up in a random drawing. Baige piao was popular across China, so much so that provincial governments often sanctioned games as a way of raising funds for the military or public works projects. It may have even been used to help finance parts of the Great Wall of China.
Not every historical lottery was one the participants wanted to win. In ancient Rome, disgraced legionaries and soldiers were sometimes punished with a brutal form of military justice known as “decimation.” If the members of a unit were found guilty of cowardice or disobeying orders, their leaders would hold a lottery and randomly select one man out of every ten. These unlucky few would then be put to death, usually by being bludgeoned by their brothers in arms. According to the ancient chronicler Polybius, the grisly lotteries were intended to set an example for the rest of the troops. “The danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall,” he writes in his Histories. “The best possible means are thus taken to inspire fear for the future, and to correct the mischief which has occurred.”
16th Century Italian Lotteries
Many facets of modern lotteries date to Renaissance-era Italy, where lot-based gambling games were used both as private moneymaking schemes and methods of funding public works projects. Beginning in the 1500s, lotteries became sprang up in a number of Italian cities including Florence, Rome and Venice. Prizes were often cash, but they also included gifts such as carpets, jewels, servants, real estate and even government contracts to collect tolls and taxes. In Genoa, meanwhile, the lotto evolved from the city’s system of randomly choosing five public officials from a potential pool of 90 candidates. People began betting on who would be selected, and the game proved so popular that it was eventually taken over by the state. The Italian lotteries were considered a useful method of fundraising—one was used to help build the famous Rialto Bridge in Venice—but they were also a source of controversy. More than one Pope considered the games sinful and threatened participants with excommunication, and the church later made several attempts to ban the lottery in Rome.
Queen Elizabeth’s National Lottery
The first state lottery in English history dates to 1567, when Queen Elizabeth I organized a drawing to raise funds for the “reparation of the havens and strength of the Realm, and towards such other public good works.” The Queen’s lottery was somewhat unusual by modern standards. Lots cost 10 shillings a pop—a hefty sum at the time—and prizes were offered for over 10,000 of the participants, including 5,000 pounds sterling in cash, plate, tapestries and linens for the first place winner. Public response to the project was relatively tepid, but it marked the beginning of an English tradition of using lotteries to raise public funds. In the early 1600s, for example, the Virginia Company of London ran a lottery to help finance its Jamestown colony in North America.
The French National Lottery
Lotteries first appeared in France in the 16th century, but they didn’t experience a major boom until the mid-1700s. The French monarchy considered the lotto an easy way to raise money without levying new taxes, and the profits were eventually used to finance everything from churches and hospitals to military academies, universities and alms for the poor. To symbolize fairness, drawings were usually conducted by a blindfolded child, who would choose the winning tickets from a hopper attached to a spinning “wheel of fortune.” The games became hugely popular, and by 1776, the profits were so large that King Louis XVI monopolized the industry and founded a new national lottery. Save for a brief period of suppression during the French Revolution, the lotto continued to exist in France until 1836, when it was finally abolished on the grounds that it exploited the poor. A state lottery wouldn’t reappear in the country until the 1930s.
The Spanish Christmas Lottery
Also know as “El Gordo,” or the “Fat One,” the Christmas lottery has been a holiday tradition in Spain for over 200 years. The contest originated in 1812, when the cash-strapped Spanish legislature organized a new national lottery to defray the costs of the Peninsular War. Orphan boys were used to draw the first winning tickets from gold pots, and to this day, students from a former boys’ home called the San Ildefonso School still announce the prizewinners each December 22. The lottery’s jackpot is the world’s largest—it totaled nearly $2.5 billion in 2015—but it doesn’t all go to a single winner. Instead, the top prize is limited to a few million dollars, allowing smaller amounts of cash to be dished out to thousands of different participants. Since its inception two centuries ago, El Gordo has been held every Christmas without fail. It even continued during the Spanish Civil War, when the dueling Nationalist and Republican governments both held their own drawings.
The Louisiana State Lottery Company
Lotteries were a common in early America—Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both ran games in the 1700s—but by the late 19th century, scandal and moral opposition had seen them banned in many states. One of the few survivors was the Louisiana State Lottery Company, a powerful and privately owned outfit that was chartered shortly after the end of the Civil War. Though based in New Orleans, the company made most of its profits by selling mail-order lotto tickets across the country. Its reach was so vast that it earned the nickname the “Octopus,” but it also became infamous for its crooked business practices, which included greasing the palms of politicians and judges in exchange for preferential treatment. For a time, the company’s bribes ensured that it was the only legal lottery in the United States, but its 25-year reign finally came to an end in the 1890s, when Congress banned the sale of lottery tickets across state lines. After briefly operating offshore in Honduras, the Louisiana Lottery folded for good in the early 20th century. The fallout from its years of corruption was so severe that a new state lottery wasn’t launched in Louisiana until 1991.