Although the history of the lottery as a means of financing public works dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty, Ancient Rome was the birthplace of the European lottery. No less a figure than the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar was behind these original lotteries. Conceived as a way to attract more funding from wealthier citizens, the lotteries took place during dinner parties hosted by the elite and prizes such as dinnerware and ceramics were awarded to everyone who bought a ticket. Over time lotteries became available to all citizens who could purchase tickets and win items of booty which had been brought back to Rome from conquered lands. Funds raised from these lotteries were used for the maintenance of the city.
Augustus’ lottery was rather more appreciated by the general citizenry than that introduced by the feared and despised teenaged Emperor Elagabus two hundred years later. To describe Elagabus as ‘eccentric’ would be generous in the extreme, as his lottery idea illustrates. At first the lottery he introduced worked in a similar fashion to the ones we know today, although the prizes were physical objects (and sometimes even slaves) rather than money. Tickets were given away for free in an attempt to win public support, but before long Elagabus was changing the game. Lottery tickets were distributed by catapulting them into the city to be claimed on a first come first served basis, but the emperor decided to liven up proceedings by including venomous snakes among the tickets. Next he made some of the prizes rather less desirable, and winners could find that their packages contained bees or a dead dog or even an order for their own execution.
The modern Italian lotteries offer prizes which are considerably more pleasant. Enalotto was the first modern Italian state lottery when it began in the 1950s. This lottery generated numbers by taking the first number drawn from six regional lotteries from around the country (plus that from Venice as the bonus or ‘jolly’ number) to create its number. In 1997 the rules were changed to create the SuperEnaLotto that is still in operation today. This lottery is drawn three times a week and with no cap on how high the jackpot can get, it produces some pretty outstanding jackpots.
In fact the record SuperEnaLotto jackpot pay-out stands at a most impressive €178 million (£125 million) and this sum was won back in October 2010. This win was shared by a large syndicate of 70 people, giving them around two and a half million euros each. The sum of €147.8 million was won by a single ticket-holder in Bologne in 2009, making that the largest sole winner to date. These days you don’t have to buy tickets from a street vendor in Rome as you can simply go online to take part in one of Europe’s biggest lotteries. Things have changed a lot since Augustus Caesar’s day!