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Dear Latin or Greek experts,

I'm doing a project on the statistics of coin tossing. I would like to provide some references to ancient Greek, Roman, or other texts that reference the practice of coin tossing. Which I understand is referred to as "heads or ships" (navia aut caput).

Does anyone know of ancient texts discussing this matter? Can be just a single sentence.

1 Answer 1

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A corpus search for navi near capit (and variations) doesn't turn up much relevant. But here's what A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities has to say:

CAPITA AUT NAVIA head or tail, the name of a game at “pitch and toss,” derived from the fact that the early as had on one side a double-faced Janus, on the other the prow of a ship. See cut of as on p. 202. (Macr. 1.7, 22; Fest. s. v. Navia, p. 169 M.)

(An as was a small bronze coin; a denarius was a larger silver coin originally worth ten of them. I haven't been able to find the referenced cut in the Perseus edition, but here's a drawing of an early as from Wikipedia.)

head on one side, ship on the other

That first citation looks promising: that's Macrobius's Saturnalia, book 1, chapter 7, section 22. The Loeb Classical Library now lets you navigate to sections directly which is a very welcome improvement.

Here's what Macrobius says, in a discussion of Saturn and Janus:

cum primus quoque aera signaret, servavit et in hoc Saturni reverentiam, ut quoniam ille navi fuerat advectus, ex una quidem parte sui capitis effigies, ex altera vero navis exprimeretur, quo Saturni memoriam in posteros propagaret. aes ita fuisse signatum hodieque intellegitur in aleae lusu, cum pueri denarios in sublime iactantes capita aut navia lusu teste vetustatis exclamant.

When [Janus] first started to stamp bronze [into coins], he demonstrated his respect for Saturn in this as well. Since he [Saturn] had been carried by ship, he [Janus] sculpted his own head on one side [of the coin]; on the other, a ship was stamped, in order to spread the remembrance of Saturn to the later generations. That the bronze had been stamped like this, we can still see today in that game of chance, when boys throwing denarii high in the air call out "heads" or "ships", their game bearing witness to the distant past.

Translation mine.

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  • Thanks a ton for helping out and for the translation. That quote should suffice to document it as a longstanding tradition:) Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 19:50

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