If there are three people and only two candies — and in other similar dire situations — people sometimes choose to play some kind of game to select who is left without something or who gets to do something. The most well known ones are probably rock–paper–scissors and drawing straws.

Did the Romans have a game or procedure for similar situations? If yes, what was it called? I am interested in this from two perspectives: the game itself and the idiom for a selection process.

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    Does casting lots (sortēs) qualify? I seem to remember the gods selecting Palinurus to die this way.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 5:57
  • @Draconis Yes, that should qualify.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 6:02
  • Excellent. In that case I'll write it up in the morning unless someone beats me to it.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 6:03
  • Casting lots was common not just among the Romans, but throughout the world. It's mentioned throughout the Bible, for instance, both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian ones.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 16:24

2 Answers 2


Casting lots ("sortition")

The most standard means of making a random selection was drawing lots (sortēs): everyone involved would put their names into a container, then one would be drawn out at random.

Aeneid V.490-2:

convenere viri deiectamque aerea sortem
accepit galea, et primus clamore secundo
Hyrtacidae ante omnis exit locus Hippocoontis


The men gathered around and a bronze helmet gathered the lot[s] that were tossed. And first out of all of them the place of Hippocoön Hyrtacides is drawn, with applause...

The Trojans here are deciding on an order for the archery contest: all the competitors put their names into a helmet, then they were drawn out one at a time. Idiomatically, sortes "lots" can refer to any random chance, or to the action of Fate.

Flashing fingers ("micatio", Italian "morra")

This was more equivalent to "rock-paper-scissors" or flipping a coin, a simple game used to resolve minor disputes when necessary. Two people would count off, as in rock-paper-scissors, then simultaneously hold up a number of fingers and guess what the total would be. (A modern variant involves one player winning on odd totals, the other on even, but I haven't found classical attestation of this version.)

This game was ubiquitous enough to make its way into a common proverb: dignus est, quicum in tenebris mices ("he is an upstanding person, with whom you could play morra in the dark"). Cicero also mentions it along with sortition in De Officiis 3.23: a matter can be decided randomly, quasi sorte, aut micando. (The proper term for this in Latin was digitos micare, "to flash the fingers", or often just micare.)


It seems that the Romans also tossed coins. L&S mentions under caput (I.1.c):

Capita aut navia (al. navim), heads or tails, a play of the Roman youth in which a piece of money is thrown up, to see whether the figure-side (the head of Janus) or the reverse-side (a ship) will fall uppermost.

The passages cited in L&S are not particularly helpful (Ovidius only discusses the illustrations on two sides of a coin), but there is a very relevant passage in Macrobius, Saturnalia 1, VII.22 (with my rough translation):

Aes ita fuisse signatum hodieque intellegitur in aleae lusum, cum pueri denarios in sublime iactantes capita aut navia lusu teste vetustatis exclamant.

Also nowadays we understand that money was decorated so, when in a game of chance boys throw silver coins and cry head or tails, making the game a witness of history.

There is room for improvement in the translation, but it should help get the point across.

The game is also mention in this translation of Origo gentis Romae, on page 4 (pdf page 11):

Whence even to this day gamblers, when a coin has been set down and covered, lay as a wager to players the option of declaring what they think is underneath, a head or a ship [navis], which now, commonly adulterating, they pronounce "skiff" [navia].

Thanks for pointing out these sources, Dario and C. M. Weimer!

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    Ovid’s link points to cur navalis in aere altera signata est, altera forma biceps? “why is the figure of a ship stamped on one side of the copper coin, and a two-headed figure on the other?”, proving coinage imagery. The most interesting reference is not linked by L&S, but it is from Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1,VII. Search for capita aut navia. (Also watch the youtube links I commented Draconis’ answer with).
    – Dario
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 23:36
  • 1
    Here's a PDF with a translation of Aurelius Victor's Origo. Search for navis.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 23:40
  • @Dario and cmw: Thanks! I edit my answer. I (mis)understood from L&S that Ovid was supposed to discuss the game, not just coinage.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 0:13

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