Although the first signs of a lottery trace back to the Han Dynasty in China around 200BC, it wasn’t until the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, that lotteries – the way we understand them today – were created.
Lotteries as a tax alternative in ancient Rome
At the time, the City of Rome was in dire need of repairs, but the people were so heavily taxed that any further tax increase would stir public unrest. Augustus Caesar was the first to come up with the idea of organising a lottery as a way of both raising revenues and his popularity. More than two millennia since Augustus Caesar, governments are still using lotteries as a way to raise funds for civic projects.
Augustus Caesar was the first to come up with the idea of organising a lottery as a way of both raising revenues and his popularity.
About 200 years later, another Roman emperor, named Elagabalus, took a peculiar interest in lotteries. What initially started as a game with prizes like slaves and land, soon turned into forced public lotteries, in which tickets were released by a catapult into the crowd.
With live snakes being released along with the tickets and prizes such as wasps, bees, dead animals and death sentences, the young emperor found himself assassinated at the age of 18.
How Voltaire made a fortune on the lottery
It wasn’t until the French philosopher, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, met the mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine that he finally became financially free. The two men met at a dinner party, where La Condamine suggested a plan that would make them rich beyond their wildest imagination.
The government of France had set up a lottery aiming to entice people to buy bonds. Each bond owner could purchase a lottery ticket at a cost of 1/1000th of the bond’s value, with the winners cashing a jackpot of 500,000 livres – an insane amount of money for the time.
The French government, however, was not mathematically savvy. The jackpot was not dependent on the price of the bond and what La Condamine realised was that by buying up all the cheaper bonds, he was greatly increasing his odds of winning.
La Condamine and Voltaire went on to form a lottery syndicate with a group of wealthy patrons and split the prize money. After years of repeated wins, the government caught onto their scheme and took them to court, where it was proven that no illegal action had taken place. This wealth gave Voltaire the freedom to spend the rest of his life writing.
Lotteries and the US Presidents
The Founding Fathers of the United States were avid users of the lottery both for political and personal gains. From George Washington to Ben Franklin, they were all setting up lotteries in the name of freedom and funding.
No US President defended lotteries more than Thomas Jefferson, who tried to run a lottery later in life in order to pay off his debts.
Back in 1747, the most urgent problem was not armed men, but money. Franklin’s solution was to run a lottery and it was so successful that he boasted that the Philadelphians came as near to selling out in seven weeks as New York and New England lotteries did in seven months. With the revenues, he bought a cannon for the protection of Philadelphia.
About 30 years later, George Washington attempted to run a lottery in order to raise funds for the creation of a road through the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia and a resort in the area now known as The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia.
The lottery endeavour failed partly due to the increased number of lotteries at the time. The lottery tickets were signed by George Washington and have now become collector’s items. The latest price of one of the 25 remaining tickets was sold for $13,500 in 2006.
However, nobody defended lotteries more than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson tried, along with his grandson, to run a lottery in order to pay off his debts. In an attempt to convince the Virginia legislature, he famously wrote: “Far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of man”. Fortunately for him, he died without knowing that his scheme did not work.