Historical Figures Who Used the Lottery to Their Advantage

6 November 2015

The dream of winning the lottery is not a modern concept by any means. Throughout the ages, people and nations have used lotteries for financial and political gains. It may be odd to think about, but without lottery, our world would be a very different place indeed.

Ancient Roman Lotteries: The Good, the Bad, and the Unlucky 
All roads lead to Rome and some of those roads were paved with lottery revenue. Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, is the first Roman emperor who created a modern-style lottery with tickets and prizes. Unlike lotteries of today, the prizes were not money, but physical items of differing values. Augustus Caesar used the profits from the games for repairs which the City of Rome desperately needed. It's been more than two millennia since Augustus Caesar's reign, yet governments are still using lottery funds for civic projects like road repairs.

Augustus Caesar wasn't the only emperor who found a use for public lotteries. Elagabalus (pictured above), who reigned from 218 to 222 AD, took a peculiar and revolting pleasure in the games. At first, the boy emperor held lotteries which endeared his people to him – giving them opportunities to win prizes like slaves and land. Soon, however, his darker sensibilities and passions took over and he forced people to participate in public lotteries in which lottery tickets would be released by a catapult into the frenzied crowd. Live snakes would be released alongside the tickets and most of the prizes weren't such a prize at all: Romans could win wasps and bees, dead animals, and death sentences. It's hardly surprising that Elagabalus was assassinated just four years into his reign at the ripe old age of 18.

Voltaire and the Philosophy of Winning
Without the lottery, university philosophy and literature curricula might look completely different. A young Voltaire attended a dinner party where he met renowned mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine. The two worldly men hit it off and de La Condamine told Voltaire of a plan he came up with that would make them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. Voltaire was not doing well financially at this point in his life, so he decided to follow the brilliant mathematician all the way to the bank.

So what did the plan entail? The government of France had set up a lottery to encourage people to buy bonds. Each bond owner could purchase a lottery ticket which cost 1/1000th of the value of the bond. Winners would get a jackpot of 500,000 livres, an insane amount of money for the time. Because the French government failed at maths, the jackpot was not dependent on the price of the bond. So de La Condamine decided to buy up all the cheaper bonds. Thus, he was able to buy most of the available lottery tickets at a cheaper price, greatly increasing his odds of winnings.

De La Condamine, Voltaire, and a group of wealthy patrons formed a lottery syndicate and split the prize money. The government caught onto their scheme after a year of nonstop winning and took them to court. However, nothing they did was technically illegal and they were allowed to keep the money. With his newfound wealth, Voltaire was able to spend the rest of his life writing and philosophising.

Lottery syndicates are still very popular to this day, though you don't need to attend fancy dinner parties in order to join. Now people can join lottery syndicates from anywhere with online ticket purchasing services like theLotter.

Casanova: For the Love of Lottery
Casanova may be synonymous with great lovers, but he was definitely not loved by all during his lifetime. He was sentenced to five years in prison in Venice for crimes against the Church, to be served at the Doge's Palace – known to be inescapable. So, of course, he escaped.

Casanova fled to Paris where he met up with an old friend, François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis, who was serving as France's foreign minister. He advised Casanova to gain favour with King Louis XV by raising funds for the government. Casanova went to the King and recommended the government start a lottery. The venture was an instant success and Casanova became its trustee. But because Casanova was Casanova, he soon ran afoul of the local authorities and had to flee to the Holy Roman Empire (modern-day Germany) where he lost his entire fortune.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Fortune
The Founding Fathers of the United States loved using the lottery to their advantage. From George Washington to Ben Franklin, everyone was setting up lotteries in the name of freedom and funding. Franklin bought a cannon for the protection of Philadelphia with lottery revenue; Washington tried and failed to fund his resort plans through the Mountain Road Lottery; and the Continental Congress established lotteries to help pay for the Revolutionary War effort in 1776.

But no founding father loved the lottery more than Thomas Jefferson, who set up a lottery to pay off his debts later in life. Trying to persuade the Virginia legislature to allow his private lottery to go forward, he wrote: "Far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of Man." Lottery is now king in the US, where half-billion dollar jackpots are not unheard of, and revenue funds education and other social programs.

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