‘Roman Rock Crystal 20-Sided Die’ Meme

On April 26 2023, an Imgur user shared a meme about a “Roman rock crystal” 20-sided die, a familiar sight to many modern tabletop gamers:

No citations were included alongside the post, nor did the account provide a source for the meme. Underneath an image of the “Roman rock-crystal” die, text said:

Fact Check

Claim: A photograph shows a real, 20-sided ancient Roman rock crystal die, possibly used as part of an “unknown game.”

Description: An image of a ’20-sided Roman rock-crystal dice’ was circulated with the claim that it was used for ‘fortune telling,’ or ‘a game whose rules are unknown.’ Earlier, the image was shared on Reddit labelled as a ‘2,000+ year old 20 sided crystal die used for fortune telling in the Roman Empire,’ which was later removed and simply labeled a ‘2,000+ year old 20 sided rock crystal die from the Roman Empire.’ Most formal assessments were predicated on the idea that they were originally used for divination.

Rating: Decontextualized

Rating Explanation: While previous instances of sharing the image mentioned the use of dice for divination, asserting that the dice were perhaps used for ‘fortune telling,’ the dice’s relationship to ‘a game whose rules are unknown’ seems to be a newer claim that seemed to drive engagement.

This is a 20-sided Roman rock-crystal dice that is believed to be around 2,000 years old. It may have been used for fortune-telling, as each face has a Greek letter that could have been linked to a reference in a divination handbook. However, it is also possible that the dice was used for a game whose rules are unknown.

A reverse image search (and text search) did not turn up any additional variations on the post, which was watermarked with a distinctive symbol. Eventually, we located an exact iteration on Facebook, where it was shared by a page using the same symbol (Ancient Explorers) on April 23 2023.

On May 9 2022, the photograph was shared to r/interestingasfuck:

On May 10 2022, an Imgur account shared a Twitter screenshot based on the above Reddit post by u/BCurios. The same account tweeted it again in January 2023:

A May 8 2022 post by u/BCurios to r/mildlyinteresting appeared to be the image’s first appearance on Reddit. That post was “removed” for a subreddit-specific rule violation related to the post’s title.

Originally, the post’s claim was that it was used for “fortune telling in the Roman Empire”:

That matched a June 17 2021 tweet by historian Gareth Harney:

In a threaded tweet, Harney said that the Roman die was on display at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and linked to a page about the object. Another Twitter user asked if the divination handbook he mentioned existed; Harney replied:

A literary agent’s website identified Harney as “a Roman historian, numismatist and collector,” and as such, his assessment of Roman artifacts was likely reliable. A linked page catalogued the item in the Louvre’s collection (not the British Museum), on the website for the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France.

A search for the die’s inventory number (MNC882) led to an October 2020 blog post by author Roger Pearse, “A Roman rock-crystal icosahedron (20-sided dice) in the Louvre.” Pearse wrote the post in response to the image’s cyclical virality, explaining:

One often-heard explanation is that [the dice] were used in conjunction with divination handbooks. There is a 2nd/3rd century Greek oracle book, the Homeromanteion, preserved in three papyri, which refers to throwing lots to obtain a number, which can be used to look up ready-prepared oracle questions and answers … Likewise an inscription at Olympus gives another such a set of prophecies, one per letter/number of the Greek alphabet. (There is an online version of it here.) The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an icosahedron from Egypt, either Ptolemaic or Roman, with Greek numbers (online here).

But of course we cannot know for sure precisely what our dice was used for.

In July 2021, Pearse published another post, “Some more Roman polyhedral dice,” explaining:

Three more such dice are in the possession in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. All of them have Greek numerals – letters used as numbers – on each of their 20 sides. It is not certain how old they are: they could be Ptolemaic or Roman. They were acquired in Egypt during the 1920s, and they all look very similar and perhaps came from the same source … Another 20-sided dice, two inches high and made of glass, was sold at Christies in 2003. Their rather meagre auction page is here, and suggests that it is Roman and 2nd century AD. On what this is based is unclear.

On Twitter, the official Musée du Louvre tweet highlight the die in 2016:

Interest in ancient dice was sufficient to inspire an April 2022 Gizmodo.com listicle, “6 Ancient D20s That Will Definitely Not Curse You.” An undated entry on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, “Twenty-sided die (icosahedron) with faces inscribed with Greek letters,” provided information about a similar die:

A number of polyhedral dice made in various materials have survived from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, usually from ancient Egypt when known. Several are in the Egyptian or Greek and Roman collections at the Museum. The icosahedron – 20-sided polyhedron – is frequent. Most often each face of the die is inscribed with a number in Greek and/or Latin up to the number of faces on the polyhedron.

Nothing specific about the use of these polyhedra is preserved, so theories are built on clues provided by some variant examples. One unusual example uses Greek words, a few of which resemble those associated with throws of the astragals (knucklebones), and this has led to suggestions they were used for games. Another remarkable example discovered in Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt in the 1980s records an Egyptian god’s name in Demotic (the Egyptian script of these late periods) on each face. Divination – seeking advice about the unknown from the supernatural – seems to be the most likely purpose for the Dakhleh die: the polyhedron might have been thrown in order to determine a god who might assist the practitioner.

Indeed, even the dice with simple letters might relate to divination: a Greek oracle book composed in in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. refers to throwing lots to obtain a number that would, through certain algorithms, lead to ready-prepared oracle questions and responses.

A popular April 26 2023 Imgur post featured a “20-sided Roman rock-crystal” die, speculating that it was used for “fortune telling,” or “a game whose rules are unknown.” Initially, the image was shared to Reddit as a “2,000+ year old 20 sided crystal die used for fortune telling in the Roman Empire,” but the post was later removed and simply labeled a “2,000+ year old 20 sided rock crystal die from the Roman Empire.”

Images of the Roman rock crystal die circulated before those posts were published, but not typically identified as the possible part of an “unknown game.” Likening the dice to the sort used in role-playing games seemed to drive engagement with the post, but most formal assessments were predicated on the idea that they were originally used for divination.

Article Sources +