Who Invented Ten-Sided Dice?

Who invented the ‘d10′ ten-sided dice used in many modern board games?


I don’t know, but Shakespeare seems to presume their existence in the last scene of Timon of Athens (variously numbered 5.4, 5.5, or 17), lines 31-34, where the 2nd Senator makes Alcibiades an offer:

By decimation and a tithèd death,
If thy revenges hunger for that food
Which nature loathes, take thou the destined tenth,
And by the hazard of the spotted die
Let die the spotted.

It may be possible, but it is certainly not simple to select one-tenth of anything with a traditional six-sided die, or with two or three of them. Did ten-sided dice exist in Shakespeare’s day, and if so were they called simply ‘dice’? That seems unlikely. Was the 2nd Senator (inadertently or not) generously offering the lives of one-sixth of his fellow-citizens? That would not fit at well well with the emphatic repetition in ‘decimation’, ‘tithèd’, and ‘tenth’. Did Shakespeare, or the 2nd Senator, not stop to think about the incommensurability of decimation and six-sided dice? Or did Shakespeare notice the incongruity, but think no one else would? If so, he was nearly right: neither Klein’s 2001 New Cambridge edition nor Jowett’s 2004 Oxford World Classics nor Dawson and Minton’s 2008 Arden3 has a note on the problem ad loc. Since the decimation is canceled before it begins, the practical questions never actually arise, so it’s easy to miss.

In sum, the answer to my title question looks like it may be ‘Shakespeare, of course’, though perhaps inadvertently.

Update – 4:55pm (original post was 10:55am):

Thanks to my first two commenters, Ian Spoor and James Cross, it appears that Shakespeare may well have known 20-sided dice (both), but probably not 10-sided (Cross). That makes accurate decimation by dice-roll (rather than just counting off every tenth man) easy enough. Either you roll the die for every captive and have two unlucky numbers. (Hmmm, 13 and what else?) Or you just line the captives up in groups of 20 and roll twice to see which two will die. (Be sure to specify whether you’re counting right to left or left to right before rolling to avoid argument!) That still doesn’t entirely solve the problem in Timon: the Greek 20-sided die has letters on its faces, since the Greeks used letters to represent numbers. (See my Ancient Numbers website Nvmeri Innvmeri for more information, and to test your skills in translating from one system to another.) Would a hypothetical Shakespearean 20-sided die have had dots to represent the numbers? I don’t know, but that seems unlikely, since it would have been difficult to tell at a glance the difference between (for instance) 17, 18, and 19 without tediously counting dots. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that a hypothetical 20-sided die in Timon would not have had ‘spots’ to pun on, but printed numbers (Roman or Arabic), like modern ‘d20s’. And that still assumes it would have had the same name as the six-sided kind.

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4 Responses to Who Invented Ten-Sided Dice?

  1. A) Shakespeare was not an archeologist, and even as a classicist he had rather fuzzy ideas about Greece, so talking about real Greek d10s in the time of Timon is idle.

    B) That said, a d10 (or any other number) can easily be made in “rolling-pin” style as a simple n-agonal prism with round or pointed caps.

  2. James Cross says:

    Ian: The d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 crop up pretty regularly at various periods. But the d10 is somewhat special because it isn’t a Platonic solid. Basically, this means that you need fairly precise curved seams where the “top” and “bottom” meet, otherwise it wont roll even remotely fair. Even in the 20th century, d10s were basically unavailable at any price unless one were to make one by hand until the mid- to late-70s. Before then, people who needed to simulate d10s or percentile rolls (d100) would use one d20 or a pair of d20s and either divide by two or discard results greater than ten.

    • Chris Catania says:

      Before then, people who needed to simulate d10s or percentile rolls (d100) would use one d20 or a pair of d20s and either divide by two or discard results greater than ten.
      So much wrong with the above statement
      How would one roll of a d20 get you are percentile? You would always need 2d20 dice to roll percentile
      Dividing by two would result in fractions half the time.
      Discarding result higher that 10 would also waste half your rolls as well. Unless by ‘discarding’ you mean reducing any number greater than 10 by 10. IE 1-10 are unchanged. 11 become 1, 12=2… 20=10.

  3. Ian Spoor says:

    IF the Greeks managed to make a 20 sided dice, quite possibly they could have made a D10? http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/551072

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