The first recorded signs of a lottery are keno slips from the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 and 187 B.C. These lotteries are believed to have helped to finance major government projects like the Great Wall of China. From the Chinese “The Book of Songs” (second millennium B.C.) comes a reference to a game of chance as “the drawing of wood”, which in context appears to describe the drawing of lots. From the Celtic era, the Cornish words “teulel pren” translates into “to throw wood” and means “to draw lots”. The Iliad of Homer refers to lots being placed into Agamemnon’s helmet to determine who would fight Hector.
The first known European lotteries were held during the Roman Empire, mainly as an amusement at dinner parties. Each guest would receive a ticket, and prizes would often consist of fancy items such as dinnerware. Every ticket holder would be assured of winning something. This type of lottery, however, was no more than the distribution of gifts by wealthy noblemen during the Saturnalian revelries. The earliest records of a lottery offering tickets for sale is the lottery organized by Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. The funds were for repairs in the City of Rome, and the winners were given prizes in the form of articles of unequal value.
The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Various towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications, and to help the poor. The town records of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges indicate that lotteries may be even older. A record dated May 9, 1445 at L’Ecluse refers to raising funds to build walls and town fortifications, with a lottery of 4,304 tickets and total prize money of 1737 florins. In the 17th century it was quite usual in the Netherlands to organize lotteries to collect money for the poor or in order to raise funds for all kinds of public usages. The lotteries proved very popular and were hailed as a painless form of taxation. The Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the oldest running lottery.
The first recorded Italian lottery was held on January 9, 1449 in Milan organized by the Golden Ambrosian Republic to finance the war against the Republic of Venice.
However, was in Genoa that Lotto became very popular. People used to bet on the name of Great Council members, who were drew by chance, five out of ninety candidates every six months . This kind of gambling was called Lotto or Semenaiu. When people wanted to bet more frequently than twice a year, they began to substitute the candidates names with numbers and modern lotto was born.
For more on the lottery, read The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution.