Andrea Vitali's Essays

The origin of Aces

A suggestive hypothesis about the origin of suits in numeral cards


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, June 2012


In The Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1) William Henry Wilkinson suggested that Chinese cards, which probably appeared soon after the invention of printing around the 10th century, were actually paper currency, used both as gaming tools and as the stakes being played for.  In the 1930s Stewart Culin, director of the Brooklyn Museum, published a study highlighting the presence of cards in China before 1100 A.D.: he stated that European cards came graphically from the paper money used during the Tang dynasty (608-908 A.D.), which bored the likenesses of emperors and high-level officials. The cards had three suits: Jian o Qian (Coins), Tiao (Strings of coins  - the coins were holed and piled up on a string), and Wan (a Myriad, that is ten thousand). In addition to these cards there were three other single ones: Qian Wan (Thousands of Myriads), and Hong Hua (Red Flower) e Bai Hua (White Flower). Each suit had numbered cards, from 3 to 9.

The first known reference to Indian cards, called Ganjifa – word coming from the Persian ganjifeh (گنجفه), meaning “playing card” - goes back to a biography of Babur (early 16th century),  the founder of the Mughal dynasty. They were circular and had suits composed of twelve subjects on coloured backgrounds, with pip cards running from 1 to 10 and two court cards,  a minister or advisor and a king. It is uncertain whether these cards influenced the Mamluk Egyptian cards or vice versa. The fact is, however, that the so-called  Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb deck, now at the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul,  dating from the 15th century but the same as a 12th-13th century card fragment , is composed of 52 cards divided into four suits: Jawkân (Polo Sticks), Darâhim (Coins), Suyûf (Swords) and Tûmân (Cups). Each suits has ten cards, numbered from 1 to 10 and three figures (or court cards) called malik (King), nā'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King) e thānī nā'ib (Second or Under-Deputy).

In the 14th century playing cards, called naibbe (a term of uncertain origin) by the Spanish, spread widely across Europe.  We can assume that they appeared  in the first half of the century, since the first related documents date from the second half. As matters now stand, the most accredited hypothesis is that our cards and their suits come from Mamluk Egypt whence they reached the West through commerce.

We are now going to analyse a possible Latin origin of card suits, based on the following information given by Fulvio Fava, who studies the matter: «About 200-300 B.C. Roman coins were called aes, specifically “aes signatum”, of a rectangular shape; these coins clearly show the designs of the ace of clubs, the ace of swords and the ace of coins, as well as a vase which might have led to the ace of cups. Since it is clear that the word Ace  comes straight from the Latin term referring to coins (in fact in some regions a card game is called  "scopa d'asse"), we should wonder whether in fact the suits of our cards come from the Latin world and not from the Arabic one. It is true that the historical comparisons based on antique decks and the absence of documents about their actual earlier diffusion in Italy would lead us somewhere else, but it is equally true that the first actual "explosion" of production and variety of styles occurred in Italy. If we observe the most antique cards from Piacenza and Naples (but also the present ones) we note that they are more similar to the coins than to Saracen cards (this is true both for the Aces, completely similar to the aes signatum, and for the suits corresponding to the designs of the later aes grave); I therefore think this is a kind of tribute to Italian history. I don’t know when it happened, but  “our” suits are the same as the prototypes for Roman coins and consequently the first Italian coins, and this cannot and must not be considered as a casual coincidence» (2).

With regard to our analysis, the Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana (Etymological Dictionary of Italian Language) by Ottorino Pianigiani (1907) writes about  the term “asso” or “asse”: “Copper coin weighing twelve ounces, that is, a pound, called by the Romans AS (by the Greeks ÈIS, Doric dialect ES, Tarentine dialect AS) which means one. It comes from the Indo-European root AK,  to see, which is also in the Sanskrit  AKSA, ÀKSI, eye, wherefore the primitive meaning of eye (that is the dot or pip) of the dice and then the number one. It represented the monetary unit of the Romans: therefore the term itself gave the idea of the whole and was used to indicate  Universality or Totality of goods. This is why the law still says Asse ereditario (hereditary) to denote the whole inheritance(others liken AS to AES copper and metaph. coin, which they compare with  the Sanskrit AYAS  metal)”.


In Pianigiani’s opinion the term “ace” would therefore come from “asse”, directly originating from the analogy eye-small dot/pip and from the one of dice, to be later adapted also to the number one of playing cards.  However a big obstacle to this reading is that it is now certain that aes does not come from AS but actually from AES, a term indicating the various copper mixtures (from the Sanskrit  krsnam ayas = black metal , indicating not raw metals but fusion products, mainly bronze). This weakens the  strained relationship between the die and the Roman coin and obliges us to look for other solutions: the first and most evident one is in fact given by Fulvio Fava’s considerations " the aces have their names because they are directly inspired by the pre-coins called "asse".

Let us now examine the coin called AES, used by the Romans from Numa Pompilio’s reign as reported by Pliny (3). In fact Numa introduced copper processing into the furnaces working gold and silver for monetary purposes. At first the coins were square, called later (4) because of the analogy to bricks and specifically  Aes rude since they did not have any impression or embossment. As time went by, gold and silver coins took different shapes, while copper coins maintained their original square one. Pliny writes that it was Servius Tullius who added embossed symbols to the type of Aes which was called Aes signatum for this reason: “Servius rex primus signavit aes rudi ante usos romanus Timaeus tradit”. The name Aes grave was given to copper coins in the early fourth century, when they tendend to be circular and double-embossed, with the mark of the numbers of their legal value. The pictures below this article provide examples of Aes Grave marked with these values (embossed dots), among which are various figures with vases/cups and clubs.


Returning to the Aes signatum, the first types of embossments were armed trunks, that is, twigs with sharp-pointed leaves; later dolphins and tridents together with clubs and branches appeared. In the late epoch we find signs and symbols from the animal world (for example, oxen, chickens, pigs, elephants) together with the Roman eagle and popular or military tools, such as vases and swords. All the symbologies adopted refer to Roman history: for example the ox reminds us of the perimeter of the town traced by Romulus, the elephants are connected to the war against Pyrrhus as are the pigs which, as  Aelianus reports in De Natura Animalium (1,38), were used to frighten the elephants: the pigs were covered with pitch and burned so that their groans frightened the elephants. In Le monete dell’Italia Antica (Coins of ancient Italy) byRaffaele Garrucci we find a lot of information justifying the presence of the various animals and the objects on the different types of coins of Aes signatum and Aes Grave. He writes about chickens: “The auspicious chickens avidly pecking at polenta and making with the pieces fallen on the ground the tripudium solistimum  was considered to be a favourable sign” (5).


Men’s belief in the 14th century that playing cards had come from the Arabic world is confirmed in various documents of the time. As an example we remember the Cronaca di Viterbo, written by  Giovanni di Juzzo di Covelluzzo, which reports the following information: “ Year 1379 the card game coming from  Saracinia and called  Naib was brought to Viterbo”; moreover in the inventory of the goods of the Duke and Duchess of Orléans (Louis of Valoise e Valentina Visconti) “ a deck of Saracen cards and a deck from Lombardy” are listed (1408). Obviously this is a very probable origin. The analytic philosopher Carlo Penco writes about it: “ Only the dates of the actual presence of European cards (1370) and the following reference to Islamic cards (1379) stand in favour of the proposition that Islamic cards come from European ones. If we wish to follow this way we must make improbable hypotheses: 1 – European cards first spread throughout Persia,  later they reached the Arab countries in a very short time and came back to Europe after few years. 2 – European cards were used in Europe much earlier than 1370 and spread throughout the Arab countries via Persia. Not only are both the hypotheses highly improbable, but they have no historical  justification at all” (6).


So it might be possible to hypothize  that the Aes, which spread widely in the Imperial Age (7) at the time of the Persian wars, became so popular in the Middle-Eastern world  as to suggest, many centuries later, the symbols to be inserted into the playing cards, where the dot value was replaced by the complete figures of the element of each suit. Since the word Ace comes from our Latin, all these considerations make the hypothesis proposed by Fulvio Fava very probable. If this were true, the coin suit would not depict coins but the figure of the Sun which in the Aes is constantly found combined with that of the Moon.

Certainly, beyond the similarity between some symbols in the Aes and in playing cards, it is surprising to observe how in a lot of antique cards we find the same figures of animals as in the  Aes, such as the elephant which, at first in the Guadagni collection of Florence (which makes us presume it was found in Tuscan ground), later went to enrich the vast collection of the British Museum. And in fact the elephant is depicted in many decks of the Minchiate Fiorentine, as is shown in one of the cards below. Perhaps it is not due to a case that the image portrayed on the Three of Swords in the Minchiate is a wolf in the act of breast-feed Romulus and Remus.

                   Assso di Spade                                Asso di bastone

Aes signatum: Sword                                                       Aes signatum: Baton/Club
                     Unknown origin, British Museum                                 Unknown origin, British Museum

         Sole                     Asso di Coppe             
Aes grave: Globe of the shining Sun                                                     Aes grave: Vase / Cup
                with 14 rays, 7 mayor and  7 minor                                   Once at the  Kircherian Museum in Rome
Umbrian origin. Once at the  Kircherian Museum in Rome 

                            Luna e Sole
                                                                                         Aes grave: Moon and Sun
The two sides of the above-described coin depicting the shining Sun
                                                    Umbrian origin.  Once at the Kircherian Museum in Rome 

          Bastoni con note                      Clava con note                                                    
    Aes grave: Batons with note of value                                          Aes grave: Baton with note od value
                                     Apulian Origin                                                                              Umbrian origin 

              Coppa con note 2                                Coppa con note
                Aes grave: Vase / Cup with note of value                                  Aes grave: Vase / Cup with note of value
                                    Origin: Latium                                                                                  Origin: Latium
               Once at the Kircherian Museum in Rome                                Once at the Kircherian Museum in Rome 

       Aquila           Sagitta valori diversi
                    Aes signatum: Eagle with spear / lightning                                    Aes grave: Spear/ Lightning
           Found at Velletri with another Aes of the sword tipe                                   with note of value                       
                    Once at the Kircherian Museum in Rome                            Once at the  Kircherian Museum in Rome     

 Elefante     Galline        
                         Aes signatum: Elephant                                                         Aes signatum: Pecking hens
      Probable Tuscan origin, British Museum                                    
Unknown origin, British Museum

                  Elefante carta                                            Galline carta      
Four of Coins with elephant                                                             Five of Swords with hends
      "Etruria" Minchiate from Florence, 18th century            "Etruria" Minchiate  from Florence, 18th century

                      Cinque di denari                                                  Asso sole
Five of Coins as shining Suns                                                  Ace of Coins as shining Sun with aegle
          Playing card from Piacenza, XVIII  century                                     Present playing card from Piacenza

                              Aes coppe
Aes sgnatum: Spearhead / Vase (front and back)
                                                             Rome, 280-240 b.c. London, British Museum

                                       Asso di coppe                          Lupa
Ace of Cups                                                                       Three of Swords
                                            Playing card from a Sicilian deck                       "Etruria" Minchiate from Florence, 18th century
                                   realized by Martino Azzarello, Palermo, 1924


1 - In The American Anthropologist, Volume VIII, January 1895, pages 61-78.
2 - Father Daniel was one of the first supporters of the derivation of Aces from Roman coinage. He brought out his thesis in the article Origine du jeu de pique, trouvé dans l'histoire de France (Origin of the game of Pique, found in the history of France), in "Journal de Trevoux", May 1720. Cited by Cesare Cantù, Storia Universale (Universal History), Volume X, Period XI, Turin, 1842, pp. 221-222. Father Daniel also claimed that the game of Tarot (Ludus Triumphorum) appeared prior to  Piquet, which he placed at around 1430. A thesis which we find ourselves in perfect agreement. 
3 - N. H. 1, XXXIII
4 - Varro, De Vita Populi Romani, pr. Nonio, 2, 481; 12,9. Pliny, H. N. XXXIII, 3,17.
5 - Rome, 1885, page 6.
6 - Carlo Penco, I Tarocchi di Dummett (Dummett’s Tarot), Draft 1.1.2011, pages 3-4.
7 - For the smaller values they had a copper aes (10.90 gr.), its multiples in orichalcum, a metal like brass, called dupondius (two aes) and sestertius (four aes); for submultiples we had a copper quadrant (1/4 of an aes)