Ancient Ball Games: The Mediterranean

Ancient Ball Games: The Mediterranean

Episkyros (Greece)

Around 2000 BC, the Greeks played a ball game called episkyros. The game was played primarily by men and sometimes women. Regardless of their gender, the Greeks usually played nude.
A marble relief from the National Museum of Archeology in Athens shows an athlete balancing the ball on his thigh, supposedly teaching the technique to a boy. This very same image is nowadays featured on the European Cup trophy. The ball seen in the relief is clearly a “follis” or an inflated ball. Early balls were made of linen and hair wrapped in string and sewn together. These probably would not have bounced very well. Later Greek balls like the follis were made from inflated pig bladders wrapped in tight leather.

Harpastum (The Roman Empire)

Harpastum meaning “the small ball game” was popular for 700-800 years and played with a relatively small and hard ball. The game was played by 5-12 players on a rectangular field marked by boundary lines and split by a center line. Each team had to keep the ball in their own half for as song as they can, while their opponents tried to steal it and get it over to their own side. An important rule of harpastum stated that only the player with the ball could be tackled. Players had specific team roles and a lot of trickery and tactics were probably involved. The feet were scarcely used in the game of harpastum, but a striking resemblance to rugby should be noted.
Emperor Julius Caesar (who is speculated to have played himself) used harpastum to maintain the physical fitness of his soldiers and keep them battle ready. It is also believed that the Romans took harpastum to the British Isles during their territorial expansion. By the time of their arrival, less-sophisticated kicking games were probably already present on the British Isles. There are records of a harpastum match played between the Romans and the British natives. Even although the conquerors won, harpastum eventually faded out and it is very unlikely that it could have impacted the later development of rugby.

Ostia mosaic depicting what appears to be an inflated ball

A Roman mosaic from Ostia depicts what appears to be an inflated ball stitched similarly in the fashion of modern soccer balls. There are historical references of Roman boys playing ball in the streets. Cicero described one court case in which a man getting a shave was killed when a ball accidentally hit the barber.

The Greek rhetorician Atheneaus who lived in the late second century A.D. wrote this about harpastum:
Harpastum, which used to be called Phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, “Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.” He describes the game thus: “He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum.

References and further reading:
Jan Theo Bakker on Ostia
Athenaeus on Wikipedia

Updated: April 7, 2017
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