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Harpastum: Wikis


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Harpastum, also known as Harpustum, was a form of ball game played in the Roman Empire. The Romans also referred to it as the small ball game. The ball used was small (not as large as a follis, paganica, or football-sized ball) and hard, probably about the size and solidity of a softball.

This game was apparently a romanized version of a Greek game called phaininda. It involved considerable speed, agility, and physical exertion. Little is known about the exact rules of the game, but it appears to bear a remarkable resemblance to rugby and thus the other games that have developed from rugby, American football and Rugby League. Sources indicate the game was a violent one with players often ending up on the ground. In Greece, a spectator (of the Greek form of the game) once had his leg broken when he got caught in the middle of play.

Harpastum was a team game that probably had a variable number of players (in a similar way to early football). It was played on a demarked rectangular field, probably about the size used in field hockey, the playing surface is unknown but reports suggest it was dirt or grass and not a formal court.


Writings related to 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."
  • Galen, in On Exercise with the Small Ball [2], describes Harpastum as:
"better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing."; it was "profitable training in strategy", and could be "played with varying degrees of strenuousness." Galen adds, "When, for example, people face each other, vigorously attempting to prevent each other from taking the space between, this exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one, involving much use of the hold by the neck, and many wrestling holds."
  • An anonymous poet [3] praises the ball skills of Piso:
"No less is your nimbleness, if it is your pleasure to return the flying ball, or recover it when falling to the ground, and by a surprising movement get it within bounds again in its flight. To watch such play the populace remains stockstill, and the whole crowd suddenly abandons its own games."
"Phaininda takes its name from Phaenides, who first invented it, or from 'phenakizein' (to deceive), because they show the ball to one man and then throw to another, contrary to expectation. It is likely that this is the same as the game with the small ball, which takes its name from 'harpazein' (to snatch); and perhaps one would call the game with the soft ball by the same name."
"And now the illustrious Filimatius sturdily flung himself into the squadrons of the players, like Virgil's hero, 'daring to set his hand to the task of youth'; he had been a splendid player himself in his youth. But over and over again, he was forced from his position among the stationary players by the shock of some runner from the middle, and driven into the midfield, where the ball flew past him, or was thrown over his head; and he failed to intercept or parry it. More than once he fell prone, and had to pick himself up from such collapses as best he could; naturally he was the first to withdraw from the stress of the game."

The general impression from these descriptions is of a game quite similar to rugby. Additional descriptions suggest a line was drawn in the dirt, and that the teams would endeavor to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from reaching it. This seems rather like an 'inverted' form of football. If the opponents had the ball on their side of the line, the objective would seem to be to get in and "pass" it to another player, or somehow get it back over the line.

The ancient accounts of the game are not precise enough to enable us to reconstruct the rules in any detail. Indeed we do not even know that there were any fixed rules. But what follows is a hypothetical reconstruction of the rules. Perhaps 5-12 players on each side of a line, on a field about the size of a football field. A team that won the toss of a coin (dice or tali have been mentioned in this context) would start with the ball sitting on their side of the line. The opposing team would try to steal the ball and get it back to their side. Presumably only the person holding the ball could be 'held,' which is why the player above passed it while dodging an opponent -- he was in danger of being tackled. Scoring might be accomplished by letting the ball hit the ground in your own territory, which may be why the ball was not allowed to hit the ground. The other characteristics of the game, such as players or balls going out of bounds, could be expected to be similar to modern rules of soccer or football.

In an epigram, Martial makes reference to the dusty game of Harpasta in reference to Atticus' preference for running as exercise [6]:

"No hand-ball (pila), no bladder-ball (follis), no feather-stuffed ball (paganica) makes you ready for the warm bath, nor the blunted sword-stroke upon the unarmed stump; nor do you stretch forth squared arms besmeared with oil, nor, darting to and fro, snatch the dusty scrimmage-ball (harpasta), but you run only by the clear Virgin water (the Aqua Virgo aqueduct)."


  1. ^ Athenaeus, "Deipnosophists", 1.14-15
  2. ^ P.N.Singer, "Galen: Selected Works" (1997), pages 299-304
  3. ^ Laus Pisonis, verses 185-187 (translated by J.W. & A.M.Duff).
  4. ^ Julius Pollux, "Onomasticon", 9.105
  5. ^ Sidonius Apollinaris, "Letters", 5.17.7 (translated by O.M.Dalton)
  6. ^ Martial, "Epigrams", 7.32

References and further reading

  • H. Harris, "Sport in Greece and Rome" (Thames & Hudson, 1972), pages 86-99
  • William Smith (ed.), "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities", - article on Pila

See also



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