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Ancient Romans playing Harpastum

Harpastum: The Ancient Roman Empire Ball Game

Harpastum, also known as harpustum, is an ancient Roman game devised from the Greek game called episkyros. It was a social ball game played on a rectangular field. (It was also known as the small ball game in that era) Harpastum became popular when the roman empire ruled Europe. It’s hard to provide a specific period when harpastum was played due to the lack of evidence remaining. However, archeologists suggest the sport started around the 5th century BC. They believe it was popular for 700-800 years. The ancient Roman game’s name is derived from the ball that they used. The two games played quite similarly to each other.

re-enactment of harpastum


Barbaric Rugby

Harpastum has been quoted as a ‘barbaric form of rugby‘ on some websites. Yet, there is little evidence that this was the case. Very little is known about the rules, and the general impression from roman writings is that the game was similar to rugby or American football today. To succeed in this harpastum, you required agility, speed, and endurance. The size of the field was roughly the same as a hockey field. From accounts from roman authors, we get the impression that the small harpastum ball was relatively firm compared to a modern-day softball.

There is speculation that Julius Caesar played harpastum to maintain physical fitness. Soldiers were known to have played too, especially when preparing for upcoming battles.

Can you use hands when playing harpastum

How It Was Played

The game involved two teams. Like episkyros, two teams would line of 12-14 players each. The aim was to keep the ball on their half of the field for as long as possible. Teammates would pass the ball among their teammates in an attempt to get the ball alive in their zone. It appears that you were allowed to tackle, wrestle or fight to prevent the opposing team from retrieving the ball. What we don’t know is how points were scored to determine the winner of a match.

As it was a team sport, harpastum never appeared in the Ancient Olympics. However, history mentions that the game made its way to the British Isles when the Romans expanded their empire.

Tombstone of a boy with Harpastum ball

Harpastum Ball

Ruins of a military camp in Sinj, Croatia, revealed a Roman tombstone. In the sculpture, a boy holds a harpastum ball. Similar to modern-day football (soccer), the harpastum ball portrayed on this monument is hexagonal and pentagonal in shape.

Other ball games played in ancient roman times were Follis and Trigon. Follis is considered to be similar to volleyball in modern times. Forearms or fists would be used to strike a leather ball so that it wouldn’t touch the ground. Three players are thought to be involved in Trigon, which was more of a juggling game. A roman ball is thrown between three people who stand in a triangle shape catching with your right hand and throwing with your left.

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