Harpastum, also known as harpustum, is a game devised from the Greek game of episkyros. It was a social ball game played on a rectangular field. It 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 game’s name is derived from the ball that they used. The two games played quite similarly to each other.
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 ball was small and 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.
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.