Ball-playing was popular among the Romans, and they often spent their morning exercises playing games on the fields (palaestra) or ball-courts (sphaerista). The Romans enjoyed a variety of ball games, including Handball (Expulsim Ludere), Trigon, Soccer, Field Hockey, Harpasta, Phaininda, Episkyros, and certainly Catch and other games that children might invent, like perhaps Dodge Ball. Pila was the term used for ball playing in general, but is here used to define the circular version of harpasta, which may have been the most popular ball game in Roman times. An additional game called Roman Ball is invented here in an attempt to fill in the gaps of our knowledge about ancient circular ball games. The pages linked on the right provide descriptions of these games.

    Romans Playing Ball

    This fresco shows several young men playing at ball. It is from an underground tomb in Rome, 1st century AD. The one wearing just the tunic may be throwing the ball but it is difficult to judge for sure. They are barefoot like athletes, but which ball game this picture actually represents is not certain, except that it does not appear to be Trigon.

    The Bikini Girls

    This seemingly anachronistic fresco shows Roman girls exercising in bikinis. In the top portion above, the girl on the left is catching what looks like a football, but it is actually a medicine ball of oblong shape, called a paganica. These were commonly used for exercise in Rome. The other young lady is exercising with dumbells. Note that she has the characteristic deltoids of a female weightlifter -- indicating this is not merely an artistic impression.

    The portion shown above shows two girls playing catch or volleying a ball as in Trigon. Note that it looks softball sized, in the hands of Roman girls and resembles the game shown in the first image of the ballplayers above. The ball they are playing with, is either the harpastum or the small follis.This fresco comes from Sicily, the Piazza Armesina, and dates from the first half of the 4th century AD.

    Greek Soccer?

    This marble relief from the National Museum of Archeology in Athens shows a Greek athlete balancing a ball on his thigh, supposedly demonstrating a training technique to the boy. The ball is clearly a folis, an inflated ball, not a floppy paganica like in the first part of the Bikini Girls image. The Greeks surely played a form of soccer, since the game was popular in the streets of Rome (Ref. Cicero), but the Greeks left us no descriptions. The boy may possibly be bouncing another ball, or carrying it or a cloth. Click image for full size version.

    Roman Soccer Ball?

    Soccer is a natural game and although the Romans may not have played team soccer there are references to boys kicking balls around in the streets. Cicero described one court case in which a man getting a shave was killed when a ball was kicked into the barber. The ball must have been an inflated pila. The mosaic from Ostia at left shows what appears to be an inflated pila, stitched in the fashion of modern soccer balls. Considering that this scene represents a gym, it might be also a paganica, or medicine ball, but paganicas are always shown as oblong.

    Ancient Greeks Playing Baseball?

    This ceramic votive was found in Corinth, an ancient metal-working center. The fellow to the left who seems to be swinging a bat is working a bellows. The object held by the other fellow is perhaps a ball of clay or a lump of metal. The ancient Egyptians actually played a game in which a ball was struck with a bat and two players would attempt to catch it, but this game either faded or became the cricket-like game of the Romans.

    Baseball equipment has evolved over the decades, and has brought the game of baseball to a new level.

    Greek Cricket?

    This Greek vase shows two boys playing a game that resembles cricket, without a bat. The boy to the left is throwing a ball and the boy at the right is prepared to catch it if it misses the object, a wicket. This was a children's game, but the rules are not known. This game has been called ephedrismos, and is sometimes referred to as the same game shown in the next section. This vase is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.Click image for full size version. In the image below, the same game may be depicted on the left where a goal similar to that of cricket seems to be set up. What game they are playing here, however, is uncertain.

    Below is yet another image of this intriguing ball game, but this time girls are playing. This capped vase is known as a pyxis and on the back side are shown images of girls playing with tali, or knucklebones. This pyxis is in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Chicken Catch?

    This restored Greek vase shows boys playing a ball game in which one player rides on the back of another. The fellow to the left is throwing a ball and the boy on top at the right is prepared to catch it. This particular game was common among children, but what the rules were, if there were indeed any, are not known with certainty. This game was also played by girls and C. Robert said, in 1879, that this game was still being played in parts of Northern Greece. This vase is from National Museum in Athens. Click image for full size version. See these images also vase2 and vase3.

    The same game was played in Egypt in 2500 BCE as evidenced by the image at left from the tomb of Beni-Hasan. Egyptian youths played sports nude, as did Greek adults. In Sparta both sexes played nude, but girls reportedly took greater pleasure in watching males play than vice-versa. They were also much more vocal, making endless quips of every sort. See also Beni-Hasan image2

    Greek Phaininda?

    This Greek relief shows athletes playing Phaininda, the Greek precursor to Roman Harpastum. The athlete at the far left is hurling a ball, and in the full size image it would appear the players are lined up and prepared to catch or bat the ball back. See Harpastum for more on this game. This marble relief is from the National Museum in Athens. Click image for full size version.

    Greek Field Hockey

    In the marble relief above are Greek athletes playing field hockey, a game that is still played today in much of its original form. Greek Field Hockey came originally from Egypt. This relief is from the National Museum in Athens.


    This linen ball above was
    found in an Egyptian tomb.
    The Romans had several different types of balls for their games -- hard balls, soft balls, bouncing balls, large balls and small balls. They even had a glass ball and a ball of stone the size of a bowling ball was found in Pompeii. At least six distinct types of balls can be identified:

    1. The Trigon
    2. The Follis or Pila
    3. The Follis Pugillatorius or small Follis
    4. The Pila Paganica
    5. The Harpastum
    6. Wool Balls

    The two types of follis most certainly bounced. The paganica and harpastum did not. Balls made of wool would have bounced poorly. The two balls at right were found in an Egyptian tomb from the Roman period and are about 5" in diameter. Notice the striking similarity to the Bikini Girls ball. They are made of linen and hair wrapped in string and sewn together. These wouldn't have bounced well but were probably used for games like Trigon, harpasta, or Field Hockey.

    How could the Romans make a bouncing ball? There are at least three good ways the craftsmen of Rome could have done this :

    1. Pig bladders inflated and wrapped tight in leather, pigskin or deerskin.
    2. Catgut (animal sinew) wound into a ball (like the ball of string at right, also from an Egyptian tomb) and wrapped in leather or deerskin.
    3. Chopped sponges wrapped in string and cloth.

    The first two would probably bounce well, depending on the quality of materials and manufacture, but the third would probably not. People in Turkey and Egypt still make homemade soccer balls this way. They wrap the sponges in string to first define a sphere, and then wrap this in cloth for protection. The Attic vase image below shows a dancer with a soccer-like ball. Dancing girls often used balls to provide entertainment in both ancient Greece and Eqypt. Notice again the similarity of the ball construction to the Bikini Girls image and the Egyptian balls.

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