Pila simply means 'ball' in Latin and this was the term used most often by the Romans to describe ball-playing. Although the term could refer to any type of ball game, it seemed to be used most often to describe a particular ball game, much the same as Americans use the term ball game (as in "play ball") to refer to baseball. Some sources suggest that the most likely game referred to was the game called harpasta or harpastum, the "small ball game," although we can't be entirely sure. There seem to have been at least two or more games played in a circle (or triangle which might have a circle of spectators). Consider this description from Pliny's letters:
      "Over the undressing room is built the ball-court, which is large enough to admit of several different kinds of games being played at once, each with its own circle of spectators."

    In the following quotation from Sidonius, writing about 473 AD from France where communities of Latins survived, he relates some marvelous details of their pastimes:

      "By and by, having for some time felt sluggish for want of exertion, we resolved to do something energetic. Thereupon we raised a two-fold clamor demanding according to our ages either ball or tabula, and these were soon forthcoming.I was the leading champion at ball, for as you know, ball no less than book is my constant companion. On the other hand, our most charming and delightful brother, Domnicius, had seized the dice and was busy shaking them, as a sort of trumpet-call summoning the players to the battlements of the pyrgus. We on our part played with a troupe of students, indeed played hard until our limbs, deadened by inactive sedentary work, were reinvigorated by the healthy exercise. Here the illustrious Philomathius resolutely plunged into the ranks of the ball-players. "Daring, even he, to essay vigorously the toil of youths," as the Mantuan poet (Virgil) has it. He had been a fine player, but that was when still quite young. Now he was repeatedly pushed by the inside runner from his place in the standing circle, then again, being brought to inside the ring, he failed alike to cut across or to dodge the path of the ball on its course, as it flew close to his face or was flung over his head; and he would often bend low in a flying tackle and then scarcely manage to recover from his staggering swerve. So he was the first to retire from the stress and strain of the game, puffing and blowing in a state of internal inflammation: indeed, his poor swollen liver was sending frequent stabs of pain through his overtaxed body."

    Different writers have interpreted this passage as referring to harpastum or to a circular version of the modern game "Monkey in the Middle." Some say that Monkey in the Middle is sometimes played around a circle but I have never observed this Stateside. Perhaps Europeans have a version that is circular (as indicated by Anderson below) which would make it the only circular ball game in the modern world. The game described may, in fact, be a circular version of harpastum and therefore both interpretations could be correct. Either way, this game deserves separate treatment, that is, separate from harpastum, and is here called Pila. This may very well be the game depicted on the right side of the wall painting below, in which four (or six) players are on the outside ring and one player is in the middle.

    Professor W.B. Anderson goes on to describe play as follows:

      "...the game which many of us used to play in a simple and crude form -- standing in a ring with one player in the middle, who tries to intercept and secure the ball as it is thrown from one player to another. In the game described by Sidonius...the players apparently formed up in a circle or a double row, with one man (the medius currens, "runner in the middle," "inside runner") in the centre of the ring or play-space (area). A ball was passed from one to another of the players, and the inside man tried to intercept the passes and, presumably, to secure the ball. When he succeeded in doing so either the thrower or or the man for whom the pass was intended would change places with the medius currens. A good deal of jostling and horseplay was evidently allowed. The meaning of catastropha is a problem... I think catastropha ("overturning", "upsetting") was a technical term, applied to a diving tackle by which the medius currens tried to upset the man who had caught, or was trying to catch, the ball. He would make his dive, flinging himself forward almost doubled up; and if he is too late he has to check himself suddenly and go for the player to whom the ball has now been thrown. This twisting and turning in different directions, in which the player would be very apt to lose his balance, is here suitably indicated by ruinoso flexu (ruinoso, "tending to cause a bad fall"). The game was it seems a form of harpastum (Greek for 'seize'), "hand-ball." L.A. Post suggests that it is usually the tackled person who suffers most, not the tackler; that catastropha is simply an "upset" or an "overturn"; and that the man missed a catch and fell on his face in a falling twist (ruinoso flexu) or twisting fall.

    The low bending tackles may refer to the possibility that only tackles below the waist were permitted. A further reference is made in another letter from Sidonius as follows:

      "Hardly had I entered one vestibule or the other when behold! I found on one side opposing ball-players bending low amid the whirling evolutions of the catastrophae; in another quarter I would hear the rattling dice-boxes and of dice mingled with the rival shouts of the gamesters."

      Based on the above, and our limited knowledge of harpastum, the rules of Pila can be roughly reconstructed as follows:

        1. Between 4-10 players stand in a circle, the size of which will depend on the number of players.
        2. One additional player, the middle runner (medius currens, monkey in the middle) stands inside the circle.
        3. The ball is thrown from player to player, except that it cannot be thrown to any immediately adjacent player (it must be thrown across the players who are right next to you).
        4. The middle runner tries to intercept the ball.
        5. The middle runner may push or tackle any player who has the ball or to whom it is being thrown to dislodge it.
        5. If the ball is intercepted, the thrower becomes the middle runner.
        6. If the ball is dropped or dislodged, the player losing the ball becomes the middle runner.

      For more on the rectangular version of harpastum see the Harpastum webpage. For more on other circular ball games like sky-ball or hop-ball, see the Roman Ball webpage.

      Cicero makes mention of either this game, or perhaps harpasta, in the Republic as follows:

        "Thus the ruling power of the State, like a ball, is snatched from kings and tyrants, from tyrants by aristocrats or the people, and from them again by an oligarchical faction or tyrant, so that no single form of government ever maintains itself very long."