Ball games in Roman culture

Ball games tend to get a relatively low profile in our accounts of ancient sport. The reasons for that are pretty clear: they were not part of the standard athletic festival programmes, at Olympia or anywhere else.

And yet Roman society was a society obsessed with ball play.

Ball games were standardly played in bath-houses and in gymnasia, for entertainment and for health. The rules are very hard to reconstruct from our sources. Most of the websites which turn up on search engines really underestimate that difficulty, and also the variety of ancient ball games (more on that below). Many of them also overemphasize the links with modern sports–especially football. But if you want a basic survey the Wikipedia pages on (for example) harpastum or episkyros at least give some of the key sources in translation.

I’ve just been reading the Latin satirist Martial, and the letters of Pliny the Younger, along with some other authors who were more or less contemporary with them (late first/early second century AD), and it’s striking how often they mention people playing with balls. It turns up over and over again, as if it’s a standard part of day-to-day elite life.

For example, Seneca complains in one of his Letters (56) about the noise from the bathhouse under his lodgings: the grunting of people lifting lead weights, the sound of massages, the sound of pickpockets being arrested. He also complains about the noise made by pilicrepi shouting out the score: the last straw, Seneca suggests. That word pilicrepus doesn’t turn up often in surviving Latin, and we’re not quite sure what it means, but this is presumably either a ball-player or a scorer. Either way, Seneca’s referring to him as if he’s a common sight (or sound) (too common for his liking) in the baths of Rome.

Medical writers talk a lot about ball play too, most importantly the great second-century AD medical writer Galen in his work On Exercise with the Small Ball. Galen hated athletes and athletics and especially athletic trainers for the damage they did to the human body and for the way they encroached on his medical expertise. But he also gave detailed instructions for alternative, more moderate types of exercise which were beneficial to the body: and the small ball is one of those.

Gaius Laberius

There’s a lot of ball play also in Roman art.

This image is from the small town of Sinj in Croatia, from a tombstone for a boy called Gaius Laberius, who has died aged 7 according to the inscription (although oddly the individual depicted seems to be much older than that). It dates as far as I can tell from the second century AD. He’s depicted here holding a ball made of hexagons, much like a modern football–presumably an attempt by grieving parents to commemorate one of the things he loved.


It’s clearly a local landmark, and a source of local pride, and taken as evidence for the origins of football not just in the Roman empire, but actually in the pre-Roman local population: for example here. There are photos here of one attempt at a recreation match, inspired by the tombstone. And the monument also apparently featured on the front page of the FIFA newsletter in 1969.

I haven’t; been able to work out exactly what those arguments are based on. On the face of it it’s hard to see what is special about this ball image compared with lots of others which survive similarly in Roman imperial art, but maybe I’m missing something… (more details gratefully received, if anyone knows).

Antyllus on the small ball

Many of the key passages on ancient ball games are listed in the standard introductory books on ancient athletics, so I won’t plough through any more of them here.

But here’s one which isn;t easily available in translation. It’s by the medical writer Antyllus, writing in the second century AD.

It’s in the context of a wider discussion of other exercises too: running, horse-riding, hoop-rolling, swimming, wrestling and shadow-boxing.

Ball exercise makes people more agile and strengthens their vital energies. There are different types of exercise according to the different types of ball. The types are the small ball, the large ball, the medium ball, the good-sized ball, and the hollow ball. There are three types of small ball, each with a separate type of exercise. The first is very small…The exercise from this is very good for the legs…Then there is another ball, a little bigger than this one…And this is the best of the ball exercises, for it makes the body healthy and nimble, and it sharpens the sight without causing congestion in the head. And then there is a third ball bigger than these two which they play standing apart at a distance. There is a stationary version and a running version. In the first they stand and throw the ball repeatedly and forcefully. This exercises the arms and the eyes. The running version exercises the arms and the eyes in the same way as the previous one, but it also benefits the legs through running, and the backbone through the twists and turns which place during running. (CMG 6.1.1, 185-6)

And much more of the same…

It’s a fairly austere account. It doesn’t help us to reconstruct the rules. But what is amazing, I think, is all the complex subdivisions here. Clearly ball play in the ancient world came in a vast variety of different forms. It had something for everyone (or something for every part of the body, if you’re a medical writer like Antyllus).

We can at least see that ball play had its own very rich and complex culture in the ancient world, even if the nuances and the details are lost to us…