In a breezy, sunny morning, a Roman citizen went out to the barber shop. He sat outside, comfortably installed on the sidewalk so he could watch around while the barber was shaving his beard. His arms sank to his sides; his eyes were half-closed.
Suddenly, the barber thrust the razor in his throat. The man died on the spot.
No, this is not an account of the brutal everyday life in ancient Rome. That is what Cicero told once in the court, explaining that the kids on the street kicked the ball into the barber, and he accidentally killed the man.
No matter how unfortunate such a death could have been for an ancient Roman citizen, this story is one of the sources confirming the existence of ancient ball games. Several of them have sunk into oblivion. Others, though, have survived and turned into some of the most popular modern games.
Like what for example?
Balls in Antiquity
Five Ancient Greek and Roman Ball Games
Mosaic from la Villa del Casale in Sicily
It was probably a children game. Reportedly preferred for playing by girls, but there was no evidence that boys didn’t play as well.
The name of the game comes from the Greek word for “sky” and supposes throwing a ball as high as one could do. Although the rules are not well known today, a ball, most likely, was thrown up into the air, and the players strove to catch it back, apparently before it reached the ground.
One interpretation of ourania suggests a bit more sophisticated rules. Selected by lot, a player took the ball, and the others formed a circle around him. The one in the circle threw the ball high in the air and called one of the players’ names. That player entered the circle and tried to catch the ball before it fell down on the ground. If he succeeded, he would throw the ball from the center calling the name of someone else.
Ancient Greek practicing with a ball, relief on the belly of a vase,
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
This ancient Greek ball game was the favorite game at Sparta. It was played equally by men and women who competed usually nude.
It resembled the modern-day game of football, except that the use of hands was allowed. It was played by two teams (of 12-14 players each) whose goal was to throw the ball beyond the line bordering of the field of their opponents. The ground was usually divided into two parts. A line (called skuros) marked the center, and two other lines marked the end of the playing fields. The players would use different techniques and tricks trying to snatch the ball away and send it beyond the line of the adversaries.
In Sparta, episkyros was played in a special annual festival where at least five teams competed. The game was later adopted by the Romans who turned it in their popular game harpastum.
Episkyros is recognized as an early form of football by FIFA.
Phaininda was an ancient Greek game similar to the episkyros, played by smaller groups (approximately five players per team). According to the ancient texts, its name derives from the Greek verb fenakidzo (φενακίζω – “to lie, to cheat”) and most probably was a “deceiving" type of game.
As a part of the game, the players of one team passed a small ball to their mates, often pretending to throw it to a particular player and then suddenly turning and throwing it to another.
The playing field was divided into three parts (a home field for every team and the middle one being a center), and every one of them had a separate referee. At the beginning of the match, the ball was thrown in the center-field, and the players started chasing it, dodging around and trying to avoid the attacks of the opponents. The passes of one team from the outfields to the center-field marked scores while the passes into the central area weren’t counted as points. After a score, the group which didn’t score got the ball in their field and the scoring team occupied the center-field in order to block passes in the area. The game ended after reaching a certain amount of scores.
Apparently phainidia was as violent as episkyros, as the ancient texts say that just about any form of unarmed combat was allowed in preventing the opponent from passing or catching.
Ancient Roman fresco, depicting three men playing with a ball
A hard ball type of juggling game played in ancient Rome. It was probably a Romanized version of a similar Greek game called trigon (τρίγων – “triangle”). Its name derives from the Greek trigonos ( τρίγωνος – “triangular”).
A description of trigon is believed to exist in Petronius’s “Satyricon". The main character Trimalchio is presented to play (although not following the exact rules) with some of his slaves.
As the name of the game suggests, three players stood in the form of a triangle. They passed a hard ball back and forth, always catching with the right hand and throwing with the left hand. Skillful players were supposed to do all the play with their left hand, as we can see from the poet Martial’s verse:
Si me nobilibus scis expulsare sinistris,
Sum tua. Tu nescis? rustice, redde pilam.
Martial, Epigrams, xiv, 46
(If you can strike me back with those famed left-hand blows,
I am yours. Can't you? peasant, return the ball.)
According to the rules, a player should throw the ball to one of the other participants. If that one dropped the ball, the first would score a point. If the ball wasn’t catchable, though, the second player would have the point. As catchable was considered anything within reach.
A fourth person, whose role was to be the scorekeeper, could take a decision on the disputable cases. Retrieving stray balls was another of his duties in the game. Whoever got first certain amount of points, won.
A form of a small ball game played in the Roman Empire, a Romanized version of the Greek game phaininda. Galen recommended it as a better way of exercising the whole body than doing wrestling or running.
Little is known about its rules, but the game was quite violent as some players could end up with broken legs. In fact, some think that harpastum was the ancestor of the modern rugby. In an Atheneus’ fragment, Antiphanes described the game as such: “He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of “Out of bounds,” “Too far,” “Right beside him,” “Over his head,” “On the ground,” “Up in the air,” “Too short,” “Pass it back in the scrum.”
The game was played in a field split by a center line. Two teams of 5 to 12 players tried to keep the ball in their half while the opponents did all kind of tricks to get it and bring it to their own side. Players had different roles in the team and used various tactics, some of them, apparently, violent. Only the player with the ball, though, could have been tackled.
The game had a long life.
In the 16th century, in Florence, during the days between Epiphany and Lent, the young aristocrats had the habit to dress up in silk costumes and literary clash into a form of a football game, called calcio storico - "historic kickball." The event was so harsh (as it included shoulder charges, punches, and kicks) that in 1580, Count Giovanni de’Bardi di Verino had to compose a specially written body of rules.
That work represented the earliest ever known code of football rules.