I have heard of the ancient Roman game known as Harpastum. What rules of this games are known? I have two particular principal points of interest, how were points scored and what happened (i.e. was there some kind of penalty or score) if a player holding the ball was 'tackled' by an opponent?

  • According to Wikipedia, almost nothing except the size of the ball, and that it was like a keep-away rugby: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpastum Sep 30, 2013 at 3:51
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    Thanks. Yes I saw the wikipedia article. I was hoping that someone might have more info. I have nothing against wikipedia but it isn't always definitive. Sep 30, 2013 at 3:56
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    That's why I posted it as a comment instead of an answer. ;-) Sep 30, 2013 at 4:00
  • There is a "inverse rugby" game played with a small ball in Gotland since time immemorial, called "Pärk". It's not violent, and there is no documented relationship to Harpastum, but if you are interested in making a fantasy-recreation or something, Pärk could be a good inspiration. sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A4rk Sep 30, 2013 at 6:34
  • What happens is that everyone lines up and then every tenth guy is taken out of the line and stabbed to death. Oh, wait, that is something else. Oct 27, 2015 at 18:49

1 Answer 1


All this is based on HARPASTUM, from AerobiologicalEngineering.com: (Original source citations are from my own research)

Harpastum was known as the Small Ball Game. The ball was "small" by virtue of its not being as large as a follis, paganica, or soccer-sized ball. This was a hard ball probably about the size and solidity of a softball.

This game was apparently a Romanized version of a Greek game called phaininda. It involved considerable speed, agility, and physical exertion. It must have been played on dirt or a lawn, not on a court, since players often ended up on the ground. In Greece, a spectator once had his leg broken when he got caught in the middle of play.

We know little about the exact rules of the game, but it appears to bear a remarkable resemblance to American Football and Rugby. Harpastum was a team game that probably had a variable number of players. It was played on a demarked rectangular field, probably about the size used in field hockey.

Atheneaus - Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists, Book 1, 26: (Original Greek is found here...)

Harpastum, which used to be called Phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, "Damn it, what a pain in the neck I've got." He describes the game thus: "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."

Galen, in On Exercise with the Small Ball1, describes harpastum as:

...better then wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing. He also considered it profitable training in strategy, and said that it could be played with varying degrees of strenuousness...

Translation by Alexander Adam of a passage from Isidor:

Ludere expulsim, vel pilam geminare volantem -- When they snatched the ball from one another, and threw it aloft, without letting it fall to the ground.

The general impression from these descriptions is of a game quite similar to rugby. Additional descriptions suggest a line was drawn in the dirt, and that the teams would endeavor to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from reaching it. This seems rather like an 'inverted' form of football. If the opponents had the ball on their side of the line, the objective would seem to be to get in and "pass" it to another player, or somehow get it back over the line.

From these descriptions, the diagram at right (below) provides a typical starting position. Perhaps 5-12 players on each side of a line, on a field about the size of a football field. A team that won the toss of a coin (dice or tali have been mentioned in this context) would start with the ball sitting on their side of the line. The opposing team would try to steal the ball and get it back to their side. Presumably only the person holding the ball could be 'held,' which is why the player above passed it while dodging an opponent -- he was in danger of being tackled. Scoring might be accomplished by letting the ball hit the ground in your own territory (?), which may be why the ball was not allowed to hit the ground. The other characteristics of the game, such as players or balls going out of bounds, could be expected to be similar to modern rules of soccer or football.

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1 P.N.Singer, "Galen: Selected Works" (1997), pages 299-304

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    I am new to this particular SE site. Is it normally acceptable here to copy-paste an entire answer from another website (even if attributed?). I note that this source doesn't cite its sources (although it does note some translated passages, it doesn't tell you where it got them from). If this is normally acceptable here (it would not be on other SE sites I am more familiar with) then I will accept this answer. Oct 1, 2013 at 22:27
  • @Bogdanovist - OK. Researched the sources and added them. See edit.
    – user2590
    Oct 1, 2013 at 23:26

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