Did the Ancient Romans play ball games?

Now we are all exhausted from football and tennis, one crucial question remains – did the Ancient Romans play ball games?

It is not known if they played tennis or football – tennis was originally thought to have been invented by monks in Northern France in around 1100AD and was certainly played by the Tudors in the 1500s. It is thought tennis originated as a ball-in-palm game known as jeu de paume in France, rather than with rackets, with the ball being hit with the palm of the hand. Ouch.

But the Ancient Romans were known to like throwing a selection of balls of different sizes around to entertain themselves and keep fit. There were three different sizes of ball in Ancient Rome – pila was a small ball and perhaps the most commonly used in ball games in Ancient Rome. Follis was a larger ball which was inflated with air, so was perhaps an early forerunner of the football or even beach ball (seeing as Rome is reasonably near the coast at Lazio). Ancient texts also mention a ball known as paganica, but there is no further information about the game or size of the ball.

Modern Romans playing street football

It would be nice to think that pila and follis, based on their respective sizes, were early forms of tennis balls and footballs, however – although the Ancient Romans seemed to be fonder of throwing balls to each other and catching them, rather than using sticks to hit them with or kicking them.

There is an image of Ancient Roman men throwing balls to each other at the Baths of Titus (Thermae Titi) dating from AD81 – the artist (and fabulously named) Fabullus designed the frescoes and relief sculptures at the baths, so he must have been familiar with ball games played and they were common enough to form the subject of a public mural.

It is also known that doctors in Ancient Rome prescribed exercise to their patients, including playing ball games.

The Ancient Romans might not have played tennis and football, but they were certainly kept on their toes with pila and follis – and played games where they stood opposite each other and threw the ball back and forth, as in catch.

If only they had known about the joys of line calls and the offside rule, they could have taken their ball games to a whole new level…

Bernini’s sculpture of David serving for the match by aiming his shot at Goliath, Borghese Gallery


All photos copyright A. Meredith


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