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Harpastum - A Roman Sport

Harpastum (or haprustum) was a popular ball game played during the time of the Roman Empire. It was also referred to as the small ball game. While historians are unsure about the word etymology, it is said to possibly derive from the word “harpago” which means “an iron-grabbing tool with fingers”. Another possible origin is from the Greek word “harpazein” which means “to grab”.

The game may be a Roman version of the Greek game called “phaininda” or another Greek game called ”episkyros”.

Historians don’t have many details on the exact rules of harpastum, but there are sources indicating that at some point the game became violent and some players fall on the ground often, while in Greece, a spectator had his leg broken when he was caught in the middle of a game.

From the writings obtained about Harpastum by ancient writers, the general idea of how they describe the game is similar to rugby. Other descriptions included a “line was drawn in the dirt” and teams would make an effort to keep the ball behind their side of the line and stop the opposing team from snatching it.

Harpastum player a stone carving of Harpastum from the National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The ball the Romans used was hard and small, smaller than soccer-sized balls. It was quite similar to the size and solidity of a regular softball.

The teams consisted of not more than twelve players. The field consisted of boundary sidelines and was split into two.  Both teams stayed in their respective areas, which were the two divided areas of the field. The game was all about tackling the opposing member who had the ball (think rugby), then steal the ball away and bringing it to their side to obtain a score. 

While there is very limited evidence of how the game completely works, no one is sure how the game starts. Some say they started it with a coin toss. The game ends, an idea with no official evidence as well, when the team reached 21 points.

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