XVIII

BALL PLAY

BALL play¹⁸³ has been the recreation of the young of both sexes from time immemorial, and in its simpler forms is the same to-day as it was in ancient Greece or Egypt. The grace and rhythm of its movements appealed particularly to the Greeks. In Homer we find it combined with dance and song. Nausicaa and her maidens, having finished their washing, take to playing ball, and as they play they sing. The young Phaeacians, as they dance, toss to and fro a fair purple ball. Naturally, in the life of the palaestra and gymnasium, ball play occupied an important place. In contrast to athletic competitions it was suited to both sexes and to all ages. Sophocles in his youth was distinguished for his grace and skill at ball play. Alexander the Great and Dionysius the tyrant were fond of the game. There were special rooms (sphairisteria) for ball play in the palaestra, and there were teachers called sphairistai, who were often held in high honour. Among the Romans who disliked athletics ball play was very popular. The Roman gentleman played ball before bathing or to give him an appetite for the evening meal. Many of them had ball courts in their private villas. In the public baths there were professional ball players (pilicrepi) who picked up the balls and kept the score for players and also gave exhibitions of their skill.

Balls were usually made of strips of leather sewn together and were of various sizes. The smallest called harpastum ( ρπαστον) was a hard ball stuffed with hair. The pila and pila paganica were larger balls stuffed with feathers, while the largest ball, the Roman follis, seems sometimes to have been filled with air, like the Italian ‘pallone’ or football.

Some of the games have been mentioned already. Many of them were merely variations of catch-ball and required no fixed number of players, indeed a player could play by himself (Fig. 214). Thus in the game called sky-ball (o ραν α) a player threw a ball up in the air and the other players tried to catch it, or he might catch it himself. In Fig. 209 we see a variety of this game similar to one which we have also met with in Egypt (Fig. 1). Three players are riding pick-a-back on three others while a trainer prepares to throw a ball to one of them. Possibly a player who missed it had to dismount and take the other on his back. A form of ball game very popular among the Romans was called the Trigon or triangle. The players were placed at the three angles of a triangle, and threw or struck the ball to one another. There is an endless variety of such games. Another important group consisted of games where the player bounced a ball against the floor or a wall and struck it back with his hand, counting the number of strokes. Out of this game developed modern games like fives and racquets. But in these games we miss the element of competition which is so marked a feature in modern ball games. There is nothing really athletic about them.

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209. A BALL GAME. Attic b.-f. lekythos. About 500 B. C. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 260. A bearded man prepares to throw a rather large ball. Three youths mounted pick-a-back are ready to catch it. Between two of them is inscribed κ λευσον, ‘Give the order’, the application of which is not clear. A similar scene occurs on a b.-f. amphora in the B.M. 182, where the man throwing the ball is seated. On the B.M. krater E. 467 satyrs arc depicted playing the same game. See P. Gardner, Gk. Vases in the Ashmolean, 260

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210. A BALL EXERCISE. Relief on sepulchral lekythos. 4th century B.C. Athens. Conze, Die attischen Grabreliefs, 1046, ii. 2, pl. CCIII. The motive is not easy to determine. It may be a mere exercise of balance: more probably the youth is bouncing the ball on each thigh alternately. Photo. Alinari

There were, however, other ball games of a more distinctly athletic character, and recent discoveries have revealed to us the existence even of team games and competitions among the Greeks. Ball games were particularly popular at Sparta and were so important that the name Ball players (σφαιρε ς) was used to designate young Spartans in the first year of manhood. The excavations at Sparta conducted by the British School have brought to light a number of inscriptions dating from the time of the Antonines which record victories won by Spartan boys at some yearly competition.¹⁸⁴ The competition took place in the Dromos or race-course under the direction of a board of officials called Bideoi, who were responsible for the management of the Ephebic games. The teams represented the ‘obes’ or local districts of Sparta. Each team was under a Captain or Elder (πρ σβυς). We do not know the exact number of players in a team, but it cannot have been less than fifteen. The competition was conducted on the tournament system, for several inscriptions mention that the winning team had not drawn a bye. The prize seems to have been a sickle, which is represented at the head of the inscriptions; it probably had some religious significance. We do not know how the game was played, but there can be no doubt that it was sufficiently strenuous. The only Spartan game of which we have any details is that known as Platanistas. It was played on an island of the same name surrounded by ditches. Two teams of boys entered by bridges at opposite ends and each strove by fighting, hitting, kicking, even biting, to drive their opponents into the water. But for the absence of the ball the game bears no little resemblance to some of the primitive foot-ball matches which were formerly played in the streets of some of our towns.

Writers on the history of Rugby football are fond of finding an ancient parallel to their game in the game of harpastum, a game played with a small hard ball of the same name, and popular alike among Greeks and Romans. In this they are probably misled by an interesting paper by Mr. G. E. Marindin ¹⁸⁵ in which he tried to reconstruct harpastum as a game played between teams on a ground marked out like a football ground with a centre line and two goal lines. But for this reconstruction there is absolutely no evidence. Our most valuable authority on ball games is the Grammarian Julius Pollux¹⁸⁶ who lived about A.D. 180. Now Pollux does describe a team game played on such a ground, but he called it π σκυρος, and inasmuch as he says nothing of the sort about harpastum, the probability is that it was not a team game and was not played on a ground so marked at all. Further, Mr. Marindin supposes that Galen’s treatise on ‘Exercise with the Small Ball’ refers to this game and to no other. Now Galen’s small ball may or may not be the harpastum, but there is no reason to suppose that the small ball was used exclusively for one game. A cricket ball may be used for games of catch, for throwing competitions, for hockey: the uses of the tennis ball are numberless. Moreover, Galen’s work is not on the Game with the small ball but on Exercise with the small ball, or, as he says in his first chapter, Exercises.

This small ball, he argues, provides exercises suited to people of all ages and conditions, from the most gentle exercise to the most strenuous, according to the requirements of the player. A player who wants the gentlest exercise plays standing still or with quiet movements, and after a little play is massaged with oil and has a hot bath. This is the form of play suitable to old men and children. Some forms exercise the arms most, some the legs, some all parts of the body a little. The most strenuous form of play, and here Galen may be thinking of the game of harpastum, is when the players form a scrimmage round the player in the centre and try to prevent him from seizing the ball, tackling him by the neck or the body and using all the holds of the wrestling ring. In fact with the small ball a player can get just the sort of exercise and the amount that he requires. This is excellent from a medical point of view, but is quite incompatible with the description of any particular game. It would be a strange game indeed where every player could not only choose his own part in the game but also how much or how little he has to exert himself.

Let us see now what is the evidence that we possess about harpastum. The inquiry is an interesting illustration of the difficulty of forming any accurate idea of an ancient game. Our chief authority is Athenaeus,¹⁸⁷ a native of Naucratis, who in the beginning of the third century of our era wrote a book called the Deipnosophistai, or Professors of the Supper Table, an extraordinary medley of antiquarian knowledge. He tells us that harpastum is his favourite game, that it is a violent and exhausting game, involving a special strain on the neck owing to the tackling to which Galen also, as we have seen, refers. He also tells us that the game was originally called phaininda, a word of uncertain derivation which, it is agreed, denotes ‘feinting’, deceiving an opponent by pretending to throw the ball to one player and throwing it to another. The word harpastum, on the other hand, denotes ‘snatching’ or ‘intercepting the ball’. These two ideas, ‘feinting’ and ‘intercepting’, give us the essential features of the game. As an illustration Athenaeus quotes a passage from the comic poet, Antiphanes, who lived in the fourth century before Christ. He is describing a player of phaininda.

‘When he got the ball he delighted to give it to one player while dodging the other; he knocked it away from one and urged on another with noisy cries . . . “ Outside, a long pass, beyond him, over his head, a short pass . . .”’ The passage is unfortunately mutilated, there are some words wanting in the middle, and the last words are unintelligible and cannot be restored with any certainty. Without more knowledge of the game it is impossible to be sure of the translation, but the general meaning of the passage is clear; it describes two or more players passing the ball to one another so as to avoid a player between them. There is no suggestion of centre line, or goal lines, but such a game certainly suggests an enclosed space, possibly a circle formed, as in so many country games, by the players themselves, in the middle of which is one player who tries to intercept the ball as it is thrown across the circle, or perhaps the players are drawn up in two lines facing one another. There is some slight support for the view that the players stood in a circle from a passage in the dictionary of the grammarian, Isidorus,¹⁸⁸ who speaks of ‘the circle of players standing by and waiting’, but as the passage is quite unintelligible as it stands, little weight can be attached to it.

This is all that we know for certain about the game of harpastum. The frequent mention of it by the poet Martial attests the popularity of this and other ball games in the first century A.D., but gives us no new information. It is usual, however, to refer to this game an interesting passage in a letter of Sidonius Apollinaris which has been used without the slightest justification to emend the passage from Antiphanes quoted above.¹⁸⁹ Sidonius was a wealthy Roman noble and landowner in Gaul who played a prominent part in the troubled history of the fifth century, retired from politics, became Bishop of Clermont, and was venerated as a saint. From his letters we learn that ball play and dice were the ordinary recreations of the well-to-do inhabitants of Gaul. In their luxurious country mansions they had special places for ball play. On his own estate at Avitacum he tells us of a grassy sward under two great lime trees where he and his friend Ecdicius used to play ball.¹⁹⁰ In describing a visit to the estates of two wealthy friends,¹⁹¹ he tells us that as soon as you entered the house you would see pairs of ball players facing one another with the balls flying round and round, backwards and forwards. The letter with which we are concerned describes a festival at the church of St. Justus. In the long interval between the services, Sidonius and a party of his friends sat and talked in a vine-covered arbour. Growing tired of this, one party went off to play dice, another, led by Sidonius, to play ball. While the game was going on, an elderly man, Filimatius, who had been a great player in his youth, came and joined the ranks of the players, who were ‘standing’ waiting their turn. How they were standing, in a circle or in a line, we are not told. Anyhow, he was constantly being forced to leave this position and join in the active play by the ‘mid-runner’ (impulsu medii currentis). Did the mid-runner actually push him or throw the ball to him, or call him out ? Anyhow when he came out into the field ‘he could neither intercept or anticipate the course of the ball as it flew now past him, now over his head’. So in trying to turn sharply (per catastropham) he was constantly losing his balance and with difficulty recovering himself, and at last he retired from the game out of breath and very hot.’ If this is the game ofharpastum, the mid-runner must apparently be the player in the centre who intercepts the ball, and Filimatius, perhaps having dropped the ball or being tackled with it in his possession, has become the mid-runner. It is impossible to say. But one thing is certain. If this game is ‘harpastum’,harpastum is not a team game. For it is impossible for a player to join in a team game and retire at his pleasure. Further, if it is the game of harpastum, we have an extraordinary example of the conservatism of games, for our scanty evidence begins with Antiphanes 380 B.C., and ends with Apollonius about A.D. 460!

It is not in harpastum but in a very different game, episkyros, that we really find anticipations of Rugby football, at least in the arrangements of the ground. Pollux evidently regards it as the most important of ball games and explains it carefully. The game, he says, is also known asepikoinos, or ‘the team game’, and as ephebike because it was the special game of the epheboi, youths, it will be remembered, between the ages of seventeen and eighteen, who were submitted to a severe physical and military training. It may well have been the game that the Spartan boys played, though we do not know. It was played, says Pollux, between teams of equal numbers. In the centre of the ground between the two teams they marked out a white line with chippings of gypsum or stone, from which the line was called skyros or latype. At some distance behind each team was another line, the goal line. The ball, says Pollux, was placed on the centre line. Then those who had secured it first—how they secured it he does not say—tried to throw it over and beyond their opponents, whose task it was to catch the ball and throw it back till at last one side was forced back over its goal line.

The description given by Pollux is clear as far as it goes. Fortunately we are able to illustrate it from a relief discovered at Athens in 1922 which from its style seems to belong to the end of the sixth century (Fig. 212). It is the earliest and indeed the only representation in Greek or Roman art of a true team game, and, like most works of that period, is extraordinarily vivid. We see six players, three on each side, between whom we must suppose is the skyros, or centre line. There is, of course, nothing to be inferred as to the numbers of the players, the artist had not room for more than six figures. But it is quite clear that the players are not drawn up in a line, but at intervals behind one another, like the forwards, half-backs, full-backs, in our own games. The team on the left has got possession of the ball; whether they have caught it, or whether the scene represents the beginning of the game, we cannot say; the latter seems to me more likely. At any rate they are attacking. The full-back, who possibly acts as skipper, is preparing to throw the ball. The other two are advancing to charge down or hustle their opponents and prevent them from catching or throwing it back. The half-back, with his eye on the thrower, advances vigorously, the forward more cautiously. Perhaps they were not allowed to overstep the centre line till the ball was thrown. The team on the right stands ready to catch the ball. The centre player is on the alert with hands outstretched. The full-back or skipper, with a characteristic gesture, calls on the forward to fall back. The ball is somewhat larger than a cricket-ball and was presumably light, so that it could not be thrown too far. Of the details and rules of the game we know nothing, but we know enough to see that it was a really first-class team game and might, but for the predominance of field and track athletics, have developed like our own ball games, but we must remember that this development has only taken place in the last century.

BALL GAMES

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211. Interior of r.-f. kylix. Late 6th century. Louvre, G. 36. Youth about to throw ball: cp. the position of the left-hand player in Fig. 213.

212. BALL GAME BETWEEN TWO TEAMS, probably the game called Episkyros. Relief from the left side of the same marble base at Athens as Figs. 53 and 54.

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213. GAME WITH CLUB AND BALL RESEMBLING HOCKEY, the game known as κερητ ζειν. Relief from another marble base at Athens, found together with the last.

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214. DRAWING OF A GAME LIKE HOCKEY IN FOURTEENTH-CENTURY MS. in the British Museum. B.M. Postcards, Set 58, Medieval Sports and Pastimes. An interesting parallel to the Greek relief, Fig. 213. The position of the sticks and ball is precisely similar.

The same wall at Athens provided yet another and still greater surprise. For another relief (Fig. 213) represents what seems at first sight to be no more or less than a hockey bully. Two players with curved sticks are hooking a ball, while four other players holding similar sticks look on. Yet we cannot feel certain that the game is a team game, for the other players seem to be merely looking on, or waiting their turn, and not to be taking part in the game. This however does not seem to me to be decisive. A curious parallel occurs in a drawing on a fourteenth-century manuscript in the British Museum, which is equally difficult of explanation (Fig. 214).

Previous to this discovery we were completely ignorant of the existence of such a game. The use of a stick, club, or bat to hit a ball is so natural and so widespread that it must have been known to the Greeks. The Irish played hockey or hucky in the second century A.D.; polo must have been known to the Persians at least as early. Yet in the whole of Greek and Roman literature there was, as far as we know, not a single allusion to the use of such an instrument before the twelfth century, when Cinnamon, the Byzantine historian, gives a vivid description of a kind of polo in which the players use a sort of racket strung with cords as in Lacrosse. Yet it appears that we might have known the name of the game all the time. For Plutarch describes a statue in a ball court at Athens representing the orator Isocrates as a boy κερητ ζων, using a horn or horn-shaped implement. Editors, thinking the word unintelligible, inferred that the text was corrupt and altered the text to κελητiζων, riding. But when our relief came to light, it was pointed out at once, by a Greek archaeologist,¹⁹² that the manuscript reading was undoubtedly correct and that the boy whose statue stood in a ball court was not riding but playing ball with the keras. It is a salutary warning against emending a manuscript because one does not understand a word.

Finds like these make us realize how very fragmentary is our knowledge of ancient games, and warn us against dogmatizing about them. They fill us, too, with expectations of further finds to lighten our darkness. Shall we one day discover a representation of Greek boys playing football? The Chinese certainly played football at an early date: the Italians in the Middle Ages had their game of Calzio. The Greeks and Romans had an air-filled ball, the ‘follis’, and they surely must have discovered how conveniently it could be propelled by the foot. For the present we do not know: we can only hope for future discoveries.

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