Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Just as Romans loved board games like Tabula, they also enjoying playing team games with balls, hoops, and other objects.
One game that’s featured in Favorites of Fortuna is the game called harpastum. While we don’t know all the details of the rules or the makeup of the teams, it seems to have been played with a small, hard ball stuffed with feathers that is generally thought to approximate a modern softball. However, there were no sticks or bats; instead the ball was thrown among players on two opposing teams.
Roman fresco depicting a ball game (harpastum?)
Here’s the general summary of the sport: two teams (number of players not known for sure) stood on either side of a line on a field. The line might have been marked with a substance (chalk?) or etched into the dirt. The point of the game was to keep the ball on your team’s side of the playing field. In order to gain possession of the ball, team members ran across the dividing line and tackled the ball-holder in an attempt to steal the ball and carry or throw it back over the line to the player’s home team. The physical contact and roughness of the sport has led some scholars to equate it with rugby. How points were scored to determine which team won is also unclear.
Harpastum was designed to test the players’ speed, strength, agility and courage. Keep an eye out for a bit of rough ball-playing in final Book 4. 😉