Beyond the Gladiator: a Guide to Ancient Roman Sports
By Erin Schott
The gladiator is an iconic symbol of ancient Roman sports, and rightly so. His brutal battles in the Colosseum provided entertainment for Romans of numerous socioeconomic backgrounds, ranging from the senatorial elite to the slave class. At the same time, the gladiator is such a famous symbol of ancient Roman sports that gladiatorial combats tend to overshadow other forms of athletic competition, leading us to imagine Roman sports as relatively homogeneous. But in reality, the Roman sporting world was quite diverse. Indeed, whether you are a fan of rugby or NASCAR, that world has some form of entertainment to offer you. In this article, I look beyond the gladiator to examine three popular sports in ancient Rome.
Scholars have yet to determine the precise rules of harpastum, but they frequently describe it as the ancient equivalent of rugby. Like many aspects of Roman culture, the sport originated in the Greek world as a game called episkyros. The Romans developed this sport into what they called harpastum, which was more colloquially dubbed “the small ball game.” The Romans had four sizes of balls for sports, and the smallest of these was the ball used for harpastum, hence the alternative name. Stuffed with sand or hair, the harpastum ball measured about eight inches in diameter, around the size of a volleyball. Harpastum involved two teams with approximately a dozen men per side and took place on a rectangular field slightly smaller than the modern football field. At either end of the field were baselines, and the game’s objective was to move the ball beyond the opposing team’s baseline. Players could pass the ball to teammates or perhaps even volley it, and the opposing team would attempt to gain possession of the ball by intercepting it in the air or tackling players to the ground.
Figure 1: Fresco of a Roman ball game, likely harpastum
Beyond these general rules, the precise mechanics of harpastum become murkier. It remains unknown, for instance, whether the game ended after a certain period of time or after a team scored a given number of points. Unclear, too, is the role of the “middle player,” termed in Latin the medicurrens. Such a player is mentioned in several ancient literary accounts of harpastum, and while scholars would prefer to assign a medicurrens to each team, the player is always described in the singular. Therefore, it seems likely that the medicurrens belonged to the team with the ball. After a change of possession, the medicurrens would cede his role to a player on the opposing team, so the two players would frequently switch positions throughout the game. This “middle player” may have acted as a sort of midfielder, keeping to the center of the green so that he could either quickly toss the ball upfield to score points or drop back to help on defense. As the currens suffix would suggest, the “middle player” seems to have done a substantial amount of running, and in one ancient account of harpastum, Sidonius Apollinaris mentions the medicurrens quitting the game after becoming too exhausted from running back and forth.
Compared to other Roman sports like gladiatorial competitions, harpastum seems neither to have drawn massive crowds nor to have taken place in large public venues. Instead, literary sources attest to Romans playing the sport amongst friends or colleagues as a form of private entertainment. Sidonius Apollinaris, for instance, mentions in his letters that he played the game with his friends, while Galen of Pergamon recommends harpastum as a means for soldiers to both amuse themselves in the camps and stay in shape. This more private-facing aspect of harpastum may explain why we know so little about the sport. As a game played amongst friends, harpastum leaves behind scant material evidence compared to, say, the gladiatorial games, which required sporting venues like the Colosseum to accommodate large crowds of spectators. Scholars have thus relied primarily on literary evidence when attempting to reconstruct harpastum. And while they have done an admirable job piecing together the rules of the game from passing mentions of it in ancient texts, it is unlikely that we will ever fully understand this ancient Roman version of rugby.
Boxing is one of the earliest attested sports in the world, being mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and depicted on Etruscan pottery from the eighth century BC. So when the Romans hosted their first boxing competition in 186 BC during public games sponsored by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, they had not invented a new sport. Instead, the Roman form of boxing borrowed from both the Greek and Etruscan versions. Like its Greek counterpart, Roman boxing traditionally took place in the palaestra, an arena used for athletic competitions, and boxers competed in the nude. Meanwhile, the violence of Roman boxing seems derived from the Etruscan tradition, in which all but the most brutal tactics were allowed. For example, Etruscan and Roman boxers could perform vicious cuts to the head and even grab the genitalia of their opponents to win a match.
As these appalling maneuvers might suggest, Roman boxing bears almost no resemblance to its modern counterpart. Firstly, weight classes did not exist in Roman boxing, meaning that smaller boxers frequently squared off against larger opponents. Another difference from modern boxing comes in the ancient sport’s greater priority on endurance. There were no “rounds” in Roman boxing, so a match would drag on until a participant either passed out or yielded by raising his index finger. This, accordingly, meant that successful boxers needed the stamina to fight long bouts without any breaks to catch their breath. And Roman boxers did not use gloves as hand protection. Instead, they wore himantes, straps of leather wrapped around their hands, leaving their fingers free for the fight. The Terme Boxer, a famous statue at the Palazzo Massimo, still wears his himantes after a match and gazes sadly upwards, perhaps at a now missing statue of the victor (see Figure 2). The defeated boxer has a broken nose and sports several open wounds across his body that his opponent presumably delivered while wearing himantes. The existence of such a statue supports the idea that although the himantes provided some protection for the knuckles, they were primarily an offensive garb and resulted in harsher, more painful blows against one’s opponent.
Figure 2: The Terme Boxer
The initial introduction of boxing to the Roman world was unsuccessful. The games of Nobilior in 186 BC may have exposed Romans to boxing, but the sport did not catch on. Over a century later, Pompey sponsored Greek-themed ludi, public games held for the Roman people. One Greek competition at Pompey’s ludi was boxing, and the Romans still seemingly did not take to the sport since Pompey wrote a letter claiming that he had wasted money on oils for the boxers. Boxing only became popular in the Roman world during the reign of Nero. A Hellenophile, Nero introduced state-sponsored Greek ludi called the Neronia, which included boxing. The emperors who succeeded Nero continued to promote boxing in the Roman world. Domitian sponsored more public boxing matches, and Marcus Aurelius was supposedly an avid boxer. The sport might not have drawn the crowds of gladiatorial games, but in the imperial period, it was a popular form of public entertainment.
Chariot races were, unsurprisingly, the ancient version of NASCAR and seem to have been the most popular form of athletic entertainment in the Roman world. Where the Roman calendar typically allocated ten days a year to gladiatorial games, sixty days were given to chariot racing. These chariot races took place in Roman circuses: long, U-shaped structures with a dividing barrier along the center known as the spina (see Figure 3). The most famous of these circus structures, the Circus Maximus, could host up to 250,000 Romans during the reign of Trajan. Romans would pack into the circus on chariot racing days, eager to support their teams. The four teams for the chariot races each had a designated color: blue, green, red, or white. Domitian attempted to introduce purple and gold factions to the chariot races, but given the unpopularity of his reign, it makes sense that neither team ever caught on. The main rivalry between factions belonged to the blue and green teams. Archaeologists have even discovered curse tablets in which fans of one faction pray for the charioteers of the opposing team to break their bones.
Figure 3: Diagram of the Circus of Maxentius
At the start of each chariot race, twelve chariots (three per faction) lined up behind gates known as carceres. Each gate was linked to a pulley system with levers so that the chariots would start at the same time. Even when the gates opened, the race technically would not begin until the charioteers reached the start of the spina. This point is also called the linea alba because it had a white stripe to demarcate the starting line. As they headed towards the linea alba, charioteers competed for the position closest to the spina since it would require the least distance to travel around the racecourse. A typical race consisted of seven laps and would last approximately fifteen minutes. Although chariots could not reach our blazing modern speeds, they moved relatively fast. For example, a chariot with four horses (quadriga) could reach speeds of up to thirty miles per hour on the straightaway of the Circus Maximus. The fastest chariots usually were pulled by North African or Spanish horses and had charioteers who were particularly small in stature, like modern-day jockeys.
The chariot race was, above all, a balancing act. The charioteer wanted to make his turns close enough to the spina to minimize his travel distance but not so close that he crashed into it. Although many Romans came to the circus precisely for the spectacle of these crashes (naufragia), for the charioteer, such crashes were often fatal. Charioteers tied the leather reins of the chariot to their hands to maintain control of the vehicle at all times and had a dagger equipped at their calf to cut themselves free in the event of a crash. However, it is unlikely that any but the most athletic charioteers could cut themselves loose in the split second before their chariot collided with the spina. The charioteer who navigated the perilous course most quickly earned not only a substantial cash prize but also fame.
Ancient Rome was home to a diverse array of sports, ranging from private forms of entertainment to public spectacles, and people from all social strata could engage in the games. In the upper echelons of society, emperors or senators might sponsor ludi to regain the favor of the people after botched political maneuvers. Meanwhile, soldiers might play harpastum in the military camps to take their minds off an upcoming battle. And at the lowest levels of society, plebs could watch chariot races in the Circus Maximus, forgetting for a moment about their financial troubles. Much like modern athletics, sports in the Roman world provided a distraction from the hardships of everyday life and were accessible to citizens regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Erin Schott (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and English. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Discentes.
Christesen, Paul, and Kyle, Donald G. A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Somerset: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Galen. On Exercise with a Small Ball. Translated by Waldo E. Sweet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Marindin, G. E. “The Game of ‘Harpastum’ or ‘Pheninda.’” The Classical Review 4, no. 4 (1890): 145–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/692929.
Sidonius Apollinaris. Letters. Translated by Ormonde Dalton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1915.
Vivonia, Matthew. “Boxing in the Roman Empire.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified December 4, 2020. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1641/boxing-in-the-roman-empire/.