When many think of Ancient Rome, they typically only conjure images of gladiators and chariot racing in their minds. However, while those were two of the most popular sports during the Roman times, they weren’t the only sports played. It is commonplace to forget the rich heritage of Ancient Rome, which includes many distinctive games. Here is a comprehensive review of the unique sports played by Ancient Romans.
Some of the more popular team-based activities include harpastum, harpastoid and alcahest. Each of these games was enjoyed by all classes of Romans, from the wealthy patricians who ran the city to the slaves who worked to maintain it. Harpastum is often thought to have been the inspiration for rugby football, as it involved kicking a small, heavy ball as it moved up a rectangular field. Harpastoid was a similar game, only a stunted pole was used instead of a ball, and alcahest was a board game similar to chess.
Ludic games were popular among adults and children alike, and they were often used to teach sportsmanship, aim, and self-discipline. Games such as trigon, knucklebones (astragali), and dice were all commonplace. Trigon, which originated in Egypt, was popular among Roman soldiers, and was played by kicking a slippery, leather ball at a wooden target. Knucklebones, which was derived from the knuckles of sheep and goats, was similar to modern-day jacks, and was played with a set of spinning jackstones.
The Ancient Romans were serious about their ball games, engaging in a wide variety of sports and preferences. Among the more popular activities were lacrosse and basketball, which were both flourished during the Roman Republic. Lacrosse was played with a stick and a leather ball, and was popular among both the Romans, who called it paganica, and their conquerors, the Greeks, who called it episkuros. Basketball also found popularity in Rome, although the rules they employed were slightly different to the modern game – two teams of 10 to 15 players would compete, with the aim of getting the ball into the opposite end of the court using one racket.
Additional athletic activities included weights and gymnastics, wrestling, boxing and fencing, swimming, and outdoor running. Roman soldiers were often seen exercising with military equipment such as javelins, shields, and swords. The Romans were also known for their love of theater, with chariot races, and theater performances all being included in the entertainment; some of these entertaining sports even had prizes allocated. Swimming was known to be very popular among the Romans, with public and private pools available, as well as separate baths for men and women.
Of course, for the Ancient Romans, athletics was more than just a pastime – it was a way of life. The Romans were fiercely competitive, and sporting events became an important part of their culture. Athletics were often held in arenas throughout the city, where citizens gathered to watch and cheer on their favourite athletes. The Roman Empire prided itself on its athletic prowess, and history shows that Roman athletes were always at the forefront of competition.
In conclusion, there was a variety of sports played by the Ancient Romans. Team sports such as Harpastum and Harpastoid featured heavily amongst the high classes while the lower classes enjoyed simple ball games, ludic games, gymnastics and swimming. What reigns true throughout is that the Romans were passionate about their sports and competitions, with public gatherings and arena spectating commonplace. This passion for sports is something that can still be seen today, albeit with a slightly different set of rules.
The Ancient Romans were known for their flair when it came to water-related activities, and played a variety of aquatic games. This included swimming, rock throwing and beach volley, but the Roman’s favourite was known as ‘navigatio’. This was a complex game of boat-based tag, with two opposing teams attempting to knock the other’s vessel by employing anything from harpoons to lances. This was a particularly entertaining sport, and was often held in the rivers and canals of Ancient Rome.
Animal-based games were particularly popular amongst Roman’s of the era due to their sheer excitement. Amongst these games was venatores, an exciting animal-fighting game which was popular in the circuses of Rome. As well as this, hunting was another common game, generally involving chasing and capturing small game such as rabbits and squirrels. There were even persistent tales of a particularly gory bull fight practice in Rome, although there is no concrete evidence of it.
Of course, no mention of games in Ancient Rome can be made without mentioning the famous gladiatorial games, which were undeniably the most popular and prestigious sport in Rome. Emperors, senators and wealthy citizens alike would attend these events, whereby two men, or sometimes men and animals, would fight in an arena until one was slain. Gladiatorial games were seen as a symbol of power and bravery, and although there was no organised league or code of rules, it was one of the most watched and talked about events of the era.
Festival games were yet another important part of Ancient Roman culture. Special events were held throughout the year to celebrate the deities and patrons of Rome, as well as dynastic anniversaries. Such events included the Ludi Romani, which was held in honour of Jupiter and featured a variety of events including chariot races and dramatic performances. Many of the festivities also included athletic competitions for both men and women, which often proved highly entertaining.