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Pĭla. Pĭla Lusoria



A ball. Ballplaying was a very favourite occupation among both Greeks and Romans, though regarded less as a game than as an exercise for strengthening the muscles and cultivating suppleness of limb. The earliest mention of such an exercise is found in two passages of the Odyssey (vi. 100; viii. 370). In the second passage, ball-tossing is an adjunct of the dance, and this choric ball-play was very popular at Sparta (Athen. i. 24 b), and long survived. In the Athenian gymnasia a special room (σφαιριστήριον) was devoted to this and similar exercises with balls. The practice was introduced at Rome only in the later days of the Republic (Hor. Sat. ii. 2, 10), but when once established it took a strong hold on persons of all classes and of all ages—old men as well as boys adopting it (Seneca, De Brev. Vit. 13; Sueton. Aug. 83; Pliny , Epist. iii. 1, 8).

The different kinds of balls in use were as follows: (a) the harpastum (μικρὰ σφαῖρα), a small hand-ball stuffed with hair; (b) the pila trigonalis (μέση σφαῖρα), the one most used, also a hand-ball stuffed with hair, but larger than the harpastum; (c) the arenaria, of doubtful nature; (d) the paganica (μεγάλη σφαῖρα), a large ball stuffed with feathers (Mart.xiv. 45); and (e) the follis (κενὴ σφαῖρα), a ball filled with air, like the modern football. There is nothing to show that in classical times the Greeks and Romans had any games of ball involving the use of a bat or racquet, though in one form of game the ball was struck with the palm of the hand (lusus pilae cum palma, Med. Lat.).

The following are the principal technical terms used in playing ball: διδόναι, βάλλειν, ἀφιέναι, dare, mittere, iactare, “to throw a ball;” λαμβάνειν, δέχεσθαι, accipere, excipere, captare, “to catch;” ἀντιπέμπειν, ἀνταφιέναι, remittere, reddere, “to throw back a ball to the sender;” οὐρανία, datatim ludere, “to play at catch;” ἀπόρραξις, “bounce-ball;” φενίνδα, fallere, “pretending to throw to one player when really throwing to another.”

Games at Ball (σφαιρομαχίαι). (a) The game called ἐπίσκυρος (also ἐφηβικὴ and ἐπίκοινος: Poll.ix. 104, Eustath. l. c.). In this game the ground was marked by two base lines (γραμμαὶ κατόπιν), and another line drawn parallel to them through the middle of the ground, presumably more than a stone's-throw from them, which was called σκῦρος or λατύπη, because it was marked with finely broken stones. The ball was placed upon this line (whence the name ἐπίσκυρος), and the players started at the same moment from their respective base-lines. The player who could first seize the ball threw it as far as he could towards the enemy's base-line: the object was to force the line of enemies back by constantly returning the ball farther and farther over their heads until they were driven over their own base-line. Clearly, getting the first throw by fast running at the start must have been an enormous advantage (cf. Schol. ad Plat. Leg. i. p. 633 C). It is not improbable, though there is no proof of it, that the contest of the pagani (whence the name paganica for the third-sized Roman ball) was a game of this kind. It seems to have been regarded as a game for the young (ἐφηβική), and for large numbers (ἐπίκοινος).

(b) Harpastum (or, by the older name, Pheninda; in Athen. and Eustath. φαινίνδα: in Clem. Alex. φενίνδα: in Etym. Mag. φεννίς, φενίνδα, φενακίνδα). This game cannot with certainty be reconstructed, but the following seems to us an outline most consistent with our authorities. (Galen, περὶ τῆς σμικρᾶς σφαίρας: Sidon. Apoll. v. 17; Mart.iv. 19; vii. 32; xiv. 48; Athen. i. p. 25; Eustath. l. c.; Poll.ix. 105). There were clearly two sides, for Galen lays stress on the fact that there is emulation (φιλοτιμία), which exercises the ψυχή, as well as movements which exercise the limbs and the eye: there are presumably base-lines as goals, without which it is hard to understand what he says about generalship (στρατηγία), and positions won and lost. The ground was then probably rectangular, the two ends being base-lines, and it was divided by a line in the centre (trames) into two equal camps. There was always one “middle player,” a special feature of the game, called medicurrens (Sidon.), or μεταξύ (Galen: cf. vagus, Mart.vii. 32), each side being probably so represented in turn: how the “innings” of the medicurrens ended we do not know, but perhaps he gave up his place to one of the other side whenever a point was scored against his side. As to the identity of pheninda with harpastum we have the positive statement of Athenaeus that it was the old name of harpastum, the belief of Pollux that it was, and the fact that in some places it still went by that name; and, moreover, no writer mentions both games as distinct.

(c) Trigon. In this favourite game of the Romans there were no “sides,” but each played for himself; still it was a legitimate game, played for winning and losing. The following description may, as it seems to us, best meet the accounts which we have: There were three players standing in the form of an equilateral triangle. Each player had one ball to start with, and played for his own score. He would wish both his fellowplayers to miss their strokes, and drop the ball as often as possible. He might send his ball to either player (presumably there was some rule about sending it fairly within their reach), and he might do so either by catching the ball which came to him and throwing it, or by “fiving” it, so as either to strike it back to the sender (repercutere) or sideways to the third player (expulsare). Obviously the most disastrous position would be receiving three balls nearly at the same time—if, for instance, his own ball is smartly struck back to him, and almost simultaneously the two others have been sent to him; obviously, also, his easiest position was to receive only one ball at a time with a fair interval before the next. The winner was probably the player who allowed his ball to drop the fewest times. A fourth person stood by to count the misses (numerare). The ball used was a hard one, covered with leather and stuffed with hair, as stated above. See Becq de Fouquières, Les Jeux des Anciens, pp. 176-211.

d) In very late times (i. e. in the Byzantine Period) a game of ball was played on horseback bearing a strong resemblance to our modern “polo” (Cinnamus, Hist. vi. 4). It was confined chiefly to princes and the higher nobles, who took sides and struck at a leather ball with a sort of curved stick provided with a catgut network, the object being for each party to drive the ball over the opponents' base-line (πέρας).

The word pilicrepus, so often found in Latin, means in general a professional ball-player as distinguished from an amateur, and is applied to teachers of scientific ball-playing and to those who juggled with balls. These last were also called pilarii. The following illustration, from the Baths of Titus at Rome, shows a pilicrepus (the person with a beard) giving a lesson in trigon to three young men:

Lesson in Trigon. (From the Baths of Titus.)

There is an interesting wall-inscription from Pompeii which has been variously interpreted. It is an announcement of a ball-game, and reads as follows, the punctuation being that preferred by the present writer:
Amianthus, Epaphra, Tertius ludant cum Hedysio. Iucandus Nolanus petat. Numerent Citus et Iacus. Amianthus.

In this game, Hedysius is the pilicrepus who plays against any two of the three challengers first named. Iucandus of Nola picks up the dropped balls and pitches them back to the players. Citus and Iacus (the latter when not playing himself) keep the score—i. e. note the dropped balls. Amianthus signs the notice.

See Becq de Fouquières, Les Jeux des Anciens (1873); Marquardt, De Sphaeromachiis Veterum (1876); and Grasberger, Erziehung und Unterricht, pp. 88 foll. (1880).


A balloting-ball; employed as a means for selecting what judge should try a cause, and prevent the packing of the bench against the interest of either party. For this purpose a certain number of balls, with the names of different judges inscribed on them, were put into a box, and thence drawn out by lot (Prop.iv. 11, 20; Ascon. Argument. Milon.).


An effigy made out of old pieces of cloth stuffed with hay and employed to try the temper of some animals, bulls and buffaloes, when baited; or to infuriate them if they appeared tame and impassive (De Spect. 19; Ascon. ad Fragm. pro C. Cornel.).

hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Plato, Laws, 1.633c
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 83
    • Horace, Satires, 2.2
    • Sextus Propertius, Elegies, 4
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.45
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 4.19
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 7.32
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