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Harpastum – Rugby in the Roman Empire

Long before Rugby was established as a sport, over a thousand years before actually, the Romans began playing a sport called harpastum. This is one of the earliest known predecessors to rugby in history and you can sort of think of it as a more violent version that uses a smaller ball. A great deal isn’t known about this once popular pastime as the records are fairly scares on the subject however, we do know a few, I can honestly say that I think it would be quite a popular one today.

Greek Origins

Like much of the Roman way of life the game was actually based on an earlier Greek game called episkyros, we even get some of our knowledge of harpastum from what we know of this game. The most notable point being that it seems to be something of an inversion of episkyros which could perhaps be more likened to football. The two are both team-based games that took place on a rectangular pitch, each team would number between twelve and fourteen in total and used a smaller round ball, similar to today’s softballs.


Due to its lack of documentation it’s hard to give a specific time that the game would have first been played by the Romans. It is thought that seeing as the game belonged to Roman culture it likely did not exist before the Roman Republic had risen, from this we can assume that the game may have first been conceived some time around the 5th century BCE but that is something of an estimation.


Harpastum is a violent game, in order to take control of the ball the Romans introduced the ability to wrestle your opponent. This doesn’t simply mean making a straight tackle like you would in rugby or even a powerful sweep like you might in American Football but rather by using the skills attributed to Greco-Roman wrestling, going above and beyond to force the ball from the enemy team. In fact, it was not uncommon to see injuries from playing it, the most prevalent seeming to be neck strains from “violent twisting and turning of the neck”. Though it wasn’t just the players who seemed to suffer thanks to the games, Cicero actually writes of an extremely unfortunate incident in which a man was actually killed when a ball was accidentally launched into a barber’s shop whilst a man was having a shave, I shall leave the outcome to your imagination.

The Aim of the Game

Like I say what we know is limited but appears that the aim of the game was to get hold of the ball and rather than score goals like in most modern ball sports you instead tried to keep it in your half of the pitch for as long as possible. It is unknown as to how the Romans kept score but the leading theories suggest that they would either do it through a form of time keeping or perhaps on passes in one’s own area. If you should decide you’d like a game today it’s easy enough to use the time method with a good referee on hand, though perhaps go easy on the wrestling moves.