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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Games the Romans Played

Glass ball
 This week we are preparing for the February half-term family activity at the museum. We will be looking at Roman entertainment and leisure so I have been researching some interesting facts about the games which Romans played when they visited the baths.

For the Romans, visiting the baths was both an enjoyable social time and a way of getting clean. Visitors went to the baths to bathe, exercise, meet friends, chat, relax and play Ludus (board games). Use of the baths was not limited to only one group of people but included senators, soldiers, merchants, workers, families and slaves.

After bathing, visitors could relax in the alcoves to eat and drink, discuss business, and gamble or play board games. Romans were very keen on gambling and board games. Historians think that many of these were played while socialising at the baths. Entertainers such as musicians and jugglers may also have been walking around.

The half-term holiday activity will be looking at board games played at Roman baths, but we have also found out about the ball games which the Romans enjoyed.

Ball games were often played for exercise and, although we are unsure of the exact rules for many of these, it is obvious that at least one needed a lot of skill to play. This game was called Trigon and was a throwing, batting and catching game between three players. The most skilful players would bat or catch with their left hand, and sometimes the game was played with a ball made of glass.

Hand holding a glass ball
Historical texts tell us of a catching game, probably Trigon, which was played in the baths of Trajan by a man named Ursus who used a ball made of glass. An inscription tells us that the ‘people approved with greatest applause’.

Roman balls have names, such as trigon, pila, follis, paganica and harpastrum depending on their size and use. They were made of many different materials. Bouncing balls, like the follis, were made from pig’s bladder wrapped in leather or from animal sinew wound into a ball and covered with leather for protection.

Other balls were made from chopped sponges or linen and hair, then wrapped with string and cloth, and often covered with shaped and sewn pieces of cloth. These balls would not have bounced at all well and would possibly have been used for catching games.

Nicola Pullan is a visiting researcher from the University of Sydney.



Glass ball images
Fagan, Bathing in Public in the Roman World, 195–196. On the glass ball game and interpretations.

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