Roman athletic culture made use of a small variety of balls for several primary sports. A few ancient works, such as Liber Spectaculorum by the Roman poet Martial (c. 40–103 AD), provide insight into the make and usage of these balls in their respective sport. There were three varieties of balls (called pila in Latin) used among four primary sports: the follis ball used in the sport of the same name, the paganica ball in the similarly named sport, and the trigon ball for the sports trigon and harpastum. (The trigon ball is sometimes referred to as pila trigonalis or simply pila – they are different names for the same ball.)
The follis was a large ball typically made of an inflated animal bladder, and may have sometimes been wrapped in leather for extra protection. This ball may have occasionally been filled with feathers, as Martial uses the Latin adjective plumea, which means “feather” or “light,” to refer to the follis in his Liber Spectaculorum. Though, as noted, he could have been simply referring to the lightness of the ball.
The sport for which the follis was used is not well recorded, though it appears to have shared its name with the ball. The sport follis involved striking this large ball into the air with the fist or forearm, perhaps in a manner similar to that of volleyball (though the development of volleyball is much more modern, and has no relation to ancient Roman athletics). In fact, some evidence suggests that players of this game would wear some sort of glove to help strike the ball. Beyond this, little is known of the sport follis.
Notably, the Roman wall mosaic pictured to the right appears to feature both the follis and what may be the paganica (discussed in more detail under Paganica further down). To the left of the top row, a woman can be seen holding a large ball that matches the description of the follis, and she appears to be throwing it to the two women running to her right.
On the right side of the bottom row, two women can be seen throwing a ball back and forth. This ball could a paganica or a trigon; it is slightly larger than most depictions of the trigon (one of which is featured further down), which would indicate it is a paganica. However, there are some indications that trigon could be played as a simple game of catch with only two people, as is depicted here. In addition, the woman is pictured striking the ball with her left hand, which was characteristic of trigon, as discussed further down. As such, this ball appears to more likely be a trigon.
Of the three Roman balls, the paganica is the one for which we have the least information, only mentioned twice by Martial. It was reportedly medium-sized, sitting somewhere between the large follis and the small trigon, and was stuffed with feathers, making it heavier than the follis. No information is given on the kind of sport this ball was used for.
The 4th century BC Greco-Roman relief pictured to the right appears to feature a ball around the size of the paganica, though this piece is more of Greek influence. It could be that the paganica was based off a similar ball or similar practice to the one depicted to the right, which would indicate that the paganica was used primarily for exercise, though this is speculation. As it stands, not much is known of the paganica and its sport.
The trigon, sometimes called the pila trigonalis (which simply means “trigon ball”), was ball smaller than the paganica and stuffed tightly with hair. Its compressed interior made this ball fairly hard and elastic, ideal for games in which the ball needed to be thrown easily and quickly. Based on sculptures featuring balls that appear to match the trigon’s description, such as the one picured to the right, the trigon was about the size of a baseball.
This ball’s sport, sharing the same name, had three players standing in a triangular position (thus the name trigon or pila trigonalis). The ball would be thrown to one player, who would throw it to the next, and so on. It isn’t clear whether this pattern continued continued in one direction cyclically or whether the player could throw the ball in either direction. It was notable when a player would use his left hand instead of the right, likely due to the difficulty of using the non-dominant appendage, and it was even more notable to strike the ball to the next player without catching it. (A likely example of this can be seen in the bottom left of the Roman women mosaic, pictured under Follis above.)
Harpastum is often listed as a fourth type of ball used in ancient Rome, though this is inaccurate. The ball used for the game harpastum appears to have been the same as the one used for trigon, as evidenced by their similar descriptions and the use of the term pila to refer to the ball used in both sports. In fact, it appears that the term pila (Latin for “ball”) usually referred specifically to this small, hard ball used for both sports, and that clarification of the sport being played could be made by appending its name (e.g., pila trigonalis).
Harpastum was a ball game based off the Greek game episkyros. This game is perhaps the most commonly studied Roman sport, as it bears some interesting similarities to modern football sports, such as the use of tackles, interceptions, jukes, and the like (though it did not contribute to the development soccer, football, or rugby, as some sources would suggest).
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Becker, W. A. (2011). Gallus; or, Roman scenes of the time of Augustus. With notes and excursuses illustrative of the manners and customs of the Romans. University of Toronto Libraries.