An Ancient History of Rugby

Now with the Six Nations competition in full swing and with the Rugby World cup  around the corner in Japan, this post will trace the Ancient origins of the sport that is played and watched around the world today. 

Often, the modern game of Rugby is attributed to the English town of Rugby, specifically by William Webb Ellis, a pupil from Rugby school who was said to have ran and carried the ball during a football match. However, this has been heavily debated by Rugby hisorians and is largely viewed as a myth. That being said, there is more to the origin of modern day Rugby and in some shape and form similarities can be drawn from ball games played in the Ancient World.

Ball games in the Ancient World-

It is no surprise that when the ‘Ancient World’ is mentioned, the Greeks and Romans are arguably the most popular civilisations studied in Ancient times. Much in the way of Art, Culture and Philosophy is strongly attributed to Ancient Greece and Rome. Ball games played a role in both cultures.

The Greeks played many ball games, whereby participants could use their hands and feet, although not much evidence survives of these ball games, one game in particular is an interesting pre cursor. 
The Greeks played a ball game called ‘Episkyros‘ and appears to be depicted on ceramics. The game was played by 12-14 with one side pitted against the other. The rules allowed players to handle the ball.
The aim of the game was to frequently pass the ball and to push one of the opposing team behind the line at their end of the pitch. The game was regarded as being violent in nature, with many players landing up on the ground. This violent nature of the game was particularly noted in Sparta with the limited source material available.

Elsewhere, further west from Athens in Sparta, teams were divided into two and two white lines were drawn onto the pitch, with one line in front dividing the teams along with another line behind either team. It is interesting to note, although the lines are not the same as what is displayed on a rugby pitch today, the lines are not difficult to figure out. This is especially the case with the line behind the two teams indicating where to score. This is the case today in Rugby as one way to score is for either side to bring the ball past the opposing goal lines ahead of them for a try.

Additionally, women as well as men played, albeit being rare.
Later, the Romans adapted the game ‘Episkyros‘ as well as another Ancient Greek game called ‘Phaininda‘.  ‘Phaininda’ was another ball game that the Romans were known to have adapted. There are limited sources about the game in question. However, from the small amount of source material on offer, it is similiar to ‘Episkyros‘. The game involved two teams pitted against eachother, there was a central line dividing both teams and that the game was again considered to be violent when either side were attempting to win the ball. In this game the ball was small in size and looked as if more balls were used.

The Romans named their version of the game, ‘Harpastum‘. This ball game was played with a small ball, much smaller than a modern day Rugby ball and was similar in size to a modern day cricket ball or base ball. Unfortunately, much with the Greek ball games discussed previously very little is recorded about the rules and style of play. Nevertheless, this game was documented in contemporary Roman writings. The Greek Polymath, Claudius Galenus (129 AD- c. 200/216 AD) lived in the Roman Empire commented, 

‘This exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one involving much use of the hold by the neck and many wrestling holds’.   

In addition, Sidonius Apollinaris ( c.130 – 489 AD) a poet, diplomat and bishop from Gaul in the Western Roman Empire commented,

‘Filimatus sturdily flung himself into squadrons of the players, like Virgil’s hero’.

These accounts are in actual fact reminiscent to modern Rugby in that the game requires much strength, resilience and agility to enable either side to intercept, run with the ball and score. 

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