Episkyros, football in ancient Greece

Football Games in Ancient Greece

In the modern world, football is one of the most beloved and widely played sports. But did you know that its roots can be traced back to ancient Greece? An ancient Greek artifact at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens provides evidence of a football-like game being played as early as the 4th century BC.

episkyros in ancient greece

The football-like game played in ancient Greece was called Episkyros (possibly also faininda or harpaston) and involved two teams throwing a ball over the heads of the opposing team. In Sparta, the game was hard and quite violent.

Episkyros is considered the mother of today’s football, making the connection between ancient Greek sports and the modern game even more fascinating.

The ball was made of pieces of leather, sewn together with animal entrails. The outside was painted in bright colours. The ball was smaller than a modern soccer ball.

Episkyros was not the only ball game played in ancient Greece. There were various other ball games, such as aporraxis and urania, which involved kicking, throwing, or hitting a ball with the aim of gaining territorial advantage over the opposing team.

These games were not only played for leisure but also had a significant cultural and social impact. The popularity of ball games in ancient Greece can be seen through the numerous depictions of athletes playing these games in ancient artworks and the inclusion of ball games in ancient Greek literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Rules of Episkyros

The rules of Episkyros can be summarized as follows:

  1. Field layout and lines: The field was marked with a central line dividing the two teams, and another line behind each team to mark the ends of the field. The lines were made with gravel (skyra in Greek).
  2. Scoring and objectives: The objective of the game was to play until one team was forced behind the line at their end. To score a point, the ball had to pass the opposing team’s back line.
  3. Team size and composition: Episkyros was typically played between two teams of 12 to 14 players each.
  4. Ball usage and handling: The game allowed full contact and usage of the hands. The two teams would attempt to throw the ball over the heads of the other team.

It’s important to note that the information available on Episkyros is limited, and some aspects of the game might not be fully understood. However, these points provide a general understanding of the rules and gameplay of Episkyros.

The benefits of Episkyros according to Galen

Galen (Galenos in Greek), a prominent Greek physician and philosopher, did indeed reference Episkyros, an ancient Greek ball game:

“…Even the poorest can play ball, for it needs neither nets, nor guns, nor horses, nor dogs… And what is more comfortable than a game in which everyone can take part, regardless of his wealth and his work… Playing with a ball is not only good exercise for the feet, but also very good for the hands… You will also understand that playing with the ball trains the eye, considering that those who cannot calculate its trajectory cannot catch it. The player will also sharpen his critical faculties”. Here’s the… martial perspective: “It’s not hard to understand that playing with the ball trains you in the most important moves that the laws of the city entrust to its generals: to attack at the right moment and not be noticed, to appropriate what belongs to the enemy, either by rushing at him or unexpectedly, and to keep the spoils you’ve taken”.

History of football in Ancient Greece

Episkyros was a popular ball game in ancient Greece, played between two teams consisting of 12 to 14 players. Unlike modern football, Episkyros allowed full contact and the use of hands. Women also occasionally participated in the game, highlighting the inclusivity of ancient Greek sports. However, it’s important to note that the participation of women in sports in ancient Greece was generally limited and subject to societal norms and restrictions (source).

The objective of Episkyros was to throw the ball over the heads of the other team and force them behind their line. Possession of the ball would change often until one team was forced behind their line, similar to the concept of gaining territory in modern rugby or American football.

Episkyros was not just a physical game, but it also had social and cultural significance. It was often played during religious festivals and was seen as a form of entertainment that brought communities together. The game fostered a sense of camaraderie and competition among the players and spectators alike.

It is worth noting that Episkyros later transformed into “harpastum” during Roman times. Harpastum was a similar ball game played by the Romans, demonstrating the influence and spread of ancient Greek sports throughout the ancient world.

The influence of ancient Greek football on the modern game of soccer

The ancient Greeks set new standards for organized spectator sports in Europe. Although the exact rules and scoring system of Episkyros are not well-documented, Greek ball games were similar to piggy-in-the-middle or dodgeball, with no mention of scoring goals.

The Romans, who learned the art of ball-play from the Greeks, likely introduced the concept of scoring goals and transformed ball games into various forms that resembled modern football. However, it is important to note that the idea that the Romans transformed ball games into a barbaric form of rugby is not historically proven. In fact, FIFA acknowledges Episkyros as an ancient version of modern-day rugby league, recognizing its contribution to the development of the sport.

The influence of ancient Greek football on modern football is evident in various aspects of the game. For example, the concept of throwing the ball over the heads of opponents in Episkyros can be compared to the long passes and crosses seen in modern football.

The inclusivity of women in ancient Greek ball games also reflects the growing recognition and support for women’s football in the modern era. Furthermore, the sense of competition, teamwork, and community fostered by ancient Greek football is still present in the spirit of the game today.

Origin of football in different countries

The origin of football is a subject of debate, with various countries claiming its discovery. England is often credited as the birthplace of modern football, with the establishment of standardized rules in the 19th century. However, ball games and variations of football existed in different cultures throughout history, including ancient Greece and China.

Different countries had their own versions of ball games, each contributing to the development of football as we know it today. The modern game of football evolved through a combination of influences from various cultures and regions, with each contributing its own unique elements to the sport.

For example, in China, there is evidence of a ball game called “cuju” being played as early as the 2nd century BC. Cuju involved kicking a ball through a small opening, similar to modern-day goalposts. This early form of football in China showcases the long-standing history of the sport and its global development.

Read more about football In Greece

Greece Index