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Bill Thayer

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 p918  Pila

Unsigned articles on pp918‑919 and p536 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PILA (σφαῖρα), a ball.​a The game at ball (σφαιριστική) was one of the most favourite gymnastic exercises of the Greeks and Romans from the earliest times to the fall of the Roman empire. As the ancients were fond of attributing the invention of all games to particular persons or occasions, we find the same to be the case with respect to the origin of this game (Herod. I.94; Athen. I p14D, E; Plin. VII.56), but such statements do not deserve attention. What is more to the purpose in reference to its antiquity is, that we find it mentioned in the Odysseyº (VI.100, &c. VIII.370, &c.), where it is played by the Phaeacian damsels to the sound of music, and also by two celebrated performers at the court of Alcinous in a most artistic manner accompanied with dancing.

The various movements of the body required in the game of ball gave elasticity and grace to the figure; whence it was highly esteemed by the Greeks. The Athenians set so high a value on it, that they conferred upon Aristonicus of Carystus the right of citizen­ship, and erected a statue to his honour, on account of his skill in the game (Athen. I p19A; compare Suidas, s.v. Ὄρχησ.)º It was equally esteemed by the other states of Greece; the young Spartans, when they were leaving the condition of ephebi, we called σφαιρεῖς (Paus. III.14 §6; Böckh, Corp. Inscr. n1386, 1432), probably because their chief exercise was the game at ball. Every complete Gymnasium had a room (σφαιριστήριον, σφαίριστρα) devoted to this exercise [Gymnasium], where a special teacher (σφαιριστρικός) gave instruction in the art; for it required no small skill and practice to play it well and gracefully.

The game at ball was as great a favourite with the Romans as the Greeks, and was played at Rome by persons of all ages. Augustus used to play at ball (Suet. Aug. 83). Pliny (Ep. III.1) relates how much his aged friend Spurinna exercised himself in this game for the purpose of warding off old age; and under the empire it was generally played before taking a bath, in a room (sphaeristerium) attached to the baths for the purpose; in which we read of the pilicrepus or player at tennis (Sen. Ep. 57; Orelli, Inscr. n2591).

The game at ball was played in various ways: the later Greek writers mention five different modes, οὐρανία, ἐπίσκυρος, φαινίνδα, ἁρπαστόν, ἀπόῤῥαξις, and there were probably many other varieties.

  1. Οὐρανία was a game, in which the ball was thrown up into the air, and each of the persons who played strove to catch it, before it fell to the ground (Pollux, IX.106; Hesych. and Phot. s.v.; Eustath. ad Od. VIII.372 p1601).​b

  2. Ἐπίσκυρος, also called ἐφηβική and ἐπίκοινος, was the game at foot-ball, played in much the same way as with us, by a great number of persons divided into two parties opposed to one another (Pollux, IX.104). This was a favourite game at Sparta, where it was played with great emulation (Siebelis, ad Paus. III.14 §6).

  3. Φαινίνδα, called ἐφετίνδα by Hesychius (s.v.), was played by a number of persons, who threw the ball from one to another, but its peculiarity consisted in the person who had the ball pretending to throw it to a certain individual, and while the latter was expecting it, suddenly turning, and throwing it to another. Various etymologies of this word are given by the grammarians (Pollux, IX.105; Etym. Mag. s.v. Φεννίς; Athen. I p15A).

  4. Ἀρπαστόν, which was also played at by the Romans, is spoken of under Harpastum.

  5. Ἀπόῤῥαξις, was a game in which the player threw the ball to the ground with such force as to cause it to rebound, when he struck it down again with the palm of his hand and so went on doing many times: the number of times was counted  p919 (Pollux, IX.105).​c

We learn from Plato (Theaet. p146) that in one game of ball, though we do not know what kind it was, the boy who was conquered was called ass (ὄνος); and the one who conquered was named king (βασιλεύς).

Among the Romans the game at ball was also played at in various ways. Pila was used in a general sense for any kind of ball: but the balls among the Romans seem to have been of three kinds; the pila in its narrower sense, a small ball; the follis, a great ball filled with air [Follis]; and the paganica, of which we know scarcely anything, as it is only mentioned in two passages by Martial (VII.32.7, XIV.43), but from the latter of which we may conclude that it was smaller than the follis and larger than the pila. Most of the games at ball among the Romans seem to have been played at with the pila or small ball. One of the simplest modes of playing the ball, where two persons standing opposite to one another threw the ball from one to the other, was called datatim ludere (Plaut. Curc. II.3.17). But the most favourite game at ball seems to have been the trigon or pila trigonalis, which was played at by three persons, who stood in the form of a triangle, ἐν τριγώνῳ. We have no particulars respecting it, but we are told that skilful players prided themselves upon catching and throwing the ball with their left hand (Mart. XIV.46, VII.72.9).

The ancient physicians prescribed the game at ball, as well as other kinds of exercise, to their patients; Antyllus (ap. Oribas. VI.32) gives some interesting information on this subject.

The persons playing with the pila or small ball in the annexed woodcut are taken from a painting in the baths of Titus (Descr. des Bains de Titus, pl. 17) but it is difficult to say what particular kind of game they are playing at. Three of the players have two balls each.

[image ALT: A woodcut of four adults, 3 of them men and the fourth possibly a woman, standing in a fairly compact group and playing some kind of ball game something like juggling: two of them hold a small ball in one hand, but four additional balls can be counted.]

(Bürette,º De la Sphéristique, p214, &c., in Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr. vol. I; Krause, Gymnastik u. Agon. d. Hell. p299, &c.; Becker, Gallus, vol. I p268, &c.)

 p536  HARPASTUM (ἁρπαστόν from ἁρπάζω) was a ball, used in a game of which we have no accurate account; but it appears both from the etymology of the word​d and the statement of Galen (Περὶ μικρᾶς Σφαίρας, c2, p902, ed. Kühn), that a ball was thrown among the players, each of whom endeavoured to obtain possession of it (Cf. Pollux, IX.105, 106; Athen. I p14F). Hence Martial (IV.19.6) speaks of the harpasta pulverulenta. The game required a great deal of bodily exertion (Martial, VII.67.4; cf. XIV.48). (See Becker, Gallus, vol. 1 p276; Krause, Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen, vol. I pp307, 308.)

Thayer's Notes:

a This is one of the articles of Smith's Dictionary where a major deficiency of the work is seen most clearly. While it is excellent as a sourcebook of ancient authors — instead of the conjectures, often passing themselves off as truth, found in many modern books, we have direct reference to the actual first-hand texts on which they are based, and no unwarranted conclusions — our encyclopedia draws only weakly on archaeological evidence; and in the century and a half since its first publication, archaeology itself has brought much more evidence of ancient life to light.

Also, that peculiar woodcut is not the most informative: a copy of a copy of a possibly deteriorated fresco, who knows what it shows; for example, the man on the right has obviously . . . lost his balls to either mildew or an engraver.

b My fellow 21c Americans will see the game of Οὐρανία instantly if we only picture a baseball field where a high flyball has been set loose on a defense that doesn't have its act together: this is a rough game. My guess is that it's called οὐρανία (from οὐρανος, sky) because that's what you see as you crack your skulls together reaching for that ball.

c This tells you something about the quality of the ancient ball. As moderns, we take it for granted that balls bounce: they're perfectly spherical, can be made perfectly smooth, and their insides are well pressurized, either by air or by tightly compressed elastic substances. None of this would have been true in Antiquity.

d The Greek word ἁρπάζω means "to grab"; to get a much clearer idea of the connotations, see the article Harpago.

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Page updated: 11 Dec 21