Galen on Athletics and 'The Exercise with the Small Ball'
'Athletics in the Ancient World', by Norman Gardiner, is a book which focuses on athletics in ancient Greece and Rome and the relationship athletics had with religion, art, education, and medicine. There are many different types of athletic events described in this book, such as discus-throwing, javelin-throwing, the pentathlon, the stadium, foot races, jumping, wrestling, boxing, and ball play, as well as information about ancient Greek athletic festivals. This book has some especially interesting points on Galen's treatise called 'The Exercise With The Small Ball'. In Gardiner's chapter on ball play, he describes the exercise with the small ball and identifies it with a game known as harpastum. Harpastum was a team sport that probably allowed for a variable number of players and involved considerable speed, agility, and physical exertion. Based upon descriptions of harpastum in Galen and other sources, the game resembles an exercise similar to rugby or American football. Some descriptions suggest a line was drawn in the dirt, and that the teams would try to keep the ball behind their side of the line and prevent the opponents from reaching it. The game is thought to have involved the throwing and passing of a small hard ball, and it was greatly admired by Galen--in contrast with his views of most other athletic activities.
We do not know for sure how exactly this game was played, or if the game Galen talked about was even the same as harpastum, but there are certainly several interesting similarities between the two games. In his treatise Galen talks about the versatility of the exercise: “The capacity both to move all parts of the body equally, and also to practiced in either an extreme vigorous or an extremely mild form, is something found in no other exercise except that with the small ball” ('The Exercise with the Small Ball', sec. 902). Galen describes the varying amounts of exertion used while playing the game, and this can also be seen in the game other sources call harpastum. As Gardiner discusses, harpastum also allowed for varying levels of exertion and worked out different parts of the body at the same time. Additionally, Galen talks about the exercise and how it trained the player: “It is fairly easy to see that it [small ball exercise] has the power to give both of them [the players] the most important types of training--those which the rulers of a city would especially command their generals to undertake”. ('The Exercise with the Small Ball', sec. 905) Here, Galen compares the exercise with the small ball to the act of a general protecting a city. This is also seen in harpastum where the ball is kept and protected from other players. Overall, the exercise or sport described by Galen remains somewhat vague and elusive, which may be due in part to the versatility and adaptability of the game based upon the player. For these reasons, it seems that the game with the small ball as described by Galen could have been almost any game a person could think of using a small ball.
-Multimedia Content and Annotation Provided by Anisah Rahaman