Rugby league’s history: Long before football there was a Greek game called episkyros




Primitive primates evolved more than 50 million years ago. A few short years later and here we are. Doesn’t time fly?

As human beings, we are constantly digging, researching and learning. Who we were, where we came from, how we got here. It’s in our DNA.

But as rugby league supporters we seem more than just a little hesitant to delve any further back into our past than 1895 when we broke away from rugby union and began our own competition in England. We’re hesitant because anything prior to 1895 isn’t rugby league as we know it.

The game however had to come from somewhere, surely?

Before league, union and soccer – there was episkyros. Thousands of years before Jesus of Nazareth – Greeks played the first ball game.

While the Spartans played their own version (more brutal), the game known as “commonball” was played between teams of 12 to 14 where one side could throw the ball over the opposition’s head and across a line at the end of the field and even then there was a version of episkyros played by women. But it wasn’t that easy as you had to pass within your own team several times whilst also evading the defenders from the other team before you had a chance to toss the ball over the opponent’s line.



If a team had possession on their own line, defenders could gang tackle him back over the line for a point.

FIFA has acknowledged the game as an ancient version linking it directly as a descendant of rugby league.

While details of episkyros are scarce – more detail is known of the Roman version which was adopted sometime later.

“The Greek ‘Episkyros’ – of which few concrete details survive – was much livelier, as was the Roman ‘Harpastum’,” explains.



“The latter was played out with a smaller ball by two teams on a rectangular field marked by boundary lines and a centre line. The objective was to get the ball over the opposition’s boundary lines and as players passed it between themselves, trickery was the order of the day.

“The game remained popular for 700-800 years, but, although the Romans took it to Britain with them, the use of feet was so small as to scarcely be of consequence.”

Agility and speed were a player’s most useful tools in episkyros.

With that in mind, you’d have to think that modern day stars like James Tedesco, Michael Morgan and Josh Mansour would effortlessly slip into ancient Greece and a game of episkyros.

And thousands of years before Johnathan Thurston’s dummy – episkyros players deceived opponents with their version of the dummy as they feigned to pass one way, run themselves or pass to a teammate.

Balls were most likely made of animal sinew wound into a ball and wrapped in animal skin.

Part Two: Harpastum – Romans



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