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July 10, 2018

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”

οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.
Homer, Odyssey 8.147-148

Salve, My ancient Roman friend—I know that much of this world of ours confuses you. Not if I had ten thousand mouths and as many years could I cover the histories of the centuries between your world and ours, nor could I catalog and explain airplanes, televisions, cell phones, and the droning chorus of wonders and horrors you see around you.

But maybe I can start with something which will help bridge the gulf between your world and ours—sport. Even though the younger Pliny mocked his contemporaries for their passion for horse races, passion for sport is an ancient inheritance.

If we rewind to Homeric epic, Odysseus gets all riled up in the Odyssey when his athletic prowess is questioned; Euripides laments “of all the evils plaguing Greece / None is worse than the race of athletes” (κακῶν γὰρ ὄντων μυρίων καθ’ ῾Ελλάδα / οὐδὲν κάκιόν ἐστιν ἀθλητῶν γένους, fr. 282), and your own Roman poet, Horace, acknowledges the power of games when he writes “Sport tends to give rise to heated strife and anger, anger in turns brings savage feuds and war to the death” (ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen et iram,/ ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum, 1.19.48–59).

"Harpastum", a form of ball game played in the Roman Empire. Fresco, circa 100 BC - 400 AD. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.
"Harpastum", a form of ball game played in the
Roman Empire. Fresco, circa 100 BC - 400 AD.
Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.

Today we have a series of contests in a game beloved in most of the world called football (or ‘soccer’ for those in the West who have their own version of football). To help you out, in modern Latin, we might call this ludus follis pedumque. (Or, if you are a Roman Philhellene, podosphaerum) Yet, if our neologism offend thine ears, I will count you in the company of Caesar, who proclaimed, “I shall avoid a rare and novel word like a rocky crag,” (tamquam scopulum, sic fugiam infrequens atque insolens verbum, Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.5.2).

The game is, at its foundation, simple. Players join a team trying to get a ball into the opposite team’s net without using their hands. They also try to stop the other team from getting the ball into their net. The field of play is really large, so there is a lot of running. There is a street mime portion of the game too: possession and even the numbers of players on the field can be affected by how much a player acts hurt after nearly being hit by another player! The games are usually low scoring affairs and after 90+ minutes of running and miming, sometimes they end in what you might consider a reductio ad supplicia (“penalty shootout”).

Pompeii gymnasium seen from the top of the stadium wall, 1999. Image via Wikimedia under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.
Pompeii gymnasium seen from the top of the stadium wall, 1999. Image via Wikimedia under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Every four years, the same period given to the ancient and modern Olympics, countries all over the world compete in the Football World Cup (for you, the Ludi Pedifolli mundani). I won’t dizzy your head with the details of how teams get into the World Cup, the corruption in choosing where the World Cup is played, or the many dramatic turns of these particular games—it suffices to say that some games have almost helped us forget ourselves and our troubles. But, Roman, two teams play this Wednesday that might surprise or entertain you—England and Croatia.

I am sure that you are probably scratching your head at these names, but let’s put them in some language you can understand: in your day, England would have been represented by the Province of Britannia and Croatia, once part of the Kingdom of Illyria, would have been the Province of Dalmatia. Does that help a little?

Map of the Roman province of Dalmatia via the Pelagios Project's interactive Peripleo map with maptile by the AWMC (CC-BY-SA).

When you hear of Britannia and Dalmatia you probably get to thinking of Emperors, and Empires, am I right? To be fair, in the later Roman Empire they were both places you could be exiled to—indeed, within two paragraphs, Ammianus Marcellinus has the Emperor bundling people to the east to Dalmatia and West to Britain (21-23). Yet—and this may be after your time—emperors were made in these provinces? The emperor Diocletian was said “to have entirely loved the land of Delmatia,” (Διοκλητιανὸς ὁ βασιλεὺς πάνυ τῆς χώρας Δελματίας ἠράσθη - Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, de Administrando Imperio 29).

Hébrard, Ernest. Illustration depicting the Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in its original appearance, 1912. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.
Hébrard, Ernest. Illustration depicting the Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in its original appearance, 1912. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.

But that’s really the end of the story—I think as a proud Roman you might remember that the story of the Empire and its emperors intertwines these two provinces. Britain likely seems impossibly far to you if you agree with Vergil’s assessment about toto diuisos orbe Britannos, ‘the Britons, divided from the entire world.’ You may have been struck with a desire to see the English after reading that Gregory the Great, upon seeing a group of British captives, declared them non Angli sed Angeli, not Angles but Angels. What unites them—if anything does—is that they were constant challenges for Roman governance.

Julius Caesar first proposed the conquest of Britain (Gallic War). Why did he go there? According to Suetonius, “he sought Britain in hope of pearls” (Britanniam petisse spe margaritarum, Div.Jul. 47). Despite the Island’s alleged mineral wealth—and it was known for tin as well as giant pearls—the province was too distant and unmanageable, and it seems that the story about the pearls was overblown. Tacitus comments, “I would sooner believe that the pearls were lacking in value than that the Romans were lacking in avarice,” (ego facilius crediderim naturam margaritis deesse quam nobis avaritiam, Agricola, 12).

Map of the province of Britannia via the Pelagios Project's Peripleo with maptile by the AWMC (CC-BY-SA).

While he was waging war against them, Caesar had ample opportunity to admire their athleticism and martial prowess, cultivated by “daily habit and exercise” usu cotidiano et exercitatione (de Bello Gallico 4.33). Today’s soccer players wear jerseys, a uniform hardly apt to inspire terror, but during Caesar’s campaign he was struck by the blue dye, known to us as woad but to Caesar as vitrum: “All the Britons paint themselves with vitrum, which turns them a blue color, and makes them more horrible to gaze upon in battle (Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu, BG 5.14)

And, yet, Roman emperors kept returning. Despite or perhaps even because of Caesar’s propaganda and ultimate failure, Britain remained a ‘conflict zone’. When emperors need to win a victory, where do they go? Britain. Julius went there; Galba wanted to (Suetonius, Life of Galba). Even Claudius held a triumph for conquest of the island—and the future Emperor Vespasian was an officer on the expedition. Edward Gibbon, in his always perfectly-balanced and sometimes overwrought way (the orators among you may appreciate this!) observed of the Roman conquest: “After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.”

Armitage, Edward. Prize cartoon by Edward Armitage of Caesar's invasions of Britain, c.1843, from the Palace of Westminster archives. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.
Armitage, Edward. Prize cartoon by Edward Armitage of Caesar's
invasions of Britain, c.1843, from the Palace of Westminster
archives. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.

If we are to believe Cicero (ad Atticum 4.16), the island was not at all worth the effort, and even a well-read or cultured Briton would have been hard to find: “The end of the British war is expected soon. It is common knowledge that the approach to the island is guarded against in miraculous ways. It is also known that there is not even a scrap of silver in the island, nor any hope of plunder except from slaves – and of these, I think that you may expect none who are educated in either music or literature.”

A well-read Roman of the 2nd century CE would perhaps be familiar not only with the campaigns of Julius Caesar on the Albion’s shores, but also the perhaps less significant military apprenticeship of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, bequeathed to future generations [among] the deeds and characteristics of famous men” (Clarorum virorum facta moresque posteris trader, Agricola 1.1) by Tacitus. But, as you might remember from the recorded deeds of our divine Augustus Caesar (Suetonius, Divus Augustus 22), he made Dalmatia part of the Roman Empire right before he sacked Antony. But the region had been a thorn in Rome’s side (nearly literally) for centuries, sitting, as it does, across the Adriatic sea, extending up into land routes into the Northern Italian peninsula. It was called Illyricum then—but after Agrippa had conducted several campaigns there, the province was split into Pannonia and Dalmatia. Gibbon comments that “The country of Pannonia and Dalmatia, which occupied the space between the Danube and the Hadriatic, was one of the last and most difficult conquests of the Romans.”

Of the two provinces, Dalmatia was probably the more “Roman”, but despite its proximity to Italy it retained a sense of wildness. According to Theophrastus (in Athenaeus 9.369d), it was a land of wild Carrots! And Pliny claims that it was a place where large deposits of gold were sometimes found (Natural History 33.67) “Sometimes gold is found close to the surface of the ground with a certain rare felicity, as recently happened in Delmatia during the reign of Nero, when the earth poured out fifty pounds of gold a day. When gold is thus found at the top of the dirt, they call it talutium, is there is golden earth below it. Also, the coast has deep, windy caves.

You may notice that our main man Pliny employs the spelling Delmatia for what we have called Dalmatia. To be sure, we would not attempt to wrangle with such an erudite scholar on a point of orthography like this, but happily, the difference is explained by Velius Longus (de Orthographia 72.22): “Sometimes we like to pronounce it Delmatia, not Dalmatia, since the country is thought to have taken its name from Delminus, the greatest city of that province.”

But the Roman zeal for Dalmatia was not provoked by mineral wealth alone. Dalmatia and the surrounding regions also helped to play kingmaker—legions drawn from the area were critical in succession conflicts like those won by Vespasian (Tactius 3.14). Josephus counts the legions in the region at two at the beginning of the Jewish War.

But oh my dear Roman, if you were to launch yourself forward through the vortex of time and closer to our age, you might reflect with pride on the fact that in the 18th century, Croatian author Titus Brezovacki employed your language to glorify his native Croatia in his Dalmatiae Croatiae et Slavoniae Trium Sororum Recursus : “Oh, wicked deed! The vile mob is preparing to deprive us, the three Queens, of our crowns and to abolish the name and race of the Croatians! Hereafter there will be no Slav, no Dalmatian! It has now become acceptable to many that we be transformed into the Scythian race, and for our language itself to be changed, and to suffer a transformation into those hairy, barbaric habits and laws. What furor, my citizens, what madness has possessed you to submit your free necks to such a harsh yoke? We are free kingdoms, and if anyone feels ashamed to be a Croatian, let him be a slave to the savage Huns!” For whom would Brezovacki cheer during the game?

The English of a more recent time have felt reason to fear. Consider the question posed by Johannis Whethamstede in the 15th century in - of all countries - England: “Or perhaps you despise the Hungarians and the Dalmatians, those savage people, unconquered in archery, who fly through the air on their horses?” Like Pliny, I affect a lofty contempt for sports, and so I concede that I am no expert on World Cup regulations, yet I imagine that the use of horses on the field is strictly prohibited. Deprived of equine conveyance, today’s Dalmati, the Croatians, will be relying entirely on their ferocious spirits to pull them through!

Well, Roman, if that does not remind you of the world that once was, let’s focus on this: both teams were not expected to come so far and were once part of your realm. So, while it was once “your art to rule / the nations with your empire / to enforce the custom of peace / to spare the conquered and to —subjugate the proud” (Vergil, Aen. 6.851–853), perhaps now you can be satisfied in rooting for the proud?

(Header Image: Ancient Greek football player balancing the ball. Part of a marble grave stele, found in Piraeus, 400-375 BC. Item (NAMA) 873 of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image via Wikimedia under Public Domain.)


Joel P. Christensen is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. Erik Robinson is a Latin teacher at Brandeis High School in San Antonio, Texas. Together they run the website Sententiae Antiquae and the associated twitter feed @sentantiq. They have also published The Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice (Introduction, Text, translation and Commentary; Bloomsbury 2018) Neither of them care much about the World Cup, but for the foreseeable future they will be rooting for the team that beats Russia.


Joel Christensen (he/his) is Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University where he also serves as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences. He has recently published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press. He is part of the team behind and the twitter feed @sentantiq.