High School /College : Games : Overview,
Topic: The Role of Children's Games in Ancient Greece
Written by Alison Schmauch, Dartmouth College, Class of 2004
Ancient Greek children played games strikingly similar to many of the games
children play today. They played with hoops, rattles, and knucklebones, a toy
from which modern jacks originate; they also played games quite like modern basketball
and hockey. Yet, for all the similarities between modern and ancient Greek children’s
games, there are noteworthy differences as well. The competitive ethos that pervaded
Greek society appears to have influenced children’s play. Greek children’s
games tend to delineate absolutely between winners and losers in a way that modern
games do not, and an emphasis on trickery and deception in certain games may reflect
something broader about a competitive society that valued such trickery as a sign
of cleverness and strength.
Like many modern psychologists, Greek adults saw such games as a valuable way
to prepare children informally for adult tasks and vocations. Plato wrote, “He
who is good at anything as a man must practice that thing from early childhood,
in play as well as earnest, with all the attendant circumstances of the action.
Thus, if a boy is to be a good farmer, or again, a good builder, he should play,
in the one case at building toy houses, in the other at farming, and both should
be provided by their tutors with miniature tools on the pattern of real ones.
We should see to use games as a means of directing children’s tastes and
inclinations toward the station they are themselves to fill when adult.”
Likewise, E. J. Harris discusses the possibility that the Greeks’ formal
athletic competitions in which some children participated, served as good physical
training for war. Even more informal types of games also helped to keep children
fit for fighting, an important goal in a society in which military service was
Ample evidence from art and literature points to the existence of ancient Greek
children’s games. For example, in the Republic,
Plato refers to the “whirling of a shell in the children’s game,”
and Aristotle, in a scientific treatise, compares the movements of animals to
those of children’s “automatic puppets” and toy wagons. Various
ancient works of art also show children at play. Groups of terracotta figurines
often depict children playing ephedrismos (Cat.
82, 83), a type of piggyback game, and similar games were also represented on
Greek vases. Finally, archaeologists have recovered the remains of some ancient
Greek toys, including the brass and glass knucklebones and rattle on display in
the Hood exhibition (Cat. 88) and some balls and wheeled carts.
At the same time, much of the information we do have about ancient Greek children’s
games is fragmentary and/or problematic. Many of the most common children’s
toys that we know about from artistic representations and literary sources, such
as hoops and balls, were usually made of wood or other highly perishable materials,
and thus no examples of them survive. Likewise, while we know that certain games
existed from artistic or literary representations, we do not know exactly what
their rules were. For example, we know that Greek children played a game resembling
modern-day hockey from a relief on an Archaic Athenian statue base, but we know
little about how this game was actually played. Scholars have also encountered
similar problems when studying the board games shown on some vases.
Also, it is often unclear whether children played games for amusement alone
or as part of religious rituals. While some literary sources indicate that children
played informally with toys similar to contemporary tops, other such tops have
been found in sanctuaries and appear to have been dedicated as votives. Young
girls are frequently shown juggling on fifth-century Attic vases, but it is mostly
unclear what they are juggling. While some scholars see these young women tossing
round balls of wool, others see apples, which were symbols of love and fertility
and might thus suggest that these images have a more religious purpose.
Types of Children’s Games
Ephedrismos was a popular game whose name is derived from the Greek word for “sit
upon.” Two players place a stone upright on the ground and throw other stones
at it from a distance. The player who fails to knock over the upright stone then
carries the other player on his back while the winner’s hands cover his
eyes. The pair runs around in this fashion until the losing player touches the
Greek children are commonly shown playing morra
as well, a game that is still played in some parts of Europe, particularly southern
Italy. Two players make a fist behind their backs and at a signal extend their
hands, displaying a certain number of fingers. The first player to call out the
correct total number of fingers shown wins the game.
Knucklebones was also a popular game in the Greek world. A quotation from Aristophanes’
Wasps indicates how widespread the game was,
in part because of the affordability of knucklebones in comparison to treats like
Boy: There’s something, Father, for which I pine:
Would you grant a request of mine?
Chorus: Certainly, child, tell me what’s the pretty thing
That you’d like for me to bring
Knucklebones, is it, eh, my laddie?
Boy: No knucklebones: figs, please, Daddy.
Chorus: No figs: be hanged, say I.
From my paltry pay I have to try
Flour, wood, and groceries to buy.
Figs indeed—up in the sky!
To begin the game, each player tosses all five knucklebones in the air and
tries to catch as many as possible. Each player then repeats the procedure using
the knucklebones that he or she caught the first time. The score each player obtains
in this way determines the order of turns during the game.
In the most common variation on this game, the first player throws all of his
knucklebones on the ground. He picks one up, which becomes known as the jack.
He tosses the jack into the air, picks up another bone from the ground, and catches
the jack as it falls. He transfers the picked-up bone to his free hand and throws
the jack again. This procedure is repeated until the player has picked up all
of the knucklebones. If a player drops a bone, misses the jack, or moves a bone
inadvertently, he is out and the next player takes his turn. When a player succeeds
at picking up and holding all the bones during one turn of play, he goes on to
try to pick up all the bones at one time. When the player has picked up all the
bones in this way, he then tries to pick up bones in groups of first three and
Greek children also loved to play a game called ostrakinda.
The name of the game is derived from that of the shell that is used during play.
Greek children would take a shell and smear one side black. They referred to this
side as “night,” while the blank side was “day.” The children
then drew a line, divided into two teams, and decided which team was night and
which day. One player would toss the shell, and the side whose color came up chased
the other team. Anyone caught was forced to carry his pursuer on his back. Plato
is likely making an analogy based on this popular game when he writes, “So
this, it seems, would not be the whirling of a shell in the children’s game,
but a conversation and turning about of the soul from a day whose light is darkness
to the veritable day.” Variations of ostrakinda
are still played in Europe. English children play a version called “Crusts
and Crumbs,” French children one called “Le Jour et La Nuit,”
and Austrian children a game called “Schwarz-Weiss.”
Games involving rolling wooden hoops, quite similar to those children play today,
were also popular with ancient Greek children. A child with a hoop appears in
the Hood’s exhibition on an oinochoe entitled
Serving Boy Holding Tray and Hoop (cat. 76).
There are abundant literary references to the popularity of hoop bowling: in Euripides’
Medea, Medea’s young sons first appear
when “fresh from their hoop bowling.” Similarly, a wealthy magistrate
who endowed a gymnasium in Prirene encouraged the young men who frequented it
to roll hoops.
Types of Ball Games
Ancient Greek children played numerous types of ball games. Galen described
how children blew up pigs’ bladders and shaped them by holding them over
fires and rubbing them, thus producing objects resembling contemporary footballs.
Plato notes that children sometimes painted these balls different colors to make
them more attractive.
Greek children enjoyed playing episkyros,
also known as ephebike—a sort of rugby-football
type game. The players divided into two teams. Each team stood on one side of
a line drawn on the ground. A goal line was drawn behind each team; the two sides
then fought to reach the other side’s goal line. Ourania,
a game in which one player tosses a ball into the air and others try to catch
it, was also popular, as was aporrhaxis, which
entailed bouncing a ball and keeping it bouncing. In phaininda,
a rugby-like game whose name is derived from the Greek word “to pretend,”
players elaborately tried to prevent the other team from intercepting a ball by
deceiving them through a series of fake passes. Passé-boule
involved trying to throw a ball through a round hole in an upright board embedded
in the ground, something like modern basketball. (Cat. 79)
Children at the Olympic and Panathenaic Games
Ancient Greek children participated in more organized forms of sport, including
the Olympic and Panathenaic Games. At Olympia, all competitors were considered
either boys or men, possibly because the lack of clear birth records to confirm
competitors’ exact ages made it difficult to enforce the division of competitors
into smaller groups. Contestants were, however, classified as either boys, youths
or men at other athletic festivals, and later on, during the Christian era, athletes
were divided into still smaller competition groups according to age. Aristotle
comments directly on the dangers of following a difficult training regimen at
an early age in order to enter such athletic events: “The evil of excessive
training in early years is strikingly proved by the example of the Olympic victors;
for not more than two or three of them have gained a prize both as boys and men;
their early training and severe gynmastic exercise exhausted their constitutions.”
Interestingly, Greek competitors did not divide into classes according to any
criterion other than age: for example, wrestlers were not divided into classes
by weight, as is typical in modern competitions.
Nonetheless, children were barred from competing in some athletic events. Boys
were allowed to compete in the pankration, a
type of wrestling competition with few rules, only after 200 B.C.E. They had previously
been forbidden to do this type of wrestling in the Olympics because the sport
was thought too dangerous for young boys, even though boys could fight in the
pankration in other athletic competitions. Similarly,
it was recorded that boys competed in the pentathlon for one year, in 628 B.C.E.,
but were forbidden to afterward for reasons that remain unclear.
A notably competitive ethos dominated many of these games. The distinctions
between winning and losing were delineated quite clearly. In both ephedrismos
and ourania, the winner was known as “king”
and the loser as “donkey.” Games with points were virtually unheard
of as competitors were interested in knowing only who won and who lost, not how
close a given game was. Similarly, in the formal athletic games children competed
in, no prizes were given to contestants who came in second or third in any particular
event, likely for the same reasons. The emphasis on using trickery in a game like
phaininda may also reflect the same sort of competitive
ethos, as the Greeks were infamous for valuing trickery and deceit if it allowed
them an edge in competition.
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Questions for Further Study:
- Although we do not know the origin of game playing, what is some of the earliest
archaeological evidence of games?
- Do you think games were invented by adults or by children? Why?
- What games were played in other ancient cultures? Are they similar to ancient
Greek games in terms of what skills one needed to excel at them?
- Why did official athletic competitions in Greece not include team sports?
In what culture did organized team sports first appear?
- The Mayans played a form of ball game that involved ritual practice. What
was this game and how did it differ from the Greek games?
- What were the differences between the Panathenaic Games and the Olympic Games?
- How are today’s Olympic games similar to the games played at Olympia
in ancient Greece? How are they different?
Lekythos of Zeus Chasing Ganymede
c. 440-430 B.C.E
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly, 47.35
Ex Collections V.G. Simkhovitch; E. Lilly
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 15
The scene on this red-figure lekythos shows the god Zeus chasing the young
Trojan prince Ganymede. According to myth, Zeus eventually caught Ganymede and
brought him to the gods’ home at Olympos, where Ganymede had to spend his
days serving the gods. Here Ganymede is shown playing a game commonly known as
“hoop-bowling.” The childish nature of the game Ganymede plays makes
him seem younger, more vulnerable to the god; commentators have noted that this
scene lacks some of the erotic tension that characterizes other representations
of the same myth.
Kylix of Hermes and Youth Spinning Top
c. 480-470 B.C.E
Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University, Archaeological Collection, B9
Ex Collection Hartwig, Rome
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 16
On this red-figure kylix, the painter Douris shows Hermes teaching a youth
how to spin a top. Hermes (left) is not shown here with the kerykeion, the traditional
wand, so it is a bit difficult to identify him for certain, but this image does
resemble several in which he is shown with his traditional attribute.
As Hermes served the patron deity of the gymnasium, he was thought to have a particularly
close association with young boys and was said to have invented the spinning top.
Accordingly, many Greek male youth brought tops and other toys to sanctuaries
to be dedicated to Hermes when they came of age and it became time for them to
lay away these childish things.
Chous with Boys Playing Ball
c. 425 B.C.E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Fletcher Fund, 1925, 25.78.48
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 79
Here two young boys are shown playing passé-boule, a game similar to
modern basketball. The object was to toss the ball through a hole in an upright
board stuck in the ground. Four other ancient Greek vases, all dating from the
latter half of the fifth century, show versions of this popular game.
Terracotta Figurines, Girls Playing Ephedrismos
c. 300 B.C.E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.4
Ex Collection John Marshall, Athens
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 83
These two young girls are playing ephedrismos.
The game entailed competing to see which of two players could knock over a stone
placed upright on the ground by throwing other stones at it. The player who loses
then has to run around carrying the winner on his/her back until the losing player
touches the stone. The forward leg right leg of the carrier and the backswung
leg of the left rider suggest the speed at which ephedrismos
was commonly played.
In this pair, the winning girl is especially easy to identify because she wears
a stephane, or crown, on her head, while the carrier sports a humbler floral wreath.
The presence of these attributes again seems to suggest the competiveness of ancient
Chous with Boys Playing Knucklebones
c. 420 B.C.E.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 96.AE.28
This vase has been called one of the finest depictions of knucklebone playing
in ancient Greek art. Children typically played this game, often regarded as the
ancestor of modern jacks games, with the tarsal bones of sheep or goats.
There were numerous variations on the games of knucklebones, and it’s
unclear which one the boys shown here are playing. They might be playing eis
omillan, which entails trying to knock over knucklebones that have been
placed upright in a clearly defined central playing field. The two boys at left
appear to be guarding such upright knucklebones while the boy at right prepares
to make a throw that will knock them over.
These boys might also be playing a game called pleistobolinda.
In this game, players assign numerical values to each side of the knucklebones,
and the players toss the knucklebones up into the air to see whose knucklebones
land on the most valuable sides. The player who earns the most points gets to
steal the other players’ knucklebones. Usually, though, only two players
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Avedon, Elliot M. and Brian Sutton-Smith. The Study
of Games. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1971.
Botermans, Jack and Tony Burrett, Pieter van Delft, Carla van Splunteren. The
World of Games. New York: Facts on File, 1987.
Decker, Wolfgang. Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt.
Trans. Allen Guttmann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Harris, H.A. Sport in Greece and Rome. Ithaca,
N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Milberg, Alan. Street Games. New York: McGraw-Hill,
Miller, Steven G. Arete: Ancient Writers, Papyri
and Inscriptions on the History and Ideals of Greek Athletics and Games.
Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1979.
Opie, Iona and Peter Opie. Children’s Games
in Street and Playground. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.