Greeks, Romans, Monks, and Murder: the Chaotic History of Football in Britain

David Butterfield & Gavin McCormick

When Euro 2020 at last arrived, however fashionably late, it marked the first time in the competition’s history that the three countries of Great Britain all made the finals. What’s more, with both England and Scotland playing host, some of our readers were given to dream. So, to put things all in context, and to bang the drum for the historic home of Association Football,[1] Antigone has set out to tell the story of the sport from the Greeks and the Romans through to twenty-first-century Britain.

Yes yes, we know that there is a tangled web of parallel and intermingling threads running through the history of European ball games at large – such as the medieval French game seault (or soule or choule?), which may even be a survival of a Celtic game – but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, sit back and marvel at just how raucous football once was…

Another victory for the Ajax: Johan Cruyff celebrates on behalf of his favourite Iliadic hero in 1972.

So, take your pick. You can start by reading about the ball games of Ancient Greece and Rome, or the moment when such sport first appears in British history. See what Medieval chroniclers made of the game, how the authorities tried and failed to ban it, and what words you need to describe football in Latin. Or take a look at football in Medieval and Early Modern poetry. Read about how Greek and Roman terms still crop up in the modern game, and how team names and club mottoes look back to the ancient world. Learn about the little-known truth that football players use Latin code in their names. Or, why not kick off with Monty Python?

Competitive dad: detail from a grave stele of the early 4th cent. BC, found in Piraeus, near Athens (and now in that city’s National Archaeological Museum).

Balls to Greece and Rome

First things first. It is not true that football was created on the playing fields of English public schools, or even in the taverns of Victorian London. In fact, the emergence of football – kicking a ball in competition with other players – is a cross-cultural, global phenomenon. Ball-games are there among the Ancient Egyptians, in Chinese Cuju, Japanese Kemari, and Aboriginal Australian Marn Gook.

Detail from Su Hanchen’s One Hundred Children in the Long Spring, AD c. 1150 (National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan).

No, the Romans did not invent it. Nor did the Ancient Greeks. Yet these cultures clearly were addicted to their ball games, which were usually played naked (gymnasium, from γυμνάσιον, means “nude training place”, after all). In Greece, there were four names for what may have been ultimately a single game: harpastum (ἁρπαστόν), episkyros (ἐπίσκυρος), phaininda (φαίνινδα) and epikoinos (ἐπίκοινος, “the common” or “people’s game”). All involved handling and kicking the ball somehow (which perhaps differed in size and nature between them).

Ball games were a sufficiently serious business that most gyms had a specific ball-court (σφαιριστήριον), that experts wrote works (all now lost!) called About Ball-playing (περὶ σφαιριστικῆς), and that the wealthy had professional ball-trainers (σφαιριστικοί). We know little more than that harpastum involved teams fighting to keep the ball on their own side of the pitch, while the opposition sought to steal it and carry it over to theirs – a sort of inverted rugby. Whatever the details, the outcome was evidently a species of organised chaos. The Greek orator Athenaeus, for one, tells us in the third century AD that harpastum was “the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck.”[2]

Around the same time, the Greek lexicographer Pollux wasn’t sure what to make of phaininda. He suggested that it may derive its name from a (possibly invented) chap called Phaenides, or – alternatively – from the Greek verb φενακίζειν (phenakizein), which means “to deceive”. Why “deception”? “Because they show the ball to one man and then throw to another, contrary to expectation.” Is this an insight into dummy-passes – or just a load of Pollux?

Some ball game or other: fresco of 1st cent. AD, Baths of Titus, Rome.

In the Roman world, ball games had a major place too, especially harpastum, a name they simply transliterated into Latin. As with the Greeks, we find both the heavier felt ball (pila) and the inflated bladder-ball (follis).[3] In the 60s AD, under the rule of the Emperor Nero, the Stoic philosopher Seneca moans about how much noise such games cause in the public baths, when the “ball-shouter” (pilicrepus) starts to “count the balls” (numerare pilas).[4] Roman lawyers seriously debated the question of what to do when a customer in a barbershop ends up having his throat slit: the bizarre context was a ball crashing into the premises while the man was receiving – but not being able to call it – a close shave![5]

Roman mosaic of the 4th cent. AD from the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy.

For some Classical scholars, the absence of proper evidence about football’s origins just wouldn’t do. So they amused themselves by inventing that ancient evidence, conjuring up the sport of ἀποπουδοβαλία (apopoudobalia), “the striking-from-the-foot game”. A mock article found its way into the Holy Grail of Classics enyclopedias, the German-language Neue Pauly Enzyklopädie der Antike (the New Pauly Encylopedia of Antiquity). In the first volume (1996), we find a straight-faced entry for this term: the author invents a character called Achilles Tacticus (Achilles the Tactician?), whose fragmentary Gymnastika (“Naked games”?) talks about “football-playing men”. Heads were frantically scratched.

What is more, the article says, it was Roman legions at the fringes of the Roman Empire who introduced the game to Britain, where it bubbled away until at last becoming popular again in the 19th century. Many – but not all – spotted the joke, on seeing that the scholarly references pointed to two otherwise unknown academics: an A. Pila (Latin for “ball”) and B. Pedes (Latin for “feet”).[6]

Laughing at the Greeks

Think of football and Classical Greece and the first thing that comes to mind may just be the famous Monty Python sketch (1972) involving the Ancient Greek philosophers who take on their German counterparts in a match. As the leading proponents of philosophy – φιλοσοφία, literally “the love of wisdom” – the Greeks will have backed their chances.

In modern English, we might be more used to seeing the word “philosophical” being used to describe a quizzical, questioning temperament, one that is reflective and calm, but also realistic, in the face of different possible eventualities (as in, “I’m philosophical about England’s chances in the next World Cup”). To be philosophical can also be to seem otherworldly, to be the kind of person who can get lost in abstract thoughts or questions. It can suggest a cerebral, but not very practical, kind of person.

True to the latter of these definitions, the Python team depict the Ancient Greek and German philosophers alike as thinkers preoccupied with their own thoughts, strutting the pitch with all the air of self-important genius, entirely oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the team game at hand.

Mixed among the philosophers’ ranks are some ill-fitting presences – most notably the German footballer Frans Beckenbauer (born 1945) and the Greek inventor Archimedes (born c. 287 BC). It is the unphilosophical imposter, Archimedes, who brings about a change in the game’s fortunes. His “eureka” moment is not to spot that his body displaces an equal volume of water in the bathtub – but to realise that he can actually kick the football. This sets off a dazzling move, which results in Socrates scoring a diving header and winning the match for the Greeks. It was doubtless the legendary Brazilian player Socrates (more fully Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, 1954-2011) who first inspired the skit.

The sketch is hilarious in many of its details. A classicist will feel bound to question, however, its depiction of philosophers – Greek and German alike – as otherworldly figures, whose thoughts can only be jolted to action by the creative thinking of a ‘scientific’ thinker. Philosophers themselves, in the ancient world, could be figures of tremendous practical wisdom.

The teams face off (still from the sketch).

Let’s take a close look at the Greek line-up:

1 Plato: Pupil of Socrates, author of many dialogues that introduce his teacher’s thought. Founder of his own school, the Academy, in the 4th century BC. He had an enormous influence on subsequent thought: A.N. Whitehead’s quip continues to resonate, that the “safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

2 Epictetus: Stoic philosopher, born a slave, who lived under the Roman Empire in the 1st to 2nd centuries. Believed in accepting one’s fortunes calmly.

3 Aristotle: One of the great figures of ancient philosophy and tutor of Alexander the Great. You can read about his political thought on Antigone here and here. Aristotle was also a scientist, who had a great interest in the natural world. Much of his surviving writing concerns observations on different animal species and the way living organisms function.

4 Sophocles: One of the great playwrights of 5th century BC Athens. His plays include Oedipus the King, Antigone (the heroine who gives our website its name) and Ajax (the hero who gives Ajax Amsterdam FC their moniker).

5 Empedocles: Sicilian philosopher of the 5th century BC who, according to legend, died by leaping into the crater of Mount Etna. According to his philosophy, Love and Strife are engaged in an eternal battle for supremacy in the universe. 

6 Plotinus: A philosopher of the 3rd century AD, greatly influenced by his much earlier predecessor Plato. He had a major influence on the development of early Christian thought, particularly that of St Augustine. For his ideas about the importance of mindfulness, see our article here.

7 Epicurus: 4th-century BC philosopher who believed humans should aim to lead lives so as to win the ultimate pleasure – the complete absence of mental and physical pain. He taught and thought in a garden on the fringes of ancient Athens.

8 Heraclitus: 6th-5th-century BC philosopher most famous for his theory of flux – that everything in the universe is in a constant state of change. πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei):Everything flows.”

9 Democritus: Philosopher of the 5th-4th centuries BC who is known best as the first developer of atomic theory (for which he was much ridiculed!).

10 Socrates: In the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, Socrates appears as a forensic arguer and questioner, for whom truth matters deeply. He leaves no writing of his own but his influence over his pupils (chiefly Plato) was huge. His willing execution by hemlock on the charges of corrupting the youth and blasphemy against the gods deprived Athens of one of its most fascinating and provocative presences.

11 Archimedes: Inventor of the 3rd century BC. Among the most notable inventions with which he was credited was the Archimedes Screw, which mechanically raised water from a lower source to a higher location.

The School of Athens, Raphael, c. 1510 (fresco, The Vatican).

In Britain, meanwhile, whatever the Greeks and Romans got up to, it’s clear that ball games had long been afoot. Such activity doubtless preceded the Roman invasion (AD 43) by aeons and was doubtless widespread across the populace. But for a long time it is only in scholarly Latin texts that we can find ball games recorded. Still, however academic their authors, these texts tell a truly fascinating story.

The First Magic Mention of Football in Britain

The very earliest mention comes in the History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum, AD 829/30), attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius. In its account of the fifth century AD, after the Romans have withdrawn from England (AD 410), we find King Vortigern in search of – well, there’s no easy way of putting this – a victim for human sacrifice: “On the advice of his wizards, he sent ambassadors throughout all of Britain to see whether they could find an infant without a father.” They reached the “field of Ellet”, somewhere in the Vale of Glamorgan, in Southern Wales, where “boys were playing ball (pila). And look – two of them were arguing, with one saying to the other “Man without a father, you will never have any success.”[7] The boy in fact emerges to be Ambrosius Aurelianus – the inspiration behind the Arthurian magician Merlin. So, here is our first written evidence of Brits playing “ball” – but there are perhaps a few too many dragons in the rest of Nennius’ history to make this episode certain fact…

Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern (illustration of c. 1260 to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini, London British Library MS Cotton Claudius B VII f.224r).

The People’s Game

We hear nothing for the next two centuries, although balls are doubtless being kicked against church walls, and dribbled incessantly around the cloister. But around 1175, William FitzStephen gives us a snapshot of wide-scale ball-playing in London: “all the city’s youth” turn up for the “famous game of ball” (lusum pilae celebrem). Scholars and workers from all trades each turn up with a ball in their hands, evidently hoping to play with anyone who is willing. The elders watch on with vicarious pleasure: they are “made young by the youths, and there seems to be a hot passion stirred in them by contemplating such movement and by participating in the joys of more carefree adolescence.” [8]

At this point in time the game is chaotic and inevitably violent. In fact, our Latin sources recount several tales of death – whether by accidentally getting stabbed, or a deliberate attack. In 1280, a game of ball in Ulgham, Northumberland, sees a ball-player killed as a result of running into an opposing player’s dagger. A little later, in 1303, an undergraduate – one Adam of Salisbury – was playing ball in Oxford’s High Street near Eastgate, only to be killed by a band of Irish students. On at least one occasion, even the Pope was brought in to the fray: when William de Spalding, a canon of the Gilbertine Order, accidentally killed another player with his sheathed knife during a game in Norfolk of 1321, he was formally pardoned for this unhappy accident by Pope John XXII.

It is almost certain that this chaotic, no-holds-barred sport survives in England, by unbroken tradition, in the riotous cross-town matches of ‘football’ (sic) played annually on Shrove (Pancake) Tuesday. The spectacle of Shrovetide Football can still be seen in the “hugball” of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, where the score is kept low by the goals being three miles apart and by much of the game being played in the river. A similarly anarchic game is played with some ceremony at Alnwick, Northumbria, and can be seen in the “All In” football of Atherstone, Warwickshire, and the Uppies and Downies of Workington, Cumbria.

Shrove Tuesday Football, Dorking, Surrey, 1897.
Royal Shrovetide Football, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, 2010.

What is the Latin for Football?

Despite our sources for “football” being buried in Latin, there isn’t much agreement about what to call the game. We have pila pediva (“ball of the foot”) in a typically anti-football and pro-archery proclamation of Edward III (1363); and when the spoilsport dons of St John’s College, Oxford ban the game two centuries later (1555), they opt for the synonymous (but pedantically more classical) pila pedalis. As for any single-word name, it’s all a bit of a mess. And in the very first instance that we find the term, it is mis-spelled.

In the late fifteenth century, in an account of the various Miracles of Henry VI (ruled 1422-61, 1470-1), we read of an accident in a football game in Caunton, Notts. It begins by saying the game is “called pedipiludium by some”. Presumably the scribe meant to write pedi-pili-ludium, the foot-ball-game.  At any rate, we are told that “hearty countrymen… propel a huge ball on the ground, by striking and rolling it not with their hands but their feet.”[9] At this point the author steps in to have a word: “This game, I say, is awful enough, and (in my own judgment) more rustic, improper and base than every other kind of game, which rarely ends without harm, disaster or loss to the players. [10]

The account’s other important detail is that this game involved a pitch of “agreed boundaries” (assignatis limitibus), on which the players can – but of course – be found “kicking against each other in turn” (contra se invicem calcitrantes). One of the fellow players (collusores) accidently missed the ball and hurled his foot at him (in illum pedem iactavit). Oh, and the miracle? The poor fella who got the boot saw Henry VI in a dream one night – and just like that his football injury disappeared.

In later Latin texts we find the simpler pediludium (“foot-game”) or folliludium (“ball-game”); pedipilare (“to play football”) and pedilusor (“football player”). As for English, the first mention of the game cropus up in an unusual place – a sermon of John Wycliffe from the 1370s, denouncing those who physically assault clerics like men “who should chulle [i.e. strike] a foot-balle”.[11]

Ball to hand? An engraving of boys at play on a misericord (folding-down seat for the clergy), c. 1350 (choir stall of Gloucester Cathedral, England).

Kicking Back Against the Law

Despite all this welcoming talk of the “people’s game”, it’s worth remembering that for a long period of English history football was illegal. The first known ban occurred in in 1314, when the Mayor of the City of London outlawed football because of the “grands désordres” (“bouts of mass disorders”) it caused, promising jail to anyone found to be playing.[12] Happily enough, these prohibitions were routinely ignored – so bans of this sort had to be periodically restated more than 30 times over the following three centuries.

In the fifteenth century, even the act of raising money for a football match could land you a week in prison. Yet football teams clearly did meet and did make merry: records from London of the 1420s show that one such “fraternity” sometimes hired the hall of the Brewers Company in the City. Even royalty got involved in the fun privately: in 1497, James II of Scotland was buying “fute balles”, and in 1526 Henry VIII of England had his own football boots.

To the educational reformer Sir Thomas Elyot, wailing away in 1531, the game was “nothinge but beastly furie and extreme violence.” The arch-puritan Philip Stubbs made sure to include football in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583), declaring that it “may rather be called a friendlie kinde of fyghte than a play or recreation”. Even its contemporary supporters, such as Richard Mulcaster of St Paul’s School, could concede (1581) that the game was often fraught “with thronging of a rude multitude, with bursting of shinnes, and breaking of legges.”

Against this finger-wagging backdrop, the game of football started to emerge in a more regularised and managed form inside schools. To see the best example of this, we have to turn to Latin once more. A schoolmaster at Aberdeen Grammar, David Webberburn, thought it worthwhile in the 1630s to set out some useful phrases for playing football. The precise terms he chose shows that several rules had already crystallised (if not the number of players). Among the terms we find:

Quot nobis adversantur; Excute pilam ut ineamus certamen; Age, huc percute; Tu tuere metum; Praeripe illi pilam si possis agere; Age objice te illi; Occurre illi; Repercute pilam.

How many are against us? Kick out the ball so that we may begin the game. Come, kick it here. You guard the goal. Snatch the ball from him if you can. Come, hurl yourself against him. Run at him. Kick the ball back.[13]

Somewhat confusingly, the word for a goal is a “pass” (transmissus), because players must “pass the goal with the ball” (transmittere metum pila). Whatever formed the goal, a player could “fill it” (occupabit metam).[14]

The Foot-ball Play, Alexander Carse, 1793.

Epic Rhymes: Footy Poetry?

As proof that football was played by people of very varied backgrounds, we may turn to verse. Yet since football and poetry are not the most natural of bedfellows (with apologies to World in Motion), it is unsurprising that the game first crops up in English literature not as direct subject matter, but as lively material for similes. In the Knight’s Tale (1390s) of Geoffrey Chaucer, a fallen fighter “rolleth under foot as dooth a bal”[15] And in the anonymous Laud Troy Book (c. 1400) we have a more dramatic scene of violence in battle, where “Hedes reled aboute overal / As men playe at the fote-bal.”[16].

Later in the fifteenth century we have the first dramatised scene of keepy-uppies. In the morality play Mankind, written about 1470, the character New-Guise (a bad sort) attempts the feat, apparently in a rather John Smiths vein: “What how, ostler, ostler! lende us a foot-ball! / Whoppe, whow! a-now, a-now, a-now, a-now!”

Fifty years on, and Alexander Barclay is lauding the power of football to transcend the elements – and to find succour on a wet and windy Tuesday night in Stoke:

Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite

With foote and hande the bladder for to smite,

If it fall to grounde, they lifte it up agayne,

This wise to labour they count it for no paine;

Renning and leaping they drive away the colde.

The sturdie plowman, lustie, strong, and bold,

Overcommeth the winter with driving the foote-ball

Forgetting labour and many a grevous fall. (Amintas and Faustus, c. 1514).

But even this countryside scene had been drawn from the world of Latin, appearing some fifteen years earlier in the Eclogues of the Italian poet Baptista Mantuan:

sonat et micat acta

nunc pede, nunc cubito, stricto nunc obvia pugno.

si cadit, attollunt; cursu labor atque recursu

brumam abigit; glaciale gelu pila rustica vincit. (Eclogue 6, published 1498)

(The ball) resounds and darts as it is struck, now by foot, now by arm, and now by meeting a clenched fist. If it falls, (the boys) pick it up; their toil drives away the cold with their running to and fro: rustic football beats the icy chill.

Shakespeare must have known the game well – but the action does not break into his plays. Instead, in King Lear (1606), we find the Earl of Kent trip up a character and mock him with the words “you base football player”.[17] Now now!

One other poem is worth a mention. At some point in the mid-eighteenth century, a mock epic fragment is written about English football. Far from being a dull match report, it recounts the game through a bombastic pastiche of Rome’s most celebrated poet, Virgil. Under the title Pila Pedalis (“Football”), it presents a miniature (59-line) but action-packed battle:

ilicet horrisono creiptant sub vulnere crura,

corpora tum passim, nequicqum fortia, campo

sternuntur; fors et virtus miscentur in unum:

instabilis nescit cui servit pila magistro. (20-3)

At once their shin-bones clash with frightful blows,

Until the heaps of bodies all lie close:

What purpose can their might or strength assume,

Whose luck and valour add up to their doom?

The fickle ball, it serves––we know not whom.

After comparing the teams’ fight over the ball to the Homeric scene of Greeks and Trojans fighting over the body of Patroclus, we come tantalisingly close to a goal:

occurrit custos pugnae mora; iamque sub ipso

limine castrorum certamina dura resurgunt.

plurimus occurrit circum praetoria miles;

calci calx illisa urgetur, pectore pectus,

infestisque animis, velut olim Brutus et Aruns

concurruntque caduntque pares, surguntque ruuntque. (39-44)

The keeper’s presence brings the battle pause;

But at the camp the contest gathers force.

As one, the troops surround the captain’s base;

Heels press heels, chests, chests; they snarl, face to face,

Just as Brutus met his foe, Tarquin’s son––

Together they clashed, and fell––neither won.[18]

Aruns and Brutus, John Leech, 1852 (from the Comic History of Rome).

Let us leap further forward in history. Since the tale of nineteenth-century football is already so well told, let’s instead explore the enduring legacy of the Greeks and Romans in the modern game.

The Latin Language of Football

Latin, we do admit, is now relatively rare on our football terraces. But it still lies behind many standard terms of the game: “defender” (defendere, “to defend”), corner (cornu, “horn, tip”), cards (chartae, “sheets of papyrus”), and even the much-maligned VAR (video, “I see”, adsistans “Helping bystander”, “Referee” (referre, “to refer”). This is just etymology, of course. But a rather more interesting history lies behind the term “league”.

We take it as a given that our football teams belong in leagues. Here, too, ancient precedent matters: the word comes to us, via the French ligue, from the Latin ligare, meaning “to bind together”. So in a literal sense, teams in leagues are “bound together” with one another.

Yet more revealing are the historical and political origins of the term. Before football leagues came about, the main use of “league” was in relation to alliances between different cities and political powers. It is this sense of the word that we find in the modern League of Nations, first set up in 1917 (by a group involving Classical scholars) to enable nation states to solve disputes without resorting to warfare. But the notion of a political league had long been in use before the League of Nations. It had long been customary, for instance, to speak of famous ancient political alliances as “leagues” (despite the fact the ancients themselves did not use this language).

We may think in particular of the Delian League (478-431 BC), an alliance between the city of Athens and dozens of other nearby city states, which was formed to help combat a common enemy of the time: the Persians.

The Ancient Greeks have also had an influence upon the names of domestic football leagues in Britain. We might think here of the semi-professional Isthmian League (founded in 1905), which gets its name from the Isthmian Games, a famous open invitational sporting competition for competitors from all over Ancient Greece – which was a little less famous than the festival at Olympia. The Athenian League ran in London from 1912 to 1984. And within living memory, England played host to both the Corinthian League (1945-63) and the Delphian League (1951-63), likewise named after Ancient Greek cities.

Where were you when…? The programme for the 2007-8 Isthmian League Cup Final.

Ancient Greek Team Names

There are, in fact, many football clubs who have chosen to co-opt the Greeks into their very identity. In the Czech Republic and Russia, we find the warrior culture of Sparta inspiring the clubs Sparta Prague and Spartak Moscow. The general athletic prestige of the Olympic games is celebrated by Olympiakos, who play in Piraeus, the port of Athens, Greece, and in France by Olympique de Marseille. In Spain, the club of Alicante commemorates the heroic Hercules; in the Dutch city of Amsterdam, that honour is accorded to Ajax; in Bergamo, Italy, the team celebrates the most famous female athlete from Greco-Roman mythology, fleet-footed Atalanta. More aggressively, the Greek club Aris Thessaloniki takes its inspiration from the Greek god of war, Ares.

The badge of Aris Thessaloniki FC.

The tradition of reaching back into the ancient world was begun by the Corinthian Football Club, founded in London in 1882. This team was especially famous for its fair-play attitude to penalties: if they conceded one, the goalkeeper would go and lean on the post to let the goal be scored unopposed (barring, that is, rank disaster). And if they won one themselves, they deliberately hoofed it over the bar and into Row Z. Although this team has long since vanished, its name survives in clubs on the Isle of Man, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Ha’way the lads, if we may be so bold: the Corinthians Christmas tour, 1896-7.

Curiously enough, the legacy of the Roman world is far harder to find – beyond the Italian behemoths Juventus, who represent the “youth” of Turin.

Latin Mottoes

Still, many a team has a proud tradition of using Latin for its club motto. Among Premier League times, we fine audere est facere (“to dare is to do”, Tottenham Hotspur), nil satis nisi optimum (“nothing is enough except the best”, Everton) and superbia in proelio (“pride in battle”, Manchester City). Arsenal seem to have quietly allowed their own rather ambiguous motto victoria concordia crescit (presumably “Through victory harmony grows” rather than “Victory increases through harmony”?) to disappear off the radar.[19]

If we range more widely in the English and Scottish leagues we can still turn up arte et labore (“With skill and toil”, Blackburn Rovers), consectatio excellentiae (“pursuit of excellence”, Sunderland),[20] consilio et animis (“With wisdom and courage”, Sheffield Wednesday), virtute et industria (“With courage and hard work”, Bristol City), confidemus (“We will have faith”, Kilmarnock), domus clamantium (“House of shouters”, Gillingham), ludere causa ludendi (“Playing for the sake of playing”, Queens Park), floreat Salopia (“May Shrewsbury thrive!”, Shrewsbury Town), vincit omnia industria (“Hard work overcomes everything”, Bury), ubi fides ibi lux et robur (“Where there is faith there is light and strength,” Tranmere Rovers).

Elgin City have perhaps the most learned of mottoes, turning to the Roman poet Virgil – or rather to Apollo: sic itur ad astra (“This is the route to the stars”) is the advice the god gives to Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, refugee Trojan prince and heroic founder of the race that will becomethe Romans.[21]

The crest of Tranmere Rovers (until 1997…).

Latin on the Shirt?

We end this tour with a surprising discovery. Look closely enough at the back of football players’ shirts, and you’ll notice something remarkable. It seems that many players of the game have adopted Latin words as their names. Some of these seem to clarify their role on the pitch: Luis Figo (“I bang [it] in!”), Leroy Fer (“Pass [it]!”), Jonathan Spector (“I’m being marked”), Ousmane Dabo (“I’ll pass”). Some seem to be offering encouragement to others: Graziano Pelle (“Hit [it]”), Andy Ducat (“Let him lead!”), Ferenc Bene (“Well done!”), Gary Teale (“Look after yourself”). Some seem to be rather ill-judged: Nolito (“Don’t [do it]!”), Frank Vincent (“They will win”), Andy/Ashley/Joe Cole (“Worship [me)]”).

For a period of time, it is said, managers chose a starting eleven who, when arranged in proper formation [22], could communicate a cryptic Latin message to those in the know. Few will have forgotten the infamous decision of Jacky Novi (“I have the knowledge”) to put Lionel Messi in goal (!), along with an outfield line-up of Lautaro Valenti, Arturo Silvestri, Steve Mandanda, Bernd Leno, Ciro Immobile, John Oster, Jordi Amat, Jonny Evans, George More and Cyrille Regis. Connoisseurs of the code saw immediately that these surnames formed an eleven-word Latin sentence that packed quite the punch: “When assigning the harvest to a strong country-lad, the pimp kisses his motionless mouth three times, crying out to Bacchus like a king.”[23].

A similar move had already been made by the legendary Vicente del Bosque (“Delboy and the Cow”). Among his pioneering and eclectic match selections, we may recall the infamous “Goddess” XI line-up: Ahmed Musa (GK), Anthony Modeste, Alvaro Morata, William Gallas, Jesus Navas, Oribe Peralta, Jonathan Fana, Emiliano Insua, David Silva, Sadio Mane and Emmanuel Petit: “In the morning, the mild-mannered Muse seeks out the hard-working Gallic women among the lofty temples in her wood.” To this day, the precise managerial strategy, and the import of the message, remain deeply obscure. [24]

We hope that the curious and colourful legacy of the Greeks and Romans in modern football – a tale that we have only told in brief snapshots – piques your curiosity about the past, near and far. And perhaps it may offer some inspiration for the summer of sport ahead. Without history, we are blind, but without sport, we are faced with a far greater obstacle – of taking life too seriously.


1 Last month, Wembley hosted the oldest football competition of them all, the FA Cup Final, which swung around for the 140th time. It was of course this Football Association that decided in 1863 – over a London pub table and with a toast of “success to football, irrespective of class or creed” – to stamp some rules on a chaotic game. The outcome was an endorsement of the “Cambridge Rules”, which prohibited handling the ball and hacking, i.e. violently kicking the shins of rivals. By contrast, the “Sheffield Rules” endorsed a lot more physical force, reflecting the spirit of the “Rugby game”, which the schoolboy William Webb Ellis had inspired by going rogue and picking up the ball in 1823. This decision brought order to the messy and organic evolution of those two ‘football’ siblings, “Soccer” (Association Football) and Rugby Football. The modern gap between these sports – not just in their rules but in their crowds and culture – remains stark. And indeed the evolution of both games continues: for example, the introduction of the backpass rule appeared only in the 1990s, and this season we have of course seen another important – if contested – innovation: Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR).
2 The Greek text is: τὸ δὲ καλούμενον διὰ τῆς σφαίρας ἁρπαστὸν φαινίνδα ἐκαλεῖτο, ὃ ἐγὼ πάντων μάλιστα ἀσπάζομαι. πολὺ δὲ τὸ σύντονον καὶ καματηρὸν τῆς περὶ τὴν σφαιριστικὴν ἁμίλλης τό τε κατὰ τοὺς τραχηλισμοὺς ῥωμαλέον,  Deipnosophists 1.25-6.
3 Martial, Epigrams 7.32, also mentions a paganica, a “country” ball filled with down: what they did with it is anybody’s guess.
4 Seneca, Epistulae Morales 56.1: pilicrepus could mean “ball-smacker”, but, to be candid, no-one really knows what is going on in this tantalisingly brief description!
5 Digest 9.2.11pr, where Ulpian cites Mela and Proculus, jurists of the first century AD.
6 There is a further layer of complexity to this episode: a mock-serious response to the article, which fabricated some grounds for criticism, met a response that alleged they had missed the joke, all the while missing their joke. Classical scholars are a funny crowd.
7 Et ipse legatos ex consilio magorum per universam Brittanniam misit, utrum infantem sine patre invenirent. et lustrando omnes provincias regionesque plurimas venere ad campum Elleti, qui est in regione, quae vocatur Gleguissing, et pilae ludum faciebant pueri. et ecce duo inter se litigabant, et dixit alter alteri: o homo sine patre, bonum non habebis (Nennius, Hist. Brit. 41).
8 post prandium vadit in suburbanam planitiem omnis iuventus urbis ad lusum pilae celebrem. singulorum studiorum scholares suam habent pilam; singulorum officiorum urbis exercitores suam singuli pilam in manibus. maiores natu, patres, et divites urbis in equis spectatum veniunt certamina iuniorum, et modo suo iuvenantur cum iuvenibus: et excitari videtur in eis motus caloris naturalis, contemplatione tanti motus et participatione gaudiorum adolescentiae liberioris” (Cited from De Ludis (“On Games” in his Descriptio Nobilissimae Civitatis Londiniae, (“Description of the Most Moble City of London”).
9 rustici et lascivi ingentem pilam non iactando in aera, sed solotenus volutando: nec manibus quidem sed pedibus pulsitando atque versando propellere.
10 ludus inquam execrabilis satis: et (meo sane iudicio) omni genere ludorum rusticior inhonestior quoque et vilior, qui et raro absque ipsorum ludencium dampno, calamitate aut dispendio aliquo terminatur. This and other citations are drawn from London BM Royal 13 c.viii, written in the late 15th century.
11 Sermon 19.
12 Order of Nicholas de Farndone: En raison des grands désordres causés dans la cité par des rageries, de grosses pelotes de pee… nous condamnons et interdisons au nom du roi, sous peine d’emprisonnement qu’a l’avenir ce jeu soit pratiqué dans la cité.
13 These quotations are taken from Webberburn’s Vocabula, cum aliis nonnullis Latinae Linguae subsidiis (“Words, along with some other helps to the Latin language”), printed in Aberdeen in or around 1636.
14 If metum is not a slip for the expected metam, the distinction between the two terms is opaque.
15 A 2614.
16 12671-2.
17 Act I Scene 4.
18 If anyone would like a full translation of the poem, please do get in touch.
19 And that’s the sort of mindset that can dream up a “Super League”, eh?
20 Until 1966, the club copied the city’s motto, adapted from the Roman poet Horace (Odes 1.7.27): nil desperandum auspice deo (“No need to despair with God watching on”). Likewise, until 1953, Liverpool adopted the city’s motto from Virgil’s Eclogues (1.6): Deus nobis haec otia fecit (“God has made us this leisure.”), and until 1965, Leeds used their city’s motto Pro rege et lege (“For king and Law”), perhaps abandoning it when the necessary Regina spoilt the rhyme.
21 Aeneid 9.641.
22 That is, the “Route One Gambit”, i.e. 1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1.
23 Pundits have talked the ears off 5 Live presenters about whether this is a reference to Pentheus or Elvis.
24 Please do get in touch if you have any better ideas!

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