The Story of the Spartan Game of Episkyros

The Story of the Spartan Game of Episkyros

While the earliest known origins of soccer can be traced back to the early dynasties of Japan, soccer is a game that made its way through countless cultures, before ultimately becoming a global phenomenon. Despite the fact that some view modern day soccer as less of a physical game than other corporate sports such as American football, hockey, and basketball; one of the oldest known forms of soccer (as recognized by FIFA), comes straight from the spartan warriors of Greece.

Much like the Japanese game of cuju, the spartans of Greece had their own iteration of modern day football, albeit a much more physical one. The greek game was known simply as Episkyros. While the game of cuju resembled contemporary soccer simply in the use of feet, the spartans were much more influential in developing the collaborative team aspects of soccer that still play an integral part of the beautiful game.

The Lasting Impact of Episkyros:

The game of Episkyros was originally developed in Ancient Greece during the Greek Dark Ages, prior to 9th century BC. Due in large part to the heavy militarization of Greece, during this time period, it should come as no surprise that the game was founded on team organization and defensive formation. In its earliest form, the game featured two, twelve or fourteen player, teams handling one ball with either their hands or their feet. The goal of the game was simple: get the ball past a white goal line (known as the skuros) that the opposing team is working to defend.

While Episkyros differs from cuju, in the way that players can utilize their hands, the game was much closer to modern day soccer in terms of strategy, defensive communication, and means of scoring. Episkyros had a monumental impact on Greek society, none more so than in the famed city of Sparta.

Episkyros represented a fun competition that served as a great distraction for everyone in Sparta, especially spartan warriors. Every year, an annual tournament was played at a Sparta city festival. The festival tournament usually featured five teams, and countless community members would sit and cheer on their respective teams. The Sparta city festival tournament, represented one of the earliest known organized football competitions, albeit in an incredibly raw form. Years later, the game of Episkyros spread across national borders, as the Romans took their own spin on the game, calling their new iteration Harpastum.

Modern Day Football in Greece:

To truly understand the impact of Episkyros on the world of soccer, one can simply look at the recent success of Greek football. With a prominent Super League, featuring highly respected European clubs, from Olympiacos F.C. to AEK Athens F.C., the game of football continues to play a prominent role in Greek culture. On the international level, Greece is growing into a consistent threat. After failing to qualify for a World Cup tournament from 1954 to 1990, Greece has turned into a consistent contender for World Cup qualification; qualifying for 3 of the last 7 World Cup tournaments. Greece’s most recent international success came in 2014, when they made it to the Round of 16 in Brazil’s World Cup. The Greeks ultimately fell to Keylor Navas’ Costa Rican squad, in penalties, but the performance represented the start of a new era in Greek football. With only ten million citizens, Greece continues to fight an uphill battle against more-populated European powers, for respect in the beautiful game. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Greek football continue to surge into global relevance… After all, this is sparta….

Here is a link to a really cool piece that shows Greek athletes playing Episkyros. The piece is now located in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens:

Sources: and Games of the Ancients: Author Steve Craig)

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