Iron Age: Golf and the modern comforts of the Roman Empire

romeThe plaudits for inventing golf has typically been foisted upon the Scottish for their development of the modern 18-hole game. Akin to most of human history, the story is not so simple. Precursors to the modern game have been developed all over the world with attributions being granted to the Dutch Kolf, the Chinese Ch’ui-wan and quite possibly the oldest game Paganica, played by ancient Romans.

Paganica was a rudimentary form of the game, the sticks were wooden and the balls were constructed of leather, probably filled with feathers. The Romans had also failed to invent perhaps one of the most important additions to the sport, the hole. Targets were instead chosen out of nearby landmarks, such as trees or rocks.

Golf wasn’t the only modern comfort that a Roman could take advantage of; it is generally accepted that the empire was far ahead of its time, with much focus on its military and logistical progression. The empire’s reach spread far and wide on the back of such developments, but Rome’s empire is not the whole story of Rome, war was not their only contribution to human history.

Trajan’s Market for instance, could house around 150 shops and offices within a singular building, making it perhaps the first shopping centre; At least the first of which there is evidence of the existence of one. Plenty of evidence in fact, it’s still there in Rome! Both a relic and yet also somehow a modern phenomenon, it was an ostentatious display by Emperor Trajan and an attempt to lure business away from the old forum – Rome’s traditional administrative, cultural and economic heart.

It was built by Apollodorus of Damascus and it made use of cross-vaulting, this was quite novel as it had not yet been applied to such a large construction. It allowed for more natural light and the structure could rely on pillars and not entire walls to support itself. This innovation would be temporarily lost after the fall of the western empire and wouldn’t be rediscovered in Europe until the 8-9th centuries.

After a day spent trawling the markets, Roman’s could enjoy another modern precursor – fast food. In the archaeological gold mine of Pompeii, there still remains a ‘Thermopolium’. These restaurants, which originated in Greece, would feed those who were too poor to afford a kitchen within their own home. Hot food would be sold ready-to-eat as well as a variety of dried goods and beverages.

They were seen as being unsavoury as the poor gathered there and alcohol was sold upon the premises. Some have postulated that the example in Pompeii may have even been a brothel as the second floor has space for accommodation and there are many female names scrawled upon the walls.

These buildings themselves were made possible by one of Roman’s more elusive inventions – Roman concrete. Modern concrete can start to decay within as much as 50 years, Roman concrete however not only can last for thousands, but actually strengthens over time. It wasn’t until earlier this year that scientists managed to work out how this happens; using and ancient recipe, they discovered that the volcanic glass in the mix would react with seawater, leading to the formation of Tobermorite crystals which lend the concrete its strength.

The concrete itself has been in use since at least 150 B.C. – which means it took humanity 2167 years to catch up.

Generally history was a fairly terrible place to be struck down by injuries or sickness. Medical devices at the time can range from terrifying implements of apparent torture to tools that are not far from their more modern brethren. If you absolutely had to be injured in the ancient world however, Rome would probably be the best place for you to be. Constant warring had led to plenty of experience and chances for experimentation when it came to treating flesh injuries, and the work of Galen of Pergamon led to a greater understanding on the nervous and circulatory system and he was even know to perform surgery treating cataracts. It was also fairly usual at the time to use vinegar or alcohol to dress wounds to stave off infection.

It is often thought that life in history was a passage from one suffering to the next with none of our current refinements. Nothing is ever so simple, from air-conditioning in ancient Persia, to the grand misnomer that is ‘The Dark Ages’, to golf. The story is always ripe for re-telling.

On the 2nd of August 2017 at 10.30am there will be a golfing memorabilia auction by Mullock’s Specialist Auctioneers, if you would like to purchase a piece of history, browse the catalogue here on

Daniel Jackson for

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