Parke H. Davis, who played at Princeton in the late 1880s, and who later chronicled the early days of college football in the United States, believed he discovered its earliest antecedent in the Old Testament.
"Beware, the Lord is about to take firm hold of you and hurl you away, you mighty man," says the Book of Isaiah. "He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you into a large country."
The ancient Greeks played a game called harpaston.
"It was played on a rectangular field marked with side lines, goal lines and centre line," wrote Davis. "There was no limitation upon the number of players, but these were equally divided between the two sides. The ball was passed forward by a man standing at midfield and the game was in action, the object being to drive the ball by passing, kicking or carrying across the opposite goal line. Its progress was impeded by blocking, holding and tackling, but here the similarity to Rugby ends, as this ancient game was a prolonged scrimmage without order or method."
The ancient Roman version of this game -- harpastum -- rivaled a less vigorous sport called follis. The German scholar W.A. Becker summarized in his 1838 book, "Gallus: Or, Roman Scenes of the Time of Augustus," what was known about these competing games.
"The follis, the great but light ball, or ballon, was struck by the fist or arm," wrote Becker. "The game did not require any very severe exertion, on which account Martial says: 'Ite procul juvenes; mitis mihi convenit aetas/Folle decet pueros ludere, folle senes.'"
This has been translated: "Retire to a distance, young men; tender age suits me; with the bladder it befits only boys and old men to play."
This was not true of the other Augustan game. "The harpastum was unquestionably a more severe exercise," wrote Becker.
Yet, Augustus wanted a more violent game.