Something that has popped up on a semi-regular basis (usually in the context of one of golf’s majors) is a claim that golf can be traced back to the Romans. Most recently it’s popped up at the News.Az site in an article that begins:
Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, in which participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. One theory asserts that paganica spread throughout Europe as the Romans conquered most of the continent, during the first century BC, and eventually evolved into the modern game. […]
- via: Golf: On the way to the Olymp (News.Az)
This link to ‘paganica’ is popular on a pile of sites, all apparently deriving (it seems) from an entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. A little digging and one finds the rather tenuous base on which the claim is made. In an aged tome called Gallus: or, Roman scenes in the time of Augustus, we get a nice summary of what is known about paganica in a section on Roman ball games (I don’t think our knowledge on it has advanced in a century and a half). Here’s the text version (I think I caught all the OCR typos; a link to the original follows):
Roman authors mention numerous varieties of the game of ball, as pila simply, follis or folliculus, trigon, paganica, harpastum, sparsiva, in addition to which we have the expressions, datatim, expulsim, raptim ludere; geminare, revocare, reddere pilam. But it seems that we can only admit of three different kinds of ball; pila, in the more confined sense, the small regular ball, which however might be harder, or more elastic, for different kinds of play; follis, the great ballon, as the name indicates, merely filled with air (like our foot-ball) and paganica. Concerning the use of the last we have the least information; Martial mentions it only in two passages, vii. 32:
Non pila, non follis, non te paganica thermis
Praeparat, aut nudi stipitis ictus hebes.
and xiv. 45:
Haec quae difficili turget paganica pluma,
Folle minus laxa est, et minus arta pila.
As the paganica is opposed in both places to the follis and the pila, and no fourth kind is mentioned in addition to them, we must suppose that one or other of these three balls was used in all varieties of the game. The words paganica, folle minus laxa, minus arta pila, are incorrectly explained by Rader and Mercurialis, as applying to the contents of the ball. The use of both adjectives leaves no doubt that the size of the ball is spoken of, and in this respect it stood between the follis and pila. No doubt it also so far differed from the former, that it was stuffed with feathers, and was consequently somewhat heavier; this is all that we know about it. The poet gives no hint concerning the origin of the name, nor about the game for which it was used. On an intaglio in Beger, (Thes. Brand. 139), a naked male figure sits holding in each hand a ball, supposed to be the paganica, because apparently too small for the follis, and too large for the pila, for they are not clasped within the hand. But this is evidently a very insecure argument, and, as regards the game, nothing would follow from it.
… so it seems likely that the golf connection was solely made on the basis of balls filled with feathers (as were early golf balls); no mention of a ‘club’ really, so, as often, a likely spurious connection.