History of Bocce

A Brief Overview of the World's Oldest Sport

Contributed by Robert Cox

It might surprise you to know that rolling bocce balls is perhaps the oldest sport in recorded history.  There is evidence dating back to 5,200 BC suggesting that Egyptians played a form of the game using polished rocks.  And then it shows up in Greece in about 800 BC.  If one wants to argue the point about whether it is or isn't a sport, they should have this ammo available: the early Greek physician Hippocrates nHistory of Bocce graphicoted that "the game's athleticism and spirit of competition rejuvenates the body." Of course the Romans were drawn to such a thrilling game; indeed, from the time of Emperor Augustus, bocce was the sport of statesman and rulers.  A sport, then, truly appropriate to great democracies!  Of course, as is so often the case, the Romans got to name the game: from the Vulgate Latin bottia, meaning boss.  In history timing appears to be everything.  Had there been an Olympic Committee in the time of Caesar, bocce would have been grandfathered in.  But, given its growing popularity, in growth areas like Humboldt County for instance, it's just a matter of time.  In fact, petitions are being circulated.  What's next?   Bocce ball enthusiasts may have to call a general strike and Olympic boycott: bocce before golf!

As the game spread across the known world, inevitably, it became the sport of both the nobility and the masses.  Oh, no: suddenly, almost overnight, it was too popular!  National security was threatened.  Instead of attending archery practice and military exercises, soldiers and their officers were seen fraternizing at the bocce ball courts.  With real or imagined threats massing along the borders, Kings Carlos IV and V finally did what needed to be done: they prohibited the playing of bocce.  They outlawed it.   

Evidently the record of what happens next was lost; at least it's not mentioned in Wikipedia, where so much of our understanding of the history of this noble game can be found.  Indeed, "In 1576, the Republic of Venice publicly condemned the sport, punishing those who played with fines and imprisonment. And perhaps most grave was the condemnation by the Catholic Church, which deterred the laity and officially prohibited clergyman from playing the game by proclaiming bocce a means of gambling."

It seems the game was clearly a threat to national security where ever it went.  Take this unlikely story, which is found throughout recorded bocce history, as incendiary proof (It must have been a game known to Guy Fawkes as well. But we have yet to do the research so we can't say for sure.):  In Great Britain, we find the game thriving during Queen Elizabeth's reign (7 September 1553-24 March 1603). Indeed both Queen Elizabeth and her number one new-world looter, Sir Francis Drake, were big fans.  So much so, that when Sir Frances Drake was called away to defend England against the Spanish Armada he refused.  He proclaimed, "First we finish the game, then we'll deal with the Armada!"   Unfortunately,  we can find no historical record of the Queen's attendance, or what she thought about Drake's priorities.  One wonders if the momentary delay played a role in the defeat of the Armada and the survival of the English language.  If English had been lost, I wonder if bocce would perhaps be even bigger!  

Is it then surprising that America's first military hero and the father of our country loved Bocce?  George Washington built a court at Mount Vernon in the 1870s.  Of course Bocce was added to the American melting pot.  Some believe that the sport came to America in an already changing form: from what the English called "bowls" from the French "boule," meaning ball.

Concomitant with these developments in America, where the ball was being thrown on grass, the Italians were playing on dirt or "stone dust."
Drawing of historic Staten Island bocce game
In modern times, the first bocce clubs were formed in Italy.  In 1947 15 teams came together, and the first league was formed in the town of Rivoli (Torino); that same year the Bocce World Championships were held in Rome.

Thanks to many Italian immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, bocce flourishes in the United States. During the early days there many versions of the game.  However, the Collegium Cosmicum ad Buxeas, the preeminent bocce organization headquartered in Rome, Italy, has brought much needed order to the game.  Still, needless to say, the United States Bocce  Federation (www.usbf.us) is the where the Six Rivers Bocce Club looks for information and guidance, though we will always consider the input of all with a historical stake in the game, including our Italian brothers and sisters.