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Hysplex: The Starting Mechanism in Ancient Stadia
Hysplex: The Starting Mechanism in Ancient Stadia. By Panos Valavanis, trans. Stephen G. Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+183. $40.
Here is one of those technical questions that we never think of until someone points it out. In the early days of Greek footracing, how did they start the runners together? They had nothing so abrupt as a gunshot to signal a start. And the runners themselves faced a nasty dilemma. If they started early, they would be flogged. If they did not, they might lose the race.
Panos Valavanis's monograph on that question is an unexpected delight for anyone fascinated by ancient technologies. But make no mistake, this is not easy bedtime reading. Into this dense, extended research project Valavanis pours the skills of a historian, an archaeologist, a linguist, and an engineer. Thus constructed, the book operates on two levels. One speaks to a few very specialized Hellenic scholars. On the other level, it spoke to me. Valavanis begins by showing the way his question, "How did the Classical Greeks start a footrace?" summons up a rich web of metaphor. Starting the race was like a birth--beginning the race of life itself. Starting together meant concord and unanimity. And so on.
Two new words, balbis and hysplex, began appearing as literary metaphors in the fifth century b.c.e. But writers said nothing about starting mechanisms, and Valavanis is left to sort out what mechanisms they alluded to. Balbis appears to refer to a stone gutter across the racetrack, which positions runners' feet at the start. Those balbes still remain in the ruins of ancient arenas.
The word hysplex is harder to pin down. It had to do with starting, yes, but in what way? Valavanis eventually finds writers who spoke of the hysplex [End Page 567] falling. That clue finally makes sense when he finds a broken amphora from 344 B.C.E. On it is a picture of runners, standing in the balbis. Fragments of the starting mechanism remain. Combining what he sees on the amphora with remains in the old stadia, he finally pieces together how the hysplex worked.
At either end of the balbis gutter there was a post. A twisted rope within the balbis served as a spring, which normally held each post flat against the ground. The posts were then hauled up to a vertical position and held in place against the springs by triggers. Cords stretched between the posts a few feet off the ground were the starting barrier. When a starter, located behind the runners, jerked the trigger cords, the posts snapped downward, throwing the barrier cord to the ground in front of the runners. And the game was afoot!
Stephen Miller, who translated Valavanis's painstaking study, adds an appendix telling how he himself built an entire hysplex apparatus and staged footraces to test it. His photos show a nice clean starting process. The cords spring away from the runners far more quickly than the runners can move. A start is flawless. Miller meticulously lists even the cost of building his hysplex: a third of a million drachmas, just over a thousand dollars.
Many readers will wonder what to make of this labor--much fuss for such a seemingly modest return. But then we realize that, like any good historian, Valavanis has given us means for seeing the ancients in a new dimension of flesh and blood. His Athens, now scaled down to human proportion, is both less and more than heroes and philosophers carved in stone. As the hysplex falls, and modern athletes spring from Miller's reconstructed balbis, it is the old world itself that springs into life once more.
John H. Lienhard
Dr. Lienhard is the M. D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston (now emeritus). He is also the author and voice of "The Engines of Our Ingenuity," a daily essay heard on National Public Radio...