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Reviewed by:
  • Greek Sports and Social Status
  • Nigel B. Crowther
Mark Golden. Greek Sports and Social Status. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. xvi + 214. US $50.00 ISBN: 978-0-292-71869-2 (cloth); US $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-292-72153-1 (pb).

This little book, with a fine comprehensive bibliography and indices (but no illustrations), grew out of the first of the Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lectures given at the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2000 that aimed to be “an original and scholarly contribution to the field of study.” Published nine years after the lecture, but updated through 2007 by several key publications that appeared in the meantime, the work to some extent follows Golden’s earlier Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1997). Both books discuss the divisions among society in terms of sport and the rivalry of equestrian competitors and athletes, an old chestnut for Golden. The author’s earlier study is largely limited to the Archaic and Classical periods, but this new work includes the Hellenistic, Roman, and even the modern world, as is evident in his list of “Some Important Dates” that contains numerous examples from current times. Golden’s interests and analogies for the ancient world are indeed wide–ranging: a glance at the “General Index” reveals such items as his beloved baseball, professional boxing, Formula 1 motor racing, gymnastics, and golf—although the last seems not to be a favorite sport of the author: with typical humor he delights in quoting Mark Twain that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” He even uses several Canadian figures as illustrations for Greek sport and society, such as Conrad Black on strong authority and Elsie Wayne on women.

Chapter 1 comments on the meaning of success to elite male competitors in the ancient Greek games. Golden concentrates especially on equestrian events where the horse owners tended to reject the success of jockeys and charioteers (when they were not the owners), believing that they sometimes overemphasized their achievements. To make his case that jockeys and others of this ilk were relatively insignificant, Golden uses not only the usual ancient sources but also notably the papyrus roll attributed to Posidippus from the third century BC. This papyrus has proved to be an important find for interpreting the post-Classical period, and, discovered only in 2001, actually postdates Golden’s Mitchel Lecture. The author believes that in early Greece trainers had no lofty standing, although Hellenistic and Roman victors were more ready to share credit with them than were their predecessors. He postulates that eventually the association of an athlete with a trainer became a mark of identity for the wealthy and that participation in the agon for its own sake signified one’s status.

In Chapter 2, Golden rehashes—see the “Works Cited” for others who have written in this field—the association between slavery and Greek athletics and discusses the contribution that slaves made to sport. He speculates [End Page 101] that the Greeks sometimes ignored the distinctions between slaves and free citizens and that slaves in the Greek West may even have been allowed to train in the palaestra. He notes that free Greek athletes were at times treated like slaves, by being whipped for infringing the rules, but offers no new interpretation of this paradox. A useful contribution to this section is his comparison of the participation of Greek slaves in sport with that of American slaves in the pre-Civil War United States.

Chapter 3 argues that, despite popular belief, some gladiatorial combats were a form of sport, a thesis to which this reviewer subscribes. Golden observes that gladiators resembled Greek athletes much more than is commonly believed and that athletes in the Greek East sought to represent themselves as gladiators. He proposes that one should not juxtapose the brutality of Roman gladiators with the glories of Greek athletes but rather acknowledge that Greek spectators were enthralled by Roman-style performances in the arena and that the Greek elite tried to raise their social standing by presenting gladiatorial shows. After all, the Greeks enjoyed the bloody sports of boxing, wrestling, and pancration and the more informal cock fighting...


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pp. 101-103
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