- Two Studies in the History of Ancient Greek Athletics by Thomas Heine Nielsen
Thomas Heine Nielsen’s recent contribution to the study of ancient Greek athletics offers a welcome addition to the study of ancient Greek athletic festivals. In two separate studies, Nielsen identifies a question regarding the nature of Greek athletics during the late archaic and classical periods (ca. 600–336 BCE) and presents compelling, well-researched answers to each.
Nielsen’s first study attacks a devilishly tricky yet foundationally important question concerning ancient Greek athletics. How many athletic festivals were available to any particular athlete during this time period? Ancient sources indicate that the remarkable Theogenes of Thasos, for example, won somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 athletic victories. Even allowing for Theogenes to enter more than one event, how often was he able to compete? It is this question of festival proliferation that Nielsen sets out to address by harnessing a variety of ancient literary and epigraphic evidence.
After examining the evidence for occasional contests, such as funeral games, Nielsen traces geographically the literary and epigraphic evidence for ancient athletic festivals throughout the ancient Greek world. This world encompassed North Africa, Italy, Sicily, and the west coast of Asia Minor, in addition to the traditional Greek mainland and islands. [End Page 124] Eventually, Nielsen offers a number of 155 athletic contests, although he is adamant that this number represents only a “sketch” of the ancient Greek athletic world (109).
Nielsen is quite circumspect in explaining the evidence without drawing undue conclusions. For example, a victory ode honoring an ancient athlete from Argos mentions athletic contests at Sparta, a traditional enemy of Argos. It is tempting to infer that this Argive was allowed to compete at Sparta, but Nielsen is careful to avoid drawing this conclusion, opting instead to remark that the possibility of Argives visiting Sparta as athletic competitors “would be interesting” (41). Similarly, Nielsen is quick to point out the limitations of the ancient evidence, for instance, acknowledging the general vagueness of the word agon (typically translated as a “contest”), and the fallacy of assuming that all ancient Greek festivals featured athletic competitions.
Part 2 of the work, the second study in ancient Greek athletics, addresses the amount of prestige that accompanied a victory in the Nemean Games. Nielsen begins this study by recounting the arguments for the apparently inferior status of the Nemean Games with respect to the other three Crown Games festivals held at Olympia, Delphi, and Isthmia. Nielsen undertakes to rehabilitate Nemea’s image in light of modern assertions that Nemea was less prestigious. Certainly, he concedes, the Nemean sanctuary was less important than the sanctuary at Olympia. In addition, a victory in the Olympian or Pythian festival (at Delphi) was probably more difficult because those festivals were held less frequently than the Nemean Games. However, Nielsen demonstrates that the Nemean Games were immensely prestigious with respect to the manifold festivals of the ancient Greek world. Victory odes and statue-base inscriptions typically mentioned all four Crown Games festivals if an athlete had managed to win there. Very rarely, however, did these laudatory texts include mention of victories outside the four-festival Crown Games circuit. If the Nemean Games were typically listed at the bottom of a victor’s catalog of wins, they nevertheless still made the list as part of the four most prestigious festivals. As Nielsen concludes, “[T]o be a real superstar, an athlete had to win at the Nemean Games” (215).
Although Nielsen’s conclusion in asserting the overall importance of the Nemean Games as part of the four-festival Crown Games circuit is well supported, his treatment, surprisingly, largely overlooks the archaeological record of the sanctuary at Nemea. Archaeology indicates that the sanctuary of Nemea suffered widespread destruction around the year 420 BCE, after which the games were moved to the city-state of Argos. With one exception of about sixty years, the Nemean Games...