- Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World: New Perspectives
Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World provides a useful synopsis of many of the contemporary themes in the study of ancient sport. This compilation features several thoughtful essays in what editor Zinon Papakonstantinou terms "the 'interpretative' stream of ancient sport scholarship" (p. xix). In other words, these essays investigate what athletics, spectacles, and competitions meant in their larger social contexts. Two important themes recur throughout. The first is that the ongoing critical assessment of the ancient sources, whether well-worked or newly discovered, continues to yield new insights into ancient Greek athletics and their role in society. Secondly, the study of the transmission and reception of athletics throughout the ancient Mediterranean cultures is useful for understanding the mechanics of cultural exchange and the formation of cultural identities.
This compilation consists of nine essays. Thomas Scanlon provides a general introduction to the historiography and development of modern studies of ancient sport. He reminds his readers that "ancient" sport must not deal exclusively with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Paul Christesen dismantles the (sketchy) evidence used by Hippias of Elis in establishing 776 B.C. as the date of the first Olympic games. Donald Kyle examines the role of athletics in Herodotus' Histories and the ways they figured into the fifth-century B.C. conceptions of Greek and non-Greek (i.e. "barbarian") identities. Next, David Pritchard situates athletics in ancient Athens among the other educational pursuits ("letters" and "music," i.e. those activities inspired by the Muses) and argues that athletics were more of an upper-class pursuit, since Athenians of more moderate means likely would have focused their resources on literary education. Pritchard then jarringly shifts to an examination of the relationship between the agonistic elements of sport and war in democratic Athens, focusing on the use of athletics as a means for elites to prove their arete and to justify their aristocratic status.
Subsequent chapters by Sofie Remijsen, Christian Mann, and Michael Carter focus on cultural exchange, identity, and athletic competition in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Remijsen utilizes a body of recently discovered epigrams to examine Ptolemaic use of Greek athletics to promote royal identity and power in Egypt and abroad. Mann looks at Roman gladiatorial matches through the eyes of Greek spectators as "an appropriate case study for analyzing the depth of Roman cultural influence on the Greek world" (p. 127) and attributes the spread of gladiatorial games in the Greek east to accepting audiences rather than imposing conquerors. In a contrasting point of view, Carter sees Roman gladiatorial spectacles as "cultural performances" that reinforced Roman notions of identity in foreign lands but also concludes that these performances also resonated with their Greek audiences, since the great gladiators were honored with the culturally appropriate language and symbols of athletic victors. The final two chapters focus on specific categories of athletes. Nigel Kennell offers a welcome addition to modern understanding of the Greek Ephebate, or "citizen training system" in the heretofore neglected late Roman period [End Page 480] (p. 176). Nigel Crowther assesses the evidence for age categories in competitive events in ancient Italy, concluding that age may have been only one of several criteria (others might have been size, strength, or puberty) used to assign competitors to their proper classes. Of all the essays, Crowther's stands alone in its emphasis on reconstructing athletic practices and procedures rather than discussing meaning and context.
Although the compilation largely ignores Scanlon's admonition to remember "ancient" cultures that were not Greco-Roman, the work as a whole possesses commendable breadth in geography and time. Christesen casts a critical gaze upon the earliest attributed dates for panhellenic competition, and Kennell discusses the tail end of civically-sponsored athletic training in Greece. The keen juxtaposition of some of the oldest literary sources from the ancient Greek world (Kyle's treatment of Herodotus), with some of the most recent finds from the sands of Egypt (Remijsen) reminds the reader that...