- Greek Athletics
This collection of essays, edited by Jason König, manages to treat a single theme over a vast amount of time and distance with great effect. Greek Athletics presents the reader with a sophisticated yet accessible introduction to some of the most prominent themes in contemporary studies of ancient Greek athletics. Especially noteworthy is the inclusion (in translation) of several works that originally appeared in non-English languages. Two recurring themes reflect both consistent and emerging trends in the field. The first is the question of social class, professionalism, prize-giving, and participation among ancient Greek athletes. The second is the prevalence, nature, and meaning of Greek athletics outside of Classical Greece.
Only the first of the book’s six sections corresponds to the most traditionally popular topic of ancient Greek athletics, that is the panhellenic sanctuaries and the Crown Games. A section of Catherine Morgan’s 1990 book Athletes and Oracles appears here as an independent essay. Manfred Lämmer contributes a well constructed essay on the ancient Olympic truce and how this idea has been represented by the modern Olympic movement.
The remaining five sections treat the development and culture of the Greek gymnasion in the Hellenistic world, the foundation of Greek festivals in the Roman Empire, the rewards and festivals that accompanied athletics, representations of athletic competitions and victory, and Greek athletics in the modern world. The compilation includes Leslie Kurke’s important work on the power of athletic victory and its attendant kudos, as well as a useful (but now dated) essay by H.W. Pleket concerning athletes, wages, and the importance of prizes. Nick Fisher argues for a high degree of participation among all social classes in ancient Athens. While Fisher’s essay, which first appeared in 1998, offers many worthwhile considerations, David Pritchard’s 2003 essay on “Athletics, Education, and Participation in Classical Athens” largely deconstructs Fisher’s principal points. Although König alludes to the debate in a footnote, this collection might have been more effective if it had presented both viewpoints.
Throughout the book, various iterations of Greek festivals outside of Classical Greece offer thematic continuity and attest to the strong cultural meanings of Greek athletics. Philippe Gauthier examines how the gymnasion culture of the Hellenistic world acted as a marker of Greek civilization and identity throughout Greece and into Asia and North Africa. Similarly, Onno van Nijf relates that the celebration of adapted Greek festivals in the Roman East played “a central part in civic life under Roman rule” (p. 175). Zahra Newby relies on mosaics from Ostia and Rome to refute the traditional literary interpretations that Romans reacted with hostility towards Greek athletics. The mosaics, mostly found in bathing facilities, demonstrate a strong familiarity with Greek athletics among recreating Romans. [End Page 511]
Louis Robert’s two contributions focus on the expansion of the Greek athletic circuit in the Hellenistic and Roman world. Robert, a noted epigraphist, uses inscriptions to shed light on largely unknown festivals, such as the Didymeia at Miletos or the Heliaia on Rhodes. Robert also examines the practice of founding Greek-style athletic festivals in the Roman Empire. One of these festivals, dedicated to Minerva, was founded by a little-known Emperor named Gordian in the fourth century A.D. The institution of a Greek athletic festival in Italy nearly a thousand years after the games grew popular in Greece underscores the lasting attraction of Greek athletics. This attraction remains, as the book’s last two essays investigate the reception of ancient Greek athletics in the modern world. David Young tackles Allen Guttmann’s characterization of record-keeping as a characteristic of modern sport. Unsurprisingly, the Greeks fare well in Young’s conclusion that “the keeping and setting of records was part and parcel of ancient Greek athletics for centuries” (p. 280). Finally, Donald Kyle offers an interpretation of the career of E. Norman Gardiner, the twentieth-century British historian who is largely credited (or blamed) with the idea of ancient...