- The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium by David Potter
Holder of two named professorships, in Classics and in Ancient History, at the University of Michigan, Potter inherited an ancient sport course from the late Waldo Sweet twenty years ago, and he has contributed substantial sections on spectacles to both his co-edited Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (1999) and his edited A Companion to the Roman Empire (2009). The Victor’s Crown, which appeared in hardcover in 2011 from Quercus Publishing and is now offered in paperback by Oxford, is an impressive and informative work of ancient sport scholarship and a stimulating read.
Few scholars would attempt a work of such chronological and geographical scope, from Homeric funeral games to the “classical” athletic contests of Greece, and from Roman spectacles to Byzantine chariot races, let alone accomplish it in such fine fashion. [End Page 559] Moreover, this is not simply a synthesis mechanically tracing the emergence and expansion of ancient sports. Potter goes beyond describing activities and retelling stories to treat sport seriously as a widespread and major social, cultural, and political phenomenon in Greek and Roman civilization.
Potter approaches sport inclusively as “entertainment” involving essential dynamics among performers, organizers, and audiences. Asserting that sports and spectacles were popular because people innately enjoyed the excitement, sensations, and experiences of competing and of watching other humans compete, he sees both Greek participatory and Roman spectactory events not as simply good or bad but rather all as public “entertainments” and cultural performances. As Potter, I, and others have argued, Greek athletics performed in public before large audiences certainly had spectacular aspects, and Roman entertainments of the circus and arena entailed more competitiveness, rules, hope, and rewards than most people realize. Athletes, charioteers, and gladiators were skilled professionals, and spectators were engaged, knowledgeable sport “fans” who influenced changes in sports, and who themselves were part of the performance.
Potter’s readers will learn about sport, certainly, but also about ancient history more broadly, and about the evidential and interpretive bases of our reconstructions. His masterful control of the primary evidence—from literary texts and papyri to inscriptions and monumental architecture—with inclusions of recent discoveries (e.g. Posidippus’ poems on Ptolemaic victories, gladiator burials at Ephesus), and his familiarity with the growing scholarship on ancient sport, spectacles, and society, are reflected in his forty-six pages of detailed notes.
With twenty-nine chapters in five parts, the work opens with “Then and Now,” a thirteen-page prologue of sorts, which suggests analogies and connections between ancient and modern sport, including facilities (e.g. Circus Maximus, Shea Stadium), crowds, and interest in records and story-telling.
Part 1: “Ashes, Linen and the Origins of Sport,” with three chapters, first surveys the possible origins of sport the Bronze Age. Potter admits widespread pre-Greek precedents for activities such as combat sports, but he rejects pre-Greek events by non-independent performers in palatial settings to entertain royals as not part of any athletic tradition of “Western sport” (p. 23). Only in Greece and only at the end of the Mycenaean period, with chariot races and funeral games, does physical entertainment shift “from a royal to a popular context” (p. 22).
Potter properly sees sport in Homer’s epics not as accurately remembered Bronze Age Mycenaean reality but rather as a reflection of traditions and practices closer to Homer’s eighth-century “world.” With elite warriors competing with each other for recognition, Homer’s funeral games reveal a time of transition from aristocratic fiat in sponsoring games and deciding victors to later true sport in which actual results of events “must count” (p. 29)—a transition from a view of sport as based on perceived virtue to one based on individual achievement but still in a society without facilities, calendric coordination, or nudity.
Part 2: “Olympia,” the second longest part with seven chapters, discusses the early history of the Olympic...