- The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium by David Potter
David Potter’s sweeping history of ancient Greek and Roman sport tackles its subject matter with broad scope and ambition. Addressing the cultures of nearly two thousand years of ancient Mediterranean history, from Minoan bull-leaping to Homeric contests, and on to the Greek festivals and the Roman spectacles, Potter races his reader at break-neck speed through the events, competitors, spectators, and attitudes of ancient athletes.
From the beginning, Potter rightly insists that any treatment of ancient athletics must situate them in their historical contexts. It is not necessarily the sports themselves that deserve examination (although Potter offers fresh insight into the logistics of competition) but rather “the role of sport in society as a whole” (p. xxi). To this end, Potter does not disappoint, although the discussion of athletics within the vast extent of Bronze Age, Greek, and Roman history makes for occasionally clumsy generalizations and distracting diversions. For instance, Chapter 2, entitled “Homer and the Bronze Age,” is really a discussion of the evidence for bull-leaping on Minoan Crete. In Chapter 4, Potter offers an unsatisfyingly brief three-page summary treating both the Persian Wars and the struggles between Sicilian Greeks and Carthage. The overall aim, however, to study athletics within a historical narrative is a methodological success.
Potter’s jaunty, easy-going style conceals a breathtaking grasp of the ancient sources. Indeed, this synthesis of ancient source material is the book’s greatest strength. Besides the well-worked and well-known examples of ancient athletics from literary sources (such as the funeral games in Iliad 23, the career of Theogenes of Thasos, the writings of Pausanias), Potter offers material from more esoteric sources, such as the Palatine Anthology, Theon of Alexandria, and Posidippus. Besides these little gems, Potter seamlessly integrates the material culture of archaeology, vase-painting, and mosaic representations with inscription evidence. However, Potter seems to accept most of these at face value and offers little in the way of critical analysis or criticism.
Among the most innovative contributions is the application of common sense to ancient athletics, especially the Olympic program. While some of Potter’s observations slip into the realm of informed opinion, nevertheless they provide insight and possible answers to the logistics of ancient competition. For instance, Potter reminds the reader of the physical toll that repeated boxing matches might exact, noting that the sport was apt to cause “loss of teeth and broken noses” in addition to traumatic concussions (p. 85). Using the known amount of daylight hours during the August days of the Olympic festival, [End Page 361] Potter is able to suggest that the average boxing match lasted about ten minutes (p. 82). When discussing the Hellenistic Age’s Gymnasiarchal Law of Beroia and its prohibition against striking a gymnasiarch (leader of a gymnasium), Potter assumes an ancient equivalent of a “helicopter parent” who is dissatisfied with a son’s progress (p. 134). These practical comments, while perhaps at times grounded more firmly in modern sensibilities than ancient, nevertheless provide texture and context to the ancient participants.
True to form, Potter’s transition to Roman contests and spectacles turns on the historical context of Rome’s ascendance in the Mediterranean world. The chapters on Roman events unfold at a more even tempo than those on Greece, and it is here that Potter makes his strongest arguments. For instance, chapters on the importance of patronage, dramatic spectacle, the experiences and roles of the crowd, and even dreams about sport offer fresh approaches to previous treatments of the Roman era. While the quality of the anecdotal evidence is spotty in places (does the knowledge that the writer Pliny the Younger married teenage girls really bolster the argument? p. 225), Potter provides a fuller, richer, and more accessible version of ancient Romans and their games. From the preferred chants of the spectating crowds (p. 237) to the economic incentives for...