In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling
  • Donald G. Kyle
Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games. 3rd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. Pp. 120. Illustrated, further reading, index. $19.95, pb.

Judith Swaddling, now senior curator of the Greek and Roman Collections of the British Museum, and the British Museum Press published the first edition of this successful introduction to the ancient Olympics in 1980 to accompany an exhibition on the ancient Olympics at the museum. A second and now this third edition have followed, with reprintings by the University of Texas Press. Still slim and attractive, the new version is eight pages longer and only modestly increased in price (by $3). It has a new color cover [End Page 143] image of a chariot race, but it still includes a letter from HRH Princess Anne, which has been updated and remains supportive even after the Olympic problems of recent decades.

The new edition is significantly more attractive because twenty-six formerly black-and-white figures from the earlier version have been redone in color. Otherwise, the edition retains the same sequence of nine chapters, with the largest chapters still being those on the site (twenty-five pages) and the events (thirty-four pages). The pagination and the texts of the nine chapters seem to be the same except for some slight rewriting acknowledging the influence of Scandinavian, German, and American sport on Coubertin (101–2) and also a new subtitle and a transitional clause on page 106.

Another justification of this new edition is a new chapter, the tenth, “The Olympic Games since 1896,” (107–14), which provides an engaging summary of the history, problems, and successes of the modern Olympics from 1896 to 2014. The chapter includes eight new figures: six new black-and-white photos of post-1896 Olympic events and also color illustrations of a poster for the 1948 London Olympics and of the fireworks at the opening ceremonies of 2012. (A black-and-white photo of the start of the 100-meters race of 1896 has been moved from page 103 [where it has been replaced by a color image of a seat from the ancient Panathenaic Stadium] to page 107 to open Chapter 10.)

Interestingly, Chapter 4, “Preparation and Training,” retains its earlier discussion of ancient training, doctors, and medicine unchanged, but its comments on “hazards and drugs” (45–49) have become more topical. Scholars have acknowledged evidence of the use of medicinal and recreational drugs in ancient Mediterranean societies, and ancient authors critical of the training of athletes decry faddish routines, diets, and gluttony; but recently suspect and sensationalistic claims that ancient Greek athletes “doped” with animal hormones and performance-enhancing drugs have increased. Without changing the text of the chapter, Swaddling, however, uses the “Medical Aspects” section of the appended “Further Reading” (116) to signal the new research that she and some colleagues have published on such issues. (Also see E. M. Bartels, J. Swaddling, and A. P. Harrison, “An Ancient Greek Pain Remedy for Athletes,” Pain Practice 6.3 [2006]; 212–18). They note that the medical writer Galen (129–ca. 216 CE) in his Composition of Medicines (Book 4.531, b–c) mentions ingredients and measures for a medicament called ”Olympic Victor’s Dark Ointment,” which included opium, frankincense, and saffron. It was said to be useful against severe pain and effective as a salve for swellings of the eyes; apparently, only winners of Olympic events could use the ointment. Physicians and trainers applied the transdermal ointment to treat athletic pain and swelling in training and competition. Nevertheless, as Swaddling clarifies, there were no banned substances in Greek athletics, and “no evidence exists” for doping (49). Steroids and syringes awaited later ages.

Finally, the booklist in “Further Reading” has been updated somewhat, but the latest items are from 2012. Other popular volumes on the ancient Olympics (for example, D. Young’s A Brief History of the Olympics in 2004, N. Spivey’s 2nd edition of his The Ancient Olympics in 2012, and N. Faulkner’s A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics of 2012) are absent. More serious students will want to supplement their reading...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 143-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.