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Reviewed by:
  • Sport and Identity in Ancient Greece by Zinon Papakonstantinou
  • John Brendan Knight
Papakonstantinou, Zinon. Sport and Identity in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 2019. Pp. xiii+ 222. Index and illustrations. $140.00, hb. $43.96, eb.

Sport and identity were as ubiquitous a feature of ancient Greek life as they are in contemporary scholarship. In his latest monograph, Zinon Papakonstantinou could be forgiven for sticking to the usual focus of similar studies: national and ethnic identity in Greek sport. Yet, while both receive some analysis here, they are not of primary concern. Papakonstantinou is more interested in sport as an arena for the performance of social identities, frequently defined by legal and social status, gender or age. Papakonstantinou is an able guide through a sometimes complex thesis, resulting in an intelligent, nuanced, and eminently readable treatment. The book itself is structured into a series of case studies intended to illuminate different aspects of Greek sporting life and identities. These case studies are grouped together into thematic chapters with brief concluding summaries to draw together the various threads of thought and their implications for wider themes.

The introduction briefly outlines trends in contemporary scholarship before discussing the sociological and anthropological debates which underlie Papakonstantinou's study. Chapter 2 focuses on sport and identity in the archaic period (750–500 BCE). The discussion is framed through the concept of "elite" versus "middling" discourses, an approach that reached its apogee in the late 1990s and that Papakonstantinou reconfigures into sport-focused terminology as "Homeric sport" versus "Civic sport." Nevertheless, there is little acknowledgment of the numerous subsequent criticisms of this approach, and the author is unable to assuage concerns that elite/middling categorization results in decontextualization in favor of inscribing ideological bias. The third and fourth chapters focus on the development of a universal sporting culture through individual and communal participation. Spectatorship, an underplayed aspect of ancient Greek sport, is rightly treated as an integral part of sporting experiences due to the internalization of normative practices by spectators and the ways in which these subsequently structured wider social meanings and identities.

Chapter 5 discusses the performance of bodily narratives and the commemoration of sporting and civic accomplishments. Papakonstantinou's observation that identity, achievement, and character were inscribed on representations of the body provides a thoughtful explanation for the use of the nude male body in commemorative monuments. He also notes that biographical narratives inscribed on statues served to reinforce masculine identity through participation, funding, and organization of sporting and civic life. The final chapter looks at how sporting and festival experiences provided sites for the negotiation of social identities. Using concepts of liminality developed in sociological contexts, Papakonstantinou perceives that civic festivals allowed restricted spaces and experiences to become more accessible, enhancing social cohesion through inclusion. The volume is completed by a short epilogue summarizing the author's discussion and conclusions.

Overall, while Papakonstantinou's extended focus on the Hellenistic and Imperial periods (300 BCE–300 CE) is a welcome addition to scholarship on Greek sport and identity, at times he veers dangerously close to viewing this thousand-year span as an homogenous mass. Some acknowledgment of the varied social and political changes that affected the Greek world, beyond the widening appeal of sport and the resultant increase in participation and [End Page 183] concomitant festival occasions, would have been welcome. Nevertheless, the book's most interesting discussions are still those concerning the inscriptions of these eras, particularly from Attica and Asia Minor with their rich sporting and epigraphic traditions.

As Papakonstantinou rightly notes, both commemorative inscriptions and sporting performances, particularly in the literate and sport-centric Greek world of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, were there to be read and experienced by all, from slaves to sophists, lower-class women to elite males. Throughout the volume, Papakonstantinou offers a refined treatment of this evidence, alive to inference and omissions as much as inclusion. For example, in discussing subaltern participation in gymnasion culture, he notes that, while allusions could imply egalitarian principles, they simultaneously reinforced subaltern status by publicly limiting the times in which subaltern people could participate, while those of higher social status could use gymnasion facilities year round (103–13...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2155-8450
Print ISSN
0094-1700
Pages
pp. 183-184
Launched on MUSE
2020-09-29
Open Access
No
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