Friday, July 16, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Zinon Papakonstantinou (ed.), Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World. New Perspectives. Sport in the Global Society. London/New York: Routledge, 2009. Pp. xxiv, 224. ISBN 9780415497152. $125.00.
Reviewed by Reyes Bertolin, University of Calgary

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present collection of essays appeared as a separate issue of the International Journal of Sport History in 2009 and is now published within the series Sport in the Global Society. It is perhaps because it was intended in the first place for the non-classicist scholar of sport that the classical scholar of sport will find little new. This is in no way detracts from the quality of the papers. In fact, the quality is outstanding. All of them are very informative; each one is complemented by an extensive bibliography on the topic discussed. The essays are written by some of the most important and active scholars in the field. The collection will be of great interest to students and to classical scholars who do not work on sport as their main area, as well as to the non-classicist, sport specialist.

The collection is comprised of nine essays, a prologue and an epilogue. The first essay deals with the 'legitimization' of the study of sport as part of classical studies. The next three essays focus on archaic and classical Greece. The fifth essay centers on the Hellenistic world and the last four on the Roman period.

The first essay, "Contesting Ancient Mediterranean Sport," by Thomas Scanlon, touches on the possibility of Egyptian, Sumerian or Hittite influence on Greek sport, but does not pursue this line of explanation. It soon turns into a short bibliographical essay on the study of Greek sport. The author notices the turning point for the general acceptance of the discipline of sport among classicist at the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Another high point in the study of sport coincided with the 2004 Athens Olympics. In this way one can observe the influence of the modern Olympic movement on the study of the ancient one.

The second essay, "Whence 776? The Origin of the Date for the First Olympiad," by Paul Christesen, guides us through the calculations of Hippias of Elis to arrive at a date for the first Olympiad. This is done in a very informative way, devoid of technical terms (the few used are always explained and transliterated). Scholars in the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth believed that Hippias, writing around the year 400 BC, might have been able to use archival records. Now that we know more about the history of the period and the development of literacy, the common opinion is that Hippias' list relies on oral tradition, statues and previous incomplete lists. Considering that modern archaeologists date the first Olympic games to 700, Christesen believes that after all Hippias' calculations were very good, deviating from that estimate only by 76 years.

The third essay, Donald Kyle's "Pan-Hellenism and Particularism: Herodotus on Sport, Greekness, Piety and War," attempts to answer the question of how and why Herodotus' use of sport "reveal[s] conflicts and inconsistencies between the idealistic theory and pragmatic practice of Greek politics, warfare, piety and pan-Hellenism" (p. 36). According to Kyle, Herodotus, in his account of the Persian Wars, presents sport as something that unified the Greeks but also divided them. It was only during the Roman period, due to nostalgia for classical Greece, that the ideal of political pan-Hellenism was stressed; it waslater exaggerated by modern scholars who saw the games as peaceful and apolitical. Herodotus' image of sport is more equivocal.

The fourth essay, by David M. Pritchard, "Sport, War and Democracy in Classical Athens," attempts to explain the paradoxical fact that athletics, which was an upper class activity, escaped the criticism of Old Comedy, whereas other elite activities, such as the symposium, equestrian pursuits and homoerotic practices, were constantly belittled. Pritchard suggests that it was the perceived relationship between sport and the new warfare that Athens developed during the democracy that accounts for the lack of criticism in comedy. The identification of war and athletics was made possible through the use of the same vocabulary and concepts for both. Therefore, in spite of the privileges granted to the athletes, non-elite members of society identified with them.

The fifth essay, Sofie Remijsen's "Challenged by Egyptians: Greek Sports in the Third Century BC", deals with the efforts of the Ptolemies to spread sport as a means of strengthening their own image of power. For this they possessed four means: creating new kinds of games in Egypt, sponsoring Egyptian athletes to participate in the Greek games, entering themselves into equestrian events, and engaging the poets Callimachus and Posidippus to promote their success. At the beginning, only athletes who lived in or competed for a Greek city were counted as eligible to participate in the Greek games. The city most commonly given for these foreign athletes was Alexandria. Only in later Roman times do we find the names of native Egyptian towns given for the athletes.

With the sixth essay we move into Roman times. For essays number 6 and 7, the topic is gladiators. There is no discussion about whether or not gladiators can be considered athletes. The current common opinion leans towards viewing gladiators as athletes. A few words of explanation, however, would not have been out of place, especially considering the potential general audience for the volume. The sixth essay, "Gladiators in the Greek East: a Case Study in Romanization," by Christian Mann, and the seventh, "Gladiators and Monomachoi: Greek Attitudes to a Roman 'Cultural Performance'", by Michael J. Carter, overlap in part when discussing the self-perception of gladiators in the East, their acceptance among the non-elite, and the strong criticism of gladiatorial games by Greek intellectuals. Mann focuses on gladiatorial games as a good case study for Roman influence on Greek culture. Carter applies cultural theory to gladiatorial games and suggests that they created and maintained a "Roman sense of identity" (p. 165).

Essay number 8, Nigel M. Kennell's "The Greek Ephebate in the Roman Period," is perhaps the most specialized of all the essays and the least appealing to a general audience, especially since the connection of the ephebate with sport may not be entirely apparent. The paper deals with the long decline of the ephebate after it lost its main military role, and its disappearance when Christianity changed the social structure of the Roman Empire.

Finally, the essay by Nigel B. Crowther, "Observations on Boys, Girls, Youths and Age Categories in Roman Sports and Spectacles," advances the argument that the Romans kept the Greek age categories in Greek style games, but for their own games the age distinction was more of a guideline, often superseded by the size, strength and ability of the participants. Crowther discusses practices among patrician and equestrian groups as well as among the lower classes, who provided the ranks for charioteers.

In conclusion, this volume constitutes a great overview of the topics that currently occupy specialists in sport: sport within a cultural and ideological context, survival of older institutions, sport outside of Greece, and so on. The volume will acquaint the non-classicist scholar of sport with the methodology and discipline of classical studies and at the same time it will be a good resource book for the classical scholar.

Table of Contents:

Series Editors' Foreword vii
Other Titles in the Series ix
Zinon Papakostantinou, "Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World" xvii
Thomas Scanlon, "Contesting Ancient Mediterranean Sport" 1
Paul Christesen, "Whence 776? The Origin of the Date for the First Olympiad" 13
Donald Kyle, "Pan-Hellenism and Particularism: Herodotus on Sport, Greekness, Piety and War" 35
David M. Pritchard, "Sport, War and Democracy in Classical Athens" 64
Sofie Remijsen, "Challenged by Egyptians: Greek Sports in the Third Century BC" 98
Christian Mann, "Gladiators in the Greek East: a Case Study in Romanization" 124
Michael J. Carter, "Gladiators and Monomachoi: Greek Attitudes to a Roman 'Cultural Performance' " 150
Nigel M. Kennell, "The Greek Ephebate in the Roman Period" 175
Nigel B. Crowther, "Observations on Boys, Girls, Youths and Age Categories in Roman Sports and Spectacles" 195
Zinon Papakonstantinou, "Epilogue: Fresh Perspectives on Ancient Sport" 217
Index 220

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