Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Nick Fisher, Hans van Wees (ed.), Competition in the Ancient World. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2011. Pp. xi, 308. ISBN 9781905125487. $100.00.

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, Ghent University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Competition seems an ubiquitous phenomenon in ancient societies, ranging from the so-called "competitive spirit" of Archaic and Classical Greece to the intercity rivalry characteristic in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Because competition seems a self-evident notion, there is often little explicit reflection on it in the context of classical studies. This is regrettable: its prominence in contemporary analyses is obviously related to the fact that competition occupies a central position in modern economic and social theory. The volume under review presents itself as "a tentative step" (p. ix) towards the goal of a more comprehensive analysis of competition in the ancient world and that is an apt self-description. It combines theoretical and comparative perspectives with analyses of the history of scholarship and detailed studies of literary, archaeological and historical evidence.

Strong theoretical claims are made in the opening chapter by one of the editors, Hans van Wees: "I shall argue that competitiveness is a widespread human characteristic and has been the driving force behind many of the most dramatic developments in history from 10,000 BC onwards." (p. 1) Competition for superiority is put in the place of population growth and ecological change as the driver of change in primitive societies. Identifying four dynamics in the process (escalation, regulation, exclusion, and rejection), van Wees shows that competition does not drive change in one particular direction (as some evolutionary accounts claim); that is, it can cause a change for the better or for the worse. This model is applied to the Pygmy and Ik and to the neolithic monuments of Göbekli Tepe, which for van Wees illustrate the competition generated when resources become plentiful and people start to engage in seemingly useless building projects out of sheer competition.

The model is not without its problems. First, competition seems defined as competition between individuals (see page 4). Competition between groups is only briefly mentioned on page 27. Here the modern emphasis on individual competition, well visible in economic theory, seems to surface in an unreflective way. Second, competition takes place in specific social systems and hierarchies (briefly alluded to on page 24). Given the embedded nature of competition in a social system, is it not more logical to define competion as a form of social relation (as the German sociologist G. Simmel has done1), rather than as a universal, almost biological, driving force? Then we might be better positioned to ask what type of competition is fostered, tolerated or prohibited in what kind of society.

Karen Radner focuses on the competition for honour among soldiers of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Soldiers competed for recognition, fame, but also eternal life. Military prowess was often expressed in bringing the heads of defeated enemies to the attention of the general or king. The more one delivered, the more status one could achieve — status that was expressed in changes in dress, weaponry, and jewelery. Towards the end of the Neo-Assyrian empire, civil officials started to eclipse soldiers in competition for supreme honours. My impression is that this chapter would have benefited from more attention to the wider context and theories of competition. One would in particular need more background on how Neo-Assyrian society functioned in order to be able to understand the importance of the system of honour for soldiers, which can be parallelled in almost any given society.

Frances Berdan takes us to the Aztec empire. Made up of numerous city-states, the empire knew an important population growth in the 14th and 15th centuries. The ensuing scarcity of resources generated intensive competition, on all levels of society. The elite, especially, tried to maintain their status through public display, but the kings continued to control material wealth and could dispose of it as they saw fit: they could thus intervene in the struggle for status among the elite. The paper generates a complex picture of the various factors that shaped competition (social structure, environment, and dynastic policies) and thus avoids easy generalisations.

The fourth paper, inaugurating the section on Greece, opens with a qualified contradiction of van Wees: "It is clear, at any rate, that competition is not a genetic given, and without a thorough examination of human history, one cannot presuppose that competition is an anthropological constant" (p. 85). C. Ulf traces the idea of a prominence of competition in ancient Greece back to the nineteenth century and to economic thought, when competition is seen as a source of wealth and welfare. He shows that the idea only slowly got hold of scholarship, especially due to the rise of the ideal of fair competition among English gentlemen. In other words, it betrays the ideal of amateurism and bourgeois elitism in which competition is something positive. By historicising the notion of competition and raising questions about its usefulness as an analytic tool, Ulf suggests a crucial corrective to van Wees's introductory chapter.

In "Conflict and community in the Iliad", W. Allan and D. Cairns revisit the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, in which individual interests clash with those of the community. They argue that this tension between society and individual also drives the literary representation of both characters and steers the responses of the audience. Homer can thus be seen as depicting the dangers of strife that get out of hand.

S. Forsdyke deconstructs Herodotus' story about the renaming of the Dorian tribes of Sicyon by the sixth-century tyrant Cleisthenes (Hdt. 5.67-68) and the introduction of the cult of Melanippus. According to Herodotus, Cleisthenes ridiculed the inhabitants by choosing "pigmen", "assmen", and "swinemen" as new names. Melanippus was introduced to rival the cult of Adrastus. Forsdyke argues that these stories are, in fact, invented traditions: Dorian identity was adopted only in the late sixth century, but projected back onto the primordial past. The changes of Cleisthenes serve the purpose to obliterate the fact that the Dorian identity was late in coming. The cult of Adrastus, Forsdyke suggests, was also introduced in the sixth century, to take part in the prestige deriving from the myth of the Seven of Thebes at a time of growing competition among poleis. Necessarily, the argument is highly speculative.

Concluding the section on Greece, N. Fisher argues that non-elite citizens participated in the teams representing the Athenian tribes in contests during the city's festivals in the classical period. Selection, financing, and training were provided by rich liturgists. He emphasises the positive impact of competition: because collective training is needed to be successful, competitions forge a sense of identity for the tribes and foster unity in society. Contests hence were "social factors of the greatest importance in explaining Athens' relative success over two centuries in achieving political stability, social cohesion, and relatively low levels of violence and disorder" (p. 204).

Using a comparison with Venice, H. Mouritsen discusses the third-century reform of the Roman comitia centuriata, in which (probably) the centuries of the first class were coordinated with the 35 tribus and the procedure of a centuria praerogativa, selected by lot from the first class to vote first, was instituted. He argues that this reform had the aim of counteracting electioneering and elite competition: the vote of the comitia praerogativa may have had an important effect on the vote of the other centuries, and it would be very difficult to target all the seventy centuries of the first class.

According to H. Platts, the recurrence of hippodrome- and theatre-style art and architecture in Roman villas of the empire is an expression of competitive demonstrations of status among the elite. She sees them as referring back to the venues where the elite could exercise patronage and display wealth under the Republic. This otherwise fine paper relies on what seems a mistaken assumption: for Platts all power resided with the emperor and the elite and owners of the villas were not anymore "at the pinnacle of society and power" as they had been in the Republic (p. 243). But because competition in display continued, they now turned inwards (into the private sphere) and backwards (to the past). Yet the rise of the empire did not simply emasculate the old elite: it created a new elite and aristocracy, incorporating many elements of the old one. Even the emperor could not rule alone. There is hence nothing surprising (and I would think nothing inward-looking) about the fact that display and jockeying for status continued. Indeed, what Platts fails to explain, is what end elite competition still could serve, except nostalgia, in the Roman empire as she understands it.

Together with the chapter by Allan and Cairns, J. König's is the only one that attempts to identify ideas about competition in ancient texts themselves. Focusing on how competition between sophists, athletes, and intellectuals was seen during the Second Sophistic, he shows that competition is often explicitly valued. In the process, he succeeds in setting out a few basic sociological facts about competition. He notes, for example, that rivalry presupposes mutual recognition (p. 286), that is, social equality: one does not compete with a slave nor with the emperor. Refusing to enter into competition can hence be an expression of disdain.

If the volume puts forward an overarching conclusion, it is the case made in the preface, and more substantially in the first essay by H. van Wees, for seeing competition as widespread in human societies and taking on similar forces in similar circumstances. In this claim the main weakness of the volume surfaces: the assumption seems to be that competition is an easily identifiable phenomenon. But in fact, competition is not a "natural" social phenomenon in itself: talking about competition relies on identifying certain actions as expressing competition, and such an identification is, in turn, influenced by our modern tendency to put competition at the heart of our understanding of society. But what counts as competition may well differ depending on the nature of the society. In fact, in different papers of the volume, different concepts of competition are at work: whereas Platts implicitly combines Veblen's and Goffman's notions of self-presentation,2 Fisher seems to rely on the belief in the integrative power of Greek contests that Ulf historicises. Mouritsen relies on the assumption that it is the nature of politics to be competitive, but there are also political systems that are highly consensual. König understands competition as a form of social relation rather than as an abstract, general phenomenon. In offering this variety of perspectives, the volume succeeds in stimulating reflection – the next step to take is to look more critically at the notion of competition itself, its variety, and its possible applicability.

Table of Contents

Part I: Competition in comparative perspective
1. Rivalry in history: an introduction - Hans van Wees
2. Fame and prizes: competition and war in the Neo-Assyrian empire - Karen Radner
3. Levels and strategies of competition in the Aztec Empire - Frances F. Berdan
Part II: Competition in Greece
4. Ancient Greek competition - a modern construct? - Christoph Ulf
5. Conflict and community in the Iliad - William Allan and Douglas Cairns
6. Peer-polity interaction and cultural competition in sixth-century Greece - Sara Forsdyke
7. Competitive delights: the social effects of the expanded programme of contests in post-Kleisthenic Athens - Nick Fisher
Part III: Competition in Rome
8. Lotteries and elections: containing elite competition in Venice and Rome - Henrik Mouritsen
9. Keeping up with the Joneses: competitive display within the Roman villa landscape - Hannah Platts
10. Competitiveness and anti-competitiveness in Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists - Jason Konig


1.   G. Simmel, Soziologie : Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Munich, 1908.
2.   T. Veblen, The theory of the leisure class : an economic study of institutions, New York, 1899; E. Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London, 1969

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