Thursday, August 21, 2014


David M. Pritchard, Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 251. ISBN 9781107007338. $103.00.

Reviewed by Stephen Brunet, University of New Hampshire (

Version at BMCR home site


In Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens David Pritchard asks why Athens, a city in which one would expect egalitarianism to reign supreme, tolerated and even encouraged athletics, an activity that had long been associated with the elites of Greek cities and with aristocratic claims to social and political superiority. Central to Pritchard's explanation is the proposition that athletes were viewed as possessing the same type of endurance and willingness to undertake risks that Athenian citizens were required to demonstrate in war. As a consequence, the perceived value of athletics overrode any potential opposition to this particular element of the aristocratic lifestyle and the Athenian state saw nothing wrong in expending its resources on athletic contests in which most Athenians never had a hope of competing due to their lack of training. In pursuing this one explanation for the Athenian acceptance of athletics, Pritchard may have overlooked other factors that were at work here, notably the fact that athletics was so deeply embedded in Greek culture that many Athenians would never have been able to envisage a world without it. Yet his study, touching as it does on such diverse subjects as the extent to which most Athenians had access to education and the tendency among Athenians to conceive of land and naval warfare using similar language, does not limit itself just to the history of Greek athletics but deals with the social and ideological processes of the Athenian democracy in a broad fashion.

The first chapter introduces three premises that underlie Pritchard's subsequent analyses. One is that modern research about the connection between athletics and war, notably the much repeated, but now disproven, theory that athletics sublimates the aggressiveness that leads to war, are not helpful in understanding the role of athletics in Athenian society. A second is that historians like Thucydides and philosophers like Plato, being hostile to democracy, are not particularly useful sources for his purposes since they are not likely to reflect common conceptions about athletes and athletics. Instead he bases his analysis nearly exclusively on the evidence of legal speeches, comedies, tragedies, and satyr plays on the grounds that the authors of these works needed to be in tune with the preconceptions of most Athenians if they were going to win over their audiences. Yet Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle all had a strong interest in athletics and it would have been interesting if Pritchard had considered to what degree their views of athletics matched that of the average Athenian and whether there would have been any debate about the value of the skills demonstrated by successful competitors. The last premise has the greatest influence on his analysis in that he divides Athenian society according to a schema that the Athenians themselves tended to use, namely that a small portion of the Athenian populace could be classified as "the rich," with the remainder of the population simply being a categorized as "the poor." In his view, the rich, which he estimates at about 5% of the population, were the only ones with the leisure and money to pursue athletics and thus only a small part of the Athenian citizen body would have had any direct experience of athletics.

Pritchard realizes that this position is diametrically opposed to the views of Nick Fisher and Paul Christesen, both of whom are proponents of the view that many Athenians participated in athletics, at least when young.1 Having debated this issue with them in the past, he devotes Chapter 2 to reiterating his reasons for believing that athletic training was restricted to a very small percentage of Athenians.2 He takes as his starting point Donald Kyle's finding that all the Athenian athletes from the Classical period for whom we have records derived from elite families.3 To show why this was so, Pritchard undertakes an assessment of Athenian educational practice, and he concludes that the poor were never in the position to pay for any sort of athletic training and this disability barred them from becoming successful athletes. In this regard, Pritchard's division between rich and poor maybe overly rigid since there may have been many Athenians who, while not in the position to pursue the level of training required to be successful competitors, did have some firsthand exposure to athletics. This would explain, as Pritchard later demonstrates (p. 105-7, 119-120), why Athenians were so familiar with the finer points and terminology of different sports. Many of them had done just enough wrestling, for example, that they understood the mechanics and tactics involved. Moreover, admitting that many Athenians had some limited experience with wrestling or throwing the javelin would actually help Pritchard's overall argument. Many Athenians would still have seen athletics as an elite activity, which could only be practiced seriously by those with leisure and wealth, but their own more limited contact would have helped them recognize that what it took to be a successful athlete mirrored the demands placed on anyone in a battlefield situation. The point here is that regardless of which side one takes in the debate regarding the social status of Athenian athletes, the majority of Pritchard's conclusions are likely to still hold true.

Chapter 3 explores Athenian attitudes to the subsidies that Athens awarded athletes who won a PanHellenic festival along with the willingness of the Athenian populace to devote massive resources to the Panathenaia and other local festivals. He rightly finds that tragedy and legal speeches paint a very positive picture of athletic festivals and the individuals who had the talent, training, and tenacity to win against the best athletes of the Greek world. His attempt to claim that comedy was equally positive about athletics does not seem as persuasive. In particular, I would argue the position expressed by the Stronger Argument in the Clouds is more ambiguous than he asserts (p. 116). The validity of the Stronger Argument's claim about the moral value of athletics is undercut by the fact that he is not really interested in athletics because it promotes martial valor and sophrosyne. Rather, he is in favor it because it allows him to ogle good-looking boys (961-83). Yet Pritchard is right that athletics does not come in for the sort of massive criticism that one would expect if Athenians truly viewed athletes and the honors they were granted with a large degree of suspicion.

Logically, satyr plays should have been treated along with other forms of drama, but athletics is such a common element in these plays that a full assessment of the references to athletics in the surviving fragments takes up all of chapter 4. Pritchard finds that satyrs are depicted attempting athletics with the same ineptitude they exhibit when they foolishly take on other tasks for which they are not suited. In the case of athletics, they lack a willingness to endure toil and the dangers of competition. The implication is that the audience thought that athletes were to be admired for undertaking the sort of risks and labor that the satyrs eschewed. When the villains in these plays are athletes, they misuse athletics in ways that violate the audience's view of athletics as a virtuous activity, for example, by challenging visitors to deadly contests. The rant that Euripides puts in Autolycus' mouth is treated in a similar light. Autolycus' complaint that an athlete's skills are useless to his city in wartime can be traced back to Xenophanes, and according to an argument presented in the previous chapter, diatribes on the uselessness of athletes never resonated with the Athenians because they were couched in sophistical terms. Having Autolycus repeat such attacks would have increased the sense that he did not follow the norms of society. On Pritchard's view, scholars have been wrong to assume that Autolycus' denunciation of athletics would have been taken seriously by nearly all Athenians.

The last three chapters lay out Pritchard's explanation for why athletics met with such acceptance from the Athenians with the key being, in his view, that success as an athlete was conceived by the Athenians as requiring the same qualities as success as a warrior. To prove that war and athletics were closely related in the minds of Athenians, he rehearses the ways in which they were conceived as similar, notably as contests that involved great labor and great risk. Equally important, he notes that recent research suggests that hoplites did not fight in as tight a formation as commonly thought. This observation tends to counter the tendency on the part of many sports historians to disassociate athletics and warfare on the grounds that being an athlete was an individual enterprise in ancient Greece, while hoplite warfare was by nature closer to team sports. From the point of view of the individual on the battle field, however, self-reliance and personal effort might have seemed to have been of greater importance than team work.

Pritchard then undertakes a review of the changes in the military situation in Athens during the Classical period to solve a potential puzzle. One might think that as involvement in government was extended to a wider and wider group and even the poor came to have political power, there would have been a reaction against athletics for its connections with the elite. Yet this did not happen because of a related development. At the same time as Athens became more egalitarian politically, a wider group of Athenians came to be involved in military defense, first as hoplites and then as sailors. More and more Athenians would have come to realize on a personal level the values of endurance and fortitude; this made them not less, but actually more sympathetic to what athletes did to achieve their success. His final remarks consist of a short note on the ephebeia, indicating his belief that it had the potential to change the world of athletics since for the first time it gave the poor access to athletic training. However, this potential was never realized and athletics remained, as he argues it had been earlier, an activity open exclusively to the elite.

Saying that "the Athenian dēmos simply abhorred public criticism of athletics" (p. 156) probably goes beyond what the evidence will support. A more reasonable conclusion from the sources analyzed by Pritchard is that the Athenians regarded athletes and athletic contests in a very favorable light, far more favorable than we might suspect for an activity that was very closely associated with the aristocracy. He is also right to trace this positive assessment to the Athenian perception that athletics and warfare were similar activities with similar requirements for success. I am less certain whether Pritchard has discovered the only reason that the Athenians were so inclined to support athletics. In particular, from the time the Panathenaia was established, all Athenian citizens had the opportunity to participate in one of the most important athletic festivals in the Greek world, admittedly not usually as competitors but as spectators and participants in feasts and other festivities. Athletics would have been so much a part of the culture that speech writers and dramatists would have found it a natural source of positive examples and their audiences would likewise have had trouble conceiving of a world without athletics. In Pritchard's favor, though, his study has caused me to rethink how I will approach with my students the various critics of Greek athletics and what the Greeks thought about athletics as a social institution.


1.   N. Fisher, "Gymnasia and the Democratic Values of Leisure," in P. Cartledge, P. Millett, and S. von Reden (eds.), Kosmos: Essays in Order, Conflict, and Community in Classical Athens, Cambridge (1998); "The Culture of Competition," in K. Raaflaub and H. van Wees (eds.), A Companion to Archaic Greece, Malden, MA 2009. P. Christesen, "The Transformation of Athletics in Sixth-Century Greece," in G. Schaus and S. Wenn (eds.), Onward to the Olympics, Waterloo, Ont. 2007. Unfortunately, Pritchard was not able to address the arguments in N. Fisher, "Competitive Delights: The Social Effects of the Expanded Programme of Events in Post-Kleisthenic Athens, in N. Fisher and H. van Wees (eds.), Competition in the Ancient World, Swansea (2011), or P. Christesen, Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds, Cambridge (2012).
2.   Pritchard's line of argumentation here follows very closely that taken in "Athletics, Education, and Participation in Classical Athens," in D. Phillips and D. Pritchard (eds.), Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World, Swansea (2003).
3.   D. G. Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens, 2nd ed. Leiden (1993).

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