Sunday, November 23, 2014


Paul Christesen, Donald G. Kyle (ed.), A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. Pp. xx, 658. ISBN 9781444339529. $195.00.

Reviewed by Michael B. Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni (

Version at BMCR home site


The editors' stated intention is to provide the latest thinking about Greek and Roman sport and spectacle and offer new insights into the social history of sport, while still keeping the book accessible to a wide range of scholars and readers outside of the academy. This is ambitious, but overall the volume meets those goals admirably. The volume makes abundantly clear that neither the evidence base nor interpretive theories for ancient sport and its sociology are static.1 All of the essays in this volume are, accordingly, very well documented and include extensive bibliography, plus a guide for further reading on each topic.

The volume's forty-three essays are divided into two sections, with twenty-four devoted to the Greek world, and twenty to Rome, with a final essay addressing Byzantium. The time-frame extends from the Aegean Bronze Age to the sixth century of our era. The Greek section contains particularly challenging and innovative approaches, and this review will devote a somewhat greater share of attention to those sections.

In keeping with the twin goals of the editors, the volume starts with an excellent overview of Greek athletics by the co-editor Donald Kyle, but the book does not dwell on predictable general topics like the ancient Olympics or on reconstruction of the rules and equipment of the Olympic events. Rather, the volume offers essays that embrace a wider swath of festivals and participants, with significant focus on sport and spectacle in the Roman world, and there is consistent attention devoted to the ideologies that informed these activities. The choice of scope and the intent to engage recent finds and theories naturally has the consequence that certain established (and important) debates and controversies receive little or no attention. Whether there was a peculiarly agonistic nature of Greek society as Jacob Burckhardt argued and Johan Huizinga contested is not a topic that appears in this volume. Theories about the origin of Greek athletics, anthropological and cultic, get brief, albeit insightful, mention (see especially the essays by Paul Christesen and Sarah Murray).

Instead, there are very up-to-date essays on Bronze and early Iron Age sport that delve carefully into the highly ambiguous evidence for those eras. There are separate essays on sport in Sparta, the Greek West, and the festivals of the northern Peloponnese and central Greece. The Beroia inscription is concisely and cogently discussed. Donald Kyle, not content with simple explanations, provides an excellent synthesis and analysis of possible motivations for the remarkable story of Kyniska, the daughter of the Spartan king Archidamos, whose four-horse chariot prevailed at Olympia in 396 and 392 BCE. Turning to Rome, important and illuminating topics that might well be overlooked, such as female gladiators and the social messaging of public executions in the Roman arena, are explored.

Appropriately for a volume that aspires to address the state of scholarship, much attention is devoted to critical reading of ancient evidence and the challenges of understanding why sport and spectacle assumed their particular shapes and nature in the ancient world. H.W. Pleket contributes two important essays on epigraphic matters. The first argues that the inscriptions allow us to get past the mindset of a small, elite group of literati to an understanding of the self-image and aspirations of the athletes. Here, and in earlier studies, Pleket has used the epigraphic evidence to illuminate the consistently ennobled and aristocratic ideology of the athletes, even when the pool of competitors widens to include a significant number of non-elites. In his second essay, Pleket uses the inscriptions to show the burgeoning of athletic festivals in Asia Minor and the elaborate diplomacy of gaining recognition for a festival as a "crown game," that is, one at which victors could expect the same rewards and privileges from their home cities that victors at the four great festivals of the mainland (Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus) received when they returned with their wreaths. The inscriptions give evidence, too, of the local interest in home festivals, sometimes restricted to citizens of a given town. In other words, we see an athletic world less prestigious, but much larger than Olympia. Sofie Remijsen contributes an important essay, largely documented with papyrological evidence, on the growth of contests in Hellenistic Egypt, among them the Megala Antinoeia (at Antinoupolis) and isantinoeios contests at Oxyrhynchus and Leontopolis. The vibrancy of the "agonistic market" of which Pleket wrote is writ large in these documents.2

Macedonia and the Greek West are the focus of fine essays by Winthrop Lindsay Adams and Carla Antonaccio. Antonaccio explores cogently the magnetism that mainland festivals held for the elite of Magna Graecia and Sicily. Adams challenges the commonly held view that Alexander the Great disdained athletics. Much in keeping with the goal of the volume to be on the cutting edge of research, David Romano advances the possibility that the Lykaia in Arcadia may predate the ancient Olympics.

One of the Companion's strengths is its investigation of the sources and the times it challenges traditional interpretations of both visual and textual evidence. In keeping with the most recent scholarship, Jeremy Rutter dismisses the idea that both male and female acrobats participated in Minoan bull leaping.3 Several essays engage the debate on the extent to which gladiatorial combat represented a sport. The frequent references to missio sparing the defeated gladiator, the presence of a referee, and the existence of rules do suggest the world of sport, and, as Louis Robert pointed out in Les gladiateurs dans l'Orient grec(Paris 1940), Greek inscriptions often use boxing vocabulary to refer to gladiatorial events. Michael J. Carter's essay, "Romanization Through Spectacle in the Greek East," notes that blunted weapons were sometimes employed, arguably bringing the skilled dueling of the gladiators closer to the world of sport. Carter suggests that the dichotomy of participatory Greek athletics and passive Roman spectators is a misconception. He does not, however, explore the different social messaging of a stadium consisting of earthen banks with few, if any, spectator comforts, and the elaborate mechanisms of the arena, complete with vela (awnings) and sparsiones (sprays). Nor does he delve more deeply into the definitional issue of whether an activity in which the participants are bound by oath to obey the commands of their keepers – to the point of offering their chests for the death stroke – qualifies as sport.

Paul Christesen, the volume's co-editor, contributes an important essay on the role of sport in democratization. Particularly striking is his attempt to place the remarkable institution of athletic nudity in this context. Chronologically, nudity's appearance in Greek sport could coincide with the movements in Sparta that made all citizens homoioi ("equals"), and Christesen adduces the often-ignored point that there is no socioeconomic leveler like nakedness. Thus, as aristocracies yield ground to the political power of farmer hoplites and the world of the gymnasium aligns with military preparedness, the citizen-soldier-athlete emerges in a naked equality. Less convincing, but still very worthy of consideration, is Christesen's suggestion that the absence of a "farmer's tan" would be the immediate emblem of the kaloskagathos, discouraging to the poorest citizens. The doughty hoplite, however, would labor on his land and was as likely as a pauper to show the uneven effects of the sun. It would be appropriate, too, for Christesen to engage more deeply with the challenge that the late David Young advanced to consider the possibility of an even more radical egalitarianism in Greek sport. Aristotle (Rhet. 1365a, 1367b) wrote that the fishmonger who won the boxing crown at Olympia did something beyond expectation. But how far beyond expectation?

Nigel Nicholson adopts a New Historicist perspective in a thought-provoking essay that focuses on the social tensions that underlie the representations of the boxer's beauty, moral excellence, and skill. In itself, such praise does not necessarily indicate, as Nicholson suggests, defensiveness about the social status of the boxer. Much of what he interprets as an emphasis on aristocratic ideology could be drawn from a common well of pugilistic encomia. The elemental nature of boxing, combined with the inevitable muscular development of the pugilist, has throughout history made boxers objects of attraction, always in tension with the (almost inevitable) facial damage caused by the sport. Moral excellence is similarly a predictable topic for advocates of violent sports, with their tension between primal ferocity and the rules and discipline that hold it in check. This is why the metaphor of combat sport was such a rich topic for Philo and for the early Christians. Assuredly there was a long-standing impulse to clothe sport in the vocabulary of the aristocracy, as H.W. Pleket convincingly demonstrated, athletes do not receive wages, they receive dora, "gifts," like Homeric heroes, and aristocratic ideology persists long into the Greco-Roman period.4 Arguably, this ennobling of sport does not indicate social tensions, rather than a natural tendency to optimize the rewards of the contest. Nicholson observes that the three Pindaric odes that praise boxers do not speak of skill. He interprets this silence as a meaningful hesitation to adduce something that could be seen as advantage acquired by training rather than birth, and his reference to Pi. I. 4.34-5 supports that view. But if that is the case, Nicholson needs to explain why in Iliad23, Nestor's advice to Antilochus before the chariot race is a paean to metis "craft," and Demosthenes 4.40 characterizes the barbarian style of boxing as devoid of strategy. It is unclear to this reviewer that the theoretical lens of struggles over class, ethnicity, gender, etc. and the interpretive schema that Nicholson constructs significantly advance understanding of the sociology of sport.

Overall, there is a strong tendency in the essays to rely on recent scholarship. This is appropriate for a volume that seeks to provide the latest thinking, but there is danger of losing the dialogue with older scholarship. Clearly, even a volume of 658 pages cannot be comprehensive, but it is important to note what is no longer in the discussion. Jacob Burckhardt is absent, as are Victor Ehrenberg's insights into the social displacement caused by the hoplite phalanx (Ost und West [Leipzig 1935] 63-96). Keith Hopkins' seminal chapter on the elements of social control in the Roman arena, "Murderous Games" in Death and Renewal [Cambridge 1983]1-30 receives relatively little attention, as does the fundamental essay of Clifford Geertz', "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cock-Fight," The Interpretation of Cultures [London 1975] 412 ff. Although several essays investigate the Christian response to the spectacles, the richly nuanced dialectic of church and stadium discussed in Reinhold Merkelbach's important study, "Die griechische Wortschatz und die Christen," ZPE 18 [1975] 101-148 gets only passing notice. In keeping with the volume's focus on the marginal populations involved in sport and spectacle, there is some attention devoted to the Jewish response to Greco-Roman sport and games. But there is limited discussion of the Maccabean revolt, in which the Hellenistic gymnasium had a significant role, and no discussion of the Alexandrian riots during the reign of Caligula, partly caused by Jewish desire to participate in the local games, or of Philo of Alexandria's rich use of sport metaphors. The scholarship of e.g., Saul Lieberman, Jonathan Goldstein, and Manfred Laemmer is absent from the bibliographies of these essays, and there are virtually no citations of the rabbinic sources illuminating the topic.

It would be wrong, however, to focus on what is not in the volume, rather than what is in it. It succeeds admirably in presenting in a clear and coherent way an up-to-date overview of the vast majority of the most important issues in the study of ancient sport and spectacle. The Companion is a major contribution to the understanding of the social history of the ancient world for which we should be grateful. It will certainly stimulate and direct scholarly inquiry, and the editors have done well to make its erudition accessible to a wide range of readers.


1.   It is a fine irony that the Companion's publication just slightly anticipated the publication of an Oxyrhynchus papyrus (POxy 5209) documenting one of the most egregious examples of bribery in ancient athletics!
2.   H.W. Pleket, "Games, Prizes, Athletes, and Ideology," Stadion 1, [1975] 55-71.
3.   This reviewer is not convinced, however, by his arguments against the interpretation of the decorations of the Tanagra Larnax as scenes from funeral games: although worn, the iconography clearly shows an armed combat, which, along with the chariots, invites comparison with the contests in Iliad 23, cf. Wolfgang Decker, "Die mykenische Herkunft des griechischen Totenagons," Stadion 8/9 [1982-83] 1-24.
4.   H.W. Pleket (see n. 2, above) 84-87.

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