Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.24

Michael B. Poliakoff, Kampfsport in der Antike. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod. Translated from the original English by Hedda Schmidt.   Düsseldorf:  Patmos, 2004.  Pp. 260.  ISBN 3-491-69110-9.  €11.95 (pb).  



Reviewed by Stephen Evans, University of Turku (ilias@sci.fi)
Word count: 1775 words

Michael Poliakoff is an acknowledged expert on combat sports and the English-language original Combat Sports in the Ancient World. Competition, Violence and Culture (1987) is already a classic in its own right. This is a timely German paperback reprint by Patmos brought out for the Athens Olympic year 2004, but without amendments or updating from the 1987 English original or from the first German publication by Artemis Verlag in 1989. Those original books are then linked to the atmosphere of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. BMCR readers will find the English version readily available.

Since neither the English original nor the German translation in its original hardback version has been reviewed in BMCR earlier, I take this opportunity to review the book both as a translation and for its content and its timing. It is worth pointing out that another recent German translation, that of Judith Swaddling's The Ancient Olympic Games by Ursula Blank-Sangmeister (Stuttgart 2004), could also be accused of anachronism.The original book (admittedly, 2nd edition) was reviewed by Zinon Papakonstantinou for BMCR (2000.06.24). The first edition is from 1980, thus taking us back to the Moscow Olympics.

First a word about original material on ancient sport available in German or published in Germany. German-language readers are already privileged with first-hand knowledge of the Olympia site from its German director Ulrich Sinn's report, Olympia: Kult, Sport und Fest in der Antike (2nd ed. Munich, 2002). Since the various works of J.H. Krause, notably Die Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen (Leipzig, 1841) the literature on Olympia and Greek ahtletics has grown enormously. The gymnasium complex at Olympia including the palaistra has been analysed in C. Wacker, Das Gymnasion in Olympia: Geschichte und Funktion (Würzburg, 1996), and Hugh Lee has recently reviewed the entire procedure of the Olympic Games in The Program and Schedule of the Ancient Olympic Games (Nikephoros Supplement 6: Hildesheim 2001). On the importance of victors in city-state politics we have C. Mann, Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (Göttingen, 2001, reviewed in BMCR 2002.09.40 by Thomas Heine Nielsen). On Polycleitus there is H.Beck et al. (eds), Polyklet: Der Bildhauer der griechischen Klassik (Frankfurt, 1990). Above all, the German literature on the origins of the games is plentiful beginning with Karl Meuli's theory as it appeared in 'Der Ursprung der Olympischen Spiele' in Der Antike 17 (1941), pp. 189-208 through L. Drees, Der Ursprung der Olympischen Spiele (Schondorf, 1974) to H. Kyrieleis, Neue Ausgrabungen in Olympia in Antike Welt (1990), pp. 177-188.

In addition to the above mentioned books, between 1991 and 2002 a team of young Austrian philologists and historians under the capable direction of Ingomar Weiler at Karl-Franzens University of Graf have published seven volumes on the discus, jump, javelin, boxing, pancration, wrestling and running, entitled Quellendokumentation zur Gymnastik und Agonisitk im Altertum (Vienna, Cologne and Weimar). Their aim was to assemble an accessible corpus of literary sources on different aspects of sport beyond what is readily available. They include original texts and German translations. Although P's book has long been accepted as a standard work on combat sports, German-speaking readers particularly interested in combat sports would undoubtedly benefit from Weiler's three volumes on boxing, pancration and wrestling.

The driest of German academics must certainly have been tempted to watch the recent Olympic Games in Athens where Germany won 48 medals, ranking 6th out of 202 nations. All in all 11,099 athletes took part in the games. The rough and tumble of combat sports is still represented by judo, Taekwondo, boxing, Greco-Roman and free wrestling. Significantly fighting was interrupted immediately at the smallest nose-bleed or at the slightest eye-injury, and victories were declared on points, not submissions or knockouts. This is one way that modern combat sport differs from ancient, and this is an issue that P. has had to tackle. On the other hand, ice-hockey and football have become more violent in recent years, as Howell points out (see reference below).

Now to enter the ring on the book itself. After a foreword and introduction, the book includes chapters on general aspects of the ancient combat sports, wrestling, pancration, stick fighting, boxing, the nature and purpose of combat sport, metaphor, myth and reality. There is an appendix on combat sport, funeral cult and human sacrifice, followed by notes, bibliography and an index. In this German version the list of illustrations is transposed from the beginning to the end.

Earlier reviewers (Allen Guttmann in the Journal of Sport History, vol.15, no.2 (1988), 174-5, Maxwell Howell in Sporting Traditions vol. 7, no.1 (1990) and Michael Herb in Nikephoros 4 (1991), 249-256) have praised the specific chapters on boxing, wrestling and pancration as the most informative and best documented, with their rich allusions to Egyptian and Near Eastern combat sports. As Herb noted, there is a mild contradiction in the title and content of the book. The title promises a wide-ranging review of combat sports throughout the ancient world and of their place in society and culture, and, though P. seeks to avoid a Hellenocentric view (p.11), he nevertheless concentrates on Greek athletics throughout the book. The chapter on boxing refers equally to Rome, while the wrestling chapter has the widest reference to Egypt and the Near East. I would add that the drawings of modern wrestling placed side by side with illustrations from Greek vases, sculptures, and murals together with pictures from Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Egypt give a widely-based, comparative view of wrestling holds, arm and leg locks, half-Nelsons, throws and pins. There is mention of Gürtelringen, belt wrestling, on p.49 as taking place in 'our century', presumably 20th not 21st, in Switzerland and then in Devonshire and Cornwall. One wonders whether it could not be found in Germany or Austria too. Many of the illustrations are rare, and P. has used his own photographs to a fair degree, but, unfortunately, the reproductions are sometimes poor, in both the English and German versions.

Critics have been less satisfied with the chapter 6 on the "Nature and Purpose of Combat Sport" or chapter 7 on the "Participants in Greek Combat Sport". Straightaway in the introductory chapter, P. dismisses gladiatorial combat as non-sport: 'A gladiator fighting to kill or disable his opponent and save himself in any manner possible is not participating in a sport but in a form of warfare for spectators.' Most sport historians would disagree with this statement. P. notes the contradiction between the brutality of athletics contests and the abhorrence of violence in civil and cultural life (p.127). On the other hand, it was characteristic of Greekness to appreciate the toughening values of combat sport as a necessary preparation for warfare. Scythians were barbarians for not understanding the point of gruelling workouts and blood sports (p.128).

Chapter 7 consists of 11 biographical portraits illustrating the social status and background of these competitors. This is followed by four pages on egalitarianism: this could be described as scanty. Some have picked holes in the bibliography, where Horst Buhmann's Der Sieg in Olympia und in den anderen panhellenischen Spielen (1975) is missing, while H.W. Pleket's Stadion essay, 'Games, Prizes, Athletes and Ideology' has been included but not taken into account in the sociological chapter.

Poliakoff's last chapter, 'Metapher, Mythos und Wirklichkeit', is based on his Journal of Sport History essay, 'Jacob, Job and Other Wrestlers: Reception of Greek Athletics by Jews and Christians in Antiquity' (1984). The appendix, 'Kampfsport, Totenkult und Menschenopfer' is a persuasive refutation of Karl Meuli's thesis that the combat sports at Greek funeral games, like those for Patroclus in Iliad 23, derived from human sacrifices carried out to appease the spirits of the dead or to identify human malefactors. I could find no typos in either English of German edition. The German version is printed on slightly more absorbent paper than the English and in slightly smaller form. The more I tried to find fault with the quality of the translation, the more I had to admire the skilful way Schmidt coped. My example is from p.125 (German):

Das Epitaph nennt die Ziele des Boxers ohne Scheu. Ja es feiert im Gegenteil sein Ende mit den Worten 'Sieg oder Tod', die als Ehrung auf den Grabmälern griechischer Soldaten erscheinen.

The original reads on p.90 (English):

The epitaph shows no embarrassment about the boxer's ambitions -- on the contrary, it celebrates his demise with the phrase 'victory or death', which is a point of honour recorded on the tombs of Greek athletes.

Schmidt actually improves the syntax if necessary. The footnotes are extremely detailed and reveal a mine of background information for the curious scholar.

Hedda Schmidt originally translated the book into German in 1989 when direct translations such as 'die jüngste Ausgrabungen' (p.47) or 'in jüngste Zeit (p.144, 238) or 'eine moderne Analyse' (p.151) would have indeed referred to the latest findings. As a result, the book echoes traditional or even outdated views on ancient combat sport and lacks discussion of recent topics such as eroticism in sport, women's participation in the games, new findings on the origins of the Olympics and their potentially extended ending. For instance the modern reader is now accustomed to thinking critically of possible eroticism in ancient Greek sport, thanks to T. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (Oxford, 2002), reviewed in BMCR by Wm. Blake Tyrrell (2002.05.20). The modern reader therefore is accustomed to modern information. To reprint the book as a paperback in 2004 for the Athens Olympics without any kind of revision renders some of these phrases into parodies of scholarship. On p.155 there is uncritical mention of 'eine deutsche anthropologische Expedition.' without any futher development. The German-language reader would be interested to hear more!

This new German paperback version of P's classic sports book could have been significantly enriched, without necessarily becoming cumbersome for the non-specialist reader, had the author, translator or editor incorporated recent findings of historians and archaeologists working on Olympia and the Olympics, especially since many of them are in fact German. I would quibble with the use of the word 'American' on the title-page: 'aus dem Amerikanischen übersetzt'. Is not American a form of English? The classicist seeking an overview of ancient Greek sport will still need to consult the recent surveys by Wolfgang Decker (Sport in der griechischen Antike, Munich 1995) and Mark Golden (Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1998, reviewed in BMCR by Jonathan Fenno 1999.07.19).

As Herb stated in 1991 (Nikephoros 4, 249), this new German reprint 'verspricht seinem Autor somit eine grosse Leserschaft und eine weite Verbreitung' and (p.256) 'trotz einger Schwachpunkte stellt das Buch eine wahre Fundgrube von Informationem zum Thema 'Kampfsport' dar'. May this book find a broad readership.

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