Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.16

Nigel James Nicholson, Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. xiv, 280.  ISBN 0-521-84522-X.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Jason Koenig, St Andrews (
Word count: 2605 words

Aristocracy and Athletics is a valuable addition to scholarship on the agonistic culture of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, and on ancient epinikian. Nicholson's central claim is a simple one: that considerable anxiety clustered around professional figures involved with athletic and equestrian competition -- charioteers, jockeys, athletic trainers -- because of their link with commodified exchange and the threat that posed to models of inherited aristocratic virtue. The commonest solution was simply to write these figures out of the picture. Victory odes and victory inscriptions often neglect to mention hired professionals. N. charts with great thoroughness the range of ways in which those texts manage to disguise their involvement. At other times they are named: in those circumstances Pindar and others, often with great ingenuity, find ways of making them compatible with and even illustrative of precisely the aristocratic conceptions of victory which they might otherwise be taken to challenge. The argument of the book is pursued with an impressive single-mindedness and clarity; and one of its most attractive features is its comprehensiveness. N. is at his best, I felt, when he draws out the complexity and difficulty of reading Pindar's texts. Occasionally I felt the very clarity of the argument leads him to skate over the nuances and challenges of reading. Moreover, the complete lack of attention to the context of the later sources on which N. sometimes leans heavily -- especially Pausanias and Philostratus -- means that he sometimes misses the extra layer of complexity which their own distinctive agendas bring to the anecdotes they record (more on that below). But those criticisms should not detract from the success of the book as a whole, which will be accessible both to scholars working in related fields, and (not least because of its clarity) to students working on epinikian or on athletics more generally (as I know from setting it in reading lists in a module on ancient athletics in the semester just past).

First, more detailed comment on N.'s engagement with the preoccupations of recent scholarship. There has been an increasing willingness to recognise, in recent writing on athletics, the ideological struggles which lie behind athletic representation throughout its long history, and the complex ways in which athletic activity contributed to identity and status, and N.'s work makes a useful contribution in that area. The book is also a valuable addition to recent studies of epinikian. N. draws on work by Leslie Kurke and others on the way in which the victory odes of Pindar reflect aristocratic self-justifications, in this case by their tendency to resist connotations of commodified exchange, not least in concealing the commercial aspect of the relation between Pindar himself and his patrons. From that perspective N.'s conclusions are not particularly surprising. His most striking intervention lies in the thoroughness with which he maps out the responses of Pindar and others, the great range of different strategies for dealing with the gap between aristocratic myth-making and the awkward realities of athletic practice, and the ways in which that helps to further nuance our understanding of Pindar's self-representation.

One of N.'s other significant contributions is to extend our understanding of the ways in which Pindar's odes (and the writing of his epinikian counterparts, especially Bacchylides, who is granted occasional spells in the limelight, albeit very much in a supporting part) overlap with the contours of victory representation which we find in other media. One of the variables N. gives most attention to is the distinctions between different events. As N. himself makes clear, Callimachus' division of Pindar's writing by festival has helped to obscure its variety, in particular the way in which it mobilizes different approaches for different types of athletic activity. Dividing the odes according to event helps to bring the overlaps between different media into much clearer relief. To take just one example, we see differences between running, where the contribution of the trainer seems generally to be viewed as less crucial, and his absence correspondingly less pointed and anxiety-ridden, and combat events, where the need for skill seems to have made the trainer almost essential, and therefore much more problematic for any aristocrat or poet hoping to celebrate inherited virtue. Those patterns show a striking consistency across the boundaries of epinikian, epigraphical and visual representation.

After an introduction setting out the general argument and sketching the context of Pindaric studies, the rest of the book is divided into two parts, the first on equestrian, and the second on athletic professionals. Chapter 1 sets out the general case for equestrian commemoration with exemplary clarity. N. offers a whole series of examples of professionals excluded and written over. Often, for example, reference to charioteers are replaced by portrayals of the victor as the figure who has primary responsibility; at times Pindar goes further by excluding any detailed reference to the race at all. Several times N. uses the adjective 'aggressive' to describe this erasure. That usage seems to me to raise some questions (which N. does not fully answer) about how overt we should view this erasure to be: how far was this ideological manipulation apparent to those who were instrumental in putting it across? At times, N. offers intriguing evidence to suggest that these exclusions may sometimes have been very knowing and self-conscious indeed, envisaging specific instruction from patron to poet, or even hard-nosed bargaining between patron and professional (for example in one case where N. suggests that one athletic trainer -- Menander, discussed in chapter 8 -- may have made inclusion of his name in memorials a condition of his service). N. prefers not to attempt a sustained discussion of how typical those examples are, but his hints in that direction are very suggestive ones.

There follows a series of four different sets of case studies, each one covering examples where professionals are introduced by name, each one forming a different example of how even naming drivers or charioteers or jockeys can be made compatible with the downplaying of commodification. In chapter 2, for example, we see Carrhotus named as charioteer, winning victory on behalf of Arcesilas in Pythian 5; and Cnopiadas honoured as charioteer for Alcmaeonides in an inscription from Boeotia recording a chariot victory in the Athens, in the Panathenaia (SEG XXIII, 38). In both cases, as N. demonstrates, Pindar represents their driving as one side of an aristocratic relationship of gift exchange, rather than a commodified provision of service. In addition, Pindar uses Carrhotus as a model for his own relationship with Arcesilas, which is itself envisaged as an example of aristocratic guest friendship. In chapter 3, the example of Nicomachus from Isthmian 2 offers a more difficult challenge, given his lack of aristocratic status. Nicholson points, however, to the way in which Nicomachus is made equivalent to Pindar's poetic helper, Nicasippus, with the consequence that 'the relationship between owner and charioteer is equated the relationship between the composer and performer' (74) -- an equation which plays down the charioteer's skill and portrays him as the vehicle for the instructions of his superior, rather than as an independent agent. N. also suggests, however, that Nicomachus' huge number of victories may have given him in itself a quasi-elite status, so making it less problematic to draw attention to his involvement. Further variants follow: in chapter 4, the inclusion of the mule-driver Phintis in Olympian 6 allows Pindar to equate the relationship between Hagesias and his superior Hieron to the relationship between Phintis and Hagesias himself. At the same time P. (and N. himself) hints intriguingly that this comparison may have a subversive edge, and that it may also be intended to articulate Hagesias' status as a potential challenger to Hieron. If that is right it means that Pindar is actually very self-conscious here about the anxiety which could surround the figure of the driver, and about the idea that the driver had the potential to usurp a position above himself, to impose himself and his own claims to glory in inappropriate ways; and moreover that Pindar chooses to include Phintis here precisely because he is a problematic figure, rather than in spite of it. That striking insight is presented very briefly as a postscript at the end of the chapter (93-4). That seems to me to be one good example of how N.'s writing can occasionally drift toward being unnuanced when he refrains from drawing out the tensions and ambivalences of the text in full: it might have been helpful to see this point explored at more length with more sustained discussion of the ode's representation of Hieron and at least some explorations of parallels for this sense of uneasy hierarchies. Finally in chapter 5, N. points to a slightly different pattern of representation surrounding jockeys, who tend to be of lower status still than charioteers, and so even more firmly to be excluded. Often, he suggests, that exclusion is produced by focusing instead on the figure of the horse, whose link with the victor's household can itself be configured as a kind of guest friendship, or at least a long-standing relationship of loyal service, on the model of the named horses of the Iliad.

Part 2 tracks some rather different variants of the same patterns in turning to athletic trainers. Here, as N. points out, the argument is very much harder to make, and at risk of being more strained, since trainers, at least trainers to boy athletes, are named in both epinikian and epigraphical contexts much more often than equestrian professionals, so much so that naming of one's trainer has sometimes even been taken as a standard feature of athletic commemoration for the boy's category.1 N. begins again by charting (as for Part 1), the missing persons of the athletic odes, quoting a number of anecdotal accounts of trainers working closely even with adult athletes, and using those anecdotes to suggest that their absence in commemoration of adult victory must be just as pointed as it is for the drivers and charioteers. As for Part 1, he then goes on to examine a number of exceptions and variants, focusing especially on examples where trainers are named -- in some cases much more prominently than one would expect given the incentives to suppress any mention of their expensive services -- and working through each successive puzzle of unexpected naming, with often compelling detective work, to reveal its underlying logic. Melesias, for example, named three times in Pindar's Odes is represented as an insider, linked with the families of the victors he coaches; he is also represented as a prophet figure (as others have seen in writing on these texts before), testing and predicting the capacity for victory as much as manufacturing it. Moreover P. uses the relationships between heroic figures in the mythical stories he recounts to bolster his downplaying of commodification. For example, in Nemean 4 Chiron is presented as helper of Peleus in his contest with Acastus, rather than educator. Elsewhere we see Pindar (in chapter 8) equating the trainer's role as tekton (craftsman -- on the face of it a surprising word to use when one is trying to avoid associations of professionalism) with his own poetic craftsmanship, as something very different from inferior, cruder versions of artistic creation: Pindar' s craftsmanship respects the independence of the poem, the object of its creation, just as the craft of the trainer Menander works with the independent, pre-existing nature of his student. Or in chapter 9 we see the teaching of technical skills equated with the divine gift-giving of the goddess Athena, and so once again removed from connotations of commodification.

For me one of the main absences here -- beyond that of the missing trainers and charioteers -- is in N.'s failure to draw out the Imperial perspective of some of the evidence he uses. Athletic scholarship has for many decades had a fascination with the early days of Greek athletics -- with tales of heroic athletes halfway to being mythical figures, or with theories about the foundations of the ancient games -- without always acknowledging that this obsession is, at least in part, an inheritance of the literature of the Roman period. There have, of course, been many exceptions to the archaic bias of athletic scholarship. Scholars like Louis Robert and Harry Pleket have drawn out some of the enormous wealth of epigraphical evidence for the athletics of the Roman Empire, and their insights have recently inspired moves to bring the later games more into the mainstream of athletic scholarship,2 but many scholars still nevertheless seem reluctant to explore the agendas and peculiarites of the Roman writers who provide so much of our evidence for the early games. N. reproduces that lack of interest in the late, backward-looking perspective of so much of this evidence in his treatment of Pausanias and Philostratus, who at times play a crucial role in his argument. Closer acknowledgement of this problem could have helped him to draw out a whole extra layer of complexity in his analysis of archaic athletics, but his caveats about late source material, as so often, remain cursory (e.g. 17). For example, these two authors form the opening exhibits in the first chapter of Part 2 (119-21). Here he discusses a pair of stories about the athlete Glaukos. The first version comes from Pausanias. This, N. assumes, is the story which would have been told by the Olympic guides: that Glaukos was an untutored athlete who won victory in the adult category with the encouragement of his father. The alternative version, taken from Philostratus' Gymnasticus, paints Glaukos as a young, trained athlete, encouraged to land the final punch by his trainer. The difference between these two versions is indeed striking. N. implies towards the end of his book that we should see alternative versions like this one as themselves the product of rival aristocrats, undermining their rivals by revealing the truth about their rivals' employment of trainers. In that sense, he takes both of these versions of the story as unmediated, sixth-century versions, assuming without argument that Philostratus' version is the correct one (albeit no less self-serving than the other), and that the absence of the trainer from Pausanias' version is itself an ideologically driven fiction directly inherited from the period in which Pindar himself was writing. A closer look at Philostratus might, however, have revealed a different possibility, which is that the trainer is just as likely to be a Philostratean insertion: for Philostratus, whose whole treatise is an attempt to defend the art of athletic training, the figure of the trainer is a prestigious one, to be rehabilitated from the status of social and intellectual mediocrity, and designed moreover to serve as a figure for Philostratus' own ingenious moulding and reconfiguration of the Greek past. Pausanias, on the other hand, with his fascination for anything which can link the landscape of Roman Greece to the distant world of the Classical and Archaic past, has his own reasons for exaggerating the heroic qualities of the figures he presents us with, in his desire to view the statues of the Altis at Olympia as almost living links with the ancient heritage of Roman Greece.

That criticism should not detract from the success of N.'s project. His book's main achievement is to map out, with engaging clarity and exemplary comprehensiveness the great range of different strategies we find within epinikian writing for bolstering the aristocratic ideals of inherited virtue in contrast with taught, professional instruction; and in that he makes a valuable contribution to our understanding both of Pindar in his context, and of the athletic culture of the archaic and classical periods.


1.   For a more sceptical view of the claim that Pindar and his patrons feel uncomfortable with the figure of the trainer, see Burnett, A. (2005) Pindar's Songs for the Young Athletes of Aigina, Oxford: 51-2.
2.   E.g., see van Nijf, O. (1999) 'Athletics, festivals and Greek identity in the Roman east', PCPS 45: 176-200; (2001) 'Local heroes: athletics, festivals, and elite self-fashioning in the Roman East, in Goldhill, S (ed.) Being Greek Under Rome, Cambridge: 306-34; (2003) 'Athletics, andreia and the askesis-culture in the Roman East', in Rosen, M. and Sluiter, I. (eds) Andreia. Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, Leiden: 263-86.; Newby, Z. (2005), Greek Athletics in the Roman World. Victory and Virtue, Oxford; König, J. (2005) Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire, Cambridge.

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