Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.51

David Phillips, David Pritchard, Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World.   Swansea:  The Classical Press of Wales, 2003.  Pp. xxxi, 416.  ISBN 0-9543845-1-2.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas Heine Nielsen, Saxo Institute, Dept. of Greek & Latin, University of Copenhagen (
Word count: 3580 words

[The reviewer apologises sincerely for the lateness of this review.]

The genesis of the present collection of articles dates back to 2000, when a conference on the theme of "Olympia and the Olympics: Festival and Identity in the Ancient World" formed a part of the "cultural lead-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games" (x). As the editors note (xxv n. 59), the modern Olympics traditionally generate books etc. on the ancient Olympics and so, if nothing else, at least ensure some regularity of public attention to matters ancient. Not all the contributions, however, originate from the symposium; those of e.g. Miller and Crowther were commissioned after the event "to fill out the book's treatment of key topics and themes" (xv). As published, the volume's stated aim is to explore in detail the cultural, religious, political and social significance in the archaic and classical Greek world of athletics and festivals as well as how sporting and musical competitions "led the way, throughout the archaic period, in the crystallization and development of the polis and in the creation of its juridical and political practices" (xv). That, indeed, is a very ambitious undertaking but in fact some of the contributions, such as e.g. those of Ben Brown and Peter Wilson, tackle these issues directly.

The book comprises no fewer than 15 chapters, but is subdivided into six parts and is equipped with an "Index and Glossary". Part I is devoted to "Olympia and the Olympics" and opens with Stephen G. Miller's "The Organization and Functioning of the Olympic Games". Miller addresses the quality of the preserved literary sources head on. That quality is, sadly, low, the fundamental source being Pausanias' account of the second century AD, i.e. at least some 500 years later than the periods under consideration. In many situations, Pausanias is our only source for a given custom or institution, but how often "may we assume, for example, that practices described by Pausanias in the second century after Christ were already in use in the fifth century BC?" (1). That is an important question. Just how important and fundamental it is appears from Miller's end-notes: in 113 notes, Pausanias is cited 34 times, Thucydides is cited twice and Herodotos once. There is really no way of escaping this awkward situation, but from it follows that accounts of the archaic and classical Olympics are to a large degree, because they must rely heavily on Pausanias, based on what must rank as unsatisfactory evidence.

Similar problems surround the material evidence: Miller points out that Athenian vase painting may be a misleading source for the Olympics, but "we use this evidence even though we know that it may not be accurate for the Olympic Games" (1). Furthermore, the physical evidence from Olympia itself is subject to continuous reinterpretation as excavations elsewhere produce comparanda: Thus, the Nemea excavations apparently have produced evidence to suggest that the vaulted entranceway to the Olympic stadium dates to the later fourth century (1-2), though Miller is careful to point out that such comparanda must be used with great care.

All in all, our sources may be described as somewhat disappointing, and so it is highly interesting that the 'modern Nemeans', staged twice in the period 1996-2000 by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, have shed light on various problems of ancient athletics. Miller mentions as an example that "in the revival of the Nemean games several athletes commented that, because of the oil on their bodies, they did not lose as much body fluid as usual and therefore that their endurance had been increased" (20). This may possibly be new evidence, if not for the reason(s) for the ancient custom of anointing the athletic body with oil, at least for an effect of this custom. Experimental athletic archaeology! After such well-chosen methodological considerations, Miller goes on to give a vivid depiction of the Olympics as celebrated in 300 BC when Pythagoras of Magnesia won the stadium race, explaining as he goes along the various Realia of the festival and the athletic disciplines. Well-written, witty (e.g. 27 on the pankration: "... victory was awarded to the survivor") this chapter may serve as an excellent introduction to the Olympic Games.

In chapter 2, Helmut Kyrieleis gives a brief but clear introduction to "The German Excavations at Olympia", focusing particular attention on e.g. the pedimental groups of the temple of Zeus, the Geometric votive figurines, and the stadium. In the brief chapter 3, "Elis and Olympia: City, Sanctuary and Politics", Nigel B. Crowther addresses an issue the importance of which is rarely realized by scholars: the fact for all its Panhellenicity, Olympia was in reality an extra-urban civic sanctuary of the polis of Elis. Thus, there was a procession from the city of Elis to the sanctuary at the beginning of the Olympics, just as there was a procession from Athens to Eleusis. The political implications of such a procession should not be underestimated, in particular not in the Eleian case, since Eleian control of Olympia was not always undisputed (Xen. Hell.. 3.2.31). The Olympic procession was long, perhaps as long as 58 km, and that alone should serve to indicate the emphasis put upon this Tour d' Eleia by the polis of Elis. That Olympia was an Eleian sanctuary finds further expressions in such facts that it was the Eleians alone who could decide who were to be admitted to the sanctuary and who not (63), that the polis placed some of its civic administration in the sanctuary (63-4),1 and that the Hellanodikai were civic magistrates of the polis (65-6). Crowther brings out the different implications clearly in a few pages that should be basic reading for everyone beginning the study of Olympia. However, though there are some important inscriptions illuminating the subject of the chapter and though Xenophon scores six citations in text and notes and Herodotus three, it is worth noting again how dependent we are on the account of Pausanias, who is cited 18 times. All in all, Part I provides an excellent introduction to Olympia, its games, its archaeology, and its politics, and it will be very useful to anyone in need of such an introduction, in particular since it presupposes no knowledge of Greek.

Part II, "Athletic Poetry and Olympic Mythology", opens with Patrick O'Sullivan's "Victory Statue, Victory song: Pindar's Agonistic Poetics and its Legacy" in which the author discusses certain aspects of Pindar's imagery which distinguish epinikian poetry from statuary victory commemoration and promotes the superiority of song. Poetry, says Pindar, is more brilliant than marble, and the contrast between the mobility and verbal nature of poetry and the stationary and voiceless appearance of epinikian sculpture crops up in several passages. Clearly, this is at least to some extent part of Pindar's marketing strategy, for would not a patron who commissioned an epinikian poem in preference to (or in addition to) statuary commemoration want choral poetry to be depicted as a finer thing than (or as qualitatively different from) an epinikian sculpture? However, O'Sullivan also makes a persuasive case that this idea -- which is not unique to Pindar but found also in e.g. Simonides (77) -- was part of a real cultural debate involving the view of sculpture as animated and that it was developed in the fourth century by authors with similar axes to grind such as Plato and Alkidamas and in particular Isokrates. The chapter is interesting and illuminating, but even if the Greek is translated it can hardly be read with full profit by Greekless readers and should rather be seen as part of an on-going discussion of Pindar.

Though O'Sullivan's stated aim "is less to explore Pindar's social situation than to discuss agonistic features of his self-representation" (94 n. 16), his paper does prompt the present reader to reflect on the social circumstances of epinikian celebrations. Is it possible that e.g. repeated performances of epinikian poems or circulation of copies may have contributed to the idea of the mobility of poetry? Furthermore, sculptures celebrating e.g. Olympic victories would have had a permanent presence in the Altis; may not this extraordinary quality of theirs have contributed to the need that poets obviously felt to denigrate them as immobile? Finally, the epinikian genre practically died with Pindar whereas epinikian sculpture continued to thrive.2 Obviously, stationary, lifeless, and voiceless statuary won the 'battle' and this is an interesting social phenomenon in need of explanation.3

The Olympic thread of Part I is picked up by John Davidson's "Olympia and the Chariot-Race of Pelops" in which the various media in which this myth was retold are discussed and its association with the site of Olympia reviewed. Of particular interest is the discussion of ceramic paintings (not illustrated) from South Italy and the reading of Philostratos Im. 1.17, showing a somewhat unexpected aspect of the myth coming to the fore: its nuptial references.4

Part III, "The Origins of Athletics and Choral Competitions", is opened by a sophisticated and penetrating piece by Ben Brown on "Homer, Funeral Contests and the Origins of the Greek City," illuminating the way in which the logic of athletic prize-awarding -- that the prize goes to the man whose ability has secured an indisputable victory -- may serve as an illustration of what must certainly be considered a basic characteristic of the polis: that whereas the value of gifts in traditional aristocratic gift-exchanges was a product of reciprocal personal elite relationships, the athletic prize derives its enormous symbolical capital from the fact that it is a token of a community's communal recognition of victory and merit. A man's status thus becomes dependent on the community whose authority is thereby confirmed. Whether athletic competitions thus construed were in fact a contributory factor in the emergence of the polis or, on the contrary, themselves predicated on its existence must, I think, remain a moot point. What is not in doubt, however, is that Brown's is an engaging paper which will be of interest to both Homerists and historians of athletics and of the polis.

Just as interesting is the next chapter by Peter Wilson, "The Politics of Dance: Dithyrambic Contest and Social Order in Ancient Greece", which presents the hypothesis that dithyrambs were a genre by design intended to save the city from the horror of stasis by mobilizing the assistance of mystic 'divinities of salvation,' in particular Dionysos, and by functioning, at least in Athens, as 'displaced violence' substituting '"healthy" internal rivalry' (i.e. agonistic competition) for bloody infighting among the citizenry. This may seem a large claim for choral poetry, but, considering the fact that every year, at the Great Dionysia alone 20 choruses each comprising 50 men or boys drawn from cross-sections of the population performed competitively, it seems undeniable that such choruses must have constituted an important arena of interaction among citizens and citizens-to-be. Obviously, stasis was not thereby in actual fact prevented, but it is worth noting with Wilson that at Hell. 2.4.20 Xenophon has a high-profile democratic speaker refer, in the midst of a terrible stasis, to the experience of shared choral performance as one of the foundations of community-life violated by The Thirty.

Part IV, "Athens and its Festivals", opens with a chapter by one of the editors, D.J. Phillips on "Athenian Political History: A Panathenaic Perspective," which describes itself as "a preliminary study of some of the ways in which historians interested in the writing of narratives of Athenian political history may better nuance their interpretation of events or add new elements to their narratives by drawing more fully upon recent scholarship on Greek society and especially on Greek religion and its central polis expression -- festival" (197). Noting that the "passage of time" (200) must in Athens to a large extent have been marked by the festival calendar, Phillips urges historians to study Athenian political history "against the backdrop of festival activity at Athens" (201). The potential of such an approach is briefly illustrated by a case study of the Panathenaia and events which can be synchronised with their celebration. Clearly, this festival "was a key element in the reinforcement of polis identity and community values" (202) and will have drawn large crowds into the city. It follows that it will have been an opportune moment to promote political changes or stage coups (206). Conjunctions of significant events with the Great Panathenaia have been noted before -- in 526 and 522, both Great Panathenaic years, the archonship was held by Peisistratids, "no mere coincidence" (204) -- but even in the fifth century Phillips finds what may be significant conjunctions, e.g.: the democratic reforms of Ephialtes were carried in a Great Panathenaic year; the suspected anti-democratic coup associated with the Battle of Tanagra "may have been planned to take advantage of the larger than usual gathering of citizens in Athens for the Great Panathenaia" (209); and the treasury of the Delian League was transferred to Athens in a Great Panathenaic year. Of particular interest is Phillips' discussion of the possibility that The Persians of Timotheos received its first performance at the Great Panathenaia of 410, which will help explain its great impact. Phillips' approach is potentially extremely productive and future studies on this topic from his pen are awaited with anticipation by the present reader.5

Tom Stevenson contributes a chapter on "The Parthenon Frieze as an Idealized, Contemporary Panathenaic Festival". The paper in a certain sense restates the traditional interpretation of the frieze as a depiction of the Panathenaia, but with the important modification that what is depicted is not the procession alone but the festival as such. Starting from clearly stated principles -- e.g. the frieze does have unity of theme -- and the solid methodological point that the fragmentary and often very late scraps of literary evidence for the procession and festival cannot be used to control an interpretation of the iconography of the frieze, Stevenson argues that there is nothing in the frieze which contradicts his interpretation that "its subject is an idealized, contemporary celebration of the Great Panathenaia, whose depiction nonetheless permits the calling to mind of other festivals and ideas" (265). On the contrary, if it is accepted that the central part of the east frieze depicts the peplos-incident and that the apobatai refer to the agonistic aspects of the festival, probability comes down heavily in favour of seeing the frieze as a depiction of (important aspects of) the Panathenaic festival. Not being trained as an archaeologist, I was fully persuaded by Stevenson while reading his paper. But I was also fully persuaded when I read J.J. Pollitt's paper "The Meaning of the Parthenon Frieze"6, and other classicists will have had similar experiences, I imagine. This situation is, I believe, not likely to change, since consensus among archaeologists on the interpretation of this monument is obviously not to be expected; nor, perhaps, is it to be hoped for, since that would put an end to the fascinating and apparently never-ending story of reading and re-reading the frieze, which occupies so central a position in the minds of moderns even though no ancient author mentions it! Stevenson's well-annotated paper can be recommended for the care with which is it argued as well as for its style which makes it in the main accessible also to the non-specialist.

Part IV closes with a short chapter by Ian C. Storey, on "The Curious Matter of the Lenaia Festival of 422 BC." In it, Storey argues that an Apulian bell-krater (illustrated) in the Nicholson Museum in Sydney depicts a scene from an old comedy by Leukon, the Presbeis of 422. The argument is, in the nature of things, a little speculative, but if it is accepted we will have a new piece of evidence to the effect that, somewhat surprisingly, old comedy was exported and staged outside Athens.

Part V, "Athletics, Education and Philosophy" begins with a long and tightly-argued chapter by David Pritchard on "Athletics, Education and Participation in Classical Athens," which explores the socio-economic standing of Athenian athletes. Pritchard introduces his discussion admirably by carefully situating his piece in the modern tradition of research on the general topic of the socio-economic recruitment of athletes which may be said to have been founded by David Young's classic 1984 study The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics. Though contemporary reviewers questioned the evidential value of the sources on which Young based his conclusion that there had always been a good number of non-aristocrats among Greek athletes, this conclusion has been accepted as valid by a number of influential later historians. Pritchard tests the conclusion against the Athenian evidence, the only body of evidence of any size: "[H]ere we might well expect to find substantial non-elite involvement in athletics, if ever there was such participation in Greece before the Hellenistic and Roman periods" (301). The line of thought seems to be that if Young's position can be disproved for Athens, "the most democratic and prosperous of classical cities" (301), then it will a fortiori have been disproved for Greece as such. And Pritchard's conclusion after a meticulous examination of the -- mainly literary -- evidence is that in classical Athens athletics was the exclusive reserve of the liturgic class of citizens, a class constituting less than 5% of the population. Briefly put, this conclusion is arrived at as follows: Athletic victory was impossible without proper physical training; however, until the late fourth century there were no specialised athletics trainers and physical training was thus merely a part of the standard education whereby Athenian male children were educated in mousike by the kitharistes, in letters by the grammatistes, and received physical training from the paidotribes. Now, this education was not subsidised by the polis and thus had to be financed privately. Though material evidence suggests that even non-elite families did manage to have their boys at least rudimentarily educated in letters with the grammatistes, this very fact will, by the expense it put on poor families, have prevented them from employing a paidotribes: without training, no athletes. Some families of a socio-economic standing below the liturgic class may very well have been able to afford sending their boys to the paidotribes, but, as Pritchard points out following Bourdieu, the mere fact that this was possible does not ensure that it was practised. To engage in this or that practice one must have "a positive orientation towards this or that practice" (322). And Pritchard goes to some lengths to demonstrate that non-elite families were presumably not positively oriented towards the practice of athletics, since athletics were conceived of and constructed as a distinctively upper class activity with which it might well have been both uncomfortable and even risky for non-elite Athenians to be associated. Athletics thus were "an exclusively upper-class activity in classical Athens" (323).

It goes almost without saying that not everything in this wide-ranging paper is equally persuasive (e.g. I cannot see why literary competence must be acquired in the class room (314)) but as it stands this is probably the most penetrating examination of the question to have been published, and acceptance of its conclusion will give rise to a whole range of new questions. Where, for instance, did the 10,000 mercenaries of Cyrus -- surely not all of them of liturgic standing -- acquire the athletic skills that they demonstrated more than once?

Part V closes with a short chapter by Harold Tarrant on "Athletics, Competition and the Intellectual," in which the position of athletics in the sophists and in Plato is briefly reviewed. Pace the Aristophanic Clouds philosophers did not in fact devalue physical health but placed it second to 'intellectual health'. In Protagoras, competitive pedagogics are clearly visible in the teaching of public speaking, and the emphasis on victory is reminiscent of the athletic emphasis on winning. On the other hand, the traditional athletic emphasis on victory is transferred by Plato to interstate relations, mostly war, and individual athletic victory is downplayed: "[T]he competitive aspect of athletics, within the polis at least, is secondary to its educational function in the development of individuals who are well-rounded and equipped to serve the city" (356).

Part VI, "Curating the Ancient Olympics", consists of three short papers discussing the "Powerhouse Museum exhibition 1000 Years of the Olympics Games: Treasures of Ancient Greece", an event in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival. They are of interest not only to those who visited the exhibition (which I did not). Thus, the first paper by Paul Donnelly and Kevin Fewster contains a brief account of the motives for the willingness of the Greek government for lending a substantial number of ancient objects to the exhibiters, a willingness which is described as a "victory" for Sydney. Kate de Costa et al. contribute a chapter on the 3D interactive tour of the Olympia reconstruction seen at the exhibition, and Carol Scott ends with "A Study of Audiences and Impact" which will be of interest to exhibition planners. The exhibition was, it is good to note, a great success, and one surveyed visitor elaborated as follows on the amount of new information provided by the exhibition: "Didn't know about Zeus as patron etc. of the Games at Olympia. Did not know games were held in various cities. Didn't know women didn't participate except in Sparta." Not bad for an exhibition to put this information at public disposal!

In conclusion, every Hellenist interested in sports and festivals will find something of value in this slightly heterogeneous but fine collection of papers.


1.   For further discussion of the degree, if any, to which the sanctuary served routine civic administration, see M.H. Hansen and T. Fischer-Hansen, "Monumental Political Architecture in Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis. Evidence and Historical Significance", in D. Whitehead (ed.), From Political Architecture to Stephanus Byzantius. Sources for the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 1. Historia Einzelschriften 87 (Stuttgart 1994) 86-9; M.H. Hansen, "Kome. A Study in How the Greeks Designated and Classified Settlements Which were Not Poleis", in M.H. Hansen & K. Raaflaub (eds.), Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 2. Historia Einzelschriften 95 (Stuttgart 1995) 59-60; C. Morgan & J.J. Coulton, "The Polis as a Physical Entity", in M.H. Hansen (ed.), The Polis as an Urban Centre and as a Political Community. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre 4. Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 75. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (Copenhagen 1997) 112-4; J. Roy, "The Synoikism of Elis", in T.H. Nielsen (ed.), Even More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Papers from The Copenhagen Polis Centre 6. Historia Einzelschriften 162 (Stuttgart 2002) 257.
2.   There are, of course, a few fragments of a post-Pindaric example in Euripides' ode in honour of Alkibiades, for which see C.M. Bowra, "Euripides' Epinician for Alcibiades", Historia 9 (1960) 68-79.
3.   For a discussion, see M. Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1998) 84-88.
4.   To the scholarly literature cited in this paper, add: H. Kyrieleis, "Zeus and Pelops in the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia," in D. Buitron-Oliver (ed.), The Interpretation of Architectural Sculpture in Greece and Rome . Studies in the History of Art 49. Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts Symposium Papers XXIX (Hanover & London 1997) 13-27.
5.   On p. 199 Phillips, commenting on Thuc. 3.8.1 and 5.49.1, says: "Both instances ... use the formula 'when X was victorious at Olympia'. This always referred to the victor in the foot race -- the stadion." However, both passages in fact refer to victories in pankration and note their place in a series of victories. Rather than being a device for dating these are probably simply mentions of famous, well-known and memorable events; cf. the relevant entries in the commentaries by Gomme and Hornblower. To the brief collection of evidence on "Politics and Festivals outside Athens" assembled by Phillips in Appendix 3 I may add a minor item: in 374 the Arkadian city of Phigaleia was attacked by exiles during the celebration of a festival in honour of Dionysos which led to killings in the theatre itself (Diodorus Siculus 15.40.2; for the date, see J. Roy, "Diodorus Siculus XV 40 - The Peloponnesian Revolutions of 374 BC," Klio 55 (1973) 135-39).
6.   In: D. Buitron-Oliver (above n. 4) 51-65.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:10, Friday, 03 April 2009