Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.24

Jason König, Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. xix, 398.  ISBN 0-521-83845-2.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by John Scarborough, University of Wisconsin (
Word count: 837 words

Table of Contents

Marcus Aurelius Asclepiades, a.k.a. Hermodorus, holder of citizen rights in Alexandria, Hermopolis, etc. etc. and Director of the Imperial Baths,1 has bequeathed to us a splendid document of self-advertisement quite typical, in any century, of media stars, academics, would-be successful business executives, and pseudo-professional and professional athletes. The lengthy inscription details a public career in supposedly amateur sport2 spanning at least fifteen years, from the 240th Olympiad to the 6th Alexandrian Olympiad (A.D. 181-196); and the overweening boasts speaking to us from the 2nd century ("undefeated; completely unshakable; never challenged; winner of all events ever entered; unchallengeable; never in a draw; never lodged a protest; never skipped any event; never held a contest according to imperial favor, never gained a victory in any freshly-established festival;" etc.)3 are affirmations of a status-hunger and hopeful recognition of an ersatz acquaintance with good literature, philosophy, and the arts.

So runs part of the argument in König's thought-provoking (if overwritten and repetitive) monograph, one in a number of recent studies on ancient athletics that purports to penetrate below the surface appearances of literature and public inscriptions.4 More importantly, König grapples with what might be termed 'the intellectual's response' to public adulation of Roman athletic victors: in an age of officially proclaimed and enforced domestic and political tranquility, there were few outlets for partisan opinions except fervent loyalty to home-cities or provinces, an allegiance frequently discerned in writings of all varieties (mostly in Greek from the Roman East), ranging from gymnastics and medicine to satire, tourist-guides, and the dense rhetorical set-pieces characteristic of the 'Second Sophistic.' Thereby, König can pair Galen's acidly adversative opinions of athletes and public athletics in Maintenance of Health, Thrasyboulus, and Protrepticus5 with Philostratus' presumptive defense and reply in his medically informed Gymnastics;6 Lucian's Anacharsis becomes a buffoon's well-connected vindication of athleticism against another not-so-well-placed 'Greek' outsider who dares to criticize the cultish fans of pseudo-Olympic winners; and carefully chosen passages in the Punica by Silius Italicus demonstrate an anachronistic response (italics König, p. 206) to the unclothed athletics of Hellenic custom in what, after all, was called a gymnasion.7 Salutary is König's attention to the general competition ("contestation") characteristic on all intellectual levels, with Galen's participation in 'vivisection tournaments' a prime illustration.8 Then there are the familiar sculptures of the "body beautiful" that receive König's sensitive and nuanced interpretations: not so surprising are his conclusions that one views an 'impossible anatomy,' idealized completely out of proportion, but left unsaid is any comparison with similar stereotyping in other eras (including our own) of human exteriors, male and female alike.

A nebulous jargon muffles many of the perceptive discussions. We read, for example, of "stereotypes" linked with "models of selective adoption [sic] of Hellenic habits [which] also serve to strengthen the significance of traditional icons of Roman identity, by contrast, so reinforcing a sense of the individuality of Roman culture rather than diluting it" (p. 207), soon followed by more "stereotypes" that are "recontextualized" in "social hierarchies" as they are "conceptualized." One presumes that König has adapted the verbiage of what is loosely termed 'cultural studies,' but unhappily such hybrid vocabularies often bring forth images that are fuzzy, imprecise, and generally inchoate. Underneath, behind, below, and above these often badly aimed "cultural analyses" of medicine and athletics are the grunts and sweating of athletes-in-training (and the special diets that Galen and Philostratus indicate were common in the run-ups to the various festivals), the clearly delineated understanding of basic anatomy (especially muscles, tendons, joints, bones, and connective tissue), physiology (what we term 'blood pressure' and similar matters), and sometimes some telling observations on geriatrics in the gym. König rightly emphasizes the rarely considered texts of Antyllus (as preserved by Oribasius) regarding ball games by amateurs, but by imposing a set of rigidly artifactual social codes and categories onto the Greek, König simply allows the idiocratic setting of the Roman baths to fade from view (one exercised and gossiped with one's friends before doing the cold-hot-cold [or its reverse] routine).9 Sadly, too, none of the eighteen individuals carefully listed on p. xv took the trouble to suggest elimination of the all-too-frequent "as we shall see" and "as we have seen" that pepper the prose. Finally, König has the irritating habit of summarizing primary texts, rather than translating them (or simply borrowing reliable translations now available).10 And although the footnotes are conveniently placed at the bottoms of the pages (as they should be), many of them are simply replications of Greek from decidedly inferior texts (especially from the Kühn edition of Galen). König has read an enormous amount of primary and secondary material to produce this recondite volume,11 but has failed to digest the mass of documents into a body of writing that even colleagues in classical studies will read without difficulty. If, however, one chooses to chase the plentiful references to Greek and Latin texts, there are rich lodes of generally ignored sources, many of which could form the foundations of solid studies in their own right.


1.   König (p. 1, with n. 1) renders only a portion (with the truncated Greek provided in the note) of the 41 lines of IG XIV, 1102. A full translation is in S. G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 153. Accordingly, there is much debate regarding some of the technical terminologies. The best discussion (in English) of contexts, terms, and the meaning of the technical matters remains that by Michael B. Poliakoff in his Combat Sports in the Ancient World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 125-127 with nn. 21-22 (pp. 184-185). Translation of 'later' lines, p. 126. Yet to be bettered is Poliakoff's trenchant summary of Asclepiades' appointment to the Alexandrian Museum (p. 127): "... his membership argues that he was hardly the mindless hulk that Galen's polemic describes as the normal makeup of heavy athletes."
2.   The truly professional athletes in the Roman Empire were arguably the gladiators, considered only intermittently by König (see index entries, p. 383). A good book could readily be written (using the texts of Scribonius Largus, Galen, and others) on 'medicine, dietetics, and surgery for the gladiators,' a subject generally ignored to date. Some texts, scholarship, and commentary (Galen only) collected by Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen in Die römische Gesellschaft bei Galen (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), pp. 106-127. See John Scarborough, "Galen and the Gladiators," Episteme 5 (1971), 98-111; and Vivian Nutton, "The Chronology of Galen's Early Career," Classical Quarterly 23 (1973), 158-171.
3.   Adapted from the translation by Poliakoff (n. 1 above), and the commonly used but usually unacknowledged translation by Clarence A. Forbes in Rachel Sargent Robinson, Sources for the History of Greek Athletics (Urbana & Ann Arbor: University of Illinois [pub. by author in Cincinnati] and Cushing-Malloy, 1955), pp. 198-199 [complete text].
4.   E.g. Zahra Newby, Greek Athletics in the Roman Empire (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Consultation of the bibliographies in König and Newby will provide a fairly complete listing of scholarship since the 1950s.
5.   Although cited by König as an excoriation, Galen's "Exercise with the Small Ball" is a summary of the benefits gained by amateurs (in the contexts of the great urban baths) from exercises and ball-games, and only at its conclusion does Galen voice his disgust at 'wrestling schools' that produce men 'lame and wrinkled and eyes askance,' (Galen here quotes Homer, Iliad IX, 503). Greek text ed. J. Marquardt in Claudii Galeni Pergameni Scripta minora (Leipzig: Teubner, 1884-1893; 3 vols.; rptd. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1967), Vol. I, pp. 93-102 = trans. by P. N. Singer in Galen: Selected Works (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 [Oxford World's Classics]), pp. 299-304. See John Scarborough, "Galen on Roman Amateur Athletics," Arete: Journal of Sport Literature 2 (1985), 171-176.
6.   There is no evidence whatsoever that Philostratus knew Galen or was aware of his writings, and debate continues regarding just how 'famous' Galen might have been in his own day; Oribasius of Pergamon (fl. AD 325-400) is the first to quote from the works of Galen. A good synopsis of 'parallel texts' (Galen and Antyllus) remains that in Julius Jüthner, Philostratos Über Gymnastik (Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1909; rptd. Amsterdam: Grüner, 1969), pp. 51-60. König's discussions of Philostratus (based on the Greek text edited by Jüthner) are some of the best sections of his book (esp. pp. 254-260 and 315-336).
7.   König would have found illustrative the circumcision-reversal operation (Celsus, De medicina VII, 25 [VII, 25. 2 describes infibulation]), the ultimate emblem that a man had fully adapted the Greek manner of exercising in the nude. Not only was the plastic surgery reasonably successful (the restoration of the prepuce for those unfortunates who had it performed when they were too young to know better), it was also popular among immigrant Jews and Egyptians who desired to appear "Roman" in the gymnasium. See Jody Rubin, "Celsus' Decircumcision Operation," Urology 16, no. 1 (July 1980), 121-124.
8.   Or it should be, since König (p. 265 with n. 49) uses Best Physicians 9.6, to exemplify the 'agonistic' nature of medicine (his rivals' apes all died, while Galen patched his up, and it presumably wobbled off the stage). And Galen's sneering at the onlookers staring at the enormous corpse of an elephant (Anatomical Procedures VII, 10) has less to do with pseudo-anatomists or ignorant physicians than it has in proving Galen knew his comparative anatomy by way of Aristotle. See Albert Z. Iskandar, ed. [Arabic], trans., and commentary, Galen On Examinations by Which the Best Physicians are Recognized (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1988 [Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, Supplementum orientale IV]), pp. 104 (Arabic), and 105 (English); and John Scarborough, "Galen's Dissection of the Elephant," Koroth 8, no. 11-12 (1985), 123-134.
9.   This is repeatedly emphasized in Galen's Maintenance of Health, especially in the careful instructions for massage, baths and bathing, and even exercise after sex. See Konrad Koch, ed., Galeni De santiate tuenda in Koch et al., eds., Galeni De sanitate tuenda. De alimentorum facultatibus etc. (Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1923 [Corpus Medicorum Graecorum V 4,2]), esp. Bks. II and III (ed. Koch, pp. 38-102), with reasonably reliable English translation by Robert Montraville Green as Galen's Hygiene (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1951), pp. 51-139. Similar is the context of the great urban baths in "Exercise with the Small Ball" (n. 5 above), so that Galen pointedly calls attention to the social ambience also promoting 'good health.' See also Garrett G. Fagan, Bathing in Public in the Roman World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), esp. ch. 4 ("Baths and Roman Medicine"), and Fagan's "Gifts of Gymnasia: A Text Case for Reading Quasi-Technical Jargon in Latin Inscriptions," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 124 (1999), 263-275.
10.   Although P. N. Singer's 1997 collected translations of Galen (n. 4 above) is listed in the bibliography, König does not use it, preferring to translate directly from the occasionally defective texts in the Kühn edition. Singer employs better and updated texts (whenever possible, from the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum series), and if one desires solidly based English translations of several important tracts by Galen, this is the volume to consult. Within are (ed. Marquardt et al.) "Exercise with the Small Ball," "On My Own Books," "The Order of My Own Books," "The Best Doctor is also a Philosopher," "To Thrasyboulos," and "The Soul's Dependence on the Body;" "The Thinning Diet," "An Exhortation to Study the Arts," "The Affections and Errors of the Soul," and "Mixtures" are rendered from texts edited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or from the CMG volumes of 1937 and 1991.
11.   König's listing of the epigraphical titles by Louis Robert (pp. 372-373) is a handy guide to this great scholar's many essays and books.

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