Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.46

Thomas Heine Nielsen, Olympia and the Classical Hellenic City-State Culture. Historik-filosofiske Meddelelser, 96.   Copenhagen:  Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2007.  Pp. 139.  ISBN 978-87-7304-309-7.  DKK 120.00  (pb).  

Reviewed by Stephen Brunet, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 1181 words

In this short study of Olympia, Nielsen argues that the Olympic games played a major role in ensuring that the polis remained the dominant political system in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. In his view, the Olympic games with their related religious and political activities engendered a strong sense of communal identity because they provided a culturally and religiously significant activity in which all poleis could participate, however disparate their organization or size. Conversely, the games provided a venue for political expression and an arena where a polis might strengthen its self-identity, often at the expense of its enemies. While Nielsen's arguments, at least in the relatively brief form presented here, are not entirely persuasive, he has asked an important question. What did the polis as an institution, in distinction to the athletes themselves, gain from the nearly universal practice of participating in and supporting the Olympic games?

Chapter 1 introduces the basic theme of the work, that Olympia unified the Greek world while accommodating the immense diversity in the political and social structure of different poleis. The next three chapters are quite short (26 pages total) since they cover ground that is now familiar from the work of scholars such as Mark Golden, Nigel Crowther, and Myles McDonnell. Nielsen begins by considering the idea that athletics was an activity embraced only by Hellenes and thus distinguished them from other peoples. Since he is concerned exclusively with the acceptance of this idea in the Classical period, Nielsen restricts himself as much as possible here and elsewhere to a wide range of contemporary sources, both literary and epigraphical. The next two chapters cover the related topics of how the decision to allow someone to compete at Olympia certified that he was a Hellene, as it did for Alexander I, and how nudity was universally associated with athletics. In this context, it might have been helpful if Nielsen had cast his net a little wider to include incidents that supposedly took place in this period but are reported by later authors. For example, Diodorus Siculus (17.100-101) recounts how the Athenian Dioxippos, Olympic victor in 336 BC, went out oiled and naked like an athlete to confront and defeat a heavily armored Macedonian warrior. The passage exemplifies how nudity and skill in athletics were taken to be nearly synonymous with being a Hellene, along with reflecting some continuing concern that the Macedonians were not quite Greeks, whatever the Olympic officials may have decided. Given that these chapters focus on the Olympics as a marker of important social divisions, Nielsen probably should have touched on how the existence at Olympia of separate festivals for men and women embodied and possibly reinforced the gender structure that typified the life of most poleis.

Chapter 5, which focuses more directly on Elis, details how the organization of a polis was affected and sometimes distorted when it controlled an institution that was of greater importance than itself.1 The fact that Olympia was located relatively far from Elis led to an unusual if not unique political structure, with the governing bodies of Elis housed alternately at Elis and Olympia. He also traces the use Elis made of its authority over the festival to foster its political aims, especially as it came into conflict with Sparta and then with the Arcadian league, which in retaliation gave control of the games to Pisa. Nielsen notes some of the parallels for the situation at Olympia, such as the dual administration of the Isthmian games during a similar power struggle, and several cases where a sacred procession was employed to tie a polis to an extra-urban sanctuary. While Nielsen dismisses Delphi from his discussion on the grounds that it was not controlled by one polis like Olympia, some comment would have been appropriate at this point since the Amphictyonic council was drawn into external political conflicts just as much as Elis.

The last chapter contains the heart of Nielsen's study, the significance Olympia held for poleis throughout Greece. He catalogues the various ways--notably the building of treasuries, the dedication of war trophies, and the publication of treaties--that poleis used Olympia as a place to assert their importance, especially at the expense of their neighbors, or if they were newly established, to announce their existence. Nielsen also recounts the care with which a polis celebrated victories by its citizens or those it had convinced to compete in its name. It is a familiar topic but the context in which Nielsen places this practice shows how closely tied the athletic achievements of a polis' citizens were to its desire to establish its status. Oddly absent from Nielsen's discussion are three cases that prove his point: Alcibiades' claim in Thuc. 6.16.2 that his success in chariot racing demonstrated Athens' power, Agesilaus'use of Kyniska's chariot victory for political ends, and Themistocles' enthusiastic reception at the games, which presumably represented support for Athenian policies in the Persian wars.2 While Nielsen does not make this point explicitly, this chapter reveals a surprising phenomenon, namely how willing Elis was to allow other cities to use Olympia for their political expression and aggrandizement.

Nielsen's arguments are bolstered by three charts and one map that abstract data already developed in other research projects (including his own work on the polis and Paula Perlman's studies on theorodokoi). Also helpful is that the text and translation (most often from the Loeb) are provided for nearly every source discussed in detail. At times, however, he tends to assume that since the Olympic games represented the preeminent athletic festival in the Greek world, any significant feature of athletics can only be discussed in the context of Olympia. For example, it is a stretch to claim that nudity was so closely associated in the Greek mind with Olympia that this custom is germane to his study. Only one source attributes the origin of athletic nudity to the Olympic games (Athens and Sparta receive as much credit) and to judge from the Athenian vase painting, the local gymnasium was the context in which most Greeks would have expected to encounter athletic nudity in the Classical period.

This tendency to treat the Olympics as the only game in town undercuts his arguments in more serious ways. Many of the features that he argues made Olympia so important to poleis throughout the Greek world, notably the opportunity to dedicate war trophies and announce treaties, were typical of Delphi and other festival sites. Olympia was just the most extreme example of a widespread phenomenon. Nielsen needed to ask whether the rapid growth of multiple Panhellenic festivals in the early sixth century had any connection with the growth and continued importance of the polis. One benefit of Nielsen's study, though, is that it corrects the tendency to focus exclusively on what a victory at a major festival meant to an athlete or his family. We should not forget that nearly every polis in the Greek world considered the Olympic games and similar festivals of great significance and value, even though they were physically and administratively separate from most of the poleis that supported them.


1.   Likely to be of use (non vidi) is Alexander Inglis, "A History of Elis ca. 700-362 B.C." (Diss. Harvard, 1998). More recently, Paul Christesen, Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History (Cambridge 2007), esp. chap. 3, has argued that Elis' struggle with Sparta was a major impetus for Hippias' composition of the first Olympic victor list.
2.   Thuc. 6.16.2 is cited in another context (p. 62) and Nielsen does mention in this chapter (pp. 97-98) Isoc. 16.33 on Alcibiades' unwillingness to compete against lower class athletes. On Agesilaus' decision to have Kyniska compete, often thought to be aimed at Agesilaus political rivals but now also to be understood as an attempt to discredit Alcibiades, see Donald Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Malden, MA-Oxford 2007), 188-196. Nielsen does not cite his own use of Olympic victors to identify the existence of different poleis ("Victors in Panhellenic Games as Evidence for Polis Identity," in M. H. Hansen and T. H. Nielsen (eds.), An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis [Oxford 2004] 107-10, 1350-1). He might have also discussed Christian Mann, Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (Göttingen 2001), esp. p. 120, which deals with the close identification of the polis with its athletically successful citizens.

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