Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.45

Nigel B. Crowther, Sport in Ancient Times. Praeger Series on the Ancient World.   Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.  Pp. xxiii, 183.  ISBN 9780806139951.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Paul Christesen, Dartmouth College (

[The table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Nigel Crowther’s Sport in Ancient Times was originally published in hard cover by Praeger in 2007 and has now been reprinted unchanged in paperback by the University of Oklahoma Press. The hard cover edition was not reviewed in BMCR.

In Sport in Ancient Times Crowther surveys “activities that embrace contest, skill, training, energy, and fitness” (xi) in twenty different pre-modern societies on five continents. He concentrates on six cultures based in the Aegean and in the Italian peninsula (Minoans, Mycenaeans, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, and Byzantines) and devotes only 40 of the main text’s 167 pages to the other fourteen societies. The period covered in the book as a whole ranges from 3000 BCE to the seventeenth century CE.

There are, very broadly speaking, two different ways to write about sports history. One is to focus on sports, the other is to seek to place sports in their larger historical and societal context. Sport in Ancient Times focuses squarely on sports. The text is divided into eighteen chapters, each of which begins with a very brief historical overview and equally brief discussion of the relevant sources. The bulk of each chapter is dedicated to detailed discussion of how specific sports, especially those that had particular significance within the bounds of the society in question, were played. Some closely related historical and social issues are treated, but Crowther makes no attempt to provide a consistent or thorough social history of sports. He does observe that “There has been a trend among scholars to look for ancestors of modern sports in the ancient world” (154) and intermittently (and with well-advised caution) explores the links between ancient and modern sports.

Sport in Ancient Times is intended for and will appeal to non-specialists with a keen interest in how sports were played in a variety of different times and places in the past. It has no footnotes and all the further reading suggested at the end of the text is in English. The prefatory material includes a series of helpful timelines providing basic dates for relevant ancient societies. The text is fairly well illustrated, though the complete absence of maps is perhaps regrettable. Sport in Ancient Times is well suited to a general audience, and instructors may find it useful in whole or in part in a variety of secondary-school courses and lower-level college courses. It is not an obvious choice for upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level courses because, although Crowther is clearly familiar with both the relevant primary sources and current scholarship, they are only rarely directly quoted or cited.1 There is little here of immediate interest to scholars specializing in the study of ancient sports, though the text does offer occasional insights, such as the fact that Etruscan art gives a much larger role to spectators than Greek art (79).

The contents and structure of Sport in Ancient Times are such that there is little in the way of unifying themes or carefully articulated, overarching arguments, something that is reflected in the absence of a conclusion. The final chapter contains a discussion of ballgames in Mesoamerica and ends with a few comments on their similarity to modern-day sports. It is, therefore, impossible to evaluate the argument as a whole, though it may be helpful to comment on some specific facets of the book. The contents of individual chapters are evident from the table of contents, which is provided below. The text is written with laudable clarity and is nearly flawlessly edited. The numerous treatments of particular sports are consistently sound, and Crowther shows good judgment in dealing with many issues that have resisted scholarly consensus. There is, inevitably, room for some interpretive quibbles. For instance, Crowther strongly implies that the Iliad and Odyssey are good sources for Mycenaean sport (40) and that Etruscans built stadia, training centers, and other sporting facilities (79), despite the complete absence of any such structures in the archaeological record. Here and there the text shows signs of having been trimmed a little too aggressively from what must have been a longer original. There is, for example, an unexplained reference to the “Boy Jockey” statue (72), presumably the horse and rider from Artemision. Crowther’s attempts to make connections between ancient and modern sports can sometimes take him a bit far afield. For instance, in discussing the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, he points out that it was the site of a concert by Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras on July 7, 1990, just before the finals of the World Cup of soccer (96). This reviewer noted only three errors of any significance. In the chapter on the ancient Olympic Games, Crowther mentions “the huge marble temple of Zeus” (50). This is a bit misleading since most of the Zeus temple at Olympia was built of local shell limestone; marble was reserved for the roof tiles, sculpture, and some architectural details. He claims on page 74 that there were about 500 local athletic festivals in the Greek world during the Roman period. This represents a substantial under-estimate, since H. W. Pleket, Onno van Nijf, and others have shown that during the Roman period there were 500 athletic festivals in Asia Minor alone.2 Crowther himself states elsewhere in the text that there were “probably several hundred” local athletic festivals as early as the fifth century BCE (141). Finally, he claims that excavations have brought to light the statue of Kyniska, the first female Olympic victor (148). However, only the base of her statue at Olympia has been recovered (as well as a votive capital at Sparta, a dedication to Helen with Kyniska’s name on it). None of these are by any stretch of the imagination major flaws. In sum, Sport in Ancient Times provides an up-to-date, reliable, and highly accessible account of the practice of ancient sports.

Table of Contents

Figures: ix

Preface: xi

Timelines for Ancient Civilizations: xv

Introduction: xxi

I. The Far East: China, Japan, and Korea: 1

2. The Middle East (Excluding Egypt): 15

3. Egypt at the Time of the Pharaohs: 25

4. Minoan Civilization: 34

5. Mycenae and Homer: 40

6. The Ancient Olympic Games: 45

7. Ancient Greek Athletics: 57

8. The Etruscans in Ancient Italy: 78

9. Roman Games and Greek Athletics: 83

10. Roman Recreations and Physical Fitness: 87

11. Recreational Areas in Rome: The Baths and Campus Martius: 95

12. Roman Gladiators: 103

13. Roman Chariot Racing: 124

14. The Byzantine Empire: 134

15. Three Sporting Heroes of the Ancient World: 140

16. Women and Sport: Atalanta and the "Gladiator Girl": 146

17. Greco-Roman Ball Games and Team Sports: 154

18. Mesoamerican Ball Games: 169

Further Readings: 169

Index: 177


1.   For readers or instructors seeking a more advanced text that covers much of the same ground and that is still accessible to non-specialists, the obvious choice would be Donald Kyle’s Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
2.   See H. W. Pleket, “Mass-Sport and Local Infrastructure in the Greek Cities of Roman Asia Minor.”Stadion 24 (1998): 151-72 and Onno van Nijf, “Local Heroes: Athletics, Festivals and Elite Self-Fashioning in the Roman East,” in Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of the Empire, edited by S. Goldhill, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 306-34.

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