Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.30

John Mouratidis, On the Jump of the Ancient Pentathlon. Nikephoros-Beihefte, Bd 20.   Hildesheim:  Weidmann, Pp. 219.  ISBN 9783615004007.  €49.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stephen Brunet, University of New Hampshire (

Table of Contents

Of the various contests that made up the Olympic program, the pentathlon is probably the least well understood, and of the five events that made up the pentathlon, the jump (halma) has probably puzzled scholars the most. We have not been able to determine why the Greeks thought the jump could not remain a separate event, as it had been in Homer, when the pentathlon was introduced at the Olympics. As well, we are uncertain what possessed the Greeks to think that having jumpers carry weights in their hands (halteres) would make for a better sport, or where they came up with idea of having jumpers perform to a flute player. Moreover, our inability to answer these questions is not due to a lack of evidence. Authors ranging from Aristotle to Vegetius discuss the mechanics of the jump, and Attic vase painters, much taken with the pentathlete’s slim physique, have provided us with a multitude of images of jumpers in action. The halma thus appears in many contexts not normally associated with Greek athletics, and scholars who are unfamiliar with the differences between the ancient and modern jump are likely to find Mouratidis’ survey to be a useful introduction.1 However, anyone looking for an in-depth reassessment of the evidence is going to find little new here, since the main focus is on reviewing and summarizing past research.

While Mouratidis does not make this fully apparent until the conclusion, he is a proponent of the view that the halma involved a triple jump, it was done without a running start, jumpers never dropped their halteres during the jump, and the jumping pit (skamma) was located at the end of the stadium past the balbis (the stone sill marking the start of the running races and probably also of the halma). Nothing about his position is new. Nearly all the possible permutations involving the halma have been entertained by scholars at one time or another: a single jump versus three or five jumps, a running jump versus a standing start, the use of standardized halteres versus weights matched to a jumper’s technique, etc. As well, all the written evidence and most of the visual evidence has long since been culled and interpreted, often in quite opposing directions. As a result, any progress in our understanding of the halma depends on either bringing new evidence into play or finding new readings of much mulled over sources. Somewhat surprisingly, Mouratidis is not particularly interested in finding new ways to bolster his position. Instead he is much more concerned with reviewing prior research to show that his preferred model of the jump is at least compatible with one or another of the interpretations that have been proposed in the past. To be fair, it is understandable that Mouratidis was reluctant to jump into the various debates concerning the mechanics of the halma. Many of the arguments turn on a very precise parsing of very difficult texts, such as Themistius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, and, while he has published on several aspects of ancient sports, Mouratidis’ specialty is the history of physical education, not philology.

This unwillingness to pursue new lines of argument or champion old ones does, however, undercut support for his view as to how the halma was performed. A case in point involves the report that Phyallos jumped beyond the skamma with a 55-foot jump. As Mouratidis realizes, if this were true, then it would prove conclusively that the halma involved multiple jumps (modern triple jump records exceed this distance slightly; long jump records fall in the 28-29 feet range). Yet Mouratidis mounts no argument in favor of believing the reports about Phyallos' jump (pp. 35-42). He is thus not going to change the minds of those who have argued that the sources for Phyallos’ jump are so confused as to rob the story of any probative value. A more problematic case is his failure to engage in any substantial way with Lee’s argument concerning the start of the halma.2 Lee has marshaled some previously unnoticed evidence indicating that the halma was not a standing jump, as Mouratidis believes, but involved a running start. Equally problematic, Lee’s theory undercuts Mouratidis’ belief that jumpers might jump without halteres. Central to Mouratidis’ position are several vases on which athletes are shown standing in front of the balbis with their arms out but, somewhat puzzlingly, they hold nothing in their hands (pp. 55-57). However, if Lee is right, these figures cannot be athletes jumping without weights because jumpers always ran up to the balbis. A more likely option is that they were runners who are standing in front of the balbis as they practiced their starting positions.

While these vase paintings do not prove Mouratidis’ point, he is right that they deserve more attention than they have received. He also probably right that the persistence of a triple jump in post Classical Greece might be worth exploring in greater depth than it has been (pp. 101-103).. Mouratidis is not likely to alter the view of anyone who has already come to their own conclusions about the nature of the halma, but there is still some value to this approach, since his study does provide easy access to the status quaestionis, Another useful feature is that he tends to provide the Greek (occasionally with some issues with the accents) and translations (drawn from the Loeb series or other sources) for some of the crucial passages underlying past discussions. As such, his study will provide a guide for those, notably students, who need more information about the jump than is available in the standard handbooks but who would find the detailed studies on the pentathlon inaccessible. Two cautions are in order, though. First, Mouratidis is not a specialist in the sources and he may underestimate how opaque and problematic they may be, in particular when dealing with the Eusebian list of athletic victors, which he refers to as being by Julius Africanus but which we now know was the work of multiple hands.3 Second, it is worth starting with his last chapter in which he lays out how he believes the halma was performed. Knowing this in advance will make it easier to evaluate to what degree his study really proves or only suggests that he is right about the way the Greeks arranged one of the essential parts of the pentathlon.


1.   The last generally available assessment of the evidence for the jump is J. Ebert, Zum Pentathlon der Antike (Berlin 1963). A more up-to-date treatment may be available in H. Schmid, Zur Technik des Weitsprungs (Halma) in der griechischen Antike: eine Neubewertung literarischer und bildlicher Quellen unter Berücksichtigung biomechanischer Bewegungsanalysen und volkskundlicher Traditionen (Diss. Univ. of Mainz 1997), but I have not been able to obtain a copy. Nearly all the literary evidence for the pentathlon can be found with German translations and extensive indices in the Quellendokumentation zur Gymnastik und Agonistik im Altertum series (Vienna 1991-2002).
2.   H. M. Lee, "The Halma: A Running or Standing Jump?" in G. Schaus and S. Wenn edd., Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games (Waterloo, Ont. 2007), 153-165, following O. Grodde, Sport bei Quintilian (Hildesheim 1997) pp. 43-44, 92. Mouratidis only mentions Lee’s article in a footnote (p. 44).
3.   See P. Christesen, Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History (Cambridge 2007) esp. pp. 250-276. The varied composition of the Eusebian victor list might explain the contradictions Mouratidis finds between the story appended to the list that Chionis jumped 52 feet and the fact that Chionis is not mentioned as the victor in the pentathlon for the year in which we would expect him to have won. The evidence for Chionis is also much more complicated than supposed; see P. Christesen, "Kings Playing Politics: The Heroization of Chionis of Sparta," Historia 59 (2010): 26-73.

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