Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.51

Thomas Heine Nielsen, Two Studies in the History of Ancient Greek Athletics. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica 8, 16.   Copenhagen:  The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2018.  Pp. 299.  ISBN 9788773044124.  DKK 200.  

Reviewed by David Lunt, Southern Utah University (

Thomas Heine Nielsen’s recent contribution to the study of ancient Greek athletics is a welcome addition to the field of ancient athletic contests and festivals. This book is exactly what it claims to be—two independent studies focused on a pair of carefully circumscribed questions about archaic and classical Greek athletics. Since Nielsen splits the two questions into separate studies, this review will examine each independently.

Nielsen’s first study attacks a devilishly tricky yet fundamentally important question concerning archaic and classical Greek athletics: just how many athletic festivals were available to an enterprising athlete during this time? Ancient claims that an athlete like Theogenes of Thasos won between 1200 and 1400 athletic victories (the sources differ) present a fundamental problem in understanding the logistics of his athletic career. Even assuming that he competed in multiple events, just how many festivals were available to this early-fifth-century BCE athlete, and how often were these festivals held? Marshalling a commendable array of literary and epigraphical evidence, Nielsen sets out to answer this question.

Painstakingly, Nielsen lays out the evidence for ancient athletic competitions, including both occasional games (i.e., funerary) and the institutionalized religious festivals that appear in the sources, however fleetingly. After cataloging the mentions of funeral contests, Nielsen shifts to geography as the organizing feature, tracing allusions to ancient athletic contests throughout the Greek world in places such as Sicily, Italy, Boeotia, Megara, Corinth, Sicyon, Achaia, Arcadia, Lacedaemon, Argos, Aegina, Attica, Euboea, East Locris, Thessaly, Rhodes, Macedonia, and North Africa.

Nielsen is very careful not to push the evidence too far. For example, Pindar’s Nemean 10 was composed to honor an Argive athlete named Theaios. In this ode, Nielsen identified a circumstantial reference to athletic contests at Sparta (lines 49-53). If, as Nielsen suggests, Pindar alluded here to Theaios’s victories in these contests at Sparta, Nielsen is right to opine that allowing an Argive to compete in Spartan games “would be interesting” with respect to Sparta’s reputation for xenophobia (p. 41). However, Nielsen avoids pursuing the notion any further, recognizing that Pindar’s brief allusion can hardly support such a conclusion. Similarly, Nielsen points out that a document from Asia Minor that referred to both a palaestra and gymnasion in a town offers evidence of athletic activity on the site, but not necessarily athletic competitions (p. 80).

While the literary works of Homer and Pindar present an array of names and locations for ancient athletic festivals, the epigraphical evidence proves a bit trickier in establishing the existence of a particular festival during the time under consideration. For example, a series of dedicatory athletic inscriptions (IG I3 585 et seq.) written in two dialects suggests that athletes from Attica sometimes won prizes in Boeotia and brought them back to Athens, where they were dedicated to various deities. However, the condition of the inscriptions has made conclusive dating problematic. Rather than weigh in on the debate surrounding the dating, Nielsen is content to include the competing theories for when these dedications were made (pp. 19-21).

On occasion, Nielsen points out the limitations of the evidence, acknowledging the general vagueness of the word agon and the difficulties in assigning athletic features to all festivals. In addition, some festivals with only single or scant attestations might not have lasted very long and lapsed into inactivity.

Towards the end of this first study, Nielsen offers a catalog of the festivals with known athletic contests held in the late archaic and classical Greek world, including location, attestations, and modern discussions where applicable. The final count is 155 athletic contests, but Nielsen is adamant that these data represent only a “sketch” of the ancient Greek athletic world (p. 109). In an earlier section of this study, Nielsen alluded to Pindar’s praise of the pankratiast Timodemos and his athletic victories “beyond number” (Nem. 2.23; Nielsen, p. 47). In this first study of ancient Greek athletics, it appears that Nielsen has cautiously managed to number those competitions after all.

Part Two of the work, the second study in ancient Greek athletics, addresses the amount of prestige awarded to a victory in the Nemean Games. Nielsen begins his study by acknowledging the reasons for the apparently inferior status of the Nemean Games with respect to the other three Crown Games festivals held at Olympia, Delphi, and Isthmia. Primarily, the Sanctuary of Nemea was overlooked by the Hellenic League in its commemorative dedications following the successful expulsion of the Persians in 479 BCE. In addition, the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE) was published at the three other panhellenic sanctuaries, but not at Nemea. Also, epinician poetry’s “laudatory compounds,” such as Olympionikos and Pythionikos, and Isthmionikos never bother to employ Nemeonikos (p. 169). Finally, catalogs of athletic victories typically listed those at Nemea last, implying a hierarchy and relatively less prestige for the Nemean festival.

Nielsen is surgically precise in his approach to this issue, delicately situating the prestige of the Nemean Games above all other athletic contests except for the Olympian and Pythian Games. He acknowledges that the Nemean sanctuary was certainly less prestigious than that at Olympia, yet he indicates that, despite this inequality, a victory in the Nemean Games still brought a considerable amount of prestige to a victor and his polis.

Nielsen appeals to epinician poetry and victory-monument inscriptions to make his case. Although victories outside of the circuit of the Crown Games were occasionally commemorated with epinician verse, the relative abundance of epinician poems for Nemean victories underscores the importance of this festival. Although very few victory monuments have been unearthed at Nemea, one of the few that has survived appears to be among the oldest yet found at any panhellenic sanctuary. This inscribed statue base, dated to ca. 550 BCE, commemorated the victories at Nemea of Aristis of Kleonai, and its age suggests that victors at Nemea quickly copied this practice from Olympia. In addition, victory inscriptions at Olympia not infrequently included mention of Nemean victories as well. In the nearly 200 Olympic victory monuments recorded by Pausanias, Nielsen points out that Pausanias never recorded a victory from outside of the Crown Games circuit (p. 179). Besides the victory-monument inscriptions at Olympia, Nielsen catalogs commemorations of victory in the Nemean Games from places outside of the panhellenic sanctuaries, such as Argos, Corinth, Sicyon, Aegina, Attica, Thessaly, and Ionia. Nielsen’s reasoning is sound. Clearly, the Nemean Games carried a considerable amount of prestige in the currency of athletic victories in the ancient Greek world.

Although Nielsen’s conclusion in asserting the overall importance of the Nemean Games as part of the four-festival Crown Games circuit is well supported, his treatment surprisingly mostly overlooks the archaeological record of the sanctuary at Nemea. Archaeology indicates that the sanctuary of Nemea suffered widespread destruction around the year 420 BCE, after which the Nemean Games were moved to Argos. Except for a few decades of revival at Nemea under Macedonian patronage, beginning in the mid-to-late fourth century BCE, the Nemean Games remained at Argos until they ended during the Christian era.1 In determining the prestige of an athletic victory in the Nemean Games, an examination of the destruction, revival, and eventual abandonment of the sanctuary at Nemea, and the role of Argos in appropriating and re-locating the Games might offer additional valuable insights.

Overall, the book presents a commendable achievement. It is elegantly written and is very user-friendly. All Greek passages are translated in footnotes, and the book contains extensive bibliography and indices, with no obvious typographical errors. The catalog of athletic festivals at the end of the first study is a valuable resource for investigating lesser-known religious festivals and for appreciating the rich complexity of ancient Greek festival culture. It is tempting to regard as deficiencies the book’s lack of chronology and scanty contextualizations, or perhaps its host of unexplored avenues in areas like identity or inter-polis travel, but this is not what the studies set out to do. These two studies lay out specific and relevant research questions and offer compelling, insightful, and thoroughly researched answers. Like the ancient Greek athletes treated in these two studies, Nielsen has earned his own measure of praise.


1.   Robert C. Knapp and John D. Mac Isaac, Excavations at Nemea III, The Coins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 15-17.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010