BMCR 1991.07.04

Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources

, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. xiii, 227 pages. ISBN 0520075099.

Few courses are more popular among undergraduates and regarded more skeptically by classicists than those devoted to Greek athletics. Defenders of such courses, which are often taught in lecture format at large universities, can point to high enrollments and remind their critics that without such large, crowd-pleasing courses, classics departments might not be allowed to offer the small language classes so important to the survival of their discipline. If utilitarian grounds alone, however, are insufficient to justify the existence of courses in Greek athletics, the debate over their value must center on the question of their intellectual content. The ancient sources available for such courses and the quality of the modern sourcebooks in which they are collected have an important bearing on how one answers this basic question. Although Miller’s new edition of Arete did not ultimately remove doubts in my mind about the intellectual value of courses in Greek athletics, it represents a significant improvement over its competition and holds some promise of raising the level of discussion in these courses.

Miller provides readable, often colloquial, translations of nearly two-hundred sources (twice the number found in his 1979 edition) on Greek athletics, ranging in length from a single line (ID 1400.9) to fourteen pages (Homer, Il. 23.256-24.6). Noteworthy is Miller’s tendency not to translate key Greek terms, but rather to refer the student to the volume’s twenty-page glossary and index. This struck me as a good way to encourage students to engage with the sources and to connect passages that employ a common terminology. Miller’s conversion of monetary figures in the ancient sources into U.S. dollars, based on the price of olive-oil at the Berkeley market, however, inspires little confidence, though one sympathizes with the attempt to make these figures more meaningful to students.

The quality of the sources Miller collects is as good as the ancient materials allow. One finds much excerpted from Pausanias, Athenaeus, Philostratus and Plutarch, and relatively little from Homer, Pindar, Sophocles and Plato. A course based on this collection is clearly not intended to introduce students to authors of the traditional canon, but rather to encourage historical analysis of ancient sources. In this regard, Miller is to be commended for his inclusion of numerous inscriptions, some quite long (e.g., SEG 27.261 on pp. 133-38), that should challenge students.

Miller generally provides little introduction to, and comment on, the ancient sources, though he provides brief background on the authors cited. The sources themselves are divided topically into fifteen categories, including “Events at a Competition” (41 pp.), “Organization of a Panhellenic Festival” (15 pp.), “Women in Athletics” (5 pp.), “Athletes and Heroes” (8 pp.), and “Gymnasion, Athletics, and Education” (29 pp.). Cross-references are plentiful and allow the student to compare sources in different sections on, for example, the intellectual critique of athletics in antiquity. One connecting thread between the excerpts is the mention of arete, which occurs in nineteen sources. These instances did not seem to me, however, to illuminate well the complex meaning of arete in the Greek mind. Miller’s brief remarks about arete in his introduction and conclusion did not overcome this problem.

Since instructors may find themselves choosing between Miller’s Arete and W. Sweet’s recent sourcebook, Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford 1987), a few comparisons of the two are appropriate. At first glance, Sweet’s sourcebook may appear the more appealing. For example, Sweet includes a great many photographs of vases illustrating athletic activities, whereas Miller chooses to omit photographs altogether, referring students to a handbook on ancient athletics. Miller’s choice is unfortunate, as is his decision not to include a map to help students with the numerous place names in the sources. Sweet also comments in more detail on sources than does Miller and appends study questions to them. Although Sweet’s commentary is sometimes helpful, I prefer Miller’s approach of referring students to his detailed glossary. Sweet’s study questions are not very useful as they tend to aim rather low (on Plautus, Rudens 290-305, “What kinds of seafood are described here?”; on Galen [Kühn 6.529], “Do beans cause gas?”). Although there is considerable overlap of sources between the two collections, Miller’s selection is richer, partly because of his inclusion of inscriptions, partly due to his collection of sources under intellectual rubrics (e.g., “Amateurism and Professionalism,” and “Nationalism and Internationalism”). Sweet, by contrast, divides his sources into categories based almost exclusively on the sporting activities and types of recreation to which they refer.

Although I would choose Miller’s Arete over Sweet’s Sport and Recreation, I would not want to base an entire course on either sourcebook. Arete would work reasonably well as a supplementary sourcebook in a course on Greek social history or institutions. Its sources, considered in a wider context, could contribute to the discussion of the agonistic Greek mindset, concepts of the body and sexuality, education, and the role of the individual in Greek society.