BMCR 1995.09.19

1995.09.19, Romano, Athletics and Mathematics in Archaic Corinth

, Athletics and mathematics in archaic Corinth : the origins of the Greek stadion. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, v. 206. xiv, 117 pages : illustrations, maps (some color) ; 22 x 29 cm.. ISBN 9780871692061.

This study of the Greek stadion considers the evidence from the Peloponnese. It has its origins in Romano’s PhD dissertation, “The Stadia of the Peloponnesos” (University of Pennsylvania, 1981), and has been expanded by the “Corinth Computer Project” which started in 1988. At the heart of this book lies a presentation of the two dromoi at Corinth: the earliest dating from the late archaic period, the second from the hellenistic. Their study also raises issues about Greek mathematics.

The book starts with an introduction which draws attention to the different types of race which might have used the stadion as their setting. R. notes that the earliest stadia may be linked with the Panhellenic sanctuaries. He explains such events within the context of the pursuit of arete by the contestants. He notes in passing that the meaning of stadion implies a “standing place” (pp. 3 and 14). R. also provides a useful map of stadia and dromoi in the Peloponnese. A stadion is defined as “a simple track or playing field bordered on one side by a grandstand or at times an embankment of earth, and designed principally for the use of the competitors” (p. 1). The dromos is either the track itself or “a facility without any formal accommodation for spectators” (p. 16). Thus by R.’s definition, dromoi may be found in a gymnasion.

Chapter 1 discusses “Origins and evolution of the ancient stadion“. It introduces the reader to wrestling in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shugli, king of Ur, who ran from Nippur to Ur, some 100 miles. The Egyptian evidence includes a discussion of Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara. It is hard to see how these early examples have a bearing on the Greek evidence. However it is perhaps of relevance that, according to Herodotus (2.91), Greek ambassadors visited Egypt to enquire about the running of the Olympic Games. R. does not develop the idea that if the “Running Stela of Taharqa” (685-684 BC) discusses the training of soldiers based at Memphis with a c. 100 km running race through the Fayum, then Greek mercenaries in Egypt might have brought back similar contests which could have been applied to religious festivals.

R. then presents the “Literary, epigraphical and historical evidence” from the Greek world. He notes that it is Herodotus (2.149) who defines the stadion as the equivalent of 6 plethra. He draws attention to (and illustrates) the contest of the “men’s stadion” on two Panathenaic amphorae. He then turns to the archaeological evidence, in particular the stadia at Olympia, Isthmia and Halieis; stadia at Nemea and Epidauros are only mentioned in passing, and perhaps deserved fuller treatment.

There are particularly helpful plans of Olympia, showing the different stadia in a range of colours. He draws attention to the way that wells on the slope of the Kronos hill to the north of the stadion probably served spectators at the games from the late eighth century. Dating is problematic. For example the fill of the Archaic embankment on the south side of the track is dated to c. 540 on the basis of the ceramic evidence. Yet it is not clear how two stone seats of the Lacedaimonian proxenoi Gorgos and Euwanios “can be safely associated with the Olympia I Stadium” (p. 19). In fact both are reported as coming from much later deposits linked to the third stadion. Presumably because their script is dated to 600-550 BC (cf. L.H. Jeffery, Local Scripts of Archaic Greece [London, 1961] 190, 199 no. 15, “c. 600-550 ?”) they are associated with the first stadion; yet one wonders if the revamped stadion, with special embankment might not be a more fitting location for honorary marble seats. One also notes how imprecise these developments are when it is noted that W. Koenigs dates the construction of Olympia Stadion II to c. 470 BC (p. 19). Perhaps of interest are the estimates of the standing capacity for the different stadia: 24,000 for stadion II and 43,000 for stadion III. As far as starting positions are concerned, there were 20 or 22 at the eastern starting line, and 18 at the western.

The discussion of Isthmia is also enhanced by coloured plans showing the relationship of the stadion to the early retaining walls. R. cites O. Broneer in suggesting that the stadion post-dates the reorganisation of the games in 584-0 BC. The special triangular-shaped starting gate—the so-called balbides sill—is discussed in detail, providing sixteen lanes. There is further discussion in Chapter 4 (“The Starting Lines from the Classical Stadion at Isthmia”), although, with only two pages of text and two images (pp. 81-83), this might have best been included in the earlier discussion. R. demonstrates that the elaborate starting mechanism would give an unfair advantage of 1/10th of a second to those runners on the inside lanes, a time which would certainly be significant in modern track events (p. 81). R. suggests that this may have been recognised quite quickly, which would explain the insertion of a new starting line which probably only had places for twelve. The scale of this stadion is much smaller than Olympia. R. suggests that it could have only held some 4,000 spectators, which was expanded to 21,000 in the later Hellenistic stadion which was created on a new site.

The stadion adjoining the temple at Halieis is now totally submerged. Nevertheless the length of the stadion has been ascertained, and the construction of it seems to be linked to the enhancement of the sanctuary with other buildings. R. calculates the room for spectators as 1500, which we may compare to the estimated population of 2500 for the town (Tj. H. van Andel and C. Runnels, Beyond the Acropolis: a Rural Greek Past [Stanford, 1987] 174).

The stadia at Epidauros and Nemea are treated only in the conclusion. Surprisingly there is no mention of S.G. Miller (ed.), Nemea: a Guide to the Site and Museum (Berkeley: 1990), where the stadion is discussed (by Michael Goethals) in chapter 5. This provides the information that the Nemea stadion must have been around 178 m long, judging by the location of the 100 foot marker at a distance of 29.63 m from the starting line; this gives a foot of 0.296 m. At Epidauros the markers give a foot length of 0.302 m.

In Chapter 2 R. discusses “The Archaic Dromos in Corinth”. This includes a curved starting line which has been dated between 500 BC and 450 BC. The course itself was some 165 m long, with a marker stone 158 m from the starting line. To the south of the track lay a curved terrace wall which may have served either as a viewing stand or as a location for the pankration and other events. The curved starting line is discussed in detail. The upper surface was coloured dark blue-black, and there were individual holes for the feet of the athletes. Although the first five lanes were destroyed by the later hellenistic starting line, each lane was marked in red by a letter which could be read as the line was approached.

R. suggests that the track should be a stadion long, divided into 6 units of 100 feet each. The radius of the curved starting line was approximately 55 metres or 200 Corinthian feet. This would have provided a focal point for the runners one third of the way down the track. R. suggests that this focal point may have been the location of a ‘break post’ (p. 58). The point also indicates that the race was run in an anticlockwise way. The curved starting line also implies a long distance race (otherwise parallel lanes would have been used), and R. suggests possibilities for the event (p. 62).

R. then discusses athletes and athletic events at Corinth, including a list of nine Corinthian Olympic victors (p. 67). They range in date from 728 to 304 BC, and include victories in the stadion, pentathlon and wrestling. Another athlete, though not victorious at Olympia, was Nicoladas whose victories included Delphi and Nemea (p. 69). R. then provides relevant sections of Pindar’s Thirteenth Olympia Ode in honour of Xenophon son of Thessalos (pp. 70-74).

Chapter 3, “Greek mathematics” considers that “the nature of the reconstructed dromos in Corinth suggests an understanding of mathematics and geometry by the Greek architect that previously had been unrecognized as early as ca. 500 BC” (p. 77). Two points are made. First that the Greeks had a value for pi, and second that the circle consisted of 360 degrees. R. observes that the average distance between the starting positions is approximately 1° (although this assumes that a sexagesimal system was used). However the calculation for pi is not as straightforward. One of the basic problems with this study is working out the length of the foot in use at the time that the running track was laid out. Therefore it would have been helpful to have some tabulated information which could have been referred to as a test.

The length used at Halieis is surprising given that the layout of the city itself seems to have used a foot of c. 0.313 m (T.D. Boyd and M.H. Jameson, Hesperia 50 [1981] 332). However this may indicate one of two things: either that the stadion was laid out at a different time from the rest of the city, or that the running track was not a stadion in length. R. has a long footnote suggesting the possibilities that the foot could be 0.269 m or 0.275 m (p. 50 n. 21); Boyd and Jameson cite the Attic-Ionic foot as 0.295-0.297 m, and the Doric foot as 0.326-0.328 m. This would give a track length between 161.46 and 165 metres. These problems are compounded when attempts are made to work out the geometry of the layout of the archaic dromos at Corinth.

If the width of each running track was equal to 3.5 Corinthian feet, and this was the equivalent of 1°, then the circumference of the circle formed by the curved starting-line was 1260 feet. As the diameter of the circle was 400 feet, then pi = 3.15.

pi = 1260 / 400 = 3.15

Romano however calculates in metres, taken from field measurements (p. 78).

Circumference = 360 x 0.951 m = 342.36 m.

As he had previously calculated the radius as 55.274 metres, the following value of pi is obtained:

pi = 342.36 m / (2 x 55.274 m) = 3.0969

Clearly the measurements in Corinthian feet give a more accurate value for pi; however it is the precise field measurements, enhanced by computer plotting, that have detected the problems in the exact measurements of the Greek architect. This in turn raises questions about trying to be “accurate” in measuring the track; it may well be that there was a degree of error in the laying out of the stadion, or that the architect did not follow a sexgesimal system.

Chapter 5 discusses “The Hellenistic dromos in Corinth”. This was on a new alignment to the archaic dromos, with the new starting line removing some of the places on the older one. The length of the starting line was 17.2 m (approx. 65 Corinthian feet). There were two phases in the life of the starting gate: initially with seventeen positions, and then two groups of eight with a blank centre lane. This change may have included the insertion of blocks at either end of the line which R. interprets as the creation of a mechanical start, husplex, which have also been recognised at Epidauros, Nemea, Isthmia and Olympia. Interestingly the Epidauros husplex was created in the third century BC by a Corinthian, Philon ( IG iv.1, 98.3) (p. 86). The provision of water facilities in the area are interpreted as part of the track maintenance programme. R. notes that the change in the starting line layout means that the race was run in parallel lanes, and therefore the event had changed from the classical period.

Chapter 6 considers “Greek design elements of the Roman Circus”. In particular R. notes the use of a curved starting line in the second century AD circus at Lepcis Magna. Like Corinth, the starting positions are approximately one degree of the circle. In a series of three multi-coloured plans, R. demonstrates the lines run by the different competitors in the race. The main difference is the distance of the focal point nearly two-thirds down the track. R. also considers that such design elements may have been features of the Greek hippodrome (p. 105).

Although from time to time certain ideas repeat themselves (such as the definition of the stadion), there is a considerable amount of useful information contained within this study. A more detailed discussion of mathematical systems would have been helpful, and indeed there remains a doubt about the attempt to calculate pi. The generous use of colours in the diagrams and plans helps the reader understand the mathematics and layout of the dromos. It certainly should make those excavating or studying athletic facilities get out their calculators, and as a result provide more information about the application of mathematics in Greek design.