BMCR 1999.07.19

Sport and Society in Ancient Greece

, Sport and society in ancient Greece. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xiii, 216 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780521496988. $19.95 (pb).

Mark Golden, experienced teacher of Greek sport and author of other work on social history, is well suited to contribute to the Cambridge series on Key Themes in Ancient History, which expressly aims at “providing books for courses that are oriented around themes” and at “indicating the state of current research.” This latter goal is fulfilled admirably by Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (henceforth referred to as S), with its concise notes and wide array of works cited. In his brief bibliographic essay, Golden confesses to concentrating on works in English and to slighting other languages, especially German (though his list of works cited includes many foreign titles). Golden also provides valuable perspectives into the world of ancient Greek athletics, covering most major issues by book’s end. This relatively short book (178 pages of text) may serve in the classroom as a useful supplement to a more comprehensive survey of ancient athletics which systematically covers each event and the major festivals. S might well be used as counterbalance to the outmoded work of E. N. Gardiner or H. A. Harris,1 but it does not, as hoped (ix), supply a much-needed replacement.

Golden’s selection and presentation of material is, by his own admission, sometimes unpredictable and idiosyncratic (x, xii). He focuses “on Greek sport as an arena for the creation and expression [and maintenance] of difference among individuals and groups,” namely “Greeks and barbarians, boys and men, males and females” (quoted from the advertisement, cf. x). This “discourse of difference” in which Greek sport is “implicated” (x) supplies the book’s “main unifying theme,” revisited in subsequent chapters “in connection with victory and its rewards, age and gender categories and competitors’ class origins” (6). As this rather disparate list shows, the actual unity achieved by Golden’s strategy of emphasizing social distinctions is necessarily limited and limiting, but the final result of S is a meaningful and satisfying account. Ancient Greek athletics confirmed the identity of various competitors and spectators alike, of those who were welcome to participate as well as those who were excluded explicitly or tacitly.

I will proceed first by summarizing the positive contributions of S, and then by raising a few reservations. The first of five chapters introduces ways of seeing Greek sport. By the terms ‘sport’ and ‘games’ Golden means to include both athletic and equestrian competition, though he often explores tensions between the two types of contest. Golden maintains that Greek sport had only indirect and secondary relationships with religion and military training. After briefly surveying Egyptian, Hittite, and Minoan evidence, he turns to hierarchical distinctions among Greek athletic festivals and among the events themselves. Golden’s account of the ancient periodos is exemplary (10f. and Table 1).2 He suspects that equestrian events formed part of the original Olympic festival, and suggests that the account of Hippias, which dates them about a century after the first games, represents anti-equestrian, pro-athletic propaganda.

The second chapter of S considers the limits of the ancient evidence: various types of written sources and material remains. Here Golden shines as a responsible scholar and experienced teacher. To demonstrate the necessity of evaluating the ancient evidence, he engagingly discusses perennial problems which have long interested students of Greek athletics and will no doubt captivate the readers of S : the mechanics of the jump, the date of the first Olympics, the institution of nude competition, and the scoring of the pentathlon.

Golden’s third chapter treats mainly the relationship between athletics and literature. After peeking at some ancient victory celebrations, the readers of S encounter a historical survey of the victory ode, including the poets Archilochus, Ibycus, Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar, Euripides, and Callimachus. The development of this distinctive art form, Golden observes, reflects the significance of competition among the Greeks. The following section includes a stimulating discussion of athletes in Homer’s epic poems, the earliest extant Greek literature. The chapter concludes with an interesting study of the figure Orestes as an athlete in tragedy, the Greek genre perhaps best known to a general audience. Greek literature commonly resorts to athletic metaphors, and some of the athletic imagery adduced by Golden doubtless belongs to this general trend and not specifically to Orestes.

The fourth chapter in S accentuates the divisions of age and sex as defined by Greek sport and considers their implications and underlying assumptions. Golden collects a wealth of interesting statistics and anecdotes, but, as he admits, the evidence for various categories of boys, youths, and men at diverse contests remains contradictory and inconclusive. While relatively young men would have dominated athletic events, the author undertakes to demonstrate in detail his contention that horse racing was reserved mainly for older, wealthier competitors. The most provocative bits in this chapter are found in the sections on women’s sport, which will likely arouse the interest of professional scholars and modern students. Females did not normally compete publicly, but when they did, it was usually in events developed primarily by and for males. Their performance in such events, Golden observes, naturally confirmed their supposed inferiority. Much of the history of female athletics has been lost, but S helps preserve at least one record: “Another exercise, bibasis, involved leaping to bring the heels up to the buttocks; both girls and boys did this in competition — an epigram celebrates a girl who had once jumped 1000 times, the most ever (Poll. 4.102)” (128).

The final chapter considers differences of class in Greek sport. Golden argues that poorer athletes probably did not compete in significant numbers in the archaic and classical periods. The practice of not awarding cash prizes at the most prestigious games is consistent with aristocratic ideology, which eschews physical labor expended for pay. Golden sees evidence for this elitist attitude in the myth of Heracles, the ideal athlete who patronizes athletic contests and whose labors, called athloi, earned him immortal fame. The myth of Heracles suggests an analogy between sport and labor, and, according to Golden, by denigrating wage-labor, it implicitly condemns prize-sport. Finally, the author explores tensions created in democratic, classical Athens by the aristocratic milieu of athletics, including a separate section on the elite nature of equestrian competition with its many exceptions: one competitor might present multiple entries, slaves might compete as riders, and women could win as owners.

After this summary of S, I now turn to more specific criticism. Unfortunately, the book’s most argumentative section comes early in the first chapter, where Golden takes issue with several scholars, including Burkert, Sansone, S. G. Miller, and Brulotte.3 To better serve as an introduction to the topic, his treatment might have profited from a preliminary discussion of the general nature of ancient Greek religion. As it stands, information important to a general audience is reserved for a final salvo: “Greek sport seems very religious in contrast with most of contemporary professional sport. Is it really exceptionally so in a society in which every part of life was pervaded by cult activity and invocations of the gods?” (23).

Since S grapples with serious scholarly issues, it must inevitably employ certain technical terms, like apobates, apene, kalpe, synoris. Specialists in Greek athletics may be familiar with such vocabulary, and mature readers may make the effort to consult the helpful “Index and glossary.” But I fear a general audience will want these terms briefly defined immediately upon their introduction. The author apparently assumes that his readers already know what is meant by an expression such as ‘combat athletes.’ A few minor changes in this direction would make S a more “readable introduction” (as advertized).

Golden’s informal prose style seems generally appropriate, but is somewhat inconsistent and sometimes unclear. I single out two characteristic marks of his writing: generous use of contraction and of sentence fragments. In representing his own ideas and in translating ancient texts, Golden sporadically employs more than a dozen different types of contraction, including “they’ve” (102), “they’re” (109), “there’s” (84), “let’s” (73), and “he’d” (113). Even in the same sentence we find “can’t” and “cannot” (49); “didn’t” (148) and “don’t” (160) appear, as well as “did not” (166) and “do not” (168); both “it’s” (61) and “it is” (66) occur frequently.4 Such trifling details do not significantly mar the book, but Golden’s penchant for sentence fragments (in the first 100 pages I counted one every three pages) is more problematic. Though these fragments are often effectively abrupt, they sometimes distract and obscure. An early example: “One of the reasons horse races were an essential part of Greek athletic festivals was precisely to allow the elite to compete with each other without advertising the fact unduly, even after their communities (and to some extent other events) became more open to the participation of the poorer. And to compete longer than men who could only run, jump, throw and fight” (5-6).

The third chapter ostensibly covers “victory in literature and art,” but art receives only brief, tangential treatment. Golden contrasts the apparent death of epinician poetry after Pindar with the prevailing presence “from the mid-fifth century” of victory sculpture and dedicatory epigrams. To explain the decline of the victory ode, Golden vaguely suggests that the athletic elite had grown weary by 450 of providing communal, poetic rationale for their preferred pastime, perhaps because the elite had become more arrogant or athletic victory had lost some of its lustre. He misleadingly equates “the abandonment of epinician” with “the shift from song to statue” (86). A more systematic account of the long history of athletic sculpture would demonstrate its enduring importance in its own right, not as a substitute for song.5 Pindar’s claim that mobile epinician poetry is superior to sedentary sculpture ( Nem. 5.1-8) suggests that his audience was not entirely convinced.6

In the fourth chapter, Golden suggests that one motive behind age distinctions among competitors might have been to avoid “intergenerational rivalry,” especially to keep boys from competing with and defeating their fathers (139, 177). With this suggestion Golden seems to step over the line and carry his discourse of difference too far. The Greeks created rather specific age categories only for younger athletes, in order to provide them opportunity for development and to protect them from older competitors. In contrast, modern events and records often include specific categories which allow older competitors to claim some measure of victory (e.g. 40-49, 50-59, etc.). Throughout the chapter, Golden carefully distinguishes the specific categories ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ from ‘men’ and ‘women’, and, where appropriate, uses the more general ‘male’ and ‘female’. But in the last ten sentences, he apparently uses the specific terms (‘men’ and ‘women’) in place of the more general (‘males’ and ‘females’) (139).


1. E. N. Gardiner, Athletics of the Ancient World, Oxford, 1930; and H. A. Harris, Greek Athletes and Athletics, London, 1964.

2. Table 3 (36), which indicates geographical distribution of sixth century champions, might be more revealing if the raw data had been converted to percentages.

3. Incidentally, there is a typo in the citation of Sansone: “The starting line was at the far end of [sic] the finish line nearest to the altar of Zeus” (18). Replace ‘of’ with ‘and’.

4. Since I have broached the topic of the apostrophe, I will mention a few inconsistencies (after singular proper nouns ending in s, Golden generally prints an apostrophe followed by an s, except after a Greek name ending in es, after which he prints only the apostrophe): Apollodorus’ (146), but Apollodorus’s (75, 146); Davies’ (175), but Davies’s (173, 174); Athens’ (101, 123, 165, 170), but Athens’s (91, 171).

5. Golden explicitly refers to more than one detailed account of athletic statues: articles by W.J. Raschke and S. Lattimore, and a recent book by F. Rausa.

6. Golden’s use of Pindar is generally good. I am not so convinced as he (74), however, that the seasonal games of Pallas won by the Cyrenean Telesicrates took place at Athens (Pind. Pyth. 9.97-99).