BMCR 2000.06.24

The Ancient Olympic Games (2nd ed.)

, The ancient Olympic Games.. London: British Museum, 1999. 112 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm. ISBN 0714121614 £8.99.

Swaddling’s second edition of The Ancient Olympic Games is the latest addition to the fast-growing bibliography on ancient Greek sport. Originally produced as a companion to an exhibition on the ancient Olympic games held at the British Museum in the early 1980’s, the book retains much of its original format and content. In fact, with the exception of a few entirely new sections that reflect modern popular interests and attitudes towards sport (e.g. “Doctors and Trainers”, pp. 45-46, “Diet and Exercise”, p. 47, “Hazards and Drugs”, p. 48, “Politics, Scandal and Propaganda”, pp. 94-98), the second edition is largely a reproduction of the original text. As a result, the book echoes traditional or even outdated views about the historical development of the Olympic festival that have been contested in recent scholarship. One should also note that, although never explicitly stated, this book is written with the interested non-specialist in mind, as the numerous analogies with modern athletes and practices and the 108 maps, drawings and illustrations suggest.

Chapter 1 “The Olympic Games: Where and Why?” is a brief introduction to the two major themes of the book, i.e. the site of Olympia and the Olympic games. Regarding the origins of the Olympic festival, Swaddling maintains that “athletic festivals like the Olympic Games developed from the funeral games that were held in honour of local heroes” (p. 10). Although this statement is partly in keeping with the Homeric tradition, both literary and archaeological evidence suggest that Olympia was a special case. The site had a long pre-athletic life during which it gradually developed into an important religious center.1 Hence it seems more likely that at Olympia athletic events were initially introduced as a supplement to the expanding religious activity.2 The canonical date for the establishment of the games (776 BC) is another point of recent scholarly debate. Swaddling is of the opinion that “competitions appear to have been held on an unofficial basis long before this” (p. 10). Based on the current state of the archaeological evidence (see below) this appears highly unlikely. The overwhelming majority of scholars now agree that the traditional date is too high and that Olympia did not have in place an elaborate athletic festival before the end of the eighth century BC.3

Chapter 2 “The Site” is devoted to a brief examination of the various monuments at Olympia. After a short history of the archaeological excavations at the site, the author leads the reader on an imaginary tour of the most important monuments in a section that reproduces the text of the first edition with only slight additions. However, recent excavations and the re-examination of previously published material have significantly changed our view of the site, especially during its archaic phase. Overall, it appears that the sanctuary of Olympia did not emerge as an inter-regional festival site until the end of the eighth century BC. Around that time a large part of the Altis was leveled for use by an expanding number of visitors. At that time the river Kladeos ran over parts of the western Altis, where the future Gymnasion and Leonidaion were located. The archaic stadium (Stadium I) was not in place until the mid-sixth century BC, but there was quite possibly an earlier stadium (at this stage it was probably nothing more than a flattened race-track), on the same location as Stadium I, where the games were originally held.4

Chapter 3 “Records and Regulations” contains sections on the rules imposed upon athletes and trainers during the games, the presence of women at Olympia and the Heraia games. Swaddling correctly points out that flogging and the imposition of fines were the penalties imposed on athletes who failed to comply with the rules (p. 39). The author also alludes to the story of Lichas as an example of flogging at Olympia, but, contrary to what Swaddling claims, he was not “a Boeotian competitor in the chariot race, who had claimed to be Spartan because the Boeotians had been banned from the Games” (p. 39). Rather Lichas was an important Spartan public figure who entered a chariot team under the colors of the Thebans in 420 BC when the Spartans were banned from the games (Thuc. 5.50). For those who competed, winning first place was everything. Swaddling is in general right when she claims that “coming second or third counted for nothing” although this statement should be qualified in the light of one conspicuous exception to the rule, i.e. Alcibiades, who was able to boast of winning first, second and fourth positions in the four-horse chariot race at the Olympic Games of 416 BC (Thuc. 6,16; Plut. Alc. 11; Isocr. 16.34). Alcibiades’ attitude is indicative of the symbolic value that a successful showing in the expensive chariot-racing events held for the Greek aristocracy.

Chapter 4 (“Preparation and Training”) includes interesting new sections on ancient athletics and medicine, diet and exercise for which Swaddling draws primarily from rhetorical or medical treatises by Hippokrates, Galen and Philostratus. These authors appear to have had limited knowledge of the practice of sport, something that Swaddling ignores. As much as one would like to know, there is little comparative evidence to corroborate claims that these authors make about training and dietary habits of ancient athletes (although Hippokrates and Galen are probably reliable in medical matters) and therefore the reader should be careful not to accept uncritically all the information that this chapter contains.

In Chapters 5 “The Programme”, 6 “The Events” and 7 “Prize-Giving and Celebrations” the author provides a good overview of the athletic competitions and other celebrations during the ancient Olympic festival. As Swaddling correctly points out, the program of the various athletic events can be reconstructed only hypothetically on the basis of the fragmentary literary sources. Contrary to Swaddling’s suggested program, it is now believed that at least since the fifth century BC the boys’ contests took place sometime after the procession and sacrifice to Zeus and the bulk of the men’s athletic events, including footraces, combat sports and race in armor, during the last day of competition.5 When we turn to the individual events, modern students of Greek athletics are fortunate to have at their disposal a large number of representations of sport activities in vase-painting and coinage, a fact that is duly exploited by the author in her discussion. These representations not only illuminate obscure references in literary sources but also provide additional information on technical aspects of sport performance in antiquity. Swaddling omits any discussion of the competition for heralds and trumpeters, held the first day of the festival. Although not strictly athletic, these contests were an integral part of the official Olympic program after 396 BC and the winners were also considered Olympic victors.

Chapter 8 “Politics, Scandal and Propaganda” is also a new addition to the second edition and partly reflects recent sociological approaches to ancient sport. Swaddling (pp. 94-96) correctly talks about state-sponsoring for successful athletes and places appropriate emphasis on the high cash rewards that winners were receiving from their home polis after their victory at one of the panhellenic games. Her discussion at this point is obviously influenced by the work of H. Pleket and D. Young,6 although in other parts of the book she still refers to “amateur” and “professional” athletes (pp. 51 and 75). At any event, it is now established that it is misleading to see ancient Greek athletics within the framework of early twentieth-century conceptions of amateurism/professionalism. Even though a large number of Greek athletes (at least those for whom we know something beyond their name) were aristocrats, all athletes in antiquity were potential recipients of cash prizes in the numerous athletic festivals organized around the Greek world.

In addition to material rewards, Olympic victors enjoyed the panhellenic renown that came with their victory. This went beyond simple prestige: as has been demonstrated by L. Kurke, victory in any of the games of the periodos was essentially viewed, especially during the archaic period and the early fifth century BC, as the embodiment of the talismanic power of kudos which enhanced the victor’s charismatic appearance and had direct consequences for his public career.7 Success in horse-races in particular, the aristocratic sport par excellence, was keenly exploited in political discourse by the social elites in order to emphasize their position in the network of power relations and to achieve the perpetuation of the dominant ideology.8

In the final chapter (9, “Death and Rebirth”) the author discusses briefly the demise of the ancient Olympic festival and its reestablishment in 1896. The exact date of the last Olympic festival in antiquity is unknown (p. 100), but a recently discovered inscribed bronze plaque which contains a record of dated Olympic victories provides new and valuable insight into the nature of the festival during the later Roman period and firm evidence that the games were held until at least AD 385.9 The establishment of the modern Olympic games is usually seen as the result of the effort of one individual, the French nobleman Pierre de Coubertin — a view echoed by Swaddling (pp. 101ff). Ongoing archival research by an international team of scholars is gradually revising the traditional view of de Coubertin, reassessing the importance of earlier nineteenth-century Olympic revivals such as the Brookes Olympics in England and the Zappas Olympics in Athens and in general revealing that the story behind the genesis of the modern Olympic movement is far more complicated.10

Swaddling’s The Ancient Olympic Games could have been significantly enriched, without necessarily becoming cumbersome for the non-specialist reader, had the author incorporated recent findings of historians and archaeologists working on Olympia and the Olympics. The classicist seeking an overview of ancient Greek sport will still need to consult the recent surveys by Wolfgang Decker ( Sport in der griechischen Antike, München 1995) and Mark Golden ( Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1998). Despite its limited scope, the present book is in general a nicely illustrated, lucidly-written, balanced introduction to the site of ancient Olympia and to Greek sport practices. As such, at least to the mind of this reviewer, it would serve its presumed purpose if it is read with caution by readers with little or no background in the ancient world.


1. Cf. C. Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century BC, Cambridge 1990.

2. Cf. Alfred Mallwitz, “Cult and Competition Locations at Olympia” in Wendy J. Raschke (ed.), The Archaeology of the Olympics. The Olympics and other Festivals in Antiquity, Madison 1988, 79-109.

3. Wolfgang Decker, Sport in der griechischen Antike, München 1995, 43-44.

4. Cf. Alfred Mallwitz, op.cit., (n. 2); H. Kyrieleis, “Neue Ausgrabungen in Olympia”, AW 21 (1990), 177-188; id., “Neue Ausgrabungen in Olympia” in W. Coulson and H. Kyrieleis (eds.), Proceedings of an International Symposium on the Olympic Games, Athens 1992, 21ff.; J. Schilbach, “Olympia. Die Entwicklungsphase des Stadions” in W. Coulson and H. Kyrieleis (eds.), op.cit., 33-37.

5. H. M. Lee, “Some changes in the Ancient Olympics Program and Schedule” in W. Coulson and H. Kyrieleis (eds), op. cit. (n. 4), 105-111; I. Weiler, Der Sport bei den Völkern der alten Welt. Eine Einfürung (2nd ed.), Darmstadt 1988, 112-3; Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1998, 18ff.

6. H. W. Pleket, “Zur Soziologie des antiken Sports” MNIR 36 (1974), 57-87; id., “Games, Prizes, Athletes and Ideology” Stadion 1 (1975), 49-89; David C. Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics, Chicago 1984.

7. Leslie Kurke, “The Economy of Kudos” in Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (eds), Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece. Cult, Performance, Politics, Cambridge 1993, 131-168.

8. Cf. Mark Golden, “Equestrian Competition in Ancient Greece: Difference, Dissent, Democracy” Phoenix 51 (1997), 327-344; id., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1998, 169ff.

9. Cf. J. Ebert, “Zur neuen Bronzeplatte mit Siegerinschriften aus Olympia (Inv. 1148)” Nikephoros 10 (1997), 217-233.

10. Cf. for instance David C. Young, The Modern Olympics. A Struggle for Revival, Baltimore 1996.