BMCR 2002.05.20

Eros and Greek Athletics

, Eros & Greek athletics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (viii, 466 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780195348767. £25.00/$35.00.

Thomas F. Scanlon fulfills the purpose of his Eros and Greek Athletics with the survey in his eighth chapter of the same title. Scanlon traces the burgeoning associations between Eros and athletics that arose from the physical attraction of the successful athlete among other athletes and spectators of both sexes. During the sixth century, athletic nudity and the founding and popularity of the gymnasium fostered the practice of pederasty between a young male and older male. Scanlon concludes that the instruction afforded the eromenos by his erastes“is perhaps the most important social function of eros in Greek athletics” (217).

Not all athletic eros is homosexual, however. Chios (uncertain) and Sparta have left evidence for games involving nude boys and girls for the purpose of arousing them erotically and displaying the male’s suitableness for marriage. Plato’s similar educational program in the Republic, based perhaps on Spartan practice, and Pindar’s odes are reviewed for the association of athletics and heterosexual eros. Scanlon then examines athletic eroticism on vases and in cults and festivals dedicated to Eros. The altar and statue of Eros, erected in the Academy in the 530s and 520s, indicates the interest Pisistratus or Hippias, following in the path of Solon’s legislation, took in encouraging the bonds created by athletic eros in the gymnasium. Scanlon finds in the tribal torch race of the Panathenaia, run from the altar of Eros in the Academy (perhaps) to the shrine of Anteros (Eros Returned) on the Acropolis, a symbol of “the spirit of what Athenians saw as the source of civic prosperity, the greatest source of strength in the gymnasium” (257-258), namely, the relationship of the eromenos with an erastes. This prominence of Eros holds true whether the race ends in the shrine of Anteros or at the altar of Athena.

But Eros and Greek Athletics far exceeds its announced subject to become, in words Scanlon uses in another context, “a comprehensive overview of the function of athletics in Greek society” (283).

Chapter One, “Greek Athletics and Religion,” traces the connections between athletics and religion from epic through the early sixth century, the formative period of the periodic games, to the classical period. It offers the suggestion that the link in the Greek mentality between religion and athletics was forged by the interest that the gods of Homeric epic show in contests and the impact on Greeks of divine favoritism toward certain competitors. From this association grew the belief that their gods were concerned with, and delighted by, the outcome of games, leading to the incorporation of contests into rituals and finally into festivals. Athletes vied in games, while participants at the festival competed in offering sacrifices, as both strove to till the deity’s favor. The foremost example of this dynamic is the games at Olympia, the model for athletic festivals to come, whose relations between religion and athletics were multiple and diverse.

“The Ecumenical Olympics: The Games in the Roman Era” follows the metamorphosis of Olympia and its games throughout the Roman period. Contrary to views asserted by E. Norman Gardiner and perpetuated in handbooks, Scanlon points out, the games retained much of their “religious and athletic traditions” (41), and athletes, although better organized and from a wider geographical area, were no more professional than their predecessors in the classical period. The games became “ecumenical” because of the gradual loss of “one’s ‘pure’ ethnic identity” (46) through the influence of the Roman empire. Changes in the games and the fate of Olympia itself depended less upon internal decline than upon the effects of earthquakes, the failing economy of Greece before the prosperity of Africa and the East, and the vagaries of the emperors. The Eleans accepted most changes, resisted the extremes emanating from Rome, and abided steadfastly to the end. The inquiry is divided into four historical periods from 31 B. C. E. to 393 C. E., each of which is followed by an analysis of the distribution of its Olympic victors.

The third chapter, “Athletics, Initiation, and Pederasty,” finds no support in the evidence for the long asserted belief that athletics and pederasty originated in initiation rituals that conducted adolescent males into adulthood. Rather, both athletics and pederasty emerged as aspects of the social revolution that swept across Greece in the seventh century. Greek educational practices, in turn, frequently borrowed or assimilated initiatory practices but did not derive from a prehistorical ritual. An extensive survey of the institutions of education and athletics in Crete, Sparta, Thera, Athens, and Thebes demonstrates that educational practices were established in these cultures during historical times and addressed contemporary problems and forces in their societies. Noteworthy is Scanlon’s conclusion that the Spartan agoge, founded in the sixth century, discouraged Spartan participation in the Olympic and other external festivals by turning the attention of young men to its initiatory purposes.

“Racing For Hera: A Girl’s Contest at Olympia” quickly races beyond the evidence for the Heraia into speculation about their origin and influence upon the Olympic program. The Heraia, known only from Pausanias (5.16), featured races run by three age groups of virgin girls. Scanlon agrees with the general consensus that the ritual is a rite of transition and display of health in preparation for marriage and accepts Nancy Serwint’s proposal that the dress worn by the girls and by the London statuette is the exomis, a male’s garb worn as a costume denoting liminality.1 Admitting the lack of information about the origin of the Heraia and its relationship with the Olympic Festival, in Tacitean-like manner ( sine ira et cum studio), Scanlon derives and suggests evidence by analogy with other festivals featuring female races and from possible evidence for the presence of the cults of Hera and Hippodameia at Olympia in the seventh century and as early as the Mycenean period. Striking is his suggestion that the earliest Olympic program and the Heraia may have been modeled on a common format or one may have influenced the other. The fifth chapter, “‘Only We Produce Men’: Spartan Female Athletes and Eugenics,” examines the scanty and late evidence for athletics among the girls of Sparta. Spartan females followed a regimen of segregation, athletic training, and pederasty much like that of the boys but with the purpose of conditioning their bodies for attracting a husband and birthing and nourishing children. The chapter concludes with an investigation of twenty-six bronze mirror handles and votive statuettes that depict Spartan girls engaged, naked or nearly naked, in dances and contests. The figurines are catalogued in an appendix.

Chapter Six, “Race or Chase of The Bears at Brauron?”, pursues the role of running in the cults of Artemis practiced in Attica in the festivals of the Brauronia and the Munichia. It reviews evidence provided by thirty-four vases and fragments, which are catalogued in an appendix, and by foundation myths. Scanlon concludes that the running was neither a race nor an athletic competition but a chase based on the analogy of the hunt. This view concurs with the initiatory purpose embodied in these rituals as a flight from civilization into the wild and the eventual pursuit and taming of the young girl.

Chapter Seven, “Atalanta and Athletic Myths of Gender,” approaches its subject through its mythmaking impetus of male valor and strength embodied in a beautiful and erotically attractive female. Literary sources allow Scanlon to explore the role reversals caused by a virgin who flees marriage and men for the wilds of Artemis. The myths focus upon Atalanta as a runner who races to flee suitors and marriage. Vase paintings of the sixth century feature Atalanta in the main as a wrestler shown competing against, and, in six depictions, apparently defeating Peleus. The contest is depicted realistically with the athletes engaged before an umpire and spectators and competing for a prize. Atalanta appears on other vases in gymnasium scenes with Peleus where the presence of Eros seems to indicate that rivalry had been set aside in favor of the eroticism of the setting. Overall, the myth shows Atalanta not as a role model for women but as an anomaly whose otherness must in the end submit, dominated by male society and its marriage.

The final chapter, “Drama, Desire, and Death in Athletics,” surveys the foundation myths and cults of athletic festivals, Eros manifested as desire and as one extreme, with death the other, that “give meaning to the contest” (299) in the context of the contest as performance. Scanlon prefaces this survey by comparing athletics and drama as performances, analogous “forms of symbolic communication” (278). Both evince an agonal spirit within a festive occasion and draw out similar responses from an audience gathered in a place of viewing, the stadium or theater. Both, moreover, convey similar messages, the ideology of the hero who strove on the model of the warrior to display his arete and win fame for himself and his city. And yet, although a contest shares external aspects with drama, it lacks a plot, it does not follow a script, it cannot be reproduced in the same way, and it reflects rather than, in the way of drama, questions cultural ideology. The announcer Mel Allen may have approached the spectacle in Yankee Stadium as entertainment but, for the fans, Dodgers vs. Yankees was a life-and-death, take-no-prisoners rivalry that was executed on the principle eloquently articulated by the foremost philosopher of the game, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Throughout this in-depth survey, Scanlon treats the evidence thoroughly and judiciously. Frequent summaries keep the reader focused on the forest. Illustrations accompany many of the vases and artifacts discussed. The cover illustration, a reluctant lover drawn down by a youth to his ready lips, is in itself a stimulating preface. The conclusion provides a helpful resource for creating a course syllabus. The book is a trove of bibliography and insights into most aspects of athletics in Greek culture. Most importantly, Scanlon has enriched our understanding of Eros, that most potent force in every culture.


1. Nancy Serwint, “The Female Athletic Costume at the Heraia and Prenuptial Initiation Rites,” American Journal of Archaeology 97 (1993): 403-422. London statuette: British Museum Br. 208, Scanlon’s Figure 4-1.