BMCR 2002.09.40

Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (Hypomnemata 138)

, Athlet und polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland. Hypomnemata ; 138. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001. 344 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3525252374.

Greek athletics are an extremely fertile field of research, as is evidenced e.g. by a periodical such as Nikephoros and the steady flow of excellent studies such as the recent ones by Mark Golden ( Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1998) and Hugh M. Lee ( The Program and Schedule of the Ancient Olympic Games, Hildesheim 2001), to mention just two examples. There has been, however, no major study of the relations between athletes and their home-poleis,1 and so Mann’s full-scale study of precisely this subject is more than welcome. And let the conclusion be stated in advance: M.’s study is very successful and highly interesting. It will appeal to both historians and classicists.

The book is subdivided into eight chapters: (two introductory chapters on methodology; five case studies; and a concluding chapter) it contains a very useful 13-page appendix on the epinician poems of Simonides (arguing that the preserved fragments stem from genuine epinicians and do not contain satirical elements), and concludes with a rich bibliography and a general index; there is, unfortunately, no index of sources.

Chapter 1 is a short but readable survey of research, to situate M.’s study in the context of modern research. M. identifies three basic trends in modern research on Greek athletics: (i) the idealising romantic trend which provides the modern Olympic movement with some fundamental tenets of its self-perception; (ii) its antipode, the ‘Entmythisierung’ exemplified by the works of e.g. Pleket and Young; and (iii) the emphasis on the cultic context of athletics (here M. takes the opportunity to point out — sensibly — that the fact that all Greek athletics were embedded in cult does not mean that political, social, economic etc. investigations are bound to fail). All three of these trends, says M., suffer from failure to allow for the diversity of Greek athletics since they disregard, e.g., diachronical developments and regional variations.

M. moves on to situate athletics in ancient Greek society. He accepts that sports and in particular the way in which they were organised and practised were in fact a peculiar characteristic of the Greeks, as they themselves thought (M. refers i.a. to Hdt. 8.26), though this is sometimes disputed. The topic is thus well suited to form the subject of analysis, M. argues. He then moves on to a brief (as it must be) discussion of the polis, in order to identify ‘Kontaktstellen’ (contact areas) between the phenomenon of athletics and the development of the polis. One such area is that of conflict or at least friction. While it is undeniable that poleis identified with their athletes, exulted in the victories of their citizens — and in the period under scrutiny that means aristocrats, according to M. — and instituted public rewards for important victories, it is also undeniable that poleis needed a body of citizens united in the pursuit of common civic interest, ideally at least. Athletics, however, were an extremely individualistic activity and in fact counterproductive when it comes to the homogeneity of the citizen body: e.g. an Olympic victory might so enhance the prestige of an aristocrat that he rose to/aspired to tyranny (Kylon of Athens, pp. 64-67; cf. Pantares of Gela, pp. 236-37).

One question which could have been addressed in a little more depth is, however, precisely at what point in time the close identification between athlete and polis developed. In the classical period it is obvious (cf. pp. 120 and 297), but did it exist in the early sixth century while the polis was still developing, as M. seems to assume? I think it did exist at least in the later sixth century (cf. p. 153) and perhaps earlier as well, but the question is a real one nonetheless. It is, to be fair, partly and indirectly addressed in the discussion of the Solonian law on athletics (which is assumed to be genuine and interpreted as a reduction of pre-existing rewards) on pp. 71ff. Another interesting possibility is that the public honours instituted by poleis functioned not only as communal acknowledgement of the importance of a victory but also as a mechanism by which the polis (by becoming the source of some of the symbolic value of victory) took its share of the symbolic capital which victory created, and in this way denied the full profit of victory to potential troublemakers. Again, some of this ground is covered in the Solonian discussion pp. 79-80. These remarks, then, concern the structure of the study rather than its contents.

Finally, M. justifies his chronological framework: the lower chronological limit is the early classical period because the aristocracy lost its athletic monopoly after this date. Of course, it has been disputed whether aristocrats ever enjoyed an athletic monopoly, but M. addresses this question.

In short, M.’s study is primarily of the tensions between aristocratic ethics and the pressures brought about by the social integration demanded by the polis (though e.g. the case studies of Kroton and Aigina argue for the absence of such tensions) and of the ways in which victors invested the symbolic capital created by victory. The study also attempts to redress the neglect of regional variations on the part of earlier scholarship by selecting a wide range of poleis for case studies: Athens, Sparta, Kroton, Aigina, and the tyrant-governed poleis of Sicily. It is, in other words, a well-thought-out and ably argued first chapter.

The individual case studies are preceded by a short second chapter on sources. The chapter addresses issues of central importance for M.’s study, such as e.g. epinician poetry. The historical interpretation of such poetry is, unsurprisingly, seriously hampered by the fact that we know little about the way(s) in which such odes were commissioned, composed, and consumed (and that these factors are far from insignificant is shown e.g. by the discussion of Pind. Pyth. 7 pp. 91ff.). Potentially, however, Epinician is a source of the utmost importance since it should give us access to the self-image of the honorandi.2 In order for this to be so, the individual honorandus/commissioner must have had control of the general contents and tenor of the ode. M. judiciously points out that the very fact that the epinician ode was commissioned — and handsomely paid for — to a large degree ensures that it cannot have run completely counter to the image the honorandus wished to have conveyed. Otherwise the poet would have been out of business! And in fact, M. is able to show, in the case studies devoted to Aigina (pp. 192-235) and the tyrants of Sicily (pp. 236-91), remarkable differences in the depiction of the victors. So the genre of the epinician should allow an idea of the image of various prominent victors and thus produce important data for M.’s analysis.

Another crucial problem addressed is that of the reliability of our information about Olympic victors: since the list of Olympionikai compiled by Hippias of Elis ca. 400 is presumably the ultimate source of most other lists, it is of course important to examine the reliability of the information brought into circulation by Hippias. M. does this by asking whether it is realistic to believe that Hippias simply fabricated his list. And he goes on to provide reasons why this is not realistic; and in any case, he adds, the list is important chiefly for large-scale trends — such as the extreme success of Krotoniate runners in the period under consideration — and not for every single detail it provides.

Another important consideration concerns the circumstances under which Hippias produced his list. Even basically historical information may be manipulated to make or prove certain points. If it is correct that Hippias composed his list ca. 400 then he must have been working on it while the war in which Sparta deprived Elis of its perioikoi 3 was still fresh in memory or even raging. We know from Xenophon that the Spartans after the defeat of Elis briefly considered but rejected depriving Elis of its control of Olympia, which was held not to belong to Elis as of old, and that in the 360s the Pisatans still claimed to be the original prostatai of the sanctuary. Elis’ administration of Olympia was thus not undisputed. Consider now the description in Phlegon of Tralles of the winner of the 772 BC stadion race as Ἀντίμαξηος Ἡλεῖος ἐκ Δυσποντίου. Now, in 772 Pisatis,4 to which Dyspontion belonged, did not form a part of Elis and Elis did not control Olympia; accordingly, Moretti suggested that the description of Antimachos as an ‘Eleian from Dyspontion’ was due to Hippias, who manipulated the application of the ethnic ‘Eleios’ in order to legitimise Eleian control of Olympia by retrojecting it as far back as possible. It may thus be suggested that Hippias was not entirely unaffected by contemporary political issues.

The individual regional chapters teem with good observations, e.g. the discussion of the Solonian law on athletics pp. 70-81. Specialists will benefit from these discussions and possibly be challenged by them as well since M. often goes against fashionable trends. I shall comment here merely on the chapter on Kroton (chapter 5). In the century 588-488 Krotoniate athletes achieved at least 20 Olympic victories and no fewer than 11 of 26 Olympic stadion races were won by Krotoniates in this period. Prior to 588, only a single Krotoniate victor is known and after 488 not a single victor is on record. This needs, obviously, an explanation and has attracted considerable attention. M. briefly reviews and dismisses earlier research on this question (by Giangiulio and Young).5 M. himself believes that the renowned medical school of Kroton and the strong presence of Pythagoreans in the city were conditions favourable to the emergence of training theory proper and that such theory may account for the fact that in this period Krotoniate athletes were simply better than others. There are, however, chronological difficulties with this view, as M. admits: the athletic success of Krotoniate athletes begins in 588 on present evidence, but the medical school is visible only from the later sixth century and Pythagoreans were simply not around prior to ca. 530. Other factors, then, must account for the onset of massive success. This factor was, M. hypothesises, an unusually stable oligarchic constitution in which athletics were more than usually valued and restricted to the aristocracy which however abstained from ruinous competitive rivalry. The end of success, in its turn, was brought about by the fall of the oligarchy and the rise of democracy, though the chronological fit is again far from perfect: the latest victories considered here are the 488 victories of Astylos, but Robinson was ready to consider Kroton a democracy ca. 510.6 However, M. laudably does not hide the fact that no obvious explanation is forthcoming and that his own suggestion is a hypothesis. At the moment, it is an untestable hypothesis.

The editing of the text is very good and I noted only minor and insignificant errors. Greek is regularly accompanied by translations and the book is thus accessible also to Greekless historians of athletics. Factual inaccuracies are few and in view of the, literally, large area covered by M.’s investigation they are few indeed. The overall conclusion must surely be that M. has written an important and readable book which will remain influential in its field for a long time.


1. See, however, the study of Athens by D.G. Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens, Leiden 1987.

2. There is a new study of Deinomenid self-presentation at home and in Olympia and Delphi, drawing i.a. on epinician poetry, by S. Harrell, ‘King or Private Citizen: Fifth-Century Sicilian Tyrants at Olympia and Delphi’, Mnemosyne 55 (2002) 439-64.

3. On the Eleian perioikoi, see J. Roy, ‘The Perioikoi of Elis’, in M.H. Hansen (ed.), The Polis as an Urban Centre and as a Political Community, Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre 4 (Copenhagen 1997) 282-320. I discuss Elis’ exploitation of Olympia further in my ‘A Polis as a Part of a Larger Identity Group. Glimpses from the History of Lepreon’ (forthcoming).

4. On Pisatis, see now J. Roy, ‘The Pattern of Settlement in Pisatis. the ‘Eight Poleis”, in T.H. Nielsen (ed.), Even More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis, Papers from the Copenhagen Polis Centre 6, Historia Einzelschriften 162 (Stuttgart 2002) 229-47.

5. M.’s preface is dated September 2000, and so he could not possibly have known the spirited paper by Stephen G. Miller, ‘Naked Democracy’ which discusses i.a. Krotoniate success at Olympia and will be of interest to students of Greek athletics; it is found in P. Flensted-Jensen et al., Polis & Politics, Studies Presented to Mogens Herman Hansen, Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen 2000, pp. 277-85.

6. E.W. Robinson, The First Democracies. Early Popular Government Outside Athens, Historia Einzelschriften 107, Stuttgart 1997, pp. 76-77. Miller (above note 2, pp. 286) accepts the classification of late sixth-century Kroton as a democracy.