BMCR 2004.12.10

Ancient Greek Athletics

, Ancient Greek athletics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. ix, 288 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 27 cm. ISBN 0300100833. $35.00.

Stephen Miller has the market for ancient Greek athletics textbooks sewn up. With the publication of this book and with the third edition of his nonpareil sourcebook ( Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources [Berkeley: University of California Press 2004]) coming out this year as well, anyone teaching Greek athletics or any manner of ancient athletics will find a tremendous resource in Miller’s work. Miller provides the reader with an well-written, wide-ranging account of athletics in Greece from its origins to its demise in Late Antiquity with occasional asides about its legacy — often a false one — in the modern Olympics. Most importantly, Miller’s reconstruction is carefully grounded in the ancient sources, both literary and archaeological, which are liberally quoted in the text and keyed to the collection of sources in Arete. This practice immeasurably increases the text’s usefulness for the classroom, as do the glossary and index. In addition, the book is lavishly illustrated with both color and black-and-white photos which are synchronized to the discussion in the text. Although this text is clearly aimed at an undergraduate and an educated general audience interested in ancient athletics, its extensive bibliographies (which are appended to each chapter in place of endnotes) make it a useful reference resource for any professional’s library.

The introduction briefly orients the reader to the history of athletics in the Greek world from the Bronze Age to the advent of Christianity as the Roman state religion and the concomitant end of athletic practice, closely associated as it was with pagan cult practice. Here Miller also discusses the place that athletics had in Greek culture and the primary types of evidence that we have for them. The discussion is necessarily brief but provides a preview of some of the written sources (Pausanias in particular and inscriptions) and some of the visual sources (vase-painting, sculpture, athletic equipment, etc.).

The next chapter reveals that “The World of Greek Athletics” was very different from the modern athletics we know today. Here Miller turns some common preconceptions on their heads: “athletics was not simply about competition; it concerned winning a prize. Sport for sport’s sake was not an ancient concept.” (11) His discussion of athletic nudity, infibulation, the use of oil and dust by athletes, physical punishment for fouls, and the lack of team events masterfully and lucidly covers some controversial topics without glossing over difficulties in interpretation.

“The Origin of Greek Athletics” continues in the manner of the previous chapter. While some will undoubtedly dispute Miller’s dismissal of Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures or the cultures of the Greek Bronze Age as sources for later Greek athletics, his presentation of archaeological evidence for Minoan and Mycenaean sport and subsequent discussion of that evidence in the context of textual evidence from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and other early sources provides the main lines for any debate over this issue.

“The Crown Competitions: The Events at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia” moves to a long (55 pages), detailed, and beautifully illustrated discussion of the main events that took place at the most famous games held in the ancient Greek world. In particular, the extensive discussion and illustration of the issues surrounding the starting lines of the footraces provides a welcome synthesis of the large body of research on the topic. Moreover, the demystification of the modern Marathon serves as an excellent and fascinating end to this section. Sections on wrestling, boxing, the pankration, the pentathlon, and the horse races are equally well illustrated and covered. Miller also covers musical events at Delphi and other events such as the competition between heralds and the trumpet competition that might seem completely strange to a modern audience (though with the inclusion of synchronized swimming and diving in the modern Olympics that might not, in fact, be the case).

Often topography gets little notice from social historians, but this is not true of Miller’s description of “The Sites of the Crown Competitions.” As Miller is the longtime director of excavations at Nemea, this careful attention to the landscape as a necessary part of understanding and appreciating athletic practice is not surprising and is a welcome addition to the discussion. The chapter is lavishly illustrated and Miller seamlessly connects the archaeological remains and literary evidence with the function of all four of these sites in antiquity.

The next chapter is a unique reconstruction of the major events that perhaps occurred as a part of the Olympic games in 300 B.C. Miller’s day-by-day account of the preliminaries, the festival proceedings, and events is dramatic, fascinating, and carefully based on the ancient literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources.

In the following chapter, Miller examines the so-called “Money Games at Epidauros, Athens, Larissa, and Sparta.” These games differed from the more famous “crown” games in that “the winner’s prize was either cash or something that could be converted into cash.” (129) Briefer than the discussion of the major panhellenic festivals, this chapter covers the basic elements of the Asklepia in Epidauros, the Panathenaia at Athens, the Eleutheria at Larissa, and the Karneia in Sparta, synthesizing briefly the chief literary and archaeological evidence.

The next three chapters examine important topics: women, heroes, sport, and recreation. In “Women and Athletics,” Miller looks at the participation and non-participation of women in athletics. In the chapter that follows, Miller examines briefly the meaning of the term “hero” in relation to ancient Greek athletics and cult worship, with discussion of some famous athletes such as Milo of Kroton, who never attained hero status in that they never were worshipped, and others, such as Theagenes of Thasos, who did. “Sport and Recreation” considers other types of physical activities that the ancient Greeks enjoyed and played (hunting, ball games, juggling, knucklebones, etc.) but that fell outside the realm of athletics.

“Training: the World of the Gymnasion and the Palaistra” begins with a discussion of the two main areas that any ancient training facility would have. Much of what follows centers on Vitruvius’ description and the archaeological remains at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and elsewhere. The people who did the training of athletes and administered these facilities naturally are discussed, along with what is known of the rules and regulations governing them.

The final chapters examine a variety of topics: how athletics became more an entertainment business during the Hellenistic and Roman periods; the meaning of “amateur” and “professional” with regard to athletics in the ancient world; the relationship between politics and the panhellenic games; the relationship between athletics and society; and, finally and appropriately, a meditation on the meaning of arete.

Before concluding, I should add that Yale University Press is to be commended for the superb quality of the book’s layout and overall production, the excellent proofreading, and the splendid illustration that has been so carefully synchronized to the discussion in the text.

In sum, Miller has provided a highly readable and much needed synthesis of the enormous body of scholarship on ancient Greek athletics produced over the past two decades. With the growing popularity of the subject among the general public, students, and scholars there has been an increasing need for a single work to bring together the various strands of the discussion and debate. Stephen Miller has done just that.