BMCR 2005.01.20

Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece. Translated by David Hardy

, Games and sanctuaries in ancient Greece : Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 447 pages : color illustrations, color maps ; 33 cm. ISBN 0892367628. $75.00.

The holding of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens has helped bring about the publication of a number of new works on ancient Greek athletics, including Panos Valavanis’ Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece.1 In Games and Sanctuaries Valavanis [henceforth V.] surveys the history of ancient Greek athletics from the eighth century BCE through the fourth century CE. Valavanis works from the premise that “the evolution of the games was … directly related to the history of the sanctuaries at which they were held.” The focus in Games and Sanctuaries is thus squarely on the “historical and architectural development of the great sanctuaries” (p. 10), namely Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea. The narrative presented in Games and Sanctuaries is aimed at the general public, but the inclusion of more than 600 high-quality images means that specialists will find it to be a rich source of visual evidence for ancient Greek athletics.

Games and Sanctuaries is divided into eight chapters. The first of these chapters, which serves as an introduction to the work as a whole, treats the connection between athletics and religion, the history of athletics in Greece before the eighth century, and the reasons for grouping together the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games. Both in this chapter and throughout Games and Sanctuaries, V.’s text is relatively brief, and much of the space on each page is occupied by images. (The five pages of the introduction, for example, contain ten images.) V. next turns his attention to Olympia. He begins with a discussion of the site, its importance, and its patron deity. He then traces the history of the site through nine distinct chronological stages, beginning with the first human activity in the area around Olympia in the third and second millennia BCE and ending with the abandonment of the site in the seventh century CE. Most of the narrative is devoted to art and architecture, though V. also touches upon subjects such as foundation myths and the festival program. The three chapters that follow are similarly structured and explore, in turn, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea. The sixth chapter is given over to the Panathenaic Games, which are placed alongside the four Panhellenic contests because of the high profile of the Panathenaia and because of Athens’ importance (pp. 10, 337). V. adopts a somewhat different approach in discussing the Panathenaic Games in that he concentrates on the organization and contents of the festival rather than the architectural setting. In the seventh chapter V. looks at four other local games (those held in Argos, Macedonia, Larisa, and Epidauros), the nature of athletic contests in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and the end of the ancient games. The contests themselves are the subject of the final chapter, in which V. examines the running events, the pentathlon, the heavy events (boxing, wrestling, pankration), and the hippic events.

V.’s approach to the study of ancient Greek athletics, looking at the subject through the prism of the sanctuaries in which the Panhellenic athletic festivals were held, is both innovative and successful. The development of athletics was indeed directly reflected in the development of Olympia and its counterparts, and the careful excavation of the great Panhellenic sanctuaries in the past century has brought to light a wealth of material remains that V. expertly uses to explore Greek sport. The only caveat is that readers who are primarily interested in athletics may not find V.’s expansive discussion of art and architecture to be to their taste. V., for instance, devotes twenty-five pages to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and its sculptures, although this material has little immediate relevance to athletics. On the other hand, Games and Sanctuaries offers an alternative perspective that may well appeal to many who would not otherwise pick up a book on Greek sport.

Games and Sanctuaries has the additional virtue of being pitched at just the right level for an educated general audience. V.’s account of the development of Greek athletics rarely places inordinate demands on the reader but nonetheless offers a nuanced, persuasive narrative. Even specialists will find some striking insights, such as V.’s argument that the oracle at Olympia was particularly important in regard to military campaigns and that this is reflected in the nature of dedications at the site (pp. 46-47). David Hardy has done an exemplary job of translating V.’s prose, originally written in modern Greek, and has deftly managed to avoid the awkward phrasing that all too frequently marks translated works. The text is well-edited, and the illustrations are unusually plentiful and frequently arresting. The photographs of the early excavations at Olympia and Delphi (e.g., figs. 55 and 271) are particularly noteworthy.

There are, nonetheless, some aspects of Games and Sanctuaries that leave something to be desired. The most important flaws involve the images, which number 649 in all. In many places the images are not properly integrated with the text. An illustrative example can be found in the site plans for Olympia. The discussion of the remains at Olympia occupies pp. 32-161. A site plan is provided near the beginning of this discussion in the form of a lovely drawing, occupying the entirety of two pages (50-51), which was produced by the German excavators in 1881. Unfortunately, this drawing diverges in some significant ways from what we now know about the site. For example, the so-called South-East building (directly to the south of the Echo Stoa) is mistakenly identified as the Leonidaion and the area to the east of the Zeus altar is misleadingly labeled as an agora. This reviewer found himself repeatedly wishing for an up-to-date plan which indicated building phases and was surprised to come upon just such a plan on pp. 160-161, at the very end of the section on Olympia. This plan should appear at the beginning, not the end, of the discussion of Olympia. Alternatively, the text should contain one or more references to the plan so that readers can make proper use of it.

One might well wonder, in any case, about the wisdom of including antique site plans in a book aimed at the general public. The inaccuracies in these plans are a potential source of confusion, and, in regard to Olympia and Delphi, their labeling in German and French respectively limits their usefulness to the book’s intended audience. The selection of images seems to have been dictated in part by copyright issues, so that there are perhaps too many old illustrations of dubious value. There are, for example, a surprising number of reconstructions, taken from early excavation reports, of architectural members (e.g., figs. 151, 168, 170, 250).

On a number of occasions an object is both discussed and illustrated, but there is no reference in the text to the relevant illustration. The silver bull found at Delphi, for instance, is mentioned on p. 181 and illustrated in fig. 262, but the text does not refer the reader to the relevant image, located on p. 193. In some places there are divergences between the text and the captions, due to errors in the captions. V. describes a baptistery attached to the early Christian basilica at Nemea as located on the north side of the church (p. 335), while the caption for the relevant image (improperly) describes the baptistery as located on the south side (fig. 486). The standard phrase painted on Panathenaic amphorae, tôn athênêthen athlôn, is translated on p. 370 as “from the games at Athens” and in the caption to fig. 495 as “from the prizes at Athens.” The former is surely preferable. The famous bronze statue of a boxer now located in Rome is identified as the Terme Boxer in the text (p. 430) but the Therme Boxer in the caption to fig. 623.

The infelicities in the text itself all involve numbers. The table on p. 49 gives the date of the first Olympiad as 766 instead of 776. The Olympiad held in 364 BCE was the 104th iteration of the games, not the 105th (p. 116). The beginning of the Peloponnesian War is dated to 421 on p. 228, which is presumably a misprint for 431. On a related note, the caption to fig. 392 incorrectly describes the seventh-century BCE Temple of Poseidon at Isthmia as having 187 columns. (This temple had eighteen columns along the flanks and seven columns on the short ends, along with seven internal supports. One can but presume that 187 is a garbled version of 18 x 7.) There are also some issues in regard to content and organization. First, there is no list of illustrations, which would have eliminated or at least ameliorated some of the problems with the images. Second, there is no glossary, despite the fact that V. at times uses vocabulary (such as talent in the sense of a monetary unit on p. 201 and poros on p. 202) that would be unknown to a general audience. Third, it probably would have been better to discuss the nature of the contests held at Greek athletic festivals at the start rather than the end of the text. This would have helped a non-specialist reader more easily follow V.’s treatment of the history of the sanctuaries. Fourth, V. sometimes makes hyperbolic claims about the historical importance of Greek culture in general and Greek athletics in particular. He speaks about Delphi as the “political, social and cultural centre of the entire civilised world” (p. 188) and the “adoption of the Greek way of life by the entire world” in the Hellenistic period (p. 398) and claims that the ancient Olympics had a “global character” (p. 406). This perspective is not unusual within the bounds of modern Greece,2 but may seem odd to non-Greeks. Finally, there are a handful of places where V. adopts questionable positions. These would include the use of the Kafkania pebble as evidence for the early history of Elis (p. 32),3 the assertion that archaeological evidence precludes athletic activity at Olympia before 700 (p. 39),4 the claim that Agias achieved five victories at the Pythian Games,5 the idea that the polis was dissolved in the Hellenistic period (p. 246), and the statement that Alcibiades provided dinner for all the spectators at the Olympics held in 416, roughly 50,000 people in all (p. 440).6 It should in all fairness be noted that some of these problems may be the result of the translation process.

These are, however, minor blemishes on what is overall an aesthetically appealing and intellectually satisfying treatment of ancient Greek athletics. Members of the general public will find Games and Sanctuaries to be an informative read and an ornament that brightens their home. Specialists will find it to be an excellent source for high-quality images of a wide variety of objects and buildings. Professor Valavanis has done an excellent job in making Greek sport accessible to modern audiences.


1. Other recent books on ancient Greek athletics include (but are not limited to) Stephen Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven 2004) and D. Phillips and D. Pritchard (eds.), Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World (Swansea 2003).

2. On the subject of modern Greek views of ancient Greek history, see Efi Avdela, “The Teaching of History in Greece,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 18 (2000): 239-53.

3. The Kafkania pebble was found in the eponymous village, located seven kilometers north of Olympia, in 1994. It has a Linear B inscription lightly cut onto its surface. Although it has been taken as authentic by some, it is quite possibly a modern forgery. For the publication of the find, see X. Arapojanni, J. Rambach, and L. Godart, Kavkania: Die Ergebnisse der Ausgrabung von 1994 auf dem Hügel von Agrilitses (Mainz 2002). Several Mycenological epigraphy specialists have serious doubts about the authenticity of this inscription on palaeographical grounds. Thanks are due to Professor Thomas Palaima of the University of Texas at Austin for his insight on this issue.

4. A number of changes at Olympia, including the diversion of the river Kladeos and the digging of wells to provide water for spectators, took place around 700. This has led the German excavators at the site to date the beginning of athletic contests at Olympia to the late eighth century. It remains entirely possible, however, that there were earlier, purely local contests. On the archaeological evidence, see Alfred Mallwitz, “Cult and Competition Locations at Olympia,” in Wendy Raschke (ed.), The Archaeology of the Olympics (Madison 1988), 79-109.

5. The information about Agias’ victories comes from nearly identical monuments erected at Pharsalus and at Delphi. The inscription on the monument at Pharsalus credits Agias with five Pythian victories. The inscription on the monument at Delphi credits Agias with three Pythian victories. The inscription at Delphi originally also gave Agias five victories but was recut shortly after it was erected. Three is almost certainly the correct number. On this inscription, see S.G. Miller, “The Date of the First Pythiad,” CSCA 11 (1978): 127-158.

6. Alcibiades entered seven chariots at this Olympiad, was one of the Athenian theôroi appointed to attend the festival, and entertained lavishly while at Olympia. Other than a vague statement about “unstinted lavishness” in Plutarch ( Alc. 12), there is no hint in the ancient sources that Alcibiades fed all the spectators at Olympia. Even Alcibiades could not have conjured the resources necessary for such a project.