BMCR 2006.07.32

Greek Athletics in the Roman World: Victory and Virtue

, Greek athletics in the Roman world : victory and virtue. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xiv, 314 pages) : illustrations, maps, plans.. ISBN 9781429470902. $150.00.

Zahra Newby’s Greek Athletics in the Roman World: Victory and Virtue (hereafter Victory and Virtue) is an examination of how Greek athletics functioned in the cultural context of the Roman empire. Newby (hereafter N.) concentrates on visual evidence, particularly mosaics and statues, which she supplements liberally with textual and epigraphic sources. In the first half of the book she argues that during the first through third centuries AD Greek-style athletic festivals became an important part of spectacle in Rome, while Greek-style training became a popular leisure activity in public baths. In the second half of the book she argues that athletics flourished in the eastern part of the empire, providing both individuals and communities with a means of linking past and present and of maintaining and asserting a specifically Hellenic identity.

Victory and Virtue is based on a dissertation that N. completed in the year 2000 under the supervision of Jas’ Elsner, and N.’s work is clearly influenced by Elsner’s predilection for combining visual and textual sources.1 This combination is particularly fruitful in the first half of the book, in which N.’s careful studies of mosaics and statuary offer a more nuanced picture of the reception of Greek athletics in Rome than is possible using texts alone. Mosaics with athletic scenes found in public bathing establishments are of special significance because they reflect the practices and sensibilities of a wider public, as opposed to the elite self-representation that dominates most literary sources. The texts display considerable hostility to Greek athletics, while the material evidence indicates that the residents of Rome gradually made Greek athletics part of their spectacles and bathing routines. At the same time, N. recognizes that some aspects of Greek athletics, especially nudity and participation in public athletic competitions, always remained problematic. The result is a convincing diachronic history of a progressive Roman adaptation of Greek athletics that never crossed over into wholesale adoption and that reached a peak in the Severan period.

The second half of Victory and Virtue is less successful because it deals with a much more complex body of evidence that could not be compressed into a unitary narrative. There is an indisputable logic to the structure of Victory and Virtue : paired, concise accounts of athletics in the western and eastern parts of the empire that permit comparison and contrast. Practical difficulties, however, made this structure impossible to realize fully. In the first half of the book, N. focuses primarily on a single city, Rome, in which Greek athletics did not play much of a role prior to the late Republic. In the second half, she turns her attention to the eastern part of the empire as a whole, in which athletics had a long and complicated history that varied substantially from region to region. Cities in mainland Greece, for example, had a different attitude toward athletics than recently Hellenized communities in Asia Minor. N. acknowledges the existence of regional variations, which she addresses by carrying out three case studies that involve the ephêbeia in Athens and Sparta, victor statues at Olympia as described by Pausanias, and euergetism in the form of gymnasia and festivals in Asia Minor. These case studies could not, however, be readily woven together into the sort of lucid account that is found in the first half of the book. N.’s attempts to generalize about this disparate material result in some unsurprising conclusions about athletics in the eastern part of the empire. It is possible to produce relatively compact discussions of athletics in specific regions of the eastern part of the Roman empire or to restrict one’s attention to a single category of evidence that elides most regional differences. Onno van Nijf has done the former for Asia Minor, and Jason Knig has done the latter using literary texts.2 An attempt to treat the societal functions of athletics in the entire eastern part of the empire using visual, textual, and epigraphic sources as the second part of a monograph was probably destined to come to an unsatisfactory end.

Despite some problems with execution, Victory and Virtue is a valuable addition to the growing body of recent scholarship on the later history of Greek athletics and on cultural production during the Second Sophistic. In the past decade or so there has been a thoroughgoing reassessment of Greek athletics in the Roman empire. The received wisdom had long been that Greek athletics sunk into relative obscurity in the Hellenistic period and continued to be moribund thereafter. Andrew Farrington, Thomas Scanlon and others have shown that the first three centuries AD were a period not of decline but of great vitality for Greek athletics in general and Olympia in particular.3 This phenomenon has, however, heretofore been largely studied in the eastern half of the empire.4 N. adds a significant new dimension to our understanding of athletic activity during the empire by concentrating on Rome itself and suggests a persuasive and important revision of the idea that Romans largely rejected Greek athletics.

The ongoing spate of scholarly work on the Second Sophistic has also resulted in a reassessment of received wisdom. What had been seen as a period of bland imitation is now understood as a time when new senses of identity were being crafted by means of a “creative engagement with the past”.5 Within that scholarship there has been some debate as to the importance of athletics. Maud Gleason and Thomas Schmitz have argued that elites came to privilege intellectual pursuits over physical activity.6 Van Nijf has made a convincing counter-argument that Gleason’s and Schmitz’s reliance on literary texts produces a distorted picture and that epigraphic sources attest to the continuing importance of athletic achievement among elites. Scanlon, Elsner and others have made an excellent case for the central importance of Olympia in constructions of Greek identity during a period of political domination by Romans. In a work that appeared while Victory and Virtue was in press, König reconsidered the portrayal of athletics in texts produced during the Second Sophistic and emphasized the importance of athletics in contemporary debates about culture and identity. N. follows van Nijf, Scanlon, Elsner, König et al. in seeing athletics as an essential component of Hellenism during the Roman period.7 She evinces a particular interest in the ways that the athletic activities of individual members of the elite helped build identity and prestige for entire communities. She also echoes König in suggesting that the treatment that Romans accorded Greek athletics is a good model for the relationship between Romans and Greek culture as a whole.

This book will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, particularly those specializing in the history of sport and the intellectual and cultural history of the Roman empire. The use of footnotes printed at the bottom of each page, which facilitates consultation of the underlying evidence, is a refreshing change from standard practice and one worthy of emulation. All quotations from ancient sources are translated, and N. provides essential background information throughout. This book will, therefore, be accessible to undergraduates, though they may have some difficulty with technical terms, such as “hip herm” and “aediculated façade,” that N. leaves undefined. It can also at times be challenging to follow the details of N.’s arguments. She has a habit of using summaries of some or all of the preceding sections as transitions and of offering slightly divergent versions of the content and significance of those sections in each case. In some places these summaries are helpful, at others they can be confusing because they differ from previous statements. The text is amply illustrated though perhaps not as lavishly as one might expect in view of the elevated cost of the book.

Victory and Virtue is divided into nine chapters. The first and last chapters contain an introduction and conclusion, in both of which N. summarizes the arguments presented in the remainder of the book. In Chapter 2 N. makes the case that “over the course of the first three centuries AD Greek athletics came to occupy an increasingly prominent place in Roman society, both through the gradual introduction of Greek festivals to Rome and through the adoption of Greek athletic training by the Romans themselves” (45). The chapter begins with a review of many of the criticisms of Greek athletics by Roman writers that are commonly cited in modern scholarship. N. points out that they cannot be properly interpreted without taking into account the actual practice of Greek athletics in Rome. She traces the history of Greek athletic festivals in Rome beginning in the Republic and also takes into consideration the role Naples played as a nearby Hellenized community. N. identifies the establishment of the Capitoline Games in AD 86 as a turning point that helped put Rome at the heart of the Greek world and its festival circuit. Further development came with the Severans who, through Julia Domna, had roots in the eastern half of the empire and displayed a considerable fondness for athletics. The introduction of Greek athletic festivals into Rome reflected growing interest in and acceptance of Greek culture, while their incorporation into spectacles asserted Roman military and political dominance over Greece. N. also looks at Greek-style athletic training in Rome. She finds a key moment in the construction of Agrippa’s baths in the Campus Martius. These baths were the first in Rome to include a purpose-built area for exercise and prominently displayed Lysippus’ Apoxyomenos, a statue of an athlete scraping himself clean after training.

Chapter 3 contains an analysis of figural mosaics in bath complexes in Ostia and Rome. N. collects material from the Baths of Neptune and Porta Marina and the Terme Marittime Baths in Ostia and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, among others. N. shows that scenes of athletic activity began to appear in bath mosaics during Hadrian’s reign and became fairly common over the course of time. She argues that “the decoration of the baths suggests a keen interest in contemporary athletic spectacle and the desire of bathers to see their own activities as a reflection of those of the stars of the sporting world” (74). N. closes the chapter by widening her focus to include athletic activity in the western half of the empire as a whole. The material evidence makes it clear that Greek athletics became popular only in Gallia Narbonensis and North Africa, both areas that had long-standing contact with Mediterranean cultural currents. Chapters 2 and 3 taken together are the most successful section of Victory and Virtue. N. assembles a broad range of material and displays considerable sensitivity and insight in its interpretation.

In Chapter 4 N. turns her attention to statuary displays in Roman villas. She sketches a brief history of athletic statues in villas and then carries out a close examination of the examples from the villas of Domitian at Castel Gandolfo and of Hadrian at Tivoli. Large numbers of athletic statues became part of the sculptural decoration of Roman villas beginning in the late first century, in large part due to the increasing popularity of Greek athletics. They were typically found in either bathing suites or a peristyle. Those in bathing suites had a functional significance, suggesting the exercise that frequently formed a prelude to bathing and the aesthetic appreciation of athletic beauty. Peristyles reflected architectural forms associated with Greek gymnasia, but this part of villas was used primarily for intellectual pursuits. Athletic statues in peristyles evoked the educational functions of gymnasia and helped define the spaces in question as suitable for thoughtful reflection. In both settings there was a marked preference for classicizing statues copied from fifth and fourth-century BC prototypes. Athletic statuary thus looked to the idealized past of Greek athletics, as opposed to mosaics which tended to represent a more reality-based present. Both here and in later sections dealing with statuary N. does exemplary work in considering each piece on its own and as part of an ensemble that needs to be understood as a whole. This chapter will prompt many readers to revisit what they know about the decoration of Roman villas with a heightened sense for the subtlety with which art was selected and placed. Chapter 4 is the end of Part One of Victory and Virtue and so closes with a brief summary of the conclusions reached in the preceding parts of the work. N. pauses at this point to argue that the slowly increasing profile of Greek athletics in Rome during the first three centuries AD was due in part to an influx of elites and non-elites from the eastern section of the empire and the resulting creation of what might be called an imperial culture that incorporated Greek elements.

Chapters 5 and 6 are intended to be a study of the role which athletics played within Greek education during the Roman period based upon analysis of Lucian’s Anacharsis and of ephebic monuments in Sparta and Athens. N.’s basic argument is that ephebes engaged in athletic activities of various kinds in order to construct for both themselves and their communities a living connection to the glorious past of Greece. She reads Solon’s defense of athletics in the Anacharsis as evidence for a continuing link between athletics and the education of good citizens. She also looks at passages in Pausanias that include ephebes and concludes that athletics was held to teach two key virtues: freedom and endurance. These are precisely the qualities which N. finds to be emphasized in ephebic contests in Roman Sparta. She examines the whippings young Spartans endured at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia using textual sources and commemorative stelai. These whippings proved the youth of Sparta to be rightful heirs to their classical past in general and to their warlike ancestors in particular. For Athens, N.’s sources of information are commemorative stelai and herms that were originally set up in the Diogenium gymnasium to the east of the Agora. The stelai and herms associate ephebes with athletics and indicate that ephebes participated in numerous festivals that included athletic contests. The ephebes also played key roles in ritualized re-enactments of famous Athenian battles, particularly Salamis.

N. presents a strong argument that communities consciously used their ephebes to bring and keep their ancient achievements alive. There is, however, something of a problem in that the activities that most clearly evoked the past, such as the re-enactment of Salamis by Athenian ephebes, had only vague connections to athletics. N. points out that Philostratus mentions the Spartan whipping contests in his Gymnasticus and that endurance was an important value for both ephebes and athletes, but this is not conclusive in and of itself. Although N.’s ideas about ephebes are interesting, she does not make a compelling case for the idea that Spartans and Athenians set their ephebes to performing athletics in order to revivify the past. This is not to say that the idea is misguided, but that the evidence presented is not convincing.

In Chapter 7 N. examines victor statues at Olympia and elsewhere in Greece based on the description offered by Pausanias. She concludes that “old athletic statues which could still be seen at Olympia and scattered throughout the cities of Greece helped to assert the continuing relevance of past athletic victories for constructions of civic identity in the Roman period” and that those statues acted “as a continual reminder of the centrality of athletic success as an emblem of Hellenic identity…” (228). The conclusions reached in this chapter will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the growing body of recent scholarship on Pausanias by Alcock, Elsner, and others.

Chapter 8 addresses euergetism in the form of gymnasia and festivals in Asia Minor. Here, as throughout Victory and Virtue, the emphasis is on visual evidence, and much of the chapter consists of an analysis of sculptural decoration in the four gymnasia in Ephesus. These buildings featured elaborate collections of sculpture that included idealized statues of deities and athletes alongside portraits of the emperor and local notables. This statuary was similar in many ways to that found in baths in Rome, with the difference that it was primarily located in exercise areas rather than bathing spaces. Another key difference was that statues in gymnasia in Asia Minor were donated by members of the local elite. These men (and women) were interested in stressing their Hellenism by connecting themselves with athletics and with the cultural aspects of gymnasia, while also establishing themselves as members of a cosmopolitan elite with ties to the power structure in Rome. N. notes, for instance, that the statues in the Harbor Baths in Ephesus were marked with bilingual inscriptions. The euergetism of the donors of gymnasia was not simply a matter of providing beautiful spaces. Their efforts to identify themselves with the classical past via athletics extended to their communities as a whole and helped construct a sense of civic identity. This is evident from the fact that elites also made substantial bequests to fund new athletic festivals that became important components of communal identity. At Hierapolis in Phrygia, for example, the stage building of the theater featured a sculptural depiction of the local athletic festival that included a personification of Hierapolis alongside of figures of the Severan family and of victorious athletes.

This is by a considerable margin the best chapter in the second part of the book. N. puts together a novel assemblage of evidence that permits direct comparison with the material from Rome treated in Chapters 2-4. Just as the population of Rome was adapting Greek athletics into the structure of their spectacles and leisure activities, Greeks were absorbing important elements of Roman culture and accommodating themselves to Roman political domination. All four of the gymnasia in Ephesus included hot baths built in the Roman style, and the emperor and his family were given much attention in sculptural displays in gymnasia and at new athletic festivals.

N. closes Victory and Virtue by expressing the hope that she has shown that “athletics was one of the central symbols of Greek culture in the Roman period and thus played a critical role in constructions of Greek identity…and in the Roman response to Hellenic culture” (281). It is safe to say that N. admirably accomplished this task. This is a timely and useful book that repays close attention.


1. See, for example, Art and the Roman Viewer (Cambridge, 1995).

2. Van Nijf’s work has appeared in the form of articles: “Athletics, Andreia and the Askésis -Culture in the Roman East,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, eds. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Leiden, 2003), 263-86 and “Local Heroes: Athletics, Festivals and Elite Self-Fashioning in the Roman East,” in Being Greek Under Rome, ed. Simon Goldhill (Cambridge, 2001), 306-34. For König’s work, see his recent book Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 2005).

3. See Andrew Farrington, “Olympic Victors and the Popularity of the Olympic Games in the Imperial Period,” Tyche 12 (1997): 15-46 and Thomas Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (Oxford, 2002), 40-63.

4. A notable exception can be found in Maria Caldelli’s work, especially Gli agoni alla greca nelle regioni occidentali dell’impero: La Gallia Narbonensis (Rome, 1997).

5. Victory and Virtue, 8. N. cites the key pieces of relevant scholarship in n. 25.

6. Maud Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 1995) and Thomas Schmitz, Bildung und Macht (Munich, 1997).

7. Jas’ Elsner, “Structuring ‘Greece’: Pausanias’s Periegesis as a Literary Construct,” in Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece, eds. Susan Alcock, John F. Cherry and Jas’ Elsner (Oxford, 2001), 3-20. The relevant work by Knig, Scanlon, and van Nijf is cited in nn. 2-3. N. had the opportunity to see an advance copy of König’s book.