BMCR 2007.02.02

Athletics in the Ancient World

, Athletics in the ancient world. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006. 108 pages : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853996882 $20.00.

Athletics in the Ancient World (hereafter Athletics) by Zahra Newby (hereafter N.) is a welcome addition to Bristol Classical Press’s Classical World Series, whose intended audience is late (secondary) school and undergraduate students and teachers. N.’s ability to summarize deftly decades-long debates in the scholarship on ancient athletics reflects her mastery of the field.1 The greatest virtue of Athletics is that without being dense its compass embraces the gamut of primary sources, extra-literary (represented in part by twenty-five black-and-white illustrations) and literary. Where possible, N. consistently keys the latter, along with epigraphical evidence, to Stephen G. Miller’s Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources.2 N. gives readers a snapshot of the broad scope of classical studies as a whole—the opportunities for exploring the ancient Mediterranean world in all of its diversity and the challenges to drawing firm conclusions from the evidence when we resist temptations to export modern assumptions into our interpretations of that evidence. Athletics has applications for civilization courses; for courses on ancient literature in translation that have a social history bent; as a complement to archaeology courses that deal with the sites of Olympia and Delphi; and for courses on Mediterranean antiquity that address questions related to the selection and interpretation of primary evidence.

Overall Athletics sustains three main “plotlines”: (1) the similarities and differences between ancient athletics as reflected in the evidence on the one hand and on the other hand as perceived from a modern point of view; (2) participation in athletic practices in terms of gender, class, and regional affiliation; and (3) diachronic developments in festival and gymnastic cultures. After the first three chapters, which include an introduction to the book’s topic, a summary of sources, and a footprint for subsequent chapters that draws from the Homeric representation of athletics, N. divides her book into two parts: “Part I. Competitive Athletics and Festival Culture” and “Part II. The World of the Gymnasium.” This division illustrates clearly that N. organizes her book in terms of context. With a more detailed look at the contents, we can see that N. arranges Athletics much like a series of short articles on focused topics:

Chapter 1: “Introduction: Modern Myths and Ancient Meanings” (pp. 13-16)

Chapter 2: “Sources of Evidence” (pp. 17-20)

Chapter 3: “The Earliest Athletics: Games in Homer” (pp. 21-24)

Part I. Competitive Athletics and Festival Culture

Chapter 4: “The Games at Olympia” (pp. 27-35)

Chapter 5: “The Rise of a Festival Culture” (pp. 36-42)

Chapter 6: “The Setting” (pp. 43-48)

Chapter 7: “The Rewards for Victory” (pp. 49-57)

Chapter 8: “The Athlete and his City” (pp. 58-61)

Chapter 9: “The Rise of Professionalism?” (pp. 62-65)

Part II. The World of the Gymnasium

Chapter 10: “The Origins and Development of the Gymnasium” (pp. 69-73)

Chapter 11: “The Gymnasium and Education” (pp. 74-80)

Chapter 12: “The Structures” (pp. 81-85)

Chapter 13: “The Greek Gymnasium in the Roman World” (pp. 86-91)

Chapter 14: “Athletics and Warfare” (pp. 92-93)

Chapter 15: “Women and Athletics” (p. 94)

Chapter 16: “Conclusions” (p. 95)

While admirably inclusive for a short book intended for a non-specialist audience, there are necessarily some omissions, most of which N. acknowledges explicitly. Some prospective readers may want to know, for example, that Chapter 6 “The Setting” focuses on the sites of Olympia and Delphi to the exclusion of Isthmia and Nemea. Having said that, however, it is worth noting that in general Athletics nicely balances Greek sources with Roman, Eastern Mediterranean, and Egyptian sources. Further, N. includes a useful section entitled “Further Reading” (pp. 99-104) where interested readers will find a list of secondary sources on ancient athletics, organized by topic and briefly annotated.3

N. succeeds at producing “a book about Greek athletics: the ways that it grew and developed throughout Greek history (including Greece’s integration into the Roman Empire), and the functions that it served within society as a whole” (p. 16). And Athletics is more than survey; it engagingly invites readers to think about how we think about ancient athletics.


1. Recently available is N.’s Greek Athletics in the Roman World: Victory and Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). For a review see BMCR 2006.07.32.

2. Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004).

3. Unfortunately N. does not account for Nigel James Nicholson’s admirable study Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), presumably because it came out just after N.’s work was already in press.