BMCR 2007.04.06

Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World

, Sport and spectacle in the ancient world. Ancient cultures. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2007. xv, 403 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0631229701 $32.95 (pb).

A pioneer in the resurgence of research on Greek sport, Don Kyle developed the course I now teach at the University of Winnipeg, provided valuable bibliographical reviews of the field as long as twenty-five years ago, and then wrote the first full-scale account of the role of athletics in a particular community, archaic and classical Athens at that.1 He later turned his attention to gladiatorial combat.2 (Some of Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome was prepared at a Canadian research centre despite one referee’s concerns that too little was known about Roman eyewear.) No-one is better qualified to write an English-language synthesis on sport and spectacle in the ancient world. This book does not disappoint.

Kyle aims throughout to bring the two parts of his title into closer contact than the usual contrast allows: sport and spectacle — athletic and equestrian competition on the one side, the displays of the circus and the amphitheatre on the other — are in fact compatible and complementary, mutually reinforcing, not excusive.3 Continuity is key. Far from being unique, Greek sport had precursors in other civilizations of the Mediterranean and ancient Near East. Furthermore, the desire of Homer’s heroes to display their physical prowess required an engaged and interactive audience: spectacle and its fans were central to Greek sport from the start. Egyptian pharaohs, Assyrian kings hunted big game to demonstrate both their strength and their civilizing power — a message echoed long after by Roman venationes. And within the Greek world, Athens and Sparta were more alike than some sources suggest. Scandalized outsiders have exaggerated the freedom of Spartan girls and misunderstood the purpose of their public competitive performances: pragmatic and eugenic, this was “girl power for manpower” (185).

But the book, organized chronologically as it is, also identifies significant change over the centuries. The Iliad gives us glimpses of aristocratic funeral games, featuring chariot races and valuable prizes, as well as of another tradition, more inclusive cultic competitions for symbolic prizes drawn from nature. These converged in poleis and panhellenic sanctuaries during the archaic period: only then do we find such distinctive elements as wreaths, gymnasia, nudity, epinicians. But (Kyle argues) if performances become more structured with the rise of states, larger entities like empires need spectacles, demonstrations of the capacity to organize complex events as well as of power. Exemplified already by the Panathenaea (“games brought people to Athens, but prizes took Athens abroad,” 157), this tendency was fully expressed by the Hellenistic successors of Alexander. They brought Greek sport to the Near East at the same time as they adapted native habits of royal display, and then passed them on to the rulers of Rome.

Whatever place and time Kyle examines, fresh and persuasive insights abound. Fans’ interest needs to be kept in mind when we consider how the pentathlon was won (123). Cynisca’s equestrian career was a means for Agesilaus to discredit Elis and Alcibiades, Sparta’s enemy and his own, by emasculating the Olympic chariot race — and a passage from the Iliad inspired him (188-196). Trainers stripped at Olympia to curtail bribery (225). Alexander’s refusal to compete may have mimicked eastern models (239). The disastrous defeat at Cannae “crystallized an ideology of military virtue … which Rome … came to demand of gladiators in the arena” and the frequency of combats grew rapidly in its wake (274). Chapter subheads and summaries make for easy access to Kyle’s ideas, and all is enlivened by his characteristic wit. My favourites: “Ancient Greeks did not embrace the separation of church and stadium” (114), Olympia upheld “the oily trinity of free, Greek, and male” (118), “Roman spectacles seem trailer-made for epics of sex and violence” (251). “The appeal of ancient sport, both Greek and Roman, was visceral, visual, and vulgar … both sport and spectacle were popular, physical, and pagan” (22): only a nattering nabob of negativity could say nay.

Specialists will always want to read anything Don Kyle writes, and he has apparently repaid the compliment. The select bibliography runs to some four hundred items and many more, some as yet unpublished, are mentioned in the notes (e.g., 356 n. 22, 374 n. 15). But teachers will welcome this book too. It doesn’t boast the wealth of illustrations which add so much to the value of Stephen G. Miller’s textbook on Greek sport or the many translations from primary sources upon which Alison Futrell’s on Roman spectacle is based.4 For the many college courses which cover both, however, Sport and Spectacle is the ideal choice.

As such, it has the additional virtue that it gives the instructor a chance to show off. Acute students can be left to pick out slips such as Jessie Owens (1) and Steinfield (310) for themselves, and few even of those will be troubled by the scattering of glitches in other names, incomplete or inaccurate references, misplaced or missing accents and the like.5 The inevitable inconsistencies in transliterating Greek (e.g., Koroibos and Lycurgus within the same sentence on p. 102, Oschophoria/Oskhophoria on pp. 167-168) will cause more confusion. Other areas invite active intervention. So the inset map on p. 73 is useful, but puts Olympia in Arkadia and both in the Peleponnesus. Despite Kyle, there is nothing in Arist. Pol. 1306a11 which makes explicit reference to the Olympic Council (116). The length of the Olympic horse race is given as from 2 to 6 laps on p. 120, as perhaps 3 lengths on p. 126. The expansion of panhellenic programs in the classical period does not support Kyle’s argument for the democratization of the games: almost all the new events were horse and chariot races for the elite (213). Leonidas of Rhodes won only (!) in the three shorter footraces and at four successive Olympiads, not three (244).

These comments might be taken to endorse Kyle’s typically modest disclaimer that the book is definitely not definitive (x). I’d prefer to say that this is another one of the few statements in it I’d dispute.


1. “Directions in ancient sport history,” Journal of Sport History 10.1 (1983) 7-34, “The study of Greek sport: a survey,” EMC 27 (1983) 46-67; Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden 1987).

2. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London and New York 1998).

3. In contrast, A. Bell, Spectacular Power in the Greek and Roman City (Oxford 2004) is mostly about Rome and includes a mere page or two on athletics.

4. S.G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven and London 2004); A. Futrell, The Roman Games: A Sourcebook (Malden MA and Oxford 2006).

5. For example, for Oinanda (337), read Oinoanda; for Shield of Hector (355 n. 4), read Shield of Heracles; for JRS 130 (378) read JRS 80; for Kyrielis (379), read Kyrieleis; for A Struggle for Survival (388), read A Struggle for Revival.