BMCR 2008.04.20

Games and Festivals in Classical Antiquity. Proceedings of the Conference held in Edinburgh 10-12 July 2000. BAR International Series, 1220

, , Games and festivals in classical antiquity : proceedings of the conference held in Edinburgh 10-12 July 2000. BAR international series ; 1220. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004. vi, 153 pages : illustrations ; 30 cm.. ISBN 1841715808 $27.95 (pb).

[The reviewer apologises for the late appearance of this review, although he only received the book in January 2008.]

This volume, published inexpensively as a British Archaeological Report, contains an introduction by Glenys Davies and fourteen articles, eleven by women and three by men. The papers are taken from what Fisher describes (p.65) as a “highly enjoyable” conference held in Edinburgh in 2000, the year of Ridley Scott’s film “Gladiator” and of the Australian conference on Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World.1 The papers focus not on pancration or running, but on a wide range of sometimes unusual topics, such as the iconography of dance or horses, cattle-control, gambling, showbiz of staged sea battles, episcopalian funerals as festivals and literary portraits of games. One common theme is the role of games in festivals and another the role of festivals in ancient (competitive) society. Several writers bring out the social, cultural and political significance of festivals and games, surpassing even that of football in modern western societies, as Davies notes in the excellent overview in her introduction. Many contributors uncover the pervasive stratum of the world of sport and competition that exists in rhetoric, epic, epinician poetry, drama and epigraphy, and left to survive on pots and palace walls, all fuelling political and social clout in Hellenistic, Roman, Second Sophistic and medieval times. In particular, Arlene Allans theoretical use of chaos theory, war games and the ambiguous role of Hermes should interest both sport historians and literary critics, who, as Lovatt remarks (p.107), might make up the two categories of potential readers.2

The book opens with Eleanor Loughlin’s hands-on approach to cattle-capture and -control. Building on the scholarship of Younger, Marinatos and Bietak and using evidence from India, America and Spain, she turns attention away from bull sports to the exploitation of cattle as a source of power in agriculture. She focuses on the complex interaction between hunter, herdsman and animals in rural environments and points out that pictures of bull-restraining and -subjugation could be the early stages of bull sports. Using her own drawings of the Taureador fresco she suggests that the figure grasping the bull’s horns may be a wrestler or an assistant who had an independent function from the leapers.

Next Tyler Jo Smith, a former student of Professor Sir John Boardman, warns against mismatching, misconstruing and reconstruing dance iconography on Greek vases to particular festivals or literary topoi, as particularly the French school has wanted to do. She insists that the identification of the real or actual event or festival referred to is long gone and must be lost to us now. She deals in detail and with plentiful illustrations with the products from the early and late Geometric period from Attica, Euboea and Laconia, and from the black-figure and red-figure painters. A later version of this paper can be found as chapter 3 ‘The Corpus of Komast Vases: from Identity to Exegesis’ in “The Origins of Theater in Ancient Greece and Beyond: from ritual to drama” by Eric Csapo and Margaret Miller (2007).

Gráinne McLaughlin raises the profile of Pindar’s first Olympian or rather points out how exalted its profile already is in Pindaric and Olympic scholarship. She proposes that we use the temple of Zeus at Olympia to explain the first Olympian, not vice versa as Shapiro, Stewart and Woodford have done. Olympian 1 has long been recognised as a goldmine of information on the Olympic Games, though McLaughlin recommends caution with literal, historical readings and caution in noting epinician conventions. She well exploits existent scholarship on the ode/paean (Nagy, Howie) and on the Olympics, but makes no explicit footnote reference to Sickings article on Olympian 1, though it is referred to in the bibliography.3

Eleanor OKell proffers a rare edge on Sophocles’ treatment of Orestes’ participation in the Pythian Games from the standpoint of its significance for the contemporary Athenian audience. She links the detailed description of Orestes’ chariot race in Sophocles’ Electra to current politics, not to myth. She appends tables of known four-horse chariot victors from Athens and from elsewhere and of the victors’ ages. In fact, Sophocles shapes Orestes into an athletic victor and hippic competitor in reverse of the usual process by which famous athletes become legendary heroes. OKell picks up resonance with Alcibiades III, Teisias II and Kimon I with their exploitation of chariot racing for political purposes.

Arlene Allan plunges the reader into chaos theory and war games, noting with Gouldner that “competitive contests can be seen as a mechanism for circumventing potentially violent situations with a form of relatively non-violent conflict”. She makes good use of adapting new theoretical perspectives dreamed up by Gleick to accepted mythological interpretations by Burkert, all seasoned by semi-puns and pepperish word play. These associations, she claims, culminate in the character of Hermes entailing the potential for conflict and its resolution and renders him of particular importance to the aims and activities of competitive games and festivals. She notes that Bowra pointed out in 1938 that victory in the Games could enhance the prospects of success in the political arena. To borrow her contagious word play, picking at Pleket and Scanlon and winking at Winkler and Ellsworth, she perceives in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes an abbreviated pattern for competitive conflicts and contests in determining the distribution of social prerogatives and privileges. She combs tragedy, comedy and satyr-plays for references to Hermes and manages to include sculptures and Pausanias’ references to legend to boot. She ends up with an allusion to Aristophanes’ Wealth where Hermes is established as the god or judicator of competitions, hence the title from agonistes to agonios.4

Much more on Aristophanes and on his Acharnians can be found in Greta Ham’s article where she expands on the five carefully chosen festivals exploited in this play. She argues that the Athenian audience would be sensitive to the significance of these festivals as part and parcel of their annual experience. All five festivals, the Apatouria, the Rural Dionysia, the Lenaea, the lesser mysteries and the Anthesteria or Choes, are both Athenocentric and Dionysiac. She traces carefully the adventures of Dikaeopolis throughout the play in his isolated celebration of each festival.

Nick Fisher tosses us into dicing and cock- and quail-fighting, arguing that many of the settings for leisure activities which are often seen as predominantly aristocratic or elitist in character, such as gymnasia, palaestrae and symposia, become at least from the later fifth century BC open to wider circles of users, both Athenians and non-Athenians. Fisher’s arguments arise from his work on a translation and commentary of Aeschines’ law-court speech against Timarchos. The speech reveals the important role of gambling in the social life of many Athenians. Aelian and Lucian refer to cock fighting in festivals, which Fisher deems dubious but possible. Fisher’s argument is long and complicated, as was Aeschines’, but he concludes that the speech in question deals with a turf war rather than a love fight, and that at the heart of the row was some sort of territorial or other dispute over the gaming activities at or around the Salaminians’ shrine in Phaleron. Fisher suggests that the speech lifts the curtain on some competitive, riotous and violent actives on the fringes of Athenian sanctuaries.

Geoffrey Sumi redirects attention to civic self-representation in the Hellenistic world by focusing on the festival of Artemis Leucophyrene in Magnesia-on-the-Maeander in the light of inscriptions. In very fluent prose Sumi underlines the tendency of Hellenistic city-states to boost their status by widening the scope of their festivals to be panhellenic within a historical context that demonstrated their glorious past. He appends the Greek text and provides English translations of Magnesian inscriptions to illustrate his topic.

Clemence Schultze treats a passage (7.70-73) from “The History of archaic Rome” by Dionysius of Halicarnassus on Greek origins and Roman games, which, she claims, forms an important element in Dionysius’s proof of Rome’s Greekness. As Sumi has done, she includes the entire text, translation and analysis of its structure. Once again, as often crops up in this book, games function so as to increase political and cultural authority, though the give and take of Roman and Greek qualities, as Schultze points out, is far more complicated.

Helen Lovatt studies epic games and real games in Virgil’s Aeneid 5 and Statius’ Thebaid 6. Several ideas from this article can be found in the first chapter ‘The chariot race: epic games and real games’ of her book “Statius and Epic Games: Sport, Politics and Poetics” (2005). She carefully tabulates and compares the events in Homeric, Olympic, Virgilian and Statian epic games together with those from the Ludi Circenses. She notes that while Virgil’s events seem to move from space to space, all Statius’ events seem to take place in a circus, continually evoking the Circus Maximus (p.111).5

In her article on the “naumachiae” of Imperial Rome, Francesca Garello, chief archivist of the Fondazione Ugo Spirito in Rome, collates chiefly exotic, Italian archaeological sources for her account of the Flavian amphitheatre, citing Cozzo, Fea and Traversari. The ancient Roman sources can be found in Suetonius, Martial and Cassius Dio. After some general considerations of this genre of sport and its possible siting, she concludes that naumachiae were more spectacle than sport, allowing the sponsor to achieve his main goal of stunning, amazing, shocking, titillating and overwhelming spectators.

Ergün Lafli has published and lectured widely on ceramic finds from Seleuceia Sidera in Pisidia (SW Turkey), here presenting his findings in English: ‘Dionysiac Scenes on Sagalassian Oinophoroi from Seleuceia Sidera in Pisidia’. The most frequent subject of Sagalassian oinophoroi is the thiasos, a celebration scene of Dionysus and his ensemble, playing music and dancing to the tune of bells and cymbals: this resonates with Greta Ham’s analysis of Dionysiac festivals in Aristophanes. These provide evidence of the persistence of pagan elements within the late antique and early Christian society of Pisidia, which corresponds to finds in other sites in the eastern Mediterranean.

Julia Burman also notes the persistence of pagan traditions in Christian burials in her article, ‘Christianising the Celebrations of Death in Late Antiquity’. Early Christian funerals, she argues, held importance as public festivals since they were the arenas in which the new social order in the late antique period was strengthened and its social values and hierarchies maintained (p.141). She focuses on the funerals of two Cappadocian saints, Macrina and Basil as recorded by St Gregory of Nazianzen and St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 380 AD) but she skilfully adduces inscriptions to shed light on early Christian funeral practice.

Elizabeth Tobey reuses her MA thesis in Art History for the University of Maryland for her theme ‘The Sala dei Cavalli in Palazzo Te: portraits of champions’, the topic of which is decidedly horsey and medieval. She argues that the equine portraits in the Palazzo Te may be interpreted as showing the familial and political significance of the horses in the lives of the Gonzaga family of Mantua while metaphorically evoking poetic and visual images of the circus champions of ancient Rome. With Dunbabin she sees the equine portraits as recalling the mosaic portraits of circus horses that decorated the reception rooms of grand agricultural villas in Roman Spain and North Africa.

Much of the spade-work for this volume was done by Sinclair Bell. The issues of chaos and conflict raised by Allan and the potential menace of gambling in Greek society presented by Fisher deserve a broader audience and further discussion. Although some of the topics covered can only be considered marginal to sport and festivals, all these papers both from younger and from more experienced scholars should be available for sports historians and literary critics to trace the red blaze of games and festivals from Minoan through to medieval times.

Table of Contents:

(1) Eleanor Loughlin, ‘Grasping the Bull by the Horns: Minoan Bull Sport’ 1-8

(2) Tyler Jo Smith, ‘Festival? What Festival? Reading Dance Imagery as Evidence’ 9-24

(3) Gráinne McLaughlin, ‘Professional Foul: Persona in Pindar’ 25-32

(4) Eleanor OKell, ‘Orestes the Contender: Chariot Racing and Politics in Fifth Century Athens and Sophocles’ “Electra”‘ 33-44

(5) Arlene Allan, ‘From Agonistes to Agonios: Hermes, Chaos and Conflict in Competitive Games and Festivals’ 45-54

(6) Greta Ham, ‘Dionysiac Festivals in Aristophanes’ “Acharnians”‘ 55-64

(7) Nick Fisher, ‘The Perils of Pittalakos: Settings of Cock Fighting and Dicing in Classical Athens’ 65-78

(8) Geoffrey Sumi, ‘Civic Self-Representation in the Hellenistic World: The Festival of Artemis Leukophryene’ 79-92

(9) Clemence Schultze, ‘Roman Games and Greek Origins in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ 93-106

(10) Helen Lovatt, ‘Epic Games and Real Games in Statius’ “Thebaid” 6 and Virgil’s “Aeneid” 5′ 107-114

(11) Francesca Garello, ‘Sport or Showbiz? The “naumachiae” of Imperial Rome’ 115-124

(12) Ergün Lafli, ‘Dionysiac Scenes on Sagalassian “Oinophoroi” from Seleuceia Sidera in Pisidia’ 125-136

(13) Julia Burman, ‘Christianising the Celebrations of Death in Late Antiquity’ 137-142

(14) Elizabeth Tobey, ‘The Sala dei Cavalli in Palazzo Te: Portraits of champions’ 143-153.


1. Subsequently edited by David Phillips and David Pritchard and published in 2003.

2. Readers of BMCR will have noted Michael Carter’s review of Schaus and Wenn (2007) “Onward to the Olympics”, at BMCR 2008.01.56. To conferences mentioned there can be added the papers by Avramidou, D’Angour, Hadjimichael and Remijsen at the Classical Association Annual Conference in Liverpool 2008. To that bibliography can be added S. Evans,’Sport and Festival in Od. 8 from Scheria to Beijing’ Arctos 40 (2006), 27-45; Evans on Poliakoff at BMCR 2004.09.24; Catherine Edwards, “Death in Ancient Rome” (esp. pp.49-75, ‘Death of gladiators’) (2007), reviewed at BMCR 2007.12.28; Simon Hornblower and Catherine Morgan, “Pindar’s Poetry, Patrons and Festivals” (2007), reviewed at BMCR 2007.10.45; Anne Mahoney, “Roman Sports and Spectacles” (2001), reviewed at BMCR 2003.04.07; Zahra Newby, “Greek Athletes in the Roman world” (2005), reviewed at BMCR 2006.07.32; and Newby, “Athletics in the Ancient World” (2006), reviewed at BMCR 2007.02.02.

3. This article should now be compared to Panos Valavanis ‘Thoughts on the Historical Origins of the Olympic Games and the cult of Pelops in Olympia, in Nikephoros 19 (2006), 137-152.

4. Cf. Ingomar Weiler, ‘Wider und fuer das agonale Prinzip—eine griechische Eigenart?’ in Nikephoros 19 (2006), 81-110.

5. Relevant to this theme is Jason Koenig, “Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire” (2005), reviewed at BMCR 2007.02.24.