BMCR 2009.10.15

Greek Sport and Social Status. Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lecture Series

, Greek Sport and Social Status. Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lecture Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008. xvi, 214. ISBN 9780292718692 $50.00.

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Mark Golden holds a prominent place among scholars who study ancient Greek athletics as a sociopolitical and cultural phenomenon. In Greek Sport and Social Status he continues along the lines he laid out in his influential 1998 work, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. In Sport and Society Golden argued that athletics played an important role in creating and sustaining boundaries between different groups in Greek society and in establishing status hierarchies among those groups.1

Greek Sport and Social Status, which is based directly on the Fordyce Mitchel lectures that Golden delivered at the University of Missouri in 2000, might almost be titled, Further Thoughts on Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. In his new work Golden “discusses how Greek sport has been used to claim and enhance social status, both in antiquity and in modern times.”2 He explores four broad subjects: the desire on the part of elite competitors in both hippic and athletic events to efface the contributions made by assistants such as jockeys and trainers, the role of slaves in the daily practice of sport, attempts made by gladiators active in the eastern half of the Roman empire to portray themselves as athletes, and persistent distortions generated by efforts to forge connections between the ancient and modern Olympics.

This book is suitable for both a general and a specialist audience. Basic background information is supplied throughout, all ancient sources are presented only in English translation, and the bibliography provided in the notes is thorough but not exhaustive. The individual essays can be read separately, so parts or all of the text would fit nicely into the syllabus of undergraduate courses on Greek sport and Greek history. The situation with regard to specialists is somewhat complicated by the book’s accessibility and Golden’s concerted (and laudable) effort to take into account the scholarship that appeared in the relatively long interval between the delivery of the lectures and their publication.3 The result is that, in some instances, he devotes a significant amount of space to reporting on work that is already familiar to scholars specializing in Greek athletics. That said, Greek Sport and Social Status contains a number of insightful treatments of points small and large, and, as always, Golden displays throughout an encyclopedic knowledge of both the pertinent evidence and bibliography. Moreover, this book forms a nice complement to Sport and Society in Ancient Greece in that it focuses largely on the Hellenistic and Roman periods, unlike its predecessor which drew primarily on Archaic and Classical material. Greek Sport and Social Status thus represents a noteworthy addition to the scholarly literature on ancient Greek athletics.

Greek Sport is divided into four chapters, framed by a short preface and an even shorter conclusion. In Chapter One Golden discusses why and how elite male competitors in equestrian and athletic events sought to expunge any record of the participation of jockeys, charioteers, and trainers and to discredit the achievements of female victors in equestrian events. Motivated by a desire to capture and protect the status-generating effects of success in these undertakings, they employed a variety of strategies such as excluding any mention of jockeys in epinikia or inscriptions on victor monuments, featuring horses rather than jockeys in sculpture on victor monuments, and recounting stories in which horses ran successfully without jockeys. Golden discusses the Posidippus papyrus in some detail in order to demonstrate that the same impulses and approaches were operative through the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter is Golden’s argument that, while the contributions of jockeys and charioteers were never acknowledged, it became increasingly acceptable in the first through third centuries CE to give credit to trainers and coaches. He suggests that this shift came about because the spread of Greek culture into the eastern Mediterranean produced a situation in which participation in athletics was in and of itself a claim to status and that association with a trainer or coach was a means of establishing one’s bona fides as an athlete.

Chapter Two features an examination of the intersections between sport and slavery. Ancient Greece was a society in which slaves were largely excluded from athletics. Golden uses a comparison with the situation in the American South before the Civil War to establish that this sort of exclusion is not a necessary part of a slave society. He suggests that slaves were prohibited from participating in sport in ancient Greece because sport was a critical status marker, because of a concern about potential sexual contact between slaves and free boys, and because the juxtaposition of nude free men and nude slaves would have posed a threat to Greek ideas about the differences between free and slave bodies. Golden then goes on to show that the line between slave and free in regard to athletics was rather more blurred than Greek norms might lead one to expect. Athletic competitors were in many cases punished by flogging, a punishment typically reserved for slaves. In addition, in some cases at least slaves serving as palaistrophylakes seemed to have been sparring partners for free men. He concludes that “we may be confident that in Greece, as in other slave societies, legal and conceptual distinctions between slave and free were sometimes ignored in ordinary life…” (66).

The following chapter is in many ways the most complex and intriguing part of the book. Here Golden seeks to undercut the standard contrast between Greek athletics and Roman gladiatorial shows. That contrast is based in part on the idea that Greeks never developed a taste for the sort of staged violence favored by Romans. Golden draws on an extensive collection of sources first compiled by Louis Robert to demonstrate that gladiatorial shows were in fact quite popular in the eastern half of the Roman empire. He sees this as unsurprising, given that the Greek combat sports (boxing, wrestling, pankration) were bloody affairs and that violent pastimes such as cock fighting were fashionable in the Greek world. He also marshals an array of evidence that strongly suggests that gladiators active in the Greek world sought to portray themselves as athletes and thus entitled to share in the status enjoyed by athletes. In the final part of the chapter Golden makes the somewhat controversial claim that “gladiatorial combat has a valid claim to be considered sport” (x). The arguments presented in this chapter are stimulating if not necessarily uniformly persuasive. One might note that, as Golden himself points out, gladiators in the western half of the Roman empire sought to assimilate themselves not to athletes but to soldiers. This would seem to suggest that there was nothing inherently “athletic” about gladiatorial combat and that gladiators were simply opportunistic in pursuing claims to social status. Moreover, although definitions of the term vary widely (Golden explores this issue in some depth), there is wide agreement that “sport” designates activities that are at least to some extent autotelic and involve an element of play. Insofar as many if not most gladiators were involuntary participants in an activity that regularly ended in their death, it is difficult for this reviewer at least to see how gladiatorial combat can be properly categorized as sport.

In Chapter Four Golden discusses oft-repeated yet inaccurate claims that exaggerate the similarities between the ancient and modern Olympics and de Coubertin’s role in establishing the modern Olympics. In doing so he draws extensively on the seminal scholarship of David Young.4 However, he diverges from Young in strongly emphasizing the differences between the ancient and modern Olympics. Golden ends the chapter by making the case that using the past to legitimize practices in the present not only leads to distortions, but also makes it more difficult to choose courses of action fully consonant with our values.

Greek Sport and Social Status is a book that, unlike many scholarly tomes, does not require a massive investment of time and energy to read in its entirety. The main text is less than 150 pages long, an agreeable degree of informality is (presumably) carried over from the original lectures, and the prose is engaging (and impeccably edited). It also contains a rich array of argumentation, evidence, and bibliography that will more than repay the attentions of readers of all kinds. Golden is to be commended for this helpful contribution to the field.

Table of Contents Preface ix
One: Helpers, Horses, and Heroes: Contests over Victory in Ancient Greece 1
Two: Slaves and Ancient Greek Sport 40
Three: Greek Games and Gladiators 68
Four: Olive-Tinted Spectacles: Myths in the Histories of the Ancient and Modern Olympics 105
Conclusion 140
Notes 143
Works Cited 171
Source Index 195
General Index 203


1. Reviewed by Jonathan Fenno in BMCR 1999.07.19.

2. Quote taken from the description of the book on the back dustjacket.

3. Examples of that scholarship include Nigel Nicholson’s Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece (2005) and Jason K├Ânig’s Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire (2005).

4. See Young’s The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics (1984) and A Brief History of the Olympic Games (2004).