BMCR 2011.07.15

Greek Athletics. Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World

, Greek Athletics. Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. xvii, 329. ISBN 9780748634903 $135.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Those of us who teach courses on ancient sports, as well as scholars wanting a quick overview of the primary literary sources for Greek athletics, have been well served by Stephen Miller’s Arete, especially the much expanded third edition.1 A wide range of up-to-date handbooks from major scholars in the field has also become available in recent years.2 Introducing students to the secondary literature that underpins the arguments in these handbooks is a much more difficult task, especially given that the two journals specializing in ancient athletics, Nikephoros and Stadion, are not readily available in most university libraries. Jason König’s contribution to the series Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World aims to fill this gap with a selection of twelve fundamental articles on the development and later history of the Greek games. Originally designed for his honors students at St Andrews, the collection may not prove as useful for sport courses in the United States which are typically aimed at much more elementary level. More advanced students, though, will profit greatly from the material assembled here since it provides a good introduction to how the study of ancient athletics intersects with subjects such as the influence of Greek culture on the Roman world and the importance of state-sponsored education in the life of Greek cities.

Instead of producing a simple compendium of articles, König has followed the format of other volumes in this series by grouping his readings according to six topics. These range from the rise of Olympia through Greek athletics in the Roman world and end with how modern views of professionalism have influenced our understanding of ancient sports. For each topic he provides a short introduction giving the context for the two readings he has chosen, along with some suggestions for further reading. The whole volume is accompanied by a general introduction that argues for the complexity and value of the study of ancient athletics. Unfortunately, König does not address in detail the issue of how students could benefit from access to secondary literature on ancient sports or how they might approach the particular selections in this volume.

All the authors König includes have made major contributions to our understanding of ancient sports and nothing here will come as a surprise to those familiar with the field. Still, it was interesting to reread them in the way König decided to pair them. The focus of all the articles (in one case, a selection from a monograph) is what might be termed broadly the connection between athletics and social history. The technical features of the games, such as the much vexed scoring system for the pentathlon or the age limits for competitors, are not addressed anywhere. König acknowledges that the collection in no way covers all the topics one might want to address with students. For example, nothing here has a direct bearing on athletics in Homer. In König’s defense, he knew that Scanlon was planning a similar collection and took care to avoid any overlap. He also was careful not to duplicate any of existing collections of articles on athletics that are readily available, such as the republication of many of Crowther’s essential contributions in Athletika ( Nikephoros Beihefte 11).

In addition to the much welcome translation from French or German of four contributions that have long been inaccessible to most American students, a massive amount of labor has gone into helping the reader unfamiliar with classical scholarship, including two maps (in addition to the two in van Nijf’s contribution), a list of all abbreviations, an index of terms, and translations of all Greek or Latin quotes if not already done by the author. König is also to be applauded for not avoiding some challenging selections—notably Robert’s epigraphically driven articles. Moreover, I can envisage putting some of this material to good use in my courses. For example, Lämmer’s argument that the Olympic truce did not entail a widespread cessation of warfare remains the best corrective to misconceptions still held by many promoters of the modern Olympics. Yet five of the contributions concern the Hellenistic or Roman periods, and while my personal research focuses on the later history of the games, I do not think I am alone in concentrating in my classes on the archaic and classical periods. This collection may actually turn out to be more valuable for courses not directly related to athletics. As a case in point, the articles by Kurke and Newby show how ancient society made use of athletically inspired artwork in two radically different ways, discoveries that would be of particular interest to upper-level and graduate students in art history. König’s collection may thus help scholars realize how current research on Greek athletics can be employed to inform their own or their students’ knowledge of many areas of classical scholarship.

Table of Contents (the original titles for the translated works, which König does not include, are given here for convenience):

Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Note to the Reader, Abbreviations, Maps, pp. vii-xix
Ancient Greek Athletics: An Introduction, pp. 1-16

Introduction to Part I, pp. 19-22
1. Catherine Morgan: “Sanctuaries, the State and the Individual” (originally Athletes and Oracles pp. 191-4, 212-23), pp. 23-35
2. Manfred Lämmer, trans. Juliette Steinhauer: “The So-Called Olympic Peace in Ancient Greece” (“Der sogenannte Olympische Friede in der griechischen Antike”), pp. 36-60

Introduction to Part II, pp. 63-65
3. Nick Fischer: “ Gymnasia and the Democratic Values of Leisure,” pp. 66-86
4. Philippe Gauthier, trans. Margarita Lianou: “Notes on the Role of the Gymnasion in the Hellenistic City” (“Notes sur le rôle du gymnase dans les cités hellénistiques”), pp. 87-101

Introduction to Part III, pp. 105-107
5. Louis Robert, trans. Margarita Lianou: “Opening Address: Eighth International Congress of Greek and Roman Epigraphy” (“Discours d’ouverture au VIIIe Congrès international d’épigraphie grecque et latine à Athènes, 1982”), pp. 108-119
6. Louis Robert, trans. Margarita Lianou: “Two Greek Athletic Contests in Rome” (“Deux concours grecs à Rome: Antoninia Pythia sous Elagabal et concours d’Athéna Promachos depuis Gordien III”), pp. 120-140

Introduction to Part IV, pp. 143-144
7. H. W. Pleket: “Games, Prizes, Athletes and Ideology: Some Aspects of the History of Sport in the Greco-Roman World,” pp. 145-174
8. Onno van Nijf: “Athletics, Festivals and Greek Identity in the Roman East,” pp. 175-197

Introduction to Part V, pp. 201-203
9. Leslie Kurke: “The Economy of Kudos,” pp. 204-237
10. Zahra Newby: “Greek Athletics as Roman Spectacle: The Mosaics from Ostia and Rome,” pp. 238-262

Introduction to Part VI, pp. 265-266
11. David Young: “First with the Most: Greek Athletic Records and ‘Specialization,’” pp. 267-283
12. Donald Kyle: “E. Norman Gardiner and the Decline of Greek Sport,” pp. 284-311

Guide to Further Reading, Chronology, Glossary, Works Cited, Index, pp. 312-329.


1. This can be supplemented by the comprehensive collection of sources for the individual Olympic events in Quellendokumentation zur Gymnastik und Agonistik im Altertum (1991-2002) 1-7.

2. For the most commonly used options, see BMCR 2004.12.10 (Miller), BMCR 2007.02.02 (Newby), BMCR 2007.04.06 (Kyle), and BMCR 2010.07.45 (Crowther). D. Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Blackwell 2004), has not been reviewed in BMCR.