Books and university courses on ancient sport have become very fashionable in recent years. There are several histories of Greco-Roman sport and the ancient Olympics in English alone, most of them published or brought up to date since 2000. David Potter’s latest contribution to this growing body of scholarship provides coverage of sport from the Greek Bronze Age to the early Byzantine era—a daunting task indeed. Although the author does not explicitly state this, the book’s target audience appears to be undergraduate students registered in ancient sport courses as well as the general public. But classicists will also find plenty of interest, too.
The book is divided into thirty short chapters and follows a loose chronological and thematic order in which the author highlights recurring themes and important shifts in the history of Greco-Roman sport. Part 1 probes the early origins of Greek sport in the Bronze Age and the Homeric Epics. The author follows recent scholarship in interpreting the evidence for Greek Bronze age sport in the context of palace-controlled ceremonials. Athletic contests in the Homeric epics are perceived largely as a transitional stage towards the world of institutionalized, periodic athletic contests of archaic Greece.
Part 2 shifts the focus to various aspects of the Olympic games. Quotes from Pindar and lively stories regarding notable athletes of the period are interspersed in two short chapters that examine the games of 480 and 476 BC. Then the discussion moves on to the Olympic program, the various events and the logistics of organizing and carrying out the Olympic festival. The section ends with two chapters on the commemoration and celebration of athletic victory and the emergence of the panhellenic periodos of athletic festivals.
Part 3 examines, in three short chapters, Greek sport beyond local and panhellenic contests. Much of the discussion focuses on the organization and activities in the gymnasion – the extensive Beroia gymnasiarchy law gets its own chapter – and the conditions of athletic training, including dieting and competition. With Part 4 we march into the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. A short chapter devoted to the patronage of sport by Hellenistic monarchs and the proliferation of athletic contests in the Hellenistic east is followed by chapters which examine the origins of Roman chariot-racing, gladiators and gladiatorial combat, beast hunts and the exploitation of public spectacles by statesmen and emperors. In the midst of all this, sport as practiced in Etruria receives only a cursory look. This is rather surprising, given the intriguing relationship of Etruscan sport to the athletic practices of the Greco-Roman world.
Part 5 deals with an assortment of facets of Roman sport. The four short chapters (19-22) that delve into issues related to spectators’ expectations and experiences are perhaps the most original part of the book. It should be noted that there is nothing equivalent in the first part of the volume dealing with Greek sport—it is certain that a section on spectators in Greek agones would have boosted the author’s arguments and enhanced the book’s appeal. Part 5 also contains short chapters on sport-related dreams and their interpretation; on visual representations of Roman sport; on participation of women in Greek-style agones and gladiatorial combats in the Roman period, where the author questionably credits Spartan female physical education with the creation of a model for female competitive athletics in the Roman east. Once again notable is the absence, especially in view of the recent surge of scholarly interest on the subject, of a chapter on women’s sport in the Greek world, from archaic to Hellenistic times.
Following women’s sport in the Roman period, the author returns to the subject of gladiators (there is relevant material in Part 4 as well), followed by detailed and lively chapters on Roman charioteers and Greek-style athletes in the Roman world as well as a chapter on the logistics of spectacle administration in the Roman empire. The book ends with a short chapter which outlines the demise of pagan athletic festivals and the conduct of chariot-racing and circus entertainments in the early Byzantine empire.
Overall, the sequence of the narrative is at times idiosyncratic. For instance, a short chapter entitled “The Emergence of the Panhellenic Cycle” comes after chapters discussing Pindar as well as Olympia and the Olympics in the early fifth century. The bibliography is extensive, although the author overlooks some widely-read, influential studies.1
Despite its shortcomings this book has its merits. The author successfully integrates primary sources in his discussion and the discerning reader will discover numerous original and perceptive observations. His focus on aspects of spectatorship is refreshing. Although it is unlikely that The Victor’s Crown will displace other firmly established introductions to Greco-Roman sport,2 it is certainly a much welcomed addition to current debates on the subject.
1. For instance, Thomas F. Scanlon, 2002. Eros and Greek Athletics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002; Donald G. Kyle, “‘The Only Woman in All Greece’: Kyniska, Agesilaus, Alcibiades and Olympia,” Journal of Sport History 30.2 (2003) 183–203; various studies related to Greco-Roman sport in Gerald P. Schaus and Stephen R. Wenn (eds), Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games, Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007; Sofie Remijsen, “Challenged by Egyptians: Greek Sports in the Third Century BC,” International Journal of the History of Sport 26.2 (2009), 246-271.
2. For instance Donald Kyle’s, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.