Sofie Remijsen’s new book, The End of Athletics in Late Antiquity, sets out to answer a question that many have thought already answered: How did the extensive array of athletic festivals that characterized Greek city life for over half a millennium meet its demise? Eschewing the traditional explanations invoking imperial edicts, transformed religious sensibilities or a combination of both, Remijsen delves into a wide range of evidence for the administration, institutional structure, and social function of Greek athletics during the Roman Empire. She emerges with a nuanced, convincing explanation of the decline of athletics as a gradually changing attitude towards their social value on the part of both elite and masses that was to a large degree independent of the religious revolution. After an Introduction (1-26), in which she outlines the problems and parameters of the evidence—epigraphical, literary, papyrological, and archaeological—for formal competitive athletic contests ( agones), she surveys the evidence for late-imperial agonistic festivals in the East region by region.
Remijsen prefaces her survey with a very brief outline of the development of athletics up to the Roman period (27-32). Then she deals first with Greece because of the antiquity of its agonistic tradition (33-69). She emphasizes the dynamic nature of its system of athletic festivals, marked by a proliferation of new contests and renamed extant ones as well as the abandonment of some others. Olympia and the Olympics naturally take pride of place, with a valuable review of the archaeological evidence that has led specialists to abandon the idea of a Herulian destruction of the site in 267 CE. Instead, rapid repairs to buildings and the famous bronze plaque listing victors up to the later fourth century show a site ‘bustling with activity’ (43). Remijsen shows that the traditional date for the end of the Olympics (393 CE) is baseless. Instead, like some others, she prefers a date in the reign of Theodosius II (408-450 CE) and foreshadows her main argument about the longevity of Greek athletics by downplaying the role of imperial edicts in the games’ fate (47-51). Her rapid overview of the other three festivals in the periodos (Pythian, Isthmian, Nemean) is workmanlike and sensible, and her conclusions, though necessarily speculative, are not outlandish (51-59). The same is true of her treatment of the evidence for other athletic activity at urban centres in Greece (59-63), though why she refers to the late third or early fourth century conversion of the running track into an amphitheater at the gymnasium-stadium at Messene1—a sure indication of the devaluation of ephebic activity—merely as ‘some low-quality restorations’ (63) I fail to grasp.
Constantinople represents a geographic and cultural anomaly in Remijsen’s examination of “Greece” (64-69). The city was without a significant athletic tradition of its own until the possible Constantinian inauguration of a γυμνικὸς καὶ ἱππικὸς ἀγών, which she suggests may be identified as the agon Valens restored in 369 CE (65). Though now incorporated into circus games, Greek athletics still continued to grip the sensibilities of certain members of the elite so much that an emperor held a parodic imitation of them in the later twelfth century (67).
Asia Minor is dealt with in a surprisingly curt twenty-seven pages (71-88), despite the great number of cities with festivals of greater or lesser importance. She spends the most space on the well-documented centres of Ephesus (76-81) and Aphrodisias (81-84). The network of athletic venues was dynamic: some gymnasia and festivals survived, others faded, and still others were introduced. A valuable examination of athletics in Syria follows (89-110), for which evidence is particularly hard to track down anywhere but in the best research libraries. Here the Olympics at Antioch, a festival Remijsen repeatedly utilises as a barometer of attitudes to athletics in late antiquity, make their first appearance (93-104). Her survey concludes with a rapid overview of athletics in Egypt, Gaul, and North Africa (111-163), where some of the most striking visual representations of athletics have been found.
In the concluding section of Part I (164-171) Remijsen brings her main threads together. The extensive framework of festivals and supportive institutions that characterized the high empire gradually collapsed, with the Olympics ending in the first part of the fifth century and the Roman headquarters of the international athletic association converted into a church at about the same time. In contrast, the inherently conservative institution of the gymnasium survived with its function changed, as part of bathing facilities in what she infelicitously terms “the entertainment sector.” Remijsen identifies the increasing popularity of the circus as the main factor in the decline of athletics (170-171).
After setting out the evidence for athletic decline, Remijsen investigates the possible reasons for this decay in Part II. Evidently, the thundering rhetoric of Christian writers had little immediate impact on a society in which many people continued to frequent agones. Athletic contests were stripped of sacrifices and other ceremonies linking them with the old deities so that many found the games themselves uncontroversial (181-197). And even those Christian writers who were achingly aware of games’ old ties with traditional cult sometimes condemned athletic festivals simply for attracting large crowds (195). As she puts it, many found “being a Christian … perfectly compatible with watching, sponsoring, or competing in agones ” (196). Emperors certainly felt it incumbent on themselves to support civic athletics well after the time of Constantine, a feature reflected in their decisions on such matters as athletes’ privileges and festival finances (203-217). Remijsen is interested in many financial aspects of later athletics, and gives a useful account of them. Of particular interest is her description of the financial impact on both elite and non-elite athletes of participation in international contests. As she makes clear, athletic success could be lucrative for the lucky and talented few, but it was tremendously burdensome for those of lesser rank (221-224). A barrier to entry into the elite was the expense of membership in the formal, organised xystic synod of athletes which, she argues, is to be contrasted with the “whole xystos” or “whole community of athletes” (224-237). The athletic synod is to Remijsen an example of the increasing differentiation between “career athletes” and “athlete performers,” who would perform at both private and public functions. Ironically, these lesser practitioners gradually prevailed over the career athletes and preserved traditional athletics, in a radically changed form, into the Middle Ages.
Remijsen then leads the reader through the complicated Greek attitude to athletics and how that attitude changed over time. Physical training for competition, once regarded as a worthwhile, even essential elite activity, one of the markers of a cultured man, came to be viewed as merely one in a range of options for spending leisure time (252-288). She places weight on the archaeological evidence for the evolution of gymnasia into baths with attendant athletic facilities. Associated with this is the decline of the ephebate, which she considers to have been caused by a lack of interest: “too few people found the program important enough to invest in it” (261). Like many scholars, she views the ephebate in purely athletic and moral terms, ignoring its enduring function of training youth up to join the corps of neoi who had long constituted the civic security forces.2 Centralisation of military organisation in the later empire is also a major, readily identifiable factor in the ephebate’s disappearance.
Remijsen traces imperial involvement in the organisation of agones, highlighting emperors’ interest in ensuring sound financial arrangements and the various strategies cities employed to secure funds (289-320). She treats the famous foundation of Demosthenes at Oenoanda in some detail (292-298) as an example of financing under normal conditions. She then goes on to examine the impact of financial turmoil, particularly inflation, on agones in late antiquity (298-309). I found her account of the phenomenon of the changing function of agonotheticae possessiones enlightening (300-303). But her omission of the second-century CE decree of the proconsul P. Memmius Rufus to the Macedonian city of Beroea is surprising, not least because Rufus’ radical measures (including redirecting the income of several civic foundations) to solve the local gymnasium’s acute financial problems are an early example of imperial readiness to intervene in a city’s affairs to support athletic and ephebic activities.3
The severe effects of the economic crisis of the third and early fourth centuries CE on Greek festivals rarely figure in discussions of the end of athletics. Remijsen’s account is thus particularly welcome. The confiscation of civic lands (304-309) and the centralization of many powers traditionally vested in cities also had a deleterious effect on athletics, as local communities were effectively stripped of the last vestiges of independent financial decision-making, such as whether to institute an agon (309-313). Naturally, the change in focus of ambition from attaining high civic office to securing a prestigious post in the imperial hierarchy also lessened the political utility of holding athletic games, although tradition often still expected prominent men of curial status to put on a spectacular set of games (310-320).
Spectacles figure in Remijsen’s last chapter where the spotlight returns to athletes again. Early on, she rightly notes the contrast between the Roman word for games, spectacula, and the Greek agones. She explores the implications of the difference and draws attention to the lack of a Greek term that encompassed both agones and the increasing number of public shows, such as gladiatorial combats and venationes, which did not fall into the same category (322-330). As time went by, even agones came to be regarded as spectacles (θέαι) once they had lost their explicitly religious connotations. Defences of the agon by tradition-minded orators such as Libanius (330-333) proved ineffectual. Christian writers decried them for promoting not the old gods but licentiousness and general immorality (333-336). Ironically, athletics survived in a fashion, despite the decline of the agon. Athletic displays increased in popularity, though the “career athletes” tended to look down on the professional performers hired to provide these services. The effectiveness of their lobbying (as Remijsen sees it) ensured that athletic performances were excluded from traditional contests and thus prevented their organisers from catering to changing public tastes (336-342, 348).
Remijsen’s account of athletic decline is both wide-ranging and finely nuanced. She treats often overlooked evidence and, on the whole, comes to sensible, if unspectacular, conclusions. I sometimes found it difficult to follow her train of thought and to understand what specific links she saw between these various types of evidence. The book’s major flaw is a common one: an inadequate index that contains many entries to specific individuals and institutions, but none to concepts. For example, the entry for “athletes” (383-384) lists eleven names under “imperial age” and fifty under “late antique”, but no sub-entries for “career athletes,” “athlete performers,” or “Christian athletes.” A reader interested in any of these subjects must therefore be armed with quite specialised knowledge of individual athletes’ names to utilise this resource.
Still, Remijsen has produced an important work that will no doubt impel further discussion and debate. She has shown that the decline of traditional athletics was a long, continuous process that was not marked by dramatic breaks. For this she is to be commended.
1. P. Themelis, “Υστερορωμαική και πρωτοβυζαντινή Μεσσήνη,” in P. Themelis and B. Konti, eds., Πρωτοβυζαντινή Μεσσήνη και Ολυμπία. Πρακτικά του Διεθνούς Συνεδρίου Αθήνα 29-30 Μαίου 1998 (Athens, 2002), 32.
2. See N. Kennell, “Who were the Neoi?,” in P. Martzavou and N. Papazarkadas, eds., Epigraphical Approaches to the Post-classical Polis: 4th century B.C. to 2nd century A.D. (Oxford, 2013) 217-232; “Marcus Aurelius Alexys and the ‘Homeland Security’ of Roman Sparta,” in W. Cavanagh, C. Gallou, and M. Georgiadis, eds., Sparta and Lakonia from Prehistory to Pre-modern (London, 2009), 285-291.
3. P. M. Nigdelis and G. A. Souris, Ἀνθύπατος λέγει. Ἔνα διάταγμα τῶν αὐτοκρατορικῶν χρόνων γιὰ τὸ γυμνάσιο τῆς Βέροιας . Τεκμήρια. Σύμβολες στὴν Ἰστορία τοῦ Ἡλληνικοῦ καὶ Ρωμαικοῦ Κόσμου (Thessaloniki, 2005). Review in BMCR 2007.08.31.