BMCR 2018.03.33

Athletics in the Hellenistic World

, , , Athletics in the Hellenistic World. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 366. ISBN 9783515115711. €62.00.

Table of Contents

Athletics in the Hellenistic World addresses a significant gap in knowledge and understanding of the changes in Greek social institutions after the death of Alexander the Great. Changes in art and literature have long received extensive attention, but there has been little research focused on Hellenistic developments in athletics. W.W. Tarn admonished that real understanding of what Hellenism meant rests on the details of all the phenomena, and that should of necessity include sport, which throughout antiquity clearly represented a quintessential part of the Hellenic self-image. The research this volume represents is therefore necessary not only to supplement the history of ancient sport, but yet more so to understand the social history of the Hellenistic world, and particularly to address that essential question of how Hellenistic Greeks understood what it meant to be Greek.

The volume contains 16 essays, based on papers given at the University of Mannheim in June 2015. The volume includes brief abstracts, an index locorum, illustrations, maps, and charts. All of the essays provide extensive citations and bibliography. The publisher should take note of a regrettable number of typographic errors, including one in an essay title.

The introductory essay by Christian Mann, “Sport in Hellenismus: Forschungsstand und Forschungsperspektiven,” is an important analysis of the state of research and understanding. In it, he describes the significance of the Hellenistic developments in sport, both the continuities from earlier practice and in the departures that they represent. He admirably sets forth the important insights to be gained, in particular those concerning Hellenic identity, the “Differenzdiskurse und Inklusionspraktiken im Verhältnis zwischen Griechen und Barbaren (p. 13).”

Several of the essays explore the complexity of the identity of the athlete with the polis and what athleticism represented to the athlete’s homeland. In the early 4 th c., poleis competed fiercely for the distinction of having a victor announced as a citizen of their state: Astyalos of Kroton, for example, after his first Olympic, proclaimed himself a Syracusan to please Hiero, infuriating his homeland (Pausanias 6.13.1); a similar scandal occurred concerning Sotades of Crete (Pausanias 6.18.6). What happens in the Hellenistic world when citizenship is a more fluid institution? Antiopi Argyriou-Casmeridis in “Victories and Virtues” observes the scarcity of Hellenistic honorific decrees praising athletes: dedications to gymnasiarchs and agonothetes—in other words, philanthropists, are more common, although clearly the poleis do not pull back from their lavish rewards for athletic victors. Zinon Papakonstantinou’s essay, “The Hellenistic Agonothesia : Finances, Ideology, Identities,” argues that the increased emphasis on civic generosity rather than financial exigency was a principal motive for serving as an agonothetes, with private contributions typically providing enhancements, rather than base budget for the festival. In other words, agonothesia in the Hellenistic era furthered the connection of sport and civic identity that had long been a touchstone of the polis. Kathrin Weber’s study of Hellenistic grave monuments, “Athletendarstellungen in der hellenistischen Grabkunst – Überlegungen zum Stellenwert der Athletenrolle in der Polisgesellschaft,” argues that emblems of intellectual pursuit, principally a scroll, increase sharply on grave monuments, in some regions outnumbering the depiction of the strigil, the signifier of gymnasium life. She notes the apparent decrease in nude representation of athletes on grave monuments. The topic overall calls for more research: it is important to remember that the number of extant monuments and inscriptions is limited, and it would have been illuminating in both this essay and that of Argyriou-Casmeridis to have more detailed, comparative information on the pre-Hellenistic honorific decrees for athletes, gymnasiarchs and agonothetes and more information on the way in which athletes appear on their funerary monuments prior to the Hellenistic era. There are, for example, more Hellenistic grave reliefs with naked athletes in Pfuhl-Möbius, Die Ostgriechischen Grabreliefs that deserve study: noteworthy are two perhaps transitional monuments: PM 124, which Louis Robert identified as that of a pentathlete and PM 125, which shows substantial gymnasium gear.

Sebastian Scharff, drawing on Poseidippus’ Hippika shows how important regional identity was to Thessalian equestrian victors: in an era of large royal kingdoms, the ancient aristocratic heritage was a powerful evocation, perhaps stronger than the polis. The Poseidippus epigrams are a small and special corpus, and there are few polis identifications overall in the Hippika, but, as Scharff observes, previous epinician poetry predictably alluded to the polis, which is not the case for these epigrams. Frank Daubner’s “Agone im Hellenistischen Nordgriechenland” draws attention to the continuity of athletic participation in northern Greece, a region whose athletic history is typically overlooked. He notes that Roman domination, contrary to what is often thought, did not eclipse participation or even occasional victories in the crown games. Daubner properly uses epigraphical evidence to confirm that the poleis of northern Greece were part of the panhellenic network, and, importantly, that the poleis enjoyed participation independent of royal direction.

The geographical location of the Ptolemies arguably increased their search for prestige in athletic participation, a topic explored in a fine essay by Lukas Kainz. Kainz asks why the Ptolemies invested so heavily in athletics, unlike the Antigonids and Seleucids. In contrast, Ptolemy II established the isolympic Ptolemaia. The equestrian victories of the Ptolemies male and female—Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II, Berenice I, Berenice II, Arsinoe II, and possibly Berenice Syra—appear in the Aitia of Callimachus and the Hippika of Posidippus or both. Pausanias describes statues of Ptolemaic victors (see below). Kainz, drawing on the work of Helmut Kyrieleis discusses the series of bronze miniatures that show a Ptolemaic king prevailing in a wrestling bout1 against a barbarian opponent, though he follows—correctly, in the view of this reviewer—later scholarship that identifies the figure as Ptolemy Philadelphus, not Euergetes. Almost certainly, a monumental statue inspired these miniatures, probably, as Kainz argues, celebrating Ptolemy II’s cruel massacre of some 2,000 Galatian mercenaries he had himself hired: his court poet Callimachus would opportunely link this massacre with the war against the Galatians who attacked mainland Greece. In this way, Ptolemy evokes the time-honored Hellenic connection of athletic and martial prowess. The dynasty’s positioning was astute. Kainz p. 345 appropriately notes that Pausanias repeatedly refers to various Ptolemies as Egyptian or Egyptian king (e.g., Pausanias 1.5.5; 1.8.6.; 1.9.4; 3.6.8) and suggests that the dynasty had to struggle to gain and maintain credibility as Greek: athletics was the quintessential sign of that. Kainz gives a fine explication (pp. 246-48) of Polybius’ account of the boxing match between Kleitomachus of Thebes and Aristonikos, whom Ptolemy IV had sponsored: the Theban scolds the crowd for its support of the Egyptian over a representative of Greece (Polybius 27.9.10-13). Kainz (pp. 334-335) puts somewhat less weight on the influence of the Pharaonic tradition of athleticism. But this was a vibrant part of Egyptian culture, and it is noteworthy that the Pharaohs particularly boasted of their prowess in firing arrows from a speeding chariot (see W. Decker, Sport und Spiel im Alten Ägypten pp. 48-62). Kainz’s hesitation may not be fully appropriate. Ptolemaic self-promotion as athletic victors could only redound to their image among the Egyptians. Kainz suggestion that the athletic victories, male and female of the Ptolemies who prevailed in their dynastic struggles are designed to establish an image of family unity (pp. 335 ff.), is, however, a very convincing explanation. Leonardo Cazzadori’s cogent analysis of Callimachus’ praise of Berenice in the Aitia, shows how the poet raised the victory to – literally – mythic proportion. As he notes in the final section of his essay, “A Hall of Fame for the Ptolemies,” among the fragments of Books 3 and 4 of the Aitia are homages evocations of Euthykles the Olympic victor in the pentathlon, who received the honor of a hero cult, and Euthymos the boxer, whom the oracle declared a hero during his own lifetime. Cazzadori notes fragments of uncertain location (or authorship) that refer to Astylos the runner, Milo the wrestler, and possibly Theagenes the boxer and pankratiast. Allusively, Callimachus, the court poet, places Berenice, the victor in the chariot race in this august, mythical company.

Surprisingly, given the volume’s focus on the shifting boundaries of Greek identity in the Hellenistic age, and the role sport played, there is no discussion of the flash point athletics represented among Jews in the Seleucid empire and later, during the time of Caligula, in Alexandria. Beneath the fierce denunciation in I Maccabees 1.15 of Jews who stripped naked in the gymnasium like the Greeks, some of whom underwent the painful and dangerous epispasm to conceal their circumcision, is evidence of the powerful attraction of Hellenization. Although the time of Caligula and Claudius is beyond the time frame of this volume, the rage of the Alexandrians against the Jews, which was prompted at least in part, as the letter of the Emperor Claudius indicates, by their aspirations to participate in the activities of the gymnasium, again shows the attraction of Hellenism and also how it was guarded, even when its reach had already so greatly expanded to new lands and peoples.

Whatever the complexity of the athlete’s civic identity, the passion for sport increased. What Louis Robert termed the “explosion agonistique” of festivals in the Hellenistic world stands, as Thomas Heine Nielsen carefully argues in “Reflections on the Number of Athletic Festivals in Pre-Hellenistic Greece,” on a very robust pre-Hellenistic multiplication of sporting competitions. Several of the essays offer striking insights into the intensity of the Hellenistic embrace of athletics as a sign of Hellenic identity and legitimacy. Onno van Nijf and Christina Williamson use epigraphical evidence concerning the reorganized Leukophryeneia to show how the bid to gain panhellenic recognition of the athletic festival incorporated diplomatic outreach stressing kinship, friendship, and familiarity with dozens of poleis stretching from Sicily to Iran. The essay is a powerful witness to the way in which the system of athletic festivals in the Hellenistic world made the identification of being Greek stronger, even within the ethnically diverse framework of the Seleucid kingdom. The brief history of the Stratonikeia illustrates how even a Seleucid colony could parlay a recognized athletic festival (this time with the blessing of Sulla) into recognition by other poleis. This essay also makes innovative use of network theory to show how the relationships of the poleis intensified through the athletes and city-to-city theoroi of diplomats, ultimately and were amplified and ultimately enveloped, as the study of Sulla’s interest in the Amphiaraia point out, in a larger, more tightly controlled network based in Rome.

The passion for sport also manifested itself in the staging of the athletic events and the accommodations for spectators. Barbara Dimde, in “Stadien und Startvorrichtungen in hellenistischer Zeit,” reviews the technological advancement of the starting mechanism, the hysplex, for foot races. She aptly uses the term “Inszenzierung,” to describe how the hysplex not only ensured a fair start but also dramatized the footrace. The Hellenistic theater employed more devices than the classical stage; it invites comparison with the Hellenistic modifications of the stadium. Understandably, this volume focuses on larger questions of social history, rather than technical details of the sports, but it might be productive in this context of athletic staging to consider why the sharp thongs, much more lacerative than the earlier light thongs, became the normal gear for boxers.

In summary, this volume represents a very welcome addition, not only to sport history, but also to the social history of the ancient world. It provides much material for future research on a vital, though hitherto neglected aspect of athletics in the ancient world.


1. In this volume, Mann, p. 19, Kainz, p. 335, and Klauser, p. 295 maintain that the wrestling of the ancient Greeks did not include struggle on the ground and that such scenes must represent pankration: but there is substantial evidence that this is not the case, see Poliakoff, Combat Sport in the Ancient World. Competition, Violence, and Culture pp. 23-53.