BMCR 2023.02.13

Ancient Greek athletics: primary sources in translation

, , Ancient Greek athletics: primary sources in translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 464. ISBN 9780198839590.



This handsome primary source book is a welcome addition to the popular subject of ancient Greek athletics. Both authors are well qualified to undertake the many subjects that are included in the volume, and they have produced a work that will be utilized and enjoyed by future college students as well as by members of the interested public. During the past fifty years, I have used a number of primary source books on Greek athletics beginning with Rachel Sargent Robinson’s work Sources for the History of Greek Athletics, which was privately printed in Cincinnati in 1955 and itself was a revision of her handbook The Story of Greek Athletics, privately printed, 1926. The 1955 Robinson edition was reprinted in 1984 by Ares Press. In 1978 Stephen G. Miller published the first edition of his source book Arete, which then saw several later editions (California 1991). In 1987 Waldo Sweet published Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece (Oxford), which contained many texts with translations. All these books have been used in college classes, and all of them were paperback. This volume is hardback, and I would consider the price at $115.00 as high for a book to be considered as a college text of this nature.

The dust jacket of the book under review describes the text as “the most comprehensive collection to date of primary sources in translation for the study of ancient Greek athletics.” I would tend to agree. The volume is divided into three parts: texts, inscriptions, and papyri, and there are also three appendices (described below). Numerous helpful maps, lists, and charts are included in the volume, and there are also many color photographs and a glossary of Greek terms. Preceding each of the chapters is a useful introduction, which prepares the reader for what follows. By far the largest section of the sourcebook is devoted to literary sources (for which they use the heading “texts”), followed by inscriptions and papyri.

The texts are divided chronologically, Archaic and Early Classical Period, Classical Period, Hellenistic Period and Roman Period, with further division by author. Under the Archaic and Early Classical period and the Classical Period, there are further helpful genre subdivisions under Epic, Victory Odes, Elegy, Epigram, History, Tragedy and Comedy, Medical Writing, Attic Oratory, and Philosophy. There are no subdivisions with respect to the Hellenistic or the Roman authors. The section on Inscriptions is divided into the subheadings of Olympia, Delphi, Sparta, and Athens. The section on “Papyri” has no subheadings.

The numbering system employed in the book is outlined under “Organization of this Sourcebook,” pp. xxxii–xxxiii, and needs to be read carefully. Inscriptions are abbreviated with “I” before the number of the entry and papyri with “P” before the number of the entry. There are no spaces between the prefix and the number and as a result, the “I” prefix looks very much like the number 1, so that I2a is the Polyzalos Inscription from Delphi on p. 318 but it looks very similar to 12a which is a fragment from Euripides’ Autolycus on p. 97.

Long passages of Homer from the Iliad and the Odyssey are set out in continuous prose. From the Iliad are passages that relate to the eight events of the Funeral Games of Patroklos and from the Odyssey are passages from the games of the Phaeacians with other shorter passages. In this reviewer’s opinion, there could have been a little more organization and summary included with respect to the Homeric passages. A table might have been helpful to list the events, the athletes, and the prize or prizes, such as is found under Pindar in Table 1, Pindaric Victory Odes, where site of games, name of victor, home city, event, and date are included. The Pindaric victory odes are well represented, as are odes of Bacchylides, Simonides, Tyrtaeus, Xenophanes, and Theognis. Long translations of Pausanias relating to many varied athletic subjects from his ten books, Description of Greece, written in the 2nd century C.E., also appear. Philostratus’ training manual for athletes and coaches of the 3rd century C.E. is also quoted at length. Other long passages include excerpts from Lucian and Galen.

Many interesting inscriptions are included in the volume, organized primarily by site: Olympia, Delphi, Sparta, Athens, and Other Significant Inscriptions. Some are well known, for instance the organization of the Pythian Games from the mid 3rd century B.C.E., the gymnasium inscription from Beroia in Macedonia of ca. 180 B.C.E., or the list of prizes given at the Panathenaia ca. 350 B.C.E. Other less well-known inscriptions include the Damonon Stele inscription from ca. 400 B.C.E. recording the victories of two Spartan athletes who won equestrian events and foot races in different local festivals. Also included are the Artemis Orthia inscriptions from the 2nd century C.E. relating to the contest in endurance and toughness, karteria.

The very interesting Cleombratus inscription of the 6th century B.C.E. was written on a thin rectangular bronze plaque with holes in its four corners probably once attached to the wall of the temple of Athena at Sybaris, where it was found. As an alternative to the interpretation and translation of Stocking and Stephens, the inscription might read “Cleombratus, son of Dexilaus, having won at Olympia, dedicates this to Athena, of equal height and thickness, having vowed (before the games) to dedicate one tenth of his prize.” The prize would be bronze, perhaps 10 equal sized plaques, of which Cleombratus dedicated one to Athena. The inscription begins with the two letters ‘ΔΟ’ that may refer to the dedication as “a gift” or as a reference to “Dios at Olympia.”[1]

The early epigraphical evidence for the Panathenaia includes two of the three very important agonistic inscriptions found on the Athenian Akropolis and published by A.E. Raubitscheck.[2] Inscription 326 (DAA 326) is usually dated to 566 B.C.E. and is associated with the earliest foundation of the Great Panathenaia because of the word protoi, as correctly translated by the authors: “They made the dromos” and “the priests established for the first time the agon for the gray eyed maiden.” The inscription can be understood to document the construction of the racecourse itself.

The decision of the authors to include the ancient denomination of monetary prizes accompanying victor inscriptions without attempting a conversion of ancient currency to modern standards, as has been done in another primary source book (Miller), is a good one. Currency conversion values, ancient to modern, fluctuate over time and are less helpful.

There are some very interesting papyri included in this volume including four Hellenistic examples; the rest are Roman. One of the Hellenistic examples from 256 B.C.E. is the exemption for a tax on salt that applies to a number of categories of individuals, including trainers and those victors in the games at Alexandria, both the Basileia and the Ptolemaia.

“The Athlete in Greek Culture” is Appendix A, in which there are discussions of “Heroes and Athletes,” “Athletics and Education,” “Nudity and the Athletic Body,” and “Women and Greek Athletics.” This last section considers the evidence for athletic competitions by females at Olympia, Brauron, and Sparta, and for the Roman period also includes the evidence for female competitions in local and Panhellenic contests. But the examples cited, the Hera festival at Olympia, the Arcteia in Brauron, and the educational model in Sparta, relate not to women but to girls, and specifically unmarried girls. Pausanias 5.16.2 describes them as parthenoi as cited in the source book. At Olympia, Pausanias tells us that the contests for Hera were organized by a committee of women.[3]

Appendix B presents “Sites and Conduct of Festival Games,” with subheadings of “Major Festivals,” “Record Keeping,” and “Breaking the Rules.” In the schedule of events for the Olympic Festival of 350 B.C.E., a reference to the important work of H. Lee on the schedule of the Olympic Games would be useful.[4] In Table 2 of “Major Festivals,” we know that the prize for the Arcadian Lykaia was bronze, and probably a tripod, although we do not know for certain what form the bronze took.[5] It is also most likely that the Lykaia festival was held every four years. Table 6 is a page of four maps illustrating the hometowns of Olympic victors from four periods of time: Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman. These are interesting maps, but they are so small that they are difficult to use.

Appendix C documents “The Events,” with subheadings of “Running Events,” “Combat Events,” “Pentathlon,” and “Equestrian Events.” This appendix is a good summary of the athletic and equestrian events of Greek athletics since all the events are covered. Among them, the running long jump is described and the 55 foot jump of Phayllus of Croton is mentioned with a number of possible explanations for the great distance he achieved. An explanation not offered might be the use of a different foot length in the measurement of the jump.[6] In consideration of the racecourses for equestrian events (p. 400) it would be good to include the mention of the only hippodrome in the Greek world that can be measured and visualized at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion.[7] The mountaintop example from Arcadia measures 250 x 50 m and includes two turning posts. As such, it is similar in size to early examples of the Augustan circus. In a college course one would look for more details about each of the events, a task that would require supplementary reading or another text.

I would have found it useful to have had the material found in the appendices appear at the beginning of the book as introductory chapters to the subject of Greek athletics before the collection of primary sources. This has something to do with my consideration of the use of the book in my “Archaeology of Ancient Athletics” class next term and how I am working on dividing up assignments for the students utilizing the book. The appendices as summaries are quite useful and could be assigned at the beginning of the course.

Plan 1 is a schematic drawing of an idealized Greek gymnasium based on the description of Vitruvius. Although useful in the context of the discussion of “Athletics and Education,” in Appendix A, it might have been preferable to include a plan or photographs of the gymnasium complex at Olympia or Delphi where there exists substantial archaeological evidence for the facilities. The sourcebook does include the site plans of the sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea, but at a smaller scale.

Overall, there is a wealth of information included in this primary source book that will be well appreciated by future students and scholars.



[1] M. Guarducci, “Sulla tabella bronzea iscritta di Francavilla Marittima,” Rend. Lincei 1965, pp. 392–395; Revue des Études Grecques, Vol. 80, 1967, p. 569; L. Moretti, “Supplemento al catalogo degli Olympionikai,” Klio Vol. 52, 1970, pp. 205–206.

[2] A.E. Raubitscheck, Dedications from the Athenian Akropolis, A Catalogue of the Inscriptions of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. with the collaboration of Lilian H. Jeffery, Archaeological Institute of America, Cambridge, 1949, pp. 350–358.

[3] This subject has been well covered by T. F. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics, Oxford 2002, Chapters 4–6.

[4] H. Lee, The Program and Schedule of the Ancient Olympic Games, Nikephoros Beihefte, Band 6, W. Decker and I Weiler, eds., 2001.

[5] Pindar, Ol. 7.83.

[6] D.G. Romano “Greek Footraces and Field Events,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, A. Futrell and T. Scanlon, eds., Oxford 2021, pp. 209–220.

[7] D.G. Romano, “The Hippodrome and the Equestrian Contests at the Sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia,” in Les Hippodromes et les Concours Hippiques dans la Grèce Antique, BCH Supplément 62, sous la direction de J. C. Moretti et P. Valavanis, École française d’Athénes, 2019, pp. 27–44.