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Yale University Press
Ancient Greek Athletics / Edition 1

Ancient Greek Athletics / Edition 1

by Stephen G. Miller


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Ancient Greek Athletics / Edition 1

The earliest Olympic games began more than twenty-five-hundred years ago. What were they like, how were they organized, who participated? Were ancient sports a means of preparing youth for warfare? In this lavishly illustrated book, a world expert on ancient Greek athletics provides the first comprehensive introduction to the subject, vividly describing ancient sporting events and games and exploring their impact on art, literature, and politics.
Using a wide array of ancient sources, written and visual, and including recent archaeological discoveries, Stephen Miller reconstructs ancient Greek athletic festivals and the details of specific athletic events. He also explores broader themes, including the role of women in ancient athletics, the place of amateurism, and the relationship between athletic events and social and political life.
Published in the year the modern Olympic Games return to Athens, this book will be a source of information and enjoyment for anyone interested in the history of athletics and the origins of the world’s most famous sporting event.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300115291
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 466,942
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.44(d)

About the Author

Stephen G. Miller, professor of classical archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, directs the excavations at Nemea in Greece, one of the major sites of ancient games. He is the author of many books, including Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources.

Read an Excerpt


By Stephen G. Miller


Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10083-3

Chapter One


WILL ANTIGONE bury her dead brother or leave his corpse as carrion for the crows-will she obey the dictates of her conscience or the orders of the state? The dilemma of Sophokles' heroine resonates with us as an example of how the rights of the individual and the needs of society can conflict.

Is the Athens of Thucydides' Perikles a monument to the accomplishments of ancient Athenians-an inspiration to generations unborn-or do the Athenians of the Melian dialogue teach us a brutish, might-makes-right lesson?

Can we sympathize with, even as we laugh at, Aristophanes' sly Strepsiades, a man on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to his spendthrift son, who begs Sokrates to teach him how to cheat his creditors by use of a neat auditing trick?

Does the Sokrates of Plato speak to all that is most noble in us when he chooses to die rather than abdicate his principles?

Do Aristotle's concerns about education-its nature and content, whether it ought to be private or public-remain timely and timeless?

The Greeks of two-and-a-half millennia ago recognized and wrestled with so many of the difficult issues of what it is to be human that they stand as one of the highest points in our struggle to understand ourselves-to be civilized. In architecture and sculpture, painting and literature, drama and philosophy the ancient Greeks defined and developed various components of a culture that we still understand as fundamental to our own.

It is the purpose of this book to explore another aspect of Greek culture: athletics. For athletics was integral to the life of the Greeks-especially and most obviously (but not exclusively) for Greek men. My exploration will, of necessity, go into the details of competitions and may sometimes remind the reader of the sports section of a modern newspaper. But once we have examined those details, we can set athletics in the broader framework of ancient society. It is my hope that you, the reader, will come away not only learning something about ancient Greek athletics and its role in society but also understanding something more about our own world.

As much as possible I shall approach this study through the words and the artifacts that have been preserved from antiquity-let the Greeks speak for themselves. No matter how experienced or knowledgeable a modern scholar may be, the primary sources must always be the point of departure. I shall try to differentiate between certain knowledge and my interpretations of evidence that is frequently fragmentary, ambiguous, or contradictory-or all of the above. This will require you to examine these questions and come to your own conclusions, recognizing that some details are not yet known, and may never be. But I believe that your appreciation of our society's Greek heritage will thereby be enhanced.

Before we begin our investigation, we must set the historical framework. During the second millennium before Christ there flourished a vibrant civilization that we call the Minoan, centered on Crete but documented elsewhere (especially the island of Thera), and in regular contact with Egypt (fig. 1). This culture gave way to one located on the mainland, particularly in the Peloponnesos. Its center, Mycenae, gave this society the name by which we know it today. The myths and legends of historical Greece were largely rooted in these successive Bronze Age cultures. Theseus and the Minotaur, Daidalos and Ikaros, Helen, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, and Hektor, are only a few of the figures we can understand as representations of some historical truth perceived now only dimly through the discoveries of archaeologists, discoveries that record, as the myths suggested, the disastrous end that befell a brilliant civilization on the brink of developing a written literature.

The causes of that collapse are debated, and were probably diverse, but the ensuing depopulation and cultural depression are visible in the archaeological record and justify the name long given to this era-the Dark Ages. This period (ca. 1100-800 B.C.) was associated in myth with and substantiated in history by the Return of the Sons of Herakles-the Dorian Invasion. By the end of the Dark Ages, the dominance of the Dorians in the Peloponnesos and the Ionians in Attica and the Aegean was established, and it is on this cultural map that the next centuries of Greek development can be plotted.

Greece begins to awaken from the Dark Ages in the eighth century, when Homer reputedly hymned the Trojan War and when-in 776 B.C.-the Olympic Games were traditionally founded. The archaeological record, which details an increasing number of burials, testifying to a population explosion, also shows an increase in the quality of the artifacts discovered in the grave sites (including a clear interest in portraying the human figure), and the beginnings of a substantial architecture. In this period, too, begins the push of colonization as the expanding population sought space in ever larger parts of the Mediterranean: Sicily and Magna Graecia, the coasts of the eastern Adriatic and North Africa, producing over the next two centuries Greek settlements ultimately stretching from the southern coast of France and the eastern coast of Spain to the Black Sea.

This expansion brought the Greeks into contact with older, well-established cultures, especially in Egypt (again), Anatolia, and Phoenicia. From them the Greeks took artistic and architectural forms, as well as an alphabet, but they retooled their borrowings during the "Orientalizing period" of the seventh century and brought them forth in new forms clearly stamped "Hellenic." For example, by about 650 B.C. poetry had advanced to a level of sophistication and wit that allowed Archilochos of Paros to express a literate understanding of human frailty through sardonic self-deprecation:

Some barbarian is flashing my shield, a perfectly good tool That I left by a bush unwilling, but likewise unwilling To face death. To hell with that shield! I can buy a new one just as good. [fragment 6]

by about 600 we see the first of many forms: large-scale stone temples, lyric poetry, and human figures portrayed in stone at life size (and larger). Most characteristic is the nude young man (kouros) standing rigidly with left foot slightly forward and hands clenched at his sides-betraying both his Egyptian inspiration and the block of stone from which he was carved. At Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and the islands, painters developed the black-figure style (see, for example, figs. 3, 4, 5, 32, 69) that allowed them to present more detail, and replaced the fantastic birds and animals of earlier vases with the human form. It is at this time, too, that the Olympic Games were joined by the three other games of the Panhellenic cycle: the Pythian (initiated 586 B.C.), the Isthmian (580 B.C.), and the Nemean (573 B.C.). Also in these years, the Athenian lawgiver Solon both wrote his own poetry and set limits on the prizes given to athletes by the state. The games ran hand-in-hand with Greek cultural development.

by the end of the century these forms had developed dramatically. The statue of a nude youth became a naturalistic rendering in which muscles bulged and the skin betrayed not stone but the flesh and bone beneath it. The new red-figure style of painting (see, for example, figs. 6, 7, 8, 12) replaced the black, and the incised details of the earlier form gave way to brush strokes that offered a greater fluidity and curvilinear naturalism to anatomical details. The search for wisdom-philosophy-was under way, even as Simonides of Keos was beginning the tradition of odes commemorating athletic victories and the exploits of Arrhichion of Phigaleia and Milo of Kroton were launching a specifically athletic mythology.

By 500, a Hellenic cultural identity had come into full existence, an identity that demanded its own political structure. In Asia Minor, where the Persian Empire dominated the Greek cities, the Ionian Greeks launched a revolt in 499-495. It failed, bringing Persian wrath not only on the Ionians but on the Athenians, who had supported them, and in 490 a punitive expeditionary force landed northeast of Athens at Marathon. The unexpected Athenian victory there was justly celebrated, but it led, ten years later, to the assault of a huge Persian force bent on vengeance against them and any other Greeks who got in the way.

Three hundred Spartans were the first to get in the way at Thermopylai at the beginning of August, and their famously futile heroism should be put into the context of another Greek event: the Olympic Games of 480 were in the final stages of preparation even as Leonidas and his Spartan warriors were sacrificing themselves. A few days later, while the Persians were torching Athens, the games took place at Olympia. The athletes, like the crowd as a whole, came from all over Greece: Thebes, Argos, Syracuse, and Rhegion in Magna Graecia; Heraia, Stymphalia, and Mantineia in Arkadia; the islands of Chios and Thasos. That these games went on as Athens was burning tells us much about the position of athletics in Greek society, although no Athenians or Spartans are known to have competed while their fellow citizens were dying at Persian hands, and Phaÿllos of Kroton, a famous pentathlete, gave up his chance at Olympic victory to man his own ship at the Battle of Salamis, contributing to the Greek victory there. After the games were over, the rest of the Greeks presented a more nearly unified front in the defeat of the Persians at Plateia in 479.

This victory, so unexpected in the face of overwhelming odds, unleashed a newfound Panhellenic pride. In one tangible expression of the new spirit, booty from the defeated Persians was dedicated at Olympia, Delphi, and Isthmia but not Nemea, which was controlled by Argos. Argos had not fought against the Persians, so its games site was not allowed to benefit from the Greek victory. But Pindar and Bacchylides led the poetic celebration of athletic victories at all four sites, while Myron commemorated them sculpturally. Many of the best-known athletes and examples of athletic art date from the period just after the Persian Wars, and for the next generation sources record more competitions between athletes than between city-states.

The political situation had shifted by the middle of the fifth century as the Greek world became increasingly polarized between Athens and Sparta. To be sure, this was also the time when an unprecedented (and still unequaled) eruption of creative energy was occurring at Athens: Aischylos, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were setting the Athenian stage, Pheidias was building the Parthenon, and Thucydides was recording the disastrous conflict that eventually consumed the city. But the Athenian brilliance of 440 under the leadership of Perikles had dimmed by 399, when the state condemned Sokrates to death. It is not surprising that athletic performance during this period was overshadowed by political intrigue or that we know more about Sokrates' visits to the gymnasion than about Athenian victories at Olympia.

Politically, the fourth century was a struggle for dominance: Thebes entered the picture, but none of the cities held sway for long. Culturally, the fourth century offered refinement rather than innovation. It is telling that the leading men of letters were lawyers and philosophers. Plato gave up an athletic career to pursue the quest for the perfect state, and Aristotle included a revision of the list of Olympic victors among his works and conducted the research that established the list of Pythian victors. But we find no records of famous fourth-century athletes such as existed a century earlier, and no art is tied to these individuals.

The emergence of Philip II of Macedon and the spread of his power and influence changed the situation. The Battle of Chaironeia in 338 established Macedonian dominance in Greece, setting the foundation from which Philip's son Alexander began his own conquests, which are as remarkable for their speed (336-323) as for their endurance, at least in a cultural sense. At Alexander's death the Greeks' known world was under Greek control as far as the Indus; part or all of the modern states of Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India were under a single central political authority.

But the Greeks could not hold this world together, and after Alexander's death it was divided into a number of kingdoms. These were all, to some degree, Greek; the old Hellenic world had spread to become a larger, Hellenistic world, where the Greek language and, at least superficially, Greek customs were current. The great libraries in Alexandria and Pergamon provided the basis for the study of early Greece and the fitting of indigenous cultures into a Hellenic framework. For example, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, begun in Macedonian Alexandria in about 270, made Hebrew texts available to Greek scholars.

Alexander had taken athletics along with him, and as his empire grew, competitions also proliferated. These required an ever greater supply of athletes, and athletics became a full-time job. It is not a coincidence that the first athletic trade unions appeared at this time.

During the next two centuries Hellenistic successors of Alexander struggled among themselves while Rome rose in the west. The inexorable expansion of the Romans brought defeat and destruction to the Greek world including most notably the utter destruction of Corinth in 146 and only slightly less destructive sack of Athens in 86. With Greece depopulated and denuded of its wealth, athletics fell on hard times in the old Greek world: in 80 only competitions for boys were held at Olympia. It took an endowment from Herod the Great in 12 B.C. to start the Olympic Games toward recovery. With Augustus firmly in control of the Roman Empire (as of 31 B.C.), the Greek world, now part of that empire, began to recover economically, becoming a school, museum, and tourist attraction.

From the time of Augustus to about A.D. 180 the eastern Hellenic section of the empire enjoyed peace and prosperity. Athletics flourished along Hellenistic lines, becoming a vast entertainment industry that finally was established in Rome itself in A.D. 86. As Rome's expansion slowed and attention turned to the administration of the empire, we hear more about pensions and parades, of the organization of athletic guilds, and about the benefits granted them by various emperors. Athletes were as cosmopolitan as any members of their society while nonathletes turned to private exercise and public baths. Specialization was complete.


Excerpted from ANCIENT GREEK ATHLETICS by Stephen G. Miller Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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