Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World

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  • This article was downloaded by: [The UC Irvine Libraries]On: 26 October 2014, At: 22:13Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of theAncient WorldZinon Papakonstantinou aa University of Washington , SeattlePublished online: 23 Jan 2009.

    To cite this article: Zinon Papakonstantinou (2009) Prologue: Sport in the Cultures ofthe Ancient World, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26:2, 141-148, DOI:10.1080/09523360802511011

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  • Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of theAncient WorldZinon Papakonstantinou

    This special issue brings together contributions from active researchers in the field of

    ancient sport. [1] The study of ancient sport is as old as the study of the Classical andNear Eastern civilizations. However, it is primarily in the last 30 years or so that a

    growing number of scholars moved beyond strictly formalist approaches and havedissected social and cultural aspects of sport in the ancient world. The aim of the

    present collection is to highlight the vitality and diversity of current ancient sportscholarship. Contributors examined old and recently discovered evidence and

    subjected long-standing and new problems to fresh approaches. The result will be ofinterest not only to ancient historians and other classicists, but also to historians ofmodern sport keen to gain valuable comparative insights.

    Before proceeding any further two brief definitions are in order. Sport isunderstood here in its wider sense which includes athletic competition in established

    contests but also deliberative physical exercise of any kind, for example, as part ofphysical education. Ancient world is an equally wide-encompassing expression

    which usually denotes the cultures that flourished around the Mediterranean basinfrom the beginning of human existence until the fall of the Roman empire (date

    disputed, but roughly in the fourth century AD). The geographical and chronologicalscope of the present collection is however more restricted, that is, primarily theGreco-Roman world in the eastern Mediterranean from c.1000 BC until the fourth

    century AD. Even these chronological boundaries might seem daunting to the modernhistorian unfamiliar with the ancient world. Moreover, historians specializing on

    sport in the ancient world face further challenges related to the fragmentary nature ofthe extant evidence and the, until very recently, prevalent prejudices towards the

    scholarly study of sport in the academic fields of classics and ancient history. Eventhough these issues fall outside the scope of this Prologue, readers will find in

    Scanlons essay an informative and up-to-date synopsis of the current state of ancientsport history studies.

    Zinon Papakonstantinou, University of Washington, Seattle.Correspondence to: zpapak@u.washington.edu

    The International Journal of the History of SportVol. 26, No. 2, February 2009, 141148

    ISSN 0952-3367 (print)/ISSN 1743-9035 (online) 2009 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/09523360802511011

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  • In what follows I will summarize the content and main conclusions of individualessays in the remainder of this Prologue. I will then present in the Epilogue some

    closing reflections as well as attempt to detect common threads and evaluate thesignificance of the volume in the context of recent scholarship on ancient sport.

    For millions of sport enthusiasts around the world the Olympic Games is thegreatest athletic legacy of the ancient world. Yet how much do we really know about

    the origins and early years of the ancient Olympics? Evidence for ancient sport isscarce, especially for the earliest phases of its existence. In his essay Christesen,

    drawing substantially from his recent monograph, [2] re-examines the evidencebehind the traditional ancient date (776 BC) for the establishment of the OlympicGames. He argues against the existence of large-scale written records in eighth-

    century Olympia and demonstrates quite convincingly that Hippias of Elis, thehistorian to whom we owe the traditional date, calculated it on the basis of legends

    regarding the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus and generational reckoning of Spartan kings.Archaeological evidence from the sanctuary at Olympia suggests systematic religious

    use of the site by 1000 BC, but it is doubtful whether large-scale athletic competitionstook place before the end of the eighth century BC. [3] The ongoing excavations will

    hopefully yield further evidence that will help scholars illuminate the earlier stages ofthe ancient Olympics.

    The evidence for the ancient Olympics multiplies in later centuries, and indeed weare fairly well-informed about the development of the festival, including the athleticcontests, in the late archaic and classical periods. [4] One of the most important

    literary sources for exactly that period is Herodotus whose historical andethnographic narrative has long been recognized as a turning point in ancient

    historiography. As such, historians and literary critics have scrutinized numerousaspects of this important text. Less attention has been paid to the image of sport in

    Herodotus Histories. In his contribution Kyle explores the Herodotean horizon ofsport in connection with Greek identity, politics and warfare. Having the Persian

    Wars (49078 BC) as its central theme, Herodotus text stands as an emblematicrepresentation of the perceived cultural antithesis between Greeks and barbarians(that is, all non-Greek speakers). [5] It is quite revealing that even though Herodotus,

    because of his chosen subject matter and possibly his personal inclinations as well, isnot directly interested in sport, nonetheless in the Histories sport often emerges as a

    marker of Hellenic ethnic identity in opposition to Eastern mores and patterns ofsocial and political organization. Moreover, the Histories are a testimony to the

    political and ideological exploitation of sport in late archaic and classical Greece,especially with regard to the opposing tendencies of regional parochialism and

    Panhellenism during the Persian Wars. As Kyle puts it, Herodotus carefullyfashioned and placed highly rhetorical passages as idealistic misrepresentations,

    suggesting altruism and harmony but masking Greek tensions, disunity and strategiccalculations (p. 184).

    Herodotus was preoccupied with war for good reason. Indeed, he was not the only

    ancient historian to be so concerned. Warfare is the main subject matter of some of

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  • the most important extant works of historiography from the ancient world, includingthose by Thucydides, Polybius and Livy to mention simply a few. This was not simply

    a matter of choice. War was truly endemic in the ancient world [6] and historianscould hardly afford to ignore it. Conventions and practices of war were of course

    widely different from modern times. Due to the lack of technology, ancient warfarerequired a substantial level of physical fitness, so it is not surprising that scholars

    frequently associate the emergence and rapid development of sport, especially in theGreek world, with military training. [7] In his essay Pritchard explores the cultural

    overlap (p. 223) between war and sport in classical Athens. He initially asserts thatduring the classical period poor Athenians held sport and its practitioners in highesteem, although the equestrian successes of elites were sometimes viewed with

    scepticism. But in general athletics escaped the often highly critical assessment thatother upper-class activities met in the citys popular culture (p. 219). At the same

    time, lower- class Athenians usually eschewed, due to financial constraints, physicaleducation as part of their educational upbringing. Overall, the evidence suggests that

    sport occupied a somewhat peculiar position in democratic Athens, a fact that can bepartly explained, according to Pritchard, by the ideological affiliation between sport

    and war. This affiliation manifested itself in a number of ways, including commonvocabulary and concepts. And because of the omnipresence and importance of war in

    the life of the ancient Athenians, the affinity between war and sport also explains thesignificance and prestige invested in the latter. In this respect, the increasingparticipation of the lower social orders in the war efforts in classical Athens was

    critical. Overall, Pritchard argues, even though Athenian democracy did notfundamentally change the stronghold of the upper classes on sport, the practical

    and ideological opening up of war profoundly altered the way lower-class Atheniansperceived of athletes and athletics (p. 227).

    While a surge of recent studies [8] attest to the growing popularity of theinterpretative stream of ancient sport scholarship, occasionally archaeological

    discoveries enrich significantly our pool of factual knowledge about ancient sport.One such recent discovery is the corpus of epigrams attributed to Posidippus of Pella.[9] This important collection comprises a number of poems of athletic themes that

    highlight elite equestrian competition practices in third-century BC Ptolemaic Egyptand reveals new perspectives on epinician poetry and its ideological exploitation.

    In her essay Remijsen takes the new Posidippus epigrams as a starting point for are-evaluation of sport in Ptolemaic Egypt. So far, papyrological and epigraphic

    evidence have attested the practice of sport in Egypt during the Hellenistic period.However, our knowledge of royal and elite involvement in sport, especially equestrian

    competitions in the panhellenic games, was quite limited. The new epigrams fill thatgap extensively. Remijsen argues that since the establishment of the Ptolemaic

    kingdom, the royal family and the ruling class invested heavily in the symbolism ofsport as a token of Hellenic identity and an international power symbol. Kings andqueens won victories in the equestrian events of the panhellenic periodos games and

    duly advertised and capitalized on their achievements. Beyond the royal court,

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  • athletes from Ptolemaic Egypt competed extensively and with significant success inthe traditional periodos games, and particularly the Olympics, on the Greek mainland.

    According to Remijsen (p. 256) among the emergent Hellenistic monarchies of thethird century BC apparently only Egypt was ready to challenge the traditional Greek

    world at the Olympic games. The attempts to implant Greek-style agones, constructathletic facilities and sponsor promising athletes in Alexandria and the Egyptian

    countryside were also considerable. In short, the new evidence provided byPosidippus complements the picture of athletic dynamism that other sources suggest

    for Hellenistic Egypt.Besides athletic competitions, sport was also embedded in the educational and

    military training systems of communities across the Greek-speaking world. Pritchard

    examines various facets of non-competitive sport in classical Athens, and Kennellexamines the evolution of the institution of the ephebeia in the Roman East. Theephebeia was by and large an established military training period whereby maleyouths in their late teens trained, usually for one or two-year periods, under the

    supervision of publicly appointed tutors in military and athletic subjects. Localversions of the ephebeia have been attested in various Greek cities since the classicalperiod and the evidence, usually inscriptions recording names and activities offinancial sponsors and participating youths, multiplies in the Hellenistic era.

    However, there is a decline in the amount of evidence for the ephebeia during theRoman imperial period, a fact that Kennell attributes to the privatization (p. 326) ofthe institution. In other words, whereas in the classical and Hellenistic periods

    ephebic training was more or less publicly funded, in the Roman era cities increasinglyrelied on the subsidies of the local elites, and to a lesser extent on the generosity of the

    imperial government, in order to maintain their ephebeiai. This trend might accountfor the eclectic nature and reduced number of ephebic inscriptions of the Roman era,

    since their content and even their existence was now at the whim of the personfooting the bill (p. 325). Kennells demographic analysis of the extant ephebic

    inscriptions of the Roman period, in conjunction with their reduced number incomparison with earlier periods, leads him to suggest that many ephebates during thesame period were occasional, held only when a sufficient number of youths could be

    found who had reached approximately the qualifying age (p. 331). Overall, Kennellvividly adumbrates the dynamics of ephebic patronage in the eastern part of the

    Roman empire, the content of ephebic training as well as the gradual demise of civicephebeiai in late antiquity.

    While numerous Greek cities in the eastern parts of the Roman empire preservedthe ephebeia as a traditional institution of athletic, military and intellectual training,in the west Romans developed their own distinctive types of sport and games, mostfamously gladiatorial fights, beast hunts and other shows. Among all these activities,

    gladiatorial shows are undoubtedly an iconic symbol of Roman life. The popularity ofgladiators was not restricted to the Italian heartland of the Roman state but as thelatter expanded, subject populations embraced gladiatorial games and other shows of

    violence (beast hunts, executions). [10] This is the case both in the western provinces

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  • but also in the Greek-speaking east, a region that had inherited, and continued tocherish under Roman rule, a long tradition of established sporting competitions,

    including the old periodos games (Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, Nemean) andhundreds of other local games established during the archaic, classical and Hellenistic

    periods.Given the distinct Roman nature of gladiatorial combat, the presence of gladiators

    and gladiatorial shows in the Greek east under Roman rule has usually been seen as asuccessful transplant of a Roman institution and by extension as a stage in the

    endeavours towards Roman acculturation of the Hellenic east. In recent decades, theunidirectional view of Roman imposition of gladiatorial shows has been challenged.Two essays, by Mann and Carter, contribute to this debate by examining the

    conditions and dynamics of gladiatorial shows in the Greek-speaking world. Mannquestions models of interpretation of Roman gladiatorial shows in the east that do

    not account for the diversity of local responses. He detects a number of similarities inthe organization of the games in both east and west, including the elite munificence

    that provided the financial basis, the social origins of gladiators and the link betweengladiatorial shows and the emperors cult. Moreover, gladiatorial shows were clearly

    distinguished from traditional Greek athletics in a number of ways, including thephysical setting (in amphitheatres, which were not among the traditional Greek

    athletic facilities) and the Latin gladiatorial terminology employed by Greek speakers.However, the most striking difference between gladiatorial practices in the east and

    west lies in the self-perception and representation of the gladiators themselves as

    revealed in extant funerary inscriptions. Whereas in the west gladiatorial funeraryinscriptions merely convey some very basic information about the deceased (most

    commonly age, rank, fighting record), in the east gladiatorial epitaphs make explicitallusions to Greek heroic athletic ideology and should therefore be read as an

    extension of Hellenic athletic epinician literature and inscriptions. According toMann, what we see at work in these inscriptions is a gradual process of appropriation

    of a product of Roman culture by Greek speakers as well as the renegotiation of itsmeaning in the context of Hellenic athletic practices.

    In his essay Carter also examines the impact of gladiatorial shows in the Greek-

    speaking eastern parts of the Roman empire and explores additional interpretativepossibilities. Following a review of important recent theories on the cultural

    significance of gladiatorial games at Rome, especially with regard to the constructionof Roman social and ethnic identities, Carter advocates the use of the notion of

    cultural performance [11] as a suitable methodological framework for the analysis ofgladiatorial shows. He states that More than simple entertainment, cultural per-

    formances are special events, set off from day-to-day realities, at which the com-munity assembles to watch and consider performances that in some way manifest

    their own cultural priorities, their values and their ideologies (p. 301). Hence inancient Rome gladiatorial and other blood shows promoted ideals and values(military valour and skills; social hierarchy) endorsed by the official ideology of the

    Roman state and as a result negotiated and reinforced Roman identity.

    Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World 145

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  • But what about the Greek east? Carter argues that the epitaphs of Greek-speakinggladiators, with all their heroic and athletic overtones, very likely reflect an

    understanding of the status and role of gladiatorial shows adopted by the wider Greekcommunity. If that is accurate then, similarly to Rome, in the Greek east too

    gladiatorial games reproduced values espoused by the ordinary citizens/spectators.Moreover, in the amphitheatres and converted theatres where gladiators performed

    in the east, as well as in the funerary inscriptions addressing a wider Greek audience,gladiators and their performances were a point of contact between Greek and Roman

    and helped generate a discourse addressing fundamental issues of assimilation anddifference between the two cultures.

    Cultural exchange is rarely a one-way street. Even though the Romans did not

    embrace Greek-style athletics as eagerly as Greek speakers seem to have adoptedgladiatorial shows, one can nevertheless detect possible Greek nuances in Roman sport

    and games. Before the Romans even became a superpower, the Etruscans in centralItaly appear to have had a penchant for Greek-style sport, even though the nature of

    the relationship between Greeks and Etruscans remains very much disputed. [12]Moreover, citizens of the old Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily practised sport

    and organized athletic competitions, similarly to the city-states in mainland Greece.After the Romans assumed control of the Italian peninsula there are some historically

    attested attempts to introduce Greek sports in Rome and other parts of the region, butnone of them was long-lasting or extremely successful. But it is nevertheless revealingthat on these and other sporting occasions, Roman organizers adopted age category

    divisions for boys that largely corresponded to their better known counterparts inGreece. In his essay Crowther meticulously examines aspects related to age divisions in

    Roman sports and games. He argues that the adoption of the toga civilis, that is, thedress of manhood, by Roman teenagers was very likely a benchmark in determining age

    categories in Roman sports. In that respect, other criteria besides specific ages, such asstrength, or the growing of the beard might have been important as well. At times

    children also performed in gladiatorial games, dances and other types of entertainments,a fact that is frequently recorded in childrens funerary inscriptions.

    The debate on these and other topics raised and explored by the contributors

    to this volume will undoubtedly continue. In the ancient world just as in moderntimes sport, in all its manifestations, energized, excited and empowered those

    who participated in it or watched it unfold as spectators. It was occasionally exploitedand abused by state authorities, the socially powerful or individual athletes. But

    it never ceased to be an integral and very popular component of social and politicallife.

    Acknowledgements

    The editor would like to thank all the contributors for agreeing to participate in thisproject as well as for their collaboration and professionalism. Special thanks go to

    Professor James Mangan who first suggested the creation of this collection and

    146 Z. Papakonstantinou

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  • assisted in every step along the way, and to Professor Mark Golden and Dr JasonKonig for their valuable assistance.

    Notes

    [1] Throughout the volume journals are abbreviated according to LAnnee Philologique, ancientGreek authors according to Liddell, Scott and Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon and ancientLatin authors according to the Thesaurus linguae Latinae.

    [2] Christesen, Olympic Victor Lists.[3] Eder, Continuity of Bronze Age Cult at Olympia?.[4] That is, from the beginning of the sixth century BC until 336 BC (the accession of Alexander the

    Great to the Macedonian throne).[5] Besides Herodotus, a native of Halicarnassus who lived and worked in Athens, the evidence

    for the stereotype of the Eastern barbarian derives almost exclusively from Athens, so theextent to which these perceptions were shared by the rest of the Greek world is debatable. SeeHall, Inventing the Barbarian; Cartledge, The Greeks, chapter 3.

    [6] War was so pervasive in the ancient world that effectively there were very few periods whencitizens of ancient communities did not fight or prepare themselves for war. See, in general,Raaflaub, War and Peace in the Ancient World; Chaniotis, War in the Hellenistic World; forarchaic and classical Greece in particular see van Wees, Greek Warfare.

    [7] Although, as it has been pointed out both in antiquity and modern times, Greek-style sportswere not suitable as training for hoplite warfare. See Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the AncientWorld, 94115; Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, 238 with references.

    [8] See, for example, Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece; idem, Greek Sport and SocialStatus; Konig, Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire; Nicholson, Aristocracy andAthletics in Archaic and Classical Greece; Newby, Greek Athletics in the Roman World. See alsothe recent overview by Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World.

    [9] Editio princeps Bastianini, Gallazzi and Austin, Posidippo di Pella. Editio minor Austin andBastianini, Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia.

    [10] For recent surveys of scholarship on gladiatorial games see Welch, Recent Work onAmphitheatre Architecture; Kyle, Rethinking the Roman Arena; idem, From Battlefield tothe Arena.

    [11] In addition to the references in Carters essay, see also Parkin, Caplan and Fisher, The Politicsof Cultural Performance.

    [12] With particular reference to sport see Thullier, Les jeux athletiques dans la civilisation etrusque.

    References

    Austin, C. and G. Bastianini. Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia. Milan: LED EdizioniUniversitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, 2002.

    Bastianini, G., C. Gallazzi and C. Austin. Posidippo di Pella - Epigrammi (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309).Papiri dell Universita degli Studi di Milano - VIII, Milan: LED Edizioni Universitarie diLettere Economia Diritto, 2001.

    Cartledge, P. The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others, 2nd revised edn. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2002.

    Chaniotis, A. War in the Hellenistic World: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, MA and Oxford:Blackwell, 2005.

    Christesen, P. Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2007.

    Prologue: Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World 147

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  • Eder, B. Continuity of Bronze Age Cult at Olympia? The Evidence of the Late Bronze Age and EarlyIron Age Pottery. In Potnia: Deities and Religion in the Aegean Bronze Age, edited byR. Laffineur and R. Hagg. Liege: Universite de Liege, Histoire de lart et darcheologie de laGrece antique, 2001: 2019.

    Golden, M. Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Golden, M. Greek Sport and Social Status. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008.Hall, E. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University

    Press, 1989.Konig, J. Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

    2005.Kyle, D. Rethinking the Roman Arena: Gladiators, Sorrows, and Games. Ancient History Bulletin

    11 (1997): 947.Kyle, D. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.Kyle, D. From Battlefield to the Arena: Gladiators, Militarism and the Roman Republic. In

    Militarism, Sport, Europe: War Without Weapons, edited by J.A. Mangan. London: FrankCass: 2003: 1027.

    Liddell, H.G., R. Scott and H. Jones. A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edn. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1996.

    Newby, Z. Greek Athletics in the Roman World. Victory and Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press,2005.

    Nicholson, N. Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005.

    Parkin, D., L. Caplan and H. Fisher, eds. The Politics of Cultural Performance. Providence, RI:Berghahn Books, 1996.

    Poliakoff, M. Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture. New Haven,CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

    Raaflaub, K., ed. War and Peace in the Ancient World. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.Thullier, J.-P., Les jeux athletiques dans la civilisation etrusque. Rome: Ecole francaise de Rome,

    1985.Van Wees, H., Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. London: Duckworth, 2004.Welch, K. Recent Work on Amphitheatre Architecture and Arena Spectacles. Journal of Roman

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