Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 5.

Zahra Newby, Athletics in the Ancient World. Classical World Series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006. Pp. vi + 104. ISBN 1-85399-688-2. UKĀ£10.99.

Peter Tennant
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg

The heightened interest in all facets of ancient Greek athletics -- stimulated in part, no doubt, by the staging of the 2004 Olympic Games in its country of origin -- is evident from a cluster of recent publications on the theme.[[1]] Why, one might ask, is there need for yet another volume and a very slim one at that? The answer lies in its very conciseness; this book forms a welcome addition to the Classical World Series, which is designed 'specifically for students and teachers of Classical Civilization at late school and early university level' (back cover). As such, it provides a stimulating and most informative introduction to a topic that has a ready appeal for anyone interested in the Classical world. Despite its relative brevity (the author on more than one occasion ascribes omissions to this constraint), this book manages to range well beyond the dominant theme of the Olympic festival and provides the reader with an overview not only of athletic competition per se and its associated festivals but also of the influential role of the gymnasium in Greco-Roman society.

An introductory section, 'Modern Myths and Ancient Meanings' (pp. 13-16), deals with false and misleading notions that have coloured twentieth-century accounts of the ancient Olympic games in particular (for example, idealized interpretations of the Olympic 'truce' and the conviction, fostered by Pierre de Coubertin et al., that early Greek athletes could be seen as the prototypes of the aristocratic amateurs of the Victorian era). This is followed by a brief survey of the types of evidence available (pp. 17-20) -- with prudent caveats about their reliability -- and a discussion of Homer's accounts of athletic competitions, including a discussion of the extent to which his descriptions are likely to reflect practices of the author's milieu rather than those of the late Bronze Age? (pp. 21-24).

The body of the book is divided into two main sections: 'Competitive Athletics and Festival Culture' (pp. 25-65) and 'The World of the Gymnasium' (pp. 69-94). Appropriately, Part I begins with 'The Games at Olympia' (pp. 27-35), which includes a succinct and lucid discussion of the complex (and ultimately insoluble) problem of the origins of the Olympic festival, a chronological survey of the various contests involved and the development of the Panhellenic character of the festival (with interesting observations on the relationship between the shifting geographical origins of Olympic victors and the desire of diverse communities to appropriate a fully 'Greek' identity). The chapter entitled 'The Rise of a Festival Culture' (pp. 36-42) describes the proliferation of festival games -- beyond the familiar Panhellenic circuit -- during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, with particular focus on the role of the Roman emperors in the promotion of athletic festivals.

A brief discussion of the salient features of the sanctuaries of Olympia and Delphi, with attention being drawn to the surprisingly late provision of amenities for the comfort of participants and spectators at Olympia (pp. 43-48), is followed by a chapter entitled 'The Rewards for Victory' (pp. 49-57). With the topic of material rewards already outlined in the earlier chapter on festivals, the focus here is on the nature and importance of athletic victory odes and athletic statues (with illustrations of the most famous examples and attention drawn to problems of identification and interpretation). For anyone unacquainted with the characteristics and purposes of the victory ode, the analysis here is particularly illuminating.

The theme of the latter chapter is complemented by a discussion of 'The Athlete and his City' (pp. 58-61), which deals with the importance of athletic success for the prestige of the victor's city -- the case of Alkibiades, inter alia, providing a good example -- and the heroisation of victorious athletes. Attention is also given to dissenting views in antiquity which privilege intellectual prowess over athletic ability.

Chapter 9, 'The Rise of Professionalism?' (pp. 62-65), addresses, in a clear and balanced manner, two of the most controversial issues in the study of ancient Greek athletics -- the view that the wealthy aristocrats were amateurs, while the professional career athletes must have been of lower social class, and the related conviction that athletics changed over time from being an upper-class to a lower-class activity.

The first chapter in Part II, 'The Origins and Development of the Gymnasium' (pp. 69-73), ascribes the emergence of this institution to several possible factors: the establishment of the Panhellenic festivals at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea (and the Panathenaic games), the demands of hoplite training, and the need for a 'space' in which the elite could express their physical prowess and social superiority -- now that single combat on the battlefield was obsolete. Also discussed in this chapter is the problematic ancient tradition relating to the practice of exercising naked.

The importance of the gymnasium as a social institution is treated in the next chapter, 'The Gymnasium and Education' (pp. 74-80), where discussion revolves around the exercises of the gymnasium, the connection between the gymnasium and the military training of the ephebeia, and the role that this facility played in the fostering of the relationship between the erastes and the eromenos. Then follow discussions of the layout and facilities of the typical gymnasium (pp. 81-85), based largely on surviving archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic period, and the role of the Greek gymnasium in the Roman world (pp. 86-91), with reference made to the disdainful attitude towards Greek athletics, as reflected in the writings of writers such as Cicero, Nepos, and Juvenal. The conviction that athletics could not form a useful training for warfare, as argued by a number of Roman and Greek writers, is the subject of the next chapter, 'Athletics and Warfare' (pp. 92-93), while the penultimate chapter (p. 94) deals briefly with the topic of women and athletics -- a theme which, in the author's opinion, needs further research.

The concluding chapter (p. 95), which draws together the dominant themes of this study, ends with the following general observation: 'As well as increasing our understanding of ancient sport, the study of ancient athletics can also provide an insight into the world of Greek culture and society as a whole, helping us to understand both the similarities and the great differences between the ancient world and our own' (p. 95). Despite its brevity, this book succeeds admirably in realizing this goal; it is comprehensive in its treatment of the topic (with judicious quotations from, and numerous references to, the ancient sources) and is written in a lively and engaging manner.[[2]] Its usefulness as a basis for a more detailed exploration of the many facets of this interesting and important area of knowledge is enhanced by the inclusion of a chronological chart, a section with suggestions for further study, a very comprehensive bibliography (of mainly English books and articles, with brief critical comments on the various entries) and a detailed index.


[[1]] The following, inter alia, are listed in Newby's bibliography: S. G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven and London 2004); N. Spivey, The Ancient Olympics (Oxford 2004); W. B. Tyrrell, The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics and Culture (Wauconda 2004); J. Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games (London 2004[3]); N. B. Crowther, Athletika: Studies on the Olympic Games and Greek Athletics (Nikephoros Beiheftei 11, Hildesheim 2004); D. J. Phillips and D. Pritchard (edd.), Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World (Swansea 2003). To be published in 2007: D. G. Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Malden, Oxford and Victoria).

[[2]] Three typographical errors were noted: on p. 38, 'degrees' for 'decrees'; on p. 41, 'complimenting' for 'complementing'; on p. 62, 'one' for 'on'.