The attempt to understand what sport, play and games mean is not a trivial pursuit. In the 19th century Jacob Burckhardt, author of the monumental “Greek Cultural History,” had argued that the distinguishing feature of the archaic age of Greece was its pursuit of the agon (contest); in Burckhardt’s vision the agon was the very catalyst of Hellenic civilization.
The great medieval historian Johan Huizinga extended Burckhardt’s vision yet wider and identified play as “older and more original than civilization.” His writings posed a powerful challenge to the Marxist ideology — which he termed a “shameful misconception” — that civilization originated and is consummated in economic and material considerations. With the rich resources of the historian and anthropologist, Huizinga demonstrated that it is in play that redemptive and culturally constructive activity takes place.
Especially in Olympic years, the legacy of Greek sport quite properly tends to hover over discussions of athletics and the public policy issues they involve. We are fortunate that Stephen Miller has now given us a fine new book on the athletics of ancient Greece that provides a wealth of detail and a strong factual base for understanding how the civilization we look to for inspiration pursued its sports.
Mr. Miller is at his best explaining what the sports and games of the ancient Greeks were — their equipment, facilities, rules, and participants. This is not an easy task: Far more of the evidence of ancient life has been lost than has come down to us. A professor of archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the excavator of the ancient stadium at Nemea in southern Greece, Mr. Miller brings a wealth of information on the details of ancient life.
Along with these details, he provides guidance, albeit at times only tantalizing, for addressing the second, yet more important challenge: What did this all mean, what does it tell us about ancient society … and about ourselves?
At all times, Mr. Miller’s writing is lucid and engaging. His book demonstrates that the athletics of ancient Greece were most assuredly not the playing fields of Eton. In the combat sports, for example, there were no weight classes, which is to say that a talented and spirited boxer who weighed 120 lbs. was simply out of luck against a man who weighed 190 lbs.
There were no rounds and no rest periods, and matches continued until one competitor was unwilling or unable to continue to fight. Contests took place in the full sunlight and heat of midsummer in southern Greece. Sunstroke and heat exhaustion were an ever-present threat.
Although the Greeks had padded boxing gloves, presumably like modern ones, that were used in practice, for competition they used only ox-hide thongs that grew more lacerative over time. The Greeks were also quite fond of a combat sport called pankration, which allowed all forms of unarmed combat except biting and gouging.
In contrast to this unwillingness to level the playing field — or to take simple precautions to guard the life and limb of the contestants — Mr. Miller shows us how careful the ancient Greeks were to prevent false starts in the footraces.
Based on years of careful excavation, the author has reconstructed the evolving technology of ensuring that no runner could get the edge on his fellows through a catapult-like release mechanism that slammed the starting barriers to the ground. He observes that the only acceptable competitions at the highest level were those with “strictly objective criteria.”
Mr. Miller does a splendid job explicating the conundrums of how the athletes performed the field events — how they used the throwing thong to hurl the javelin, and how they employed jumping weights for the long-distance jump.
But he also shares some sound reflections on the Greek understanding of arete, the goal of excellence and virtue to which the Greek aspired. He properly notes that it is a fundamentally individual phenomenon: Arete cannot be displayed on a team, and team sports are conspicuously absent from the four greatest athletic festivals of antiquity, those staged at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Corinth.
A question he must leave us largely to ponder on our own is how the Greek city-states balanced and utilized this fiercely individualistic impulse to address wider social and political needs.
Particularly welcome in this Olympic year is Mr. Miller’s fine exposition of the mythology surrounding amateurism in sport. The rules of the modern Olympics until relatively recently barred athletes who received any kind of remuneration for sports.
This was most notoriously demonstrated when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took the gold medals Jim Thorpe earned in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 away from him after the discovery that he had once played semi-professional baseball.
The author builds on sound modern scholarship on this topic to show that every successful Greek athlete received remuneration for sport, sometimes of staggering proportions. The very concept of “amateur status,” despite the rhetoric of the IOC of years past, was absent from the world of Greek athletics.
Mr. Miller also devotes a chapter to the interactions of politics and athletics. Huizinga admonished, under the shadow of the Third Reich, that however crucial play is to civilization, it cannot substitute for moral awareness. And Mr. Miller demonstrates well that Greek athletic festivals were never a guarantor of international peace — quite the contrary, they often served as a flash point for rivalry and conflict among the city-states.
Athletics, Mr. Miller asserts, gave rise to the electrifying Greek notion of isonomia, the belief that all citizens have an equal share in the rights and responsibilities of law and governance.
It is more likely that the radical egalitarianism of Greek sport, where commoner and aristocrat competed in the same uniform — full nudity — under the eyes of all Greece, and were equally liable to being publicly flogged for committing fouls, was a profound reflection, rather than the cause of isonomia.
However, the author does well to point out how extraordinary the democracy of Greek athletics was. It is only in the last decade that the modern Olympics have reclaimed this brilliant legacy of the Hellenic world.
Mr. Miller, distinguished as both a scholar and teacher, wrote this book primarily to provide a text for college students that can replace the standard work by E. Norman Gardiner, now almost 70 years old. In this he has admirably succeeded.
The general reader is likely to seek more sociological analysis than this single book can provide, but in “Ancient Greek Athletics” Mr. Miller lucidly identifies key issues, provides an extensive bibliography, and leaves the reader with a solid basis of facts to understand Greek sport.
Michael B. Poliakoff served as professor and chair of the Classics department at Hillsdale College and is the author of “Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture” (Yale University Press, 1987).