Donald G. Kyle
To demonstrate the growth and sophistication of ancient sport studies, this chapter surveys Greek athletics and Roman spectacles from their origins to their overlap in the Roman Empire. It notes trends, debates, and new discoveries (e.g., of victory epigrams, agonistic inscriptions, gladiator burials). Revisionists are exposing traditional ideologies of sport and spectacle rooted in Victorian idealism and moralism. Challenging the traditional amateurist scenario of early athletic glory and tragic decline, they suggest continuities, transitions, and cultural discourse. Questioning Olympocentrism and the “exceptionalism” of Greece and Rome, studies now favor broader chronological, geographical, comparative, and inclusive approaches. Scholars are rethinking the significance of sport and spectacle for society, identity, spectatorship, violence, gender, and the body. Forgoing sensationalistic approaches to the shows of the Roman arena, scholars now suggest that gladiators were professional performers whose preparations, combats, and rewards had “sporting” aspects.
Donald G. Kyle
Animal events, shows and hunts of beasts (venationes), were prominent, popular, and enduring Roman entertainments. Modern debates concerning ecology and animals have increased interest, and more works are focusing on the significance of beast shows for Roman culture and society. Historically, Rome’s beast events combined native and foreign traditions as Roman power spread abroad. Displays of exotic beasts, often in triumphs, were expanded into combats against hunters (venatores). Under the empire even more elaborate beast spectacles were housed in the Colosseum. Related in origin to hunting, Rome’s public abuse of beasts was not unique but it became distinctive in terms of scale, geographical scope, and stagecraft. Animal events remained highly significant for the empire as a territorial dominion, for the emperor as protector and patron, and for the citizens and culture of Rome as empowered and privileged).
Animals of all types, be these domestic or wild, native or exotic, were routinely required for spectacles and events in the Graeco-Roman world, most notably, perhaps, in the context of the amphitheatre games of Roman antiquity. Behind such events, however, lay networks involved in the capture, transport, and supply of these animals. The integration of ancient textual, iconographical, and archaeological (including zooarchaeological) evidence provides the requisite data to investigate these aspects. Available ancient textual and artistic evidence suggest that soldiers and professional hunters, assisted by civilians and natives as required or demanded, undertook many of these tasks. Guilds or professional organizations of wild beast hunters and merchants provided further administrative, technical, financial, and transport assistance. Equipment involved in capturing the animals varied depending upon factors such as the size, age, or ferocity of the animal, but included a range of nets, cages, and traps, among other methods. Extrapolation from more modern practices, however, suggests that baiting and ambushing, arguably somewhat less noble or brave tactics, likely characterized much of exotic animal capture in antiquity. Treatment for many of these animals, in transit to their final destination, was probably poor; large numbers certainly perished during transport or while in captivity. Available zooarchaeological evidence helps locate exotic animal bones across different contexts in the ancient Graeco-Roman world, including beasts presumably involved in amphitheatre games, but also provides tempering evidence to downplay the magnitude of numbers actually supplied to such events, as is attested in ancient textual and iconographical data.
Athletic activity was a major preoccupation of the Greek elite in the imperial period. This chapter looks at the relationship between athletic and intellectual activity, focusing especially on the way in which athletic skill could in itself be presented as a form of paideia. It looks first at day-to-day training in the gymnasium, focusing particularly on the use of athletics in the education of young men of the Greek elite and on the expertise of the athletic trainers. It then turns to the athletic contests which flourished at festivals across the Mediterranean world. Finally, it looks at a series of attempts by imperial Greek authors to redefine athletic training in line with their own intellectual priorities, using Plutarch’s Precepts of Healthcare as a case study for that wider phenomenon.
The ritual ordeal of the athlete re-enacts the ordeals of the warrior, and, like heroic deeds, athletic activity compensates for the athlete’s mortality as the athlete figuratively dies a ritual death in recurrent festivals. The origin of athletics is related both to initiation and to funeral games, and real or symbolic death and rebirth is common to both activities. Epinikian songs refer to those done ‘in compensation for’ (epi) the ordeal involved in winning the victory. Epinician songs also in a sense depict the community’s welfare as being contingent on the reciprocity of aristocratic exchange, and also related to revelry. The non-recurrent agōn occurs in Homeric epic, including gymnic and musikos events (recitation of epics and hymns). Later seasonally recurring festivals became the dominant form. The Panathenaia features the ‘art of the Muses’ among its events, namely rhapsodic contests in the reading of Homer. The apobatēs event in the Panathenaia serves as an evocative link between Homeric heroes in combat and the contestants in armour jumping from chariots in the Athenian games.
Wendy J. Raschke
The monuments created by the Greeks to celebrate victories were of many kinds, as were the victories celebrated. The focus of the present discussion is monuments associated with success in the major athletic games; these were usually in the form of free-standing statues erected in the sanctuary where the games took place. Some fundamental questions are addressed, not least, what the idea of a monument signified to the Greeks? Who qualified for this extraordinary honour? What form did it typically take and how much did it cost to create? Were the statues erected merely a reward? Or did they also have political value which affected the choice of location? In ancient Greece, as now, athletic monuments stood as markers of glory achieved, but also as statements to the viewer.
David M. Pritchard
In Classical Athens athletics consisted of the sporting contests that were staged as part of festivals and the classes of an athletics teacher. Lessons in the standard sporting events were given only by these teachers, whose classes doubled up as the sole opportunity for boys and men to perfect them before competing in games. Thus the participation of individuals in athletics depended on their schooling. Because the Classical Athenians decided against publicly funding education, they did not enjoy equal access to it. Poor citizens could afford only the lessons of a letter teacher. It was only wealthy boys who were educated in the three traditional disciplines of athletics, music, and letters. As poor Athenians did not attend the classes of an athletics teacher, they would have done badly, if they entered games, and so were hesitant about doing so in the first place. Thus the athletes of democratic Athens came exclusively from the wealthy.
Peter J. Holliday
The circus was the grandest of all sites in antiquity for public spectacles. Focusing on the development of its form reveals its origins in Greek hippodromes and Etruscan arenas for equestrian competitions. It was essentially a long, narrow racetrack designed primarily for chariot-races, but could accommodate all manner of other spectacles, including foot-races, boxing, and wrestling; because of its size and sightlines, the circus was also the most frequent location for venationes, but eventually less commonly for munera and theatrical entertainments. Following Greek and Etruscan custom, leading Roman citizens had once raced their own horses in the circus, but the practice was abandoned and the elite instead competed for esteem by sponsoring races. With its immense and diverse audiences, the circus came to serve specifically Roman religious and political purposes, and played an unrivalled role in the public life of ancient Rome.
Nathan T. Elkins
The evidence provided by coins has not been systematically incorporated in studies of ancient sport and spectacle. Coins are a source material as important as other documentary and visual sources; arguably, they are potentially of even greater importance, since coins constitute a more complete visual record than any other surviving form of ancient art. Students of sport and spectacle that will benefit most from numismatics are those who grapple with questions about identity, perception, and political expediency in the ancient games. This contribution explores the different ways in which sport and spectacle were referred to on Greek and Roman coins. In the Greek world, city-states referred to festivals and athletics on their coins to announce their identities, whether through the depiction of Panhellenic festivals, local competitions, or the renowned athletes to which they were home. Even under Roman rule, coins of the Greek cities made reference to games in this way. In the Roman republic and empire, coin designs dealt more with the ideological agenda of the authority behind the production of coins (e.g., republican moneyer, late republican triumvir, or the emperor). As a result, depictions of games tended to reflect political expediency. For instance, some republican moneyers promised to hold games if elected to the aedileship and some emperors commemorated their sponsorship of and provisioning for games. Many coins that celebrated certain festivals or construction work on entertainment buildings may have been produced for special distributions, perhaps at the festivals or dedicatory games in question.
This chapter provides an overview of the uses and structural history of the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre constructed in the Roman world. Romans knew it as the ‘Amphitheatrum Flavium’, after the dynasty of emperors responsible for its construction. It continued in use even after the fall of Rome, with games still popular into the sixth century. The chapter examines the evidence for naumachiae during the inaugural games and concludes that it is most unlikely that the Colosseum area was flooded to a practical depth. It also reviews the evidence for the accommodation of spectators and its reflection of Roman society.
The private art of violent Greek and Roman competitions shows iconic moments commemorated by ordinary fans and a wealthy elite. The depictions assume a viewer who understands the rules and identifies with fighters, spectators, or sponsors. Greek combat sports were associated with individual achievement and persistence through pain. Equal combatants, idealized and indistinguishable in Archaic and Classical art, fought nude for personal and regional glory, overseen by a referee. Hellenistic art introduced fighters whose battered faces declared personal suffering the price of victory. Roman public combatants were degraded by competition, although ennobled by martial valour, as were gladiators who willingly faced death. In the arena, differently equipped combatants were paired as fighting ‘types’. Ordinary art emphasized action and equipment. The art of the wealthy also referenced the sponsor, who decided the terms of victory and loss. The gazes of referees and combatants turned toward him; in real life, he interacted with the audience about the outcome, and they praised his public benefaction.
Anne Hrychuk Kontokosta
Inscriptions, dating mostly to the second and third centuries ce, and graffiti offer first-hand perspectives on the lives of gladiators and the organization of Roman spectacles. Examples from throughout the Roman world elucidate how inscribed evidence can fundamentally alter our understanding of gladiatorial contests, related monuments, and key actors. This article focuses on a range of inscriptions associated with distinct groups who were involved in Roman gladiatorial competitions and discusses the types of data that can be acquired from each. Inscribed public and tomb monuments as well as extant edicta demonstrate the contributions of elite sponsors and their role in the patronage of the games. Stelae dedicated by gladiatorial familiae celebrate individual gladiators, their training, and successes over worthy opponents. Epigraphs on tombstones hint at the social realities and daily challenges of gladiators. Graffiti offers multivariate viewpoints on the lived experience of performers and audiences from all social ranks.
Matthew J. P. Dillon
Ancient Greek festivals honoured the gods with sacrifice, procession, and frequently with contests of an athletic nature. While these competitions were watched by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, especially in the case of Panhellenic festivals, the primary purpose of these contests was not to delight crowds but to honour the gods. Athletics in Ancient Greece were organized within religious frameworks, occurring within a festival honouring a particular god, and often with sacred truces being proclaimed so that contestants and spectators could travel safely to athletic venues. Athletes swore oaths to the gods not to cheat, and prayed to them for victory. Girls could compete in running races in honour of goddesses. Zeus was believed to watch the games of the Olympia festival, and the goddess Nike was represented in art as crowning the successful athlete on behalf of the gods. Sport and cult were inextricably combined in ancient Greece.
In Greco-Roman antiquity the intense competition (agōn) between opponents in the sporting arena was echoed by an equally fierce competition of magical materials inside and outside the venue. Curse tablets (Gr. katadesmoi, L. defixiones), phylacteries, protective magical texts worn on or near the person, and other magical materials, symbols, and rituals all competed with each other to advance or retard the performance of the competitors in the event. Extant tablets come from the early imperial period to the 6th century
This article analyses the decline and fall of most forms of Roman spectacle in Late Antiquity, as the empire contracted in some places and collapsed in others. It explores the evolution and development of various other spectacles—especially equestrian games like tournaments, hunting, and palii—in Rome’s medieval and early modern Latin, Byzantine, and Islamic successor societies, which shared many of the characteristics of ancient spectacle in terms of function if not necessarily form. It also examines the privatization of public spectacle and sites of spectacle in the Middle Ages, as well as the enduring impact of the images of Roman spectacle—especially those associated with the hippodrome in Constantinople—as expressions of political power in medieval and early modern Europe.
An economic study of the Panhellenic contests in the archaic and classical periods requires an analysis of the relationship between economics, politics, and society of the Greek cities from a diachronic perspective. The competitive spirit formed an integral part of Greek life and culture and reflected the different social classes across various ages. The Homeric athletic contest is reserved for heroes and the aristocracy. In the eighth century the agōn is still dominated by a warrior aristocracy and landed classes, although members of the lower class were not restricted from participation. Subsequently with the birth of the polis, and through the development of crafts and trade, there emerged new social classes that undermined the archaic aristocratic values and introduced wealth based on coinage. The establishment of cash prizes offered to Panhellenic victors corresponded to the new conception of the timocratic polis. In the fifth century the emergence of Athenian democracy offered new possibilities to citizens with the opening of gymnasia and the establishment of liturgies.
This chapter considers the genre of professional epinikion (choral poems composed on commission to celebrate athletic victories), inquiring into the socio-cultural motivations for the development of this strange hybrid genre c.550
Sports are a well-represented motif in Etruscan iconography since the Orientalizing Period, with a predilection for horse racing and boxing bouts performed to music. Contrary to current opinion, Etruscan sport shows strong originality in comparison with a so-called Greek model on many points, such as technical aspects of chariot-racing, the status of athletes, the presence of women in public space; its influence on Roman ludi has been considerable. Beside funerary games organized in a gentilician or clan-based framework, the Etruscans also were acquainted with sacred games, in particular the Pan-Etruscan games in which the members of the League of Twelve Cities competed in the sanctuary of Voltumna at Orvieto.
From its earliest days, Roman spectacle served a range of social and political ends; even as these shared experiences solidified group identity and channelled public emotions toward positive ends, organizers, performers, and attendees also claimed these events as opportunities to advance individual ambitions, to press for greater access to public resources, and to assert the legitimacy of various narratives about Roman identity and power. Evidence for theatrical events is of particular interest, because of the intense verbal component in these shows. Elite leaders organized spectacle space to secure preferred messaging, to spotlight elite social dominance, and to restrict popular capacity to divert such venues toward the support of other class goals. Utilizing ritual habits of group expression, however, organized sub-elites in the audience worked to seize control of dramatic scripts, redirecting the stage narrative to refocus and challenge contemporary political discourse and reclaiming architectural messaging to undermine elite intentions.
Thomas F. Scanlon
Greek sport was in its earliest forms and predominantly thereafter a male activity. Greek masculine virtues were consistently reflected in texts discussing sport from Homer onward. The athletic and the martial spheres were often in tension regarding how greatly success in sport was valued as a measure of male excellence. The Greek gymnasium and athletic nudity were factors that fostered the Greek male sexual system of pederasty. Material culture in the form of sculpture, inscriptions, and vase paintings reflects the androcentrism of Greek sport. Female participation in Greek sport has a historical existence much less consistent and widespread than that of males, seen most prominently during the Roman empire.