Bodily Arts

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Bodily Arts

Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece

By Debra Hawhee

Debra Hawhee’s insightful study spotlights the notion of a classical gymnasium as the location for a habitual “mingling” of athletic and rhetorical performances, and the use of ancient athletic instruction to create rhetorical training based on rhythm, repetition, and response.



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6 x 9 | 240 pp. | 24 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72140-1

The role of athletics in ancient Greece extended well beyond the realms of kinesiology, competition, and entertainment. In teaching and philosophy, athletic practices overlapped with rhetorical ones and formed a shared mode of knowledge production. Bodily Arts examines this intriguing intersection, offering an important context for understanding the attitudes of ancient Greeks toward themselves and their environment.

In classical society, rhetoric was an activity, one that was in essence "performed." Detailing how athletics came to be rhetoric's "twin art" in the bodily aspects of learning and performance, Bodily Arts draws on diverse orators and philosophers such as Isocrates, Demosthenes, and Plato, as well as medical treatises and a wealth of artifacts from the time, including statues and vases.

Debra Hawhee's insightful study spotlights the notion of a classical gymnasium as the location for a habitual "mingling" of athletic and rhetorical performances, and the use of ancient athletic instruction to create rhetorical training based on rhythm, repetition, and response. Presenting her data against the backdrop of a broad cultural perspective rather than a narrow disciplinary one, Hawhee presents a pioneering interpretation of Greek civilization from the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE by observing its citizens in action.

  • A Note on Texts and Translations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Shipwreck
  • Chapter 1. Contesting Virtuousity: Agonism and the Production of Arete
  • Chapter 2. Sophistic Metis: An Intelligence of the Body
  • Chapter 3. Kairotic Bodies
  • Chapter 4. Phusiopoiesis: The Arts of Training
  • Chapter 5. Gymnasium I: The Space of Training
  • Chapter 6. Gymnasium II: The Bodily Rhythms of Habit
  • Chapter 7. The Visible Spoken: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Circulation of Honor
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Sometime in the first century BCE, a ship destined for Rome, carrying a cargo of Greek sculptures by various artists of the Classical period, went down off the island of Antikythera. For millennia, the shipwreck and its contents remained submerged in the waters of the Ionian Sea, until accidentally discovered by sponge divers in 1901. Found in the cargo was a well-preserved bronze statue of a nude youth (Figure 1), standing 6 feet 4 inches and sporting a broad muscular frame. The statue exhibits a relaxed grace, with the weight resting on the left leg, right arm extending outward, hand holding some sort of round object (now lost).

Aside from speculations about the date and creator of the figure—ranging from the fifth century BCE until Hellenistic times and attributed to various teachers and schools (Hyde 1921: 83)—the major question confounding archaeologists and scholars of ancient sculpture has to do with its identity: what kind of body is this? how might it be classified? is the statue a rendering of god or of mortal? Some believe the statue depicts Perseus holding Medusa's head in his hand, Paris displaying the iconic apple, or Hermes in his role as guardian of the gymnasium. Others read it as an athlete of some sort, perhaps a pentathlete, holding a ball or even a crown or some other prize of victory (Gardner 1903: 152). Still others associate the statue with rhetorical performance, reading the arm as the sweeping, emphatic gesture of an orator (Hyde 1921: 83). Perhaps, such scholars speculate, the statue is Hermes Logios, the god of words, or a mortal rhetor standing on a bema speaking to an assembly.

I begin with this shipwrecked statue not to try to solve the problem of its identity, but rather to introduce a consideration of ancient bodies and bodily arts that would examine the way identity and value circulate through particular bodies as they practice and perform various arts. Such circulation operates, as this book's last chapter suggests, on partner registers of visibility and intelligibility—seeing and recognizing. These registers are most evident in observations like that made by the orator Aeschines, who pointed out that anyone "can recognize an athlete by his bodily vigor (euexia) without visiting the gymnasium" (Against Timarchus 189). Euexia, literally "good bodily disposition," may be located in muscles and sinews as well as in the overall manner of walking, speaking, and carrying oneself, is bound up with the more abstract ancient notion of arete, or virtuosity, to the extent that for the Greeks, such virtuosity inhered in corporeality, inseparable from bodily actions. As Aeschines suggests, then, euexia can be recognized—even out of context—if one knows what qualities to look for.

Like Aeschines' wandering athlete, the shipwrecked statue exhibits a readable disposition and manner, a bodily comportment—what the ancients called hexis. Yet while the hexis-in-action of Aeschines' athlete can be successfully "read" in an associative manner, even outside its expected location (the gymnasium), the dislocation of a shipwreck for a bronzed body is enough to confound modern archaeologists and classical historians. The only certainty is that the statue exhibits a hexis that exudes carefully cultivated arete and its associated confident manner. What's more, the shipwrecked statue and the axes of the debates about it—god or mortal? athlete or orator?—suggest a convergence of athletics and rhetoric as arts of hexis, in other words, as bodily arts.

The cultural, conceptual, and corporeal connections between the arts of rhetoric and athletics, not unlike the shipwrecked statue, have been more or less submerged since ancient times. To account for this submersion, though, would require a long meditation on disciplinary division, overspecialization, and mind-body separation, all of which this book labors, for the most part, to forget. Such an omission is made possible by the example of the ancient Athenians, to whom strict disciplinary division would have made little sense. In Greece, the Archaic and Classical periods instead marked a time when training was broad, when arts were intricately interwoven, and when mind and body moved and thought together. As such, this book rests on a set of syncretic premises that draw together body and mind; learning and performing; classical studies and rhetorical studies.


The most explicit link between rhetoric and athletics as arts was made by Isocrates in the mid-fourth century BCE in his treatise Antidosis. After claiming that he wants to “begin at the beginning” to describe the emergence of the art of discourse (what he terms philosophy), Isocrates first makes the assertion that humans are naturally made of two parts, body and mind, compounded together, sugkeisthai (180). He then goes on to describe how, generations before, certain people,

seeing many arts (technas) established for other things, while none had been arranged for the body and for the mind, invented and left for us double disciplines (dittas epimeleias), physical training for the body, of which gymnastics is a part, and, for the mind, philosophy, which I intend to argue are corresponding and united (antistrophous kai suzugas) and which, coordinated together (homologoumenas), put forward a more intelligent mind and prepare the body to become more useful, not separating by much the two kinds of education, but using similar methods of instruction, exercises, and other forms of discipline. (Antidosis 180-83)

In this passage, Isocrates describes a program for shaping a compounded self—body and mind—with training in gymnastics and discourse. Such a program tacitly invokes Plato's program recommending training that balances the body and mind,5 but Isocrates' program goes further: while Plato calls for a combination of activities that develop the body and that develop the mind, Isocrates notes from the outset a distinctive convergence between these arts.

It is crucial to bear in mind, however, that Isocrates' compounded version of mind-body did not draw together two parts previously separated—Isocrates did not, that is, "blur" the distinction between mind and body or see them as somehow newly interwoven. Such a firm distinction between body and mind is a later development, and we would be remiss to project this perception backward. Ruth Padel frames the problem concisely when she argues that "these critical metaphors of blur and overlap would imply that the Greeks perceived two different things to blur, two meanings to slip between. If the distinctions and meanings are ours, not theirs, then there were no two things for them to blur or be ambiguous about" (1992: 39). At heart, Padel's point is a commentary on method. When thinking syncretically, it is critical to note the places where the arts under consideration are fused together. Whereas these days athletics might function as a metaphor for politics, education, or, in the most clichéd way, for life, I am suggesting that for the ancients, athletics were, at times, all these things together.

Athletics and rhetoric were thus bound together, as Isocrates points out, in at least two ways: 1) unified training in athletics and oratory provides a program for shaping an entire self, and 2) the two arts draw from similar pedagogical strategies wherein the respective instructors impart bodily and discursive forms of expression. Isocrates even joins the arts grammatically in his discussion of pedagogy: "When [the instructors] have made [the students] experienced with these, and they have discussed them with precision, they again exercise the students and habituate them to hard work, and then compel them to combine (suneirein) everything they have learned" (Antidosis 183-85). Isocrates' model of rhetorical pedagogy therefore works symbiotically with bodily training practices. Not only do the two arts work together to fashion a body-mind complex, they work in a similar way—with parallel rhythms, attention to detail, and broad application.

As this study will demonstrate, then, the linkage in Isocrates' treatise is more than just a clever comparison, and suggests deep relations between rhetoric and athletics, relations that are traceable to Isocrates' forebears, and that were then cultivated and perpetuated by the early sophists and orators in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. In ancient Athens, athletic and rhetorical practices overlapped and nurtured each other in many ways: culturally, they were founded upon joint values of agonism and arete, and they came together in the ancient festival to combine the visible with the articulable. Pedagogically, they shared modes of knowledge production, an attention to timing, and an emphasis on habituation, imitation, and response. This study will therefore work at the interstices between athletics and rhetoric in order to help elaborate rhetoric's emergence in a network of educational and cultural practices articulated through and by the body.


Further inquiry into Isocrates' own syncretism shows that the connections between rhetoric and athletics neither began nor ended with training, but rather emerged from long-time cultural association through agonistic performances in festival and funerary celebrations, associations that carried forward into training practices as rhetoric developed as an art, a techne. At the heart of the connection between athletics and rhetoric, then, is an appreciation for the immediate relation between training practices and performance. Because of this shared recognition, these joint arts privilege situated learning and cumulative practice in a chiasmatic way that incorporates performance into learning, learning into performance.

In this regard, the book implicitly enters current conversations in the field of rhetoric and composition, where scholars have long sought to connect pedagogy with performance, particularly in the teaching of writing, the institutional site where contemporary higher education best approximates the ancient treatment of rhetoric as a citizen art. Along these lines, Susan Jarratt's Re-Reading the Sophists (1991b) offers an indispensable account of the sophists as teachers and models of particular rhetorical styles. Janet Atwill's monumental study (1998) of Aristotle and the liberal arts raises critical historical questions about liberal values, curriculum, and pedagogy. Takis Poulakos (1997) reads Isocrates as a cultural pedagogue, while Kathleen Welch (1999) uses Isocrates to envision a pedagogy for a technologically saturated culture. These books, all important for figuring rhetoric as a citizen art, provide a critical context for an inquiry attentive to pedagogy as it reaches beyond the classroom.

In addition to works that focus on ancient culture, studies in rhetoric and composition have noticed the usefulness of examining the inventional practices of other arts, the pedagogical value of agonism, the situatedness of learning, and the role of rhythm in learning that this study seeks to elaborate. A few noteworthy studies include Geoffrey Sirc's English Composition as a Happening (2002), which figures painting as a possible partner art for writing. Julia Cheville's Minding the Body (2001), an ethnographic study of the women's basketball team at the University of Iowa, draws important conclusions about the role of pain (36-37), emotion (51-78), and associative practices in learning. Even more recently, Paul Prior and Jody Shipka (2003) have studied literacy practices as embedded, embodied, rhythmic activities; and Christine Casanave's Writing Games (2002) examines the value of agonism and play in improvisational learning, a point also explored in an earlier article by Susan Jarratt (1991b). These works serve as early signs that scholars of rhetoric and composition intuit the imbrication of learning and performance, mind and body, and moreover, that they are beginning to acknowledge how this imbrication can be more easily foregrounded by nontraditional approaches to pedagogy and writing.


In addition to allowing an intensive focus on pedagogy and training practices, a syncretism of athletics and rhetoric enables a corollary “thinking together” of classical studies and rhetorical studies. To this end, scholars of classical Greek culture such as J. P. Vernant, Yun Lee Too, Leslie Kurke, Simon Goldhill, J. Winkler, David Halperin, and Eva Stehle inform these pages just as much as scholars who specialize in the history of rhetoric in speech and English departments—scholars like Jarratt, Atwill, Jeffrey Walker, Richard Enos, Edward Schiappa, James Kastely, Takis Poulakos, and John Poulakos.

Combined with my observation of Isocrates' yoking of rhetoric and athletics, John Poulakos' examination of rhetoric's agonism sparked this inquiry. It was Atwill who introduced me to metis and kairos and their relation to the art of rhetoric. Jeffrey Walker's Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (2000a), with its examination of rhetoric's emergence in relation to poetic practices, models the kind of deep contextual history this study seeks to produce. Even more recently, Scott Consigny's volume (2001) on the sophist Gorgias suggests that the time is right—ho kairos estin—to revisit figures so crucial in rhetoric's development with careful attention to their cultural milieu, historical development, and connections to the arts around them.

As indicated above in the discussion of learning and performing, where rhetoric is linked by discipline with composition and writing studies (usually in English departments), historians of rhetoric often hold special regard for pedagogy as a site for scholarly inquiry. In classics, with the possible exception of George Kennedy's formative early histories of rhetoric, ancient pedagogy has largely been the province of Henri Marrou and Werner Jaegar—until recently. Classical scholar Yun Lee Too has done much to complicate the somewhat monolithic histories put forth by Marrou and Jaegar in the mid-twentieth century. Schooled in contemporary social theory and the vast scholarship on critical pedagogy, Too more precisely parses educational practices in relation to ancient subject production, rather than noting the broad sweeping curricular reforms and movements put forth by Marrou and Jaegar.

Too's earlier books, as examples, focus on identity and subjectivity in relation to Isocrates and ancient pedagogical practices, and her introduction to the recently published Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2001) makes clear that this work is only the beginning of a detailed reconsideration of ancient pedagogy. While Marrou and Jaegar have done important chronicling work, Too's most recent volume, as she puts it, "acknowledges the social and political dimensions of education in antiquity" (2001: 16), and thus brings contemporary concerns with the politics of pedagogy to bear on ancient artifacts and evidence. That is, Too rightly assumes that education is—and therefore was—political and social: her task in studying the ancients is to find out how this was manifested. In this sense, Too's arguments also inform my turn to ancient athletics and athletic training, for nowhere has athletics been more sociopolitical than in ancient Greece. And nowhere, moreover, as my study argues, has athletics been so intertwined with citizen production.

Similarly, the work of classics and theater scholar Mark Griffith buttresses this book's strong sense that ancient rhetoric and athletics were part of a large network of overlapping practices. Griffith, in an article published in Too's edited volume, observes that educational practices during the Archaic era constitute "a profuse, and often confusing, cluster of institutions and procedures that are usually studied under separate rubrics . . . but are probably best considered as one complex, interlocking system" (2001: 36). Such a view, historically warranted, better enables the kind of syncretic work the current book attempts to both perform and recapture.

While Too and Griffith provide important enabling background work, one of the offshoots of viewing different educational practices as part of an "interlocking system" involves the way learning happens, particularly the way it happens corporeally. That is, when viewed in terms of education, rhetoric's relation to athletics hinges on a kind of knowledge production that occurs on the level of the body, displacing the mind or consciousness as the primary locus of learning. Athletic training most clearly exemplifies the role of repetition and imitation in habit production, and the way in which the body takes over in agonistic situations. This is not to say that "mind," or thought, is not important, but rather that it is part of a complex—a mind-body complex—that learns and moves in response to a situation rather than through the application of abstract principles.

In this regard, the study is also informed by a field that can be loosely characterized as "body studies," which includes the work of Judith Butler, Brian Massumi, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Elizabeth Grosz. These thinkers and others write about the body as a site of torture, affective formation, gender formation, and disciplinary production to consider more precisely the ways in which bodies are bound up with power, identity practices, and learning—in short, the ways in which, to borrow a phrase from Butler, bodies matter for philosophical, feminist, even historical inquiry.

Of course, scholars in classical studies and rhetorical studies are noticing bodies as well. As James I. Porter argues in his introduction to Constructions of the Classical Body, a concern for the body is neither new nor all that surprising: "On the contrary, the current fascination with the body—its formations, its transformations, and its history—is only the most recent phase and direct consequence of a long cultivation of the body in the West. A fascination has, in a way, discovered itself" (1999: 1). Part of this book's aim, then, is to trace the Greeks' role in bodily cultivation, particularly as it relates to the circulation of honor in and through sports and oratory.

Almost simultaneously, rhetorical studies, too, has extended this reflexive fascination with the body and folds it back on rhetoric. The premise of Rhetorical Bodies (1999), edited by Sharon Crowley and Jack Selzer, is that rhetoric is articulated through and by bodies, and the work compiles several site-based studies about precisely how such articulation happens in cultural contexts. Similarly, Gail Corning and Randi Patterson's "Researching the Body: An Annotated Bibliography for Rhetoric" (1997) makes quite clear that "the body is no longer simply the province of medical or psychological study" (6). While these two compilations focus on the questions "how are bodies rhetorical?" and "what can body studies do for a consideration of rhetoric?," my study grapples with a slightly different version: How has the body historically functioned as a site of rhetorical production, education, and performance? Tentative answers may be found through an examination of ancient training practices, how they developed, what they were modeled on, and how they would become etched into a classical ethos.

Yet to stop at questions of training would be to miss the critical way that rhetoric as an art of performance functioned in relation to ancient bodies. An examination of this topic guides the book's final chapter, which returns to the notion of identity production. Here, athletic performance, most notably within the context of ancient festivals, emerges as an exemplary locus of honor production, with rhetoric as its necessary supplement, providing the means to articulate and, most important, disseminate honor.

In order to follow rhetoric's movement from cultural values to training practices and back again, the book begins and ends with chapters on the cultural roles and places of athletics and rhetoric in ancient culture. The cultural chapters frame a chain of chapters examining in detail the concepts and practices that bind athletics and rhetoric together: styles of intelligence (metis), immanent, embodied time (kairos), the production of one's nature (phusiopoiesis), and the space of the gymnasium, which enabled the arts' convergence in the first place.

Chapter 1, entitled "Contesting Virtuosity: Agonism and the Production of Arete," begins by examining the broadly interrelated values of the contest (agon) and virtuosity (arete). The agon was for ancient Athenians the mode of virtue-production par excellence, as it provided the occasion for display of ability (dunamis) and governed the distribution of glory and honor. Nevertheless, the agon was not entirely about victory—obtaining the prize—but rather invoked notions of "gathering" and "questing." These forces of agon suggest that "questing" after victory—the repetitive engagement in agonistic encounters—was itself a major function of contests. Arete was therefore not entirely outcome-driven, but rather emerged in the encounters themselves, in the act of repeating virtuous actions in relation to others. Chapter 1 delineates these conjoined values and, by doing so, lays the groundwork for an examination of ancient training practices—the mechanisms that shaped the capacity for becoming virtuous.

Chapter 2, "Sophistic Metis: An Intelligence of the Body," examines the ancient notion of metis—cunning intelligence—as an important mode of bodily knowledge production in athletic and sophistic rhetorical training practices. The chapter begins by considering the various figural instantiations of metis in ancient culture—namely the goddess Metis, her progeny Athena, the epic hero Odysseus, and the octopus and fox—and moves on to a reading of Plato's Sophist, where the qualities of wily cunning become most explicitly articulated in relation to the figure of the sophist.

Chapter 3, "Kairotic Bodies," extends the treatment of wily intelligence begun in chapter 2 by considering its emergence in particular situations—in response to time as right time, opportunity, occasion, what the ancients termed kairos. Once again, kairos emerges often in Greek literature and philosophy in the context of athletic and rhetorical encounters—in short, kairos is the time of the agon, the immediacy that calls for quick, cunning response. Since so much has been written on the concept of kairos, this chapter asks what a particularly athletic notion of kairos might bring to a consideration of rhetorical kairos. Provisional answers lie in concepts of immanence, movement, embodiment, and the binding together of learning and performing. The chapter moves from the concept itself to the athletic body of the god Kairos as sculpted by Lysippos, to the kairotic practice of Gorgias, whose speeches demonstrate how the concept of kairos might work in relation to agonism and bodies. Together, chapters 2 and 3 set the stage for the remaining chapters, as these conjoined concepts of intelligence and immanence call for a situational training, where learning and performing come together most explicitly.

Chapter 4, "Phusiopoiesis: The Arts of Training," links metis and kairos to training practices by examining the way in which youths were "made ready" for transformation. The chapter develops a term, phusiopoiesis, gleaned from a Democritean fragment, to indicate the “production of one's nature.” Philosophers and practitioners of ancient medicine—most notably Hippocratic authors, the Presocratics, and Aristotle—all thought a good deal about the nature (phusis) of the body and the way in which phusis can be rendered malleable, made (poiei) into something else. The chapter then moves into a delineation of the various dynamics of ancient phusiopoiesis—the cultivation of a readiness, friendship, provocation, the matrices of pain and erotics—all of which formed a network of relational, productive practices between student and teacher, or self and other.

This network of productive practices becomes a primary area of inquiry for the next two chapters. Chapter 5, "Gymnasium I: The Space of Training," offers an analysis of the ancient gymnasium with attention to the way spatial distribution facilitated a kind of gathering that made the area ripe for infiltration by sophists and philosophers alike. Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus, a system of dispositions that emerge in relation to structures and practices, offers a useful way to conceptualize the interaction between space and habit formation—between the dynamics of phusiopoiesis and the traffic between athletic and rhetorical training in the ancient gymnasium, the locus for citizen training.

Chapter 6, "Gymnasium II: The Bodily Rhythms of Habit," extends the spatial analysis into mechanisms of habit formation by discussing sophistic pedagogy in terms of its "3Rs." The "3Rs" of sophistic education were not content-based, as 3Rs are now construed; rather, the main components of sophistic training have to do with a manner, a habituated style of thought and action: rhythm, repetition, and response. The gymnasium had a rhythm all its own, often established by pipe players, who provided musical accompaniment for gymnastic and rhetorical exercises.

Here, music's direct role in shaping one's ethos—character or disposition—becomes critical for a consideration of transformative training practices. Athletic and rhetorical training practices also incorporated repetition to enable rhythmic movements to become ingrained in one's body. From such attentive, repetitive, rhythmic practice, in imitative or agonistic relation to someone or something else, emerges a pedagogy of response, as students develop the capacity to respond to singular situations. Put simply, the best training for the agon is the agon, the repeated production of encounters with others.

Chapter 7, "The Visible Spoken: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Circulation of Honor," thus returns to the agon, this time to the contest between rhetoric and athletics as arts of existence. The chapter considers the ways in which the orators Isocrates and Demosthenes explicitly struggle with how to use the arete-saturated milieu of athletics to help establish rhetoric's own importance as a worthwhile and honorable art. At issue in this inquiry is the tangled relation between visibility and articulability—between the production of honor at the bodily level, as in the case of athletic victors, and the re-production of that same honor in rhetorical commemorations of the event, tales of the feat, rumors of greatness. The Athenians, honor-loving humans that they were, greatly admired their heroic athletes, but it was rhetoric—discourse about this very honor-love conjunction (philotimia)—that enabled and sustained honor's circulation.

This study, by drawing together rhetoric and athletics, thus simultaneously draws together classics and rhetoric; learning and performing; mind and body. Such a syncretic approach shifts attention away from questions of rhetoric's origin and development to questions of the conditions of rhetoric's emergence, which was bound up in an interactive struggle of sociocultural forces. As such, it allows a perspective on rhetoric as an art that was deeply situated in Greek culture and entangled with other arts of subject production. A focus on rhetoric's connections to athletics enables a view of rhetoric as a bodily art rather than strictly a cerebral endeavor, and traces the way in which rhetoric and athletics mutually shaped and struggled with each other—conceptually, practically, and culturally.


By Debra Hawhee

Debra Hawhee is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was also a member of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team from 1988 through 1992.