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Greek Sport and Social Status

Greek Sport and Social Status

A noted authority on ancient sport discusses various ways in which the ancient Greeks, as well as people today, used sports to achieve social status.

Series: Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lecture Series

January 2009
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232 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

From the ancient Olympic games to the World Series and the World Cup, athletic achievement has always conferred social status. In this collection of essays, a noted authority on ancient sport discusses how Greek sport has been used to claim and enhance social status, both in antiquity and in modern times.

Mark Golden explores a variety of ways in which sport provided a route to social status. In the first essay, he explains how elite horsemen and athletes tried to ignore the important roles that jockeys, drivers, and trainers played in their victories, as well as how female owners tried to rank their equestrian achievements above those of men and other women. In the next essay, Golden looks at the varied contributions that slaves made to sport, despite its use as a marker of free, Greek status. In the third essay, he evaluates the claims made by gladiators in the Greek east that they be regarded as high-status athletes and asserts that gladiatorial spectacle is much more like Greek sport than scholars today usually admit. In the final essay, Golden critiques the accepted accounts of ancient and modern Olympic history, arguing that attempts to raise the status of the modern games by stressing their links to the ancient ones are misleading. He concludes that the contemporary movement to call a truce in world conflicts during the Olympics is likewise based on misunderstandings of ancient Greek traditions.

  • Preface
  • Some Important Dates
  • Chapter One. Helpers, Horses, and Heroes: Contests over Victory in Ancient Greece
  • Chapter Two. Slaves and Ancient Greek Sport
  • Chapter Three. Greek Games and Gladiators
  • Chapter Four. Olive-Tinted Spectacles: Myths in the Histories of the Ancient and Modern Olympics
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Mark Golden is Professor of Classics at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author or editor of six books, including Sport and Society in Ancient Greece and Sport in the Ancient World from A to Z.


This short book has been a long time in the making. When Ian Worthington invited me to give the first Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial lectures at the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2000, I was a little intimidated—Mitchel's own 1968 Semple lecture at Cincinnati set a high standard—but of course I was very pleased to accept.1 I could not, however, promise quick publication: I had already committed myself to other book-length projects. In any event, these took even longer to complete than I had expected. My tardiness was fortunately more than matched by the energy of others, and I have consequently been able to make use of a spate of first-class work that has become available in the interim. Of particular benefit: that of Nigel Nicholson on jockeys, charioteers, and trainers; Jason König, Tom Scanlon, and Onno van Nijf on Greek athletics under Roman rule; Michael Carter on gladiatorial spectacles in the Greek east; and the surveys and syntheses by Don Kyle and Stephen Miller. The collection of Nigel Crowther's many shorter pieces on Greek sport (along with the author's updates) has also been most helpful. Nevertheless, I have tried to reproduce something of the flavor of the original lectures: readers may find the occasional reference to current events and a few good stories told more than once.

This book is to some extent a continuation of an earlier one, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1997). There I identified a "discourse of difference": Greek sport afforded "a field for the creation and reinforcement of divisions among groups and the ordering of these groups into hierarchies" (176). The phrase does not recur here—"discourse" is used only to denote a circular object, thicker in the middle than at the edges, thrown in the ancient pentathlon—but some of the same concerns do.

In Chapter One ("Helpers, Heroes, and Horses: Contests over Victory in Ancient Greece"), I discuss the importance elite Greek males attributed to competitive success and the means they used to ignore or deny any claims others—jockeys, charioteers, coaches, women—might make to share the status based on it. Recent papyrus finds, especially "the new Posidippus," enable us to trace these tactics into Hellenistic and Roman times; in this respect too this book extends Sport and Society, restricted as that is for the most part to the archaic and classical periods.

Chapter Two ("Slaves and Ancient Greek Sport") takes up the intersections of sport with another defining characteristic of Greek society: slavery. Though sport was one of the means by which Greeks separated themselves from barbarians and free citizens from slaves, competitors put themselves under the control of referees and other officials and could suffer the indignity of corporal punishment. Moreover, one term used for slaves associated with athletics, palaistrophylax, "palaestra guard," also came to be used for free citizens of some distinction in Greco-Roman Egypt.

Chapter Three ("Greek Games and Gladiators") begins with the stock—and stark—contrast between the glories of Greek festival competition and the base brutality of the gladiatorial spectacles of the Romans, only to argue that Greek spectators thronged amphitheaters and similar venues, that Greek gladiators sought to raise their social status by representing themselves as athletes, and that the Greek elite saw gladiatorial shows as a legitimate means to enhance their own standing in the community. In the end, I conclude that gladiatorial combat has a valid claim to be considered sport.

In Chapter Four ("Olive-Tinted Spectacles: Myths in the Histories of the Ancient and Modern Olympics"), I bring the story of the use of Greek sport to enhance status up to the present day. The modern Olympic movement used links with antiquity as a source of legitimation and prestige from its very start and has never ceased to do so. But, as is so common when we invoke the past for present purposes, these claims have often been based on mistakes and misrepresentations. For example, the ancient Olympics were never restricted to amateurs, and wars did not stop during the festival. Myths such as these have hindered our understanding of ancient Greek sport. What is worse, they have caused harm in the present and (in the case of the Olympic truce movement today) may prevent us from doing as much good as we can in the future. If we want to change the world, we must base our arguments on what we believe is right and not seek to raise their status or limit our aims according to what the Greeks did or did not do.

No part of writing a book is more welcome than acknowledging the help of others and not just because it means the job is almost done. The generosity of the Mitchel family made my visit to Missouri possible; it was a pleasure to meet them all (all the more because the occasion revealed a tie to Winnipeg that had previously been hidden from history). Hugh Grant provided the refuge where I wrote the original lectures. Ian and Tracy Worthington and their son Oliver generously opened their home in Columbia to me and Max, age ten at the time. ("I'm tired," Max told me after playing with Oliver for a while. "Two year olds are a lot of work.") Ian's colleagues in the Departments of History and Classics shared the burden of entertaining us. After our return from Missouri, Michael Carter, Kelly Joss, Jason König, Don Kyle, and Pauline Ripat read chapters of this book in draft. I sought advice from many others, including Martin Cropp, Pauline Greenhill, Nigel Kennell, the late Victor Matthews, Nigel Nicholson, John Oakley, David Roselli, Tom Scanlon, Josh Sosin, Onno van Nijf, Michael Wahn, and Robert Weir. Jane Cahill, Craig Cooper, Lou Lépine, Iain McDougall and Pauline Ripat—my colleagues in the Department of Classics at the University of Winnipeg—continued to offer the friendship and models of commitment to our work that have made this an ideal academic home for the past twenty-five years. In addition, Lou Lépine typed every word with her usual remarkable competence and good humor and never once complained about my handwriting. (Students take note.) Heather Mathieson and Lynne Schultz of our library's interlending department fulfilled my every request, no matter how unreasonable. At the University of Texas Press, Nancy Moore saved me from many errors and obscurities and helped me stay the Wicked Which (that, I know). But my deepest debt of gratitude is owed to the subject of this dedication, the modest prairie denizen who has made the whole of each year since I began work of this book feel like Volentine's Day.

All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated. Abbreviations for ancient authors and works follow the usage of the Oxford Classical Dictionary or of H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon and its supplements.



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