Study Guide

Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

Ancient Greek Athletics Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ancient Greek athletics have been both an inspiration and a model for modern athletes and especially for the modern Olympic movement. In Ancient Greek Athletics, Stephen G. Miller satisfies this modern fascination with Greek sport with a study incorporating the results of much scholarly research and archaeological excavation.

During his own career as scholar and archaeologist, Miller has recreated many aspects of the ancient games, not only in Greece, where he has helped revive the ancient Nemean games, but also in a variety of publications that have made ancient Greek athletics accessible to a general reading audience. One of his earlier publications, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources(1979, rev. 2004), is, in fact, an important companion volume to Ancient Greek Athletics. In Arete, Miller offers translations of more than 256 ancient documents dealing with ancient athletics, many of which were not readily available in English before this book was first published in 1979.

Miller includes in Ancient Greek Athletics 290 color and black-and-white photographs, drawings, and maps which greatly enhance his presentation of Greek sports. These illustrations include photographs of ancient athletic sites like Olympia and Nemea and of ancient artwork depicting athletes.

In Ancient Greek Athletics, Miller uses all of this written and physical evidence to create a readable and informative survey of the nature and practice of ancient Greek sports. He begins with an overview of Greek history and geography that provides a helpful context for understanding the world in which Greek sports functioned. This world is not an entirely familiar one for the modern reader. Greek athletics focused on the individual athlete rather than team sports. Ancient Greeks also competed in the nude, practiced infibulation (pinning the foreskin over the glans penis), oiled their bodies before competition, and flogged competitors for fouls.

Miller traces Greek sport back to its prehistoric roots in the Bronze Age (second millennium b.c.e.), for which archaeology provides evidence of boxing and bullfighting (or bull-leaping) in Minoan Crete. The Homeric epics of Archaic Greece (c. 725 b.c.e.), with references to chariot racing, footraces, boxing, wrestling, jumping, and javelin and discus throwing describe an athletic world much closer to the actual program at Olympia and other ancient competitions.

The central portion of Ancient Greek Athletics is devoted to a careful description of the various athletic competitions held in ancient Greece. These include the gymnikos agon, or nude competitions, like footraces, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a combination of both boxing and wrestling), and the special events of the pentathlon (discus, javelin, and jumping). Here Miller explains how Greek runners, unlike their modern counterparts, started from a standing rather than a four-point position, how Greek jumpers used weights called halteres, and how Greek javelin throwers wrapped a cord called an ankyle around the shaft of the javelin before throwing. Miller has encouraged his students to imitate these Greek practices, and his descriptions are detailed enough for readers of Ancient Greek Athletics to do the same.

Other events are hippios agon, or horse races, including chariot and horseback races, mousikos agon (musical competition) like flute-playing and singing, and competitions in heralding, trumpeting, and even painting. These last competitions actually had a practical purpose, for victors in these events played important roles in the more athletic competitions. Flute-playing accompanied jumpers in their leaps, trumpeters called the crowds of spectators to order before events, and heralds announced athletes as they entered the stadium and won their events.

Miller also describes the sites of the major athletic competitions of ancient Greece, also known as the Crown Games. These were the Olympic Games at Olympia in honor of the god Zeus, the Pythian Games at Delphi in honor of Apollo, the Isthmian Games near Corinth in honor of Poseidon, and the Nemean Games at Nemea in honor of Zeus. All were religious festivals as well as athletic events. All four sites contained religious temples, sports facilities such as stadiums (used for running and other track and field events) and hippodromes (horse race tracks), training areas like gymnasiums and palaestras, administrative buildings for athletic and religious officials, and political and individual monuments.

Olympia, of course, is the best known of these sites, with its well-preserved stadium, significant remains of the temples of Zeus and Hera, and famous artwork such as the metope and pedimental sculptures from the temple of Zeus. While the magnificent fifth century b.c.e. gold-and-ivory cult statue of Zeus by Pheidias does not survive,...

(The entire section is 2016 words.)