Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Ancient Greek Athletics was written by American classicist and archaeologist Stephen G. Miller. Dr. Miller served as Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology at University of California–Berkeley. He has published numerous works on the topic of ancient Greek athletics, including excavation reports from Nemea and a companion source book to Ancient Greek Athletics containing excerpts from significant primary sources, which is entitled Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources.

Plot Summary

Ancient Greek Athletics consists of sixteen chapters that cover the following topics: an introductory overview of Dr. Miller's field of study; a history of Greek athletics; descriptions of some of the major festivals at which competitions were held; a discussion of the physical sites and material history of Greek athletics as portrayed in ancient sources and excavated by archaeologists; coverage of notable individual athletes; examination of the training of athletes; athletics as entertainment; and the role of athletics in Greek society.

After a brief introduction, Miller traces the earliest evidence for Greek athletics to the Bronze Age, discussing the famous bull-leaping frescoes from Crete and other archaeological evidence. Next, he covers the earliest literary and artistic evidence for Greek sport, including mentions of athletic competitions in the works of Homer and later poets as well as portrayals of athletes in art, including sculptures and vases.

Miller surveys the different sports played by the ancient Greeks both for personal fitness and for competitions, including a discussion of how athletics might have contributed to fitness for required military service. He discusses several popular sports, including boxing, wrestling, the pentathlon (long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, and short and long foot races), and equestrian events.

Of particular interest to Miller are the four major Panhellenic festivals, or Crown games: the Olympic Games at Olympia (honoring Zeus), the Pythian Games at Delphi (honoring Apollo), the Isthmian Games held near Corinth (honoring Poseidon), and the Nemean Games honoring Zeus. These festivals included musical and poetic competitions, religious ceremonies, and a variety of commercial activities. They helped forge relationships among the diverse city-states that comprised the Greek world.

Miller also provides detailed biographies of many of the leading ancient athletes, of all genders, emphasizing their celebrity status as well as their victories and training.

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