Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Stephen G. Miller's Ancient Greek Athletics offers a multifaceted study of sport as it existed in the classical world. Miller's research is the product of a lifetime of study, and as a consequence of this, Miller is able to comment in detail on some of the most fundamental aspects of Greece's sporting tradition, even down to the kind of massage oil athletes used and the particular plant from which whips were fashioned for the punishing of those athletes who broke the rules.

Miller situates his study of Greek sport in its social and historical context. Without such context, it would prove challenging for modern readers to comprehend the (sometimes distressing) ceremonies that surrounded Olympic sport. His outline of religious symbolism in the games is particularly instructive. He describes how the Ancient Greek games—not just at Olympia but in other less known locations, such as Nemea—functioned as religious ceremonies and how physical competition and spiritual ritual were interwoven.

Another key contribution of Miller's book to the public understanding of classical sport is how it sets out to dispel myths and false beliefs that many modern people entertain. His reference to instances of conflict (such as that between the Arcadians and Eleans in 364 BC) stands as testament to the fact that political violence would sometimes interfere in the games. This reality stands in stark contrast to the spirit of international brotherhood that Baron Pierre de Coubertin imagined for the modern games in 1896, and which people continue to associate with the Olympic games to this day.

Miller upholds the egalitarian principle at the heart of classical sport: how any male Greek citizen could compete against any other, with even some women achieving fame in certain events (although they did not compete directly). However, he contrasts this with how poorly the losers were treated by the crowds as well as with the astonishing violence that characterized certain events (such as boxing and wrestling). This violence indicates that the games were a product of a far more militaristic culture than the majority of societies exhibit today.

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