Ancient Greek Athletics

by Stephen G. Miller

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Stoic philosopher Epiktetos, in lecturing on the natural gifts which man possesses but which are denied to animals, touches on man’s ability to endure hardships and annoyances in his quest for knowledge and understanding. He chooses as an example the experiences of a visitor to Olympia.

There are unpleasant and difficult things in life. But don’t they happen at Olympia? Don’t you suffer from the heat? Aren’t you cramped for space? Don’t you bathe badly? Don’t you get soaked by rains? Don’t you get your fill of noise and shouting and other annoyances? But I suspect that you compare all this to the value of the show and endure it? (146 Epiktetos 1.6.23–28 ca. a.d.120)

This is an extremely edited version of what Epiktetos (Epictetus) actually wrote. Further reading shows us that Epictetus is saying that God made animals to fulfill certain roles, some to be eaten, some to supply cheese, and others to pull plows without ever wondering why. He warns that man must not die before he witnesses God’s works and can explain them to others. Humans were created for “contemplation and understanding” of the divine works in the world around us, and in order to understand the divine in nature, we must be willing to pay a cost.

He uses an example of what a tourist must endure to look at the beautiful man-made works in Olympia. The tourist endures heat, crowding, as well as a lack of comfortable bathing facilities and proper shelter from rains. If it is worth enduring all these difficulties to see man-made objects, how much more should we be willing to endure for wisdom and understanding?

Since that which is more difficult or more rare is the better, seasons and ages and places and times and powers produce great things; that is, if one does something beyond his power or his age or his equals, and if he does them in such a way and place and time, he will have greatness and beauty and goodness and justice and oppositions. From such a situation came the epigram for the Olympic victor... (138 Aristotle, Rhetoric 1365a ca. 330 BC)

This is a paraphrased version of Aristotle’s “Rhetoric 1365." The full quotation states that when there is a great goal, there will be a great adversary or opponent—that seeking the goal is good and worthy of the price paid for obtaining it and that great goals will be achieved through great sacrifice. Aristotle goes on to say that goals can have many participants or few, but all are worthy endeavors. Conversely, the more evil the act, the more severe the punishment should be.

Miller is emphasizing Aristotle’s concept that honor is a measure of worth, and as such, the extreme honor for winning an Olympic event is worth whatever sacrifices were made in obtaining it.

The writings of the sophist Hippias of Elis (ca. 485–415 b.c.; see no. 15) included an edition of the list of Olympic victors. Here he is about to be interviewed by Socrates.

Hippias: It would be strange if I—who always go from my home in Elis to the Olympic Games every time when they are celebrated; who enters the sanctuary and am ready to speak, if someone asks, on any of the subjects I have prepared; who answers any questions if someone asks—it would be strange if I should now avoid the questions of Socrates.

Socrates: O Hippias, you are blessed if at each Olympiad you arrive at the sanctuary with such optimism about the wisdom of your soul. I would be amazed if any of the...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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athletes who go to the same place to compete were so fearless about their bodies and had as much confidence in them as you have in your intelligence.

Hippias: Of course I feel this way, Socrates. Ever since I began to compete in the Olympics, I have never met anyone better in any way than me. (132 Plato, Hippias Minor 363c–364a ca. 380 b.c.)

Miller uses the opening of the debate between Socrates and Hippias of Elis in Plato’s “Hippias Minor” as a way to emphasize the importance of the Olympic Games in Greek society. Few members of Greek society were as famous as Plato, and even though this was an early work of his, Plato's use of a debate between Socrates and Hippias of Elis highlights how famous the Olympics were at that time.

Though the actual debate is based on the believability of Homer’s Odyssey and who Homer intended on portraying as the better man—Achilles or Odysseus—ultimately it is a statement on whether it is morally superior to commit an evil act unintentionally or premeditatedly. It also portrays Hippias as vain and lacking in deep knowledge of any given topic.