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CJ-ONLINE  October 2007

CJ-ONLINE October 2007

Subject:

CJ-Online 2007.10.01 Review: KÖNIG, Athl etics and Literature in the Roman Empire; NEWBY, Greek Athletics in the Roman World

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GREEK ATHLETICS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE:
LITERATURE, ART, IDENTITY AND CULTURE

Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire. By JASON KÖNIG. Cambridge and 
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xix + 398. Cloth, $95.00. 
ISBN 0–521–83845–2.

Order this text for $95.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Greek Athletics in the Roman World: Victory and Virtue. By ZAHRA NEWBY. 
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 314. Cloth, 
$150.00. ISBN 0–19–927930–6.

Order this text for $138.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.1: 107-13

Recently the study of ancient athletics, once a lesser and even suspect 
subfield, has become attractive for the burgeoning research on Greek 
culture under the Roman Empire. These two ambitious studies both derive 
from British dissertations (Newby’s with Jas Elsner, König’s with Simon 
Goldhill), and have overlapping concentrations and complementary strengths. 
Together, König’s literary study, enriched by epigraphical evidence, and 
Newby’s art historical study, enriched by relevant texts, reveal the 
sophistication and complexities of textual and visual representations of 
Greek athletics in the Empire. N. discusses some of the same authors (e.g., 
Lucian, Dio, Philostratus) as K., but less extensively, and both have a 
chapter on Pausanias. N. devotes three chapters to Rome and the West, which 
K. covers in one. Convincing and extremely well-read, the authors establish 
significant reinterpretations of later athletic history, art and 
literature.
 
Rejecting a traditional focus on Classical Greece and actual athletic 
practices, these scholars investigate the experiences, 
self-representations, identifications and cultural significance of 
athletics under the Empire. Charging that older studies made uncritical, 
piecemeal use of later sources to support scenarios of athletic decline or 
Roman opposition and corruption, they declare that we must appreciate the 
contemporary cultural discourse and diverse agendas that inspired and 
fashioned later athletic commemorations and representations. Expanding on 
the works of Louis Robert and recent scholarship, the authors show the 
continuing significance of athletics, altered but still vital, different 
but not degenerate, in the lives of later Greek individuals and cities. 
Athletics, and not just intellectual endeavors, remained fundamental to 
Greek ethnicity and the Hellenic tradition under the Empire. Athletic art, 
facilities and festivals were popular and prominent in the 
self-representation of cities, competitors, patrons and intellectuals. 
Simultaneously attractive and controversial, athletics were a central 
subject of cultural debate and productivity, as later Greeks felt compelled 
to negotiate with and appropriate early traditions. Further, while never 
threatening Roman spectacles, from the time of Augustus athletics became an 
increasingly popular form of public entertainment in the West itself. After 
a substantial Introduction, each of König’s next six chapters, all over 40 
pages long, moves from an examination of some athletic institution (e.g., 
education in the gymnasium) and its textual representation toward a 
detailed reinterpretation of a single major text or set of texts. K. 
selects texts that reveal athletics as a high-status activity in civic life 
and festival culture, and a locus of conflicted elite self-identification 
and self-perception, as well as of broader cultural controversies about 
education, bodies, civic virtue and the Hellenic tradition. Relishing the 
variety and complexity of representations and assessments of athletics, he 
shows that diverse literary and epigraphical representations (e.g., Galen’s 
writings and the inscriptions of the famous pankration victor Markos 
Aurelios Asklepiades) shared language, idioms, ambiguities and tensions, as 
they were entangled with cultural controversies and the self-representation 
and cultural self-scrutiny of their authors. In Chapter 1, “Introduction,” 
K. situates himself within the scholarship and establishes his interpretive 
premises. Preferring “Imperial period” to Philostratus’ “Second Sophistic,” 
which denigrates both athletics and later Greek literature, K. charges that 
earlier scholars (e.g., E.N. Gardiner, H.A. Harris), using later texts 
without adequate consideration of rhetorical contexts, internal tensions 
and wider cultural polemics, underestimated the significance of athletics 
in elite identity, education and masculine self-display. In contrast, K. 
applies recent studies of rhetoric, representation, identity and bodily 
display to athletics, and, like New Historicists, reads claims, valuations 
or assertions as contestations that indicate alternative opinions or rival 
claims to identity and status. Declaring that “culture” lacks objective 
reality and is an ideal presented and imagined in different ways for 
multiple purposes, he sees identities, cultures and texts not as 
monolithic, but as contested, unstable and ambiguous. For K., 
identification—the suggesting of individual, local, professional or broad 
Hellenic identities—involves the “never-ending and always partly 
subconscious” (p. 11) negotiation between shared and highly contested 
opinions, between self-confidence and fixity against uncertainty and 
instability. K.’s Introduction, however, grows lengthy when he summarizes 
the history of early athletics and the modern misuse of ancient athletic 
customs, in the first instance to note early social elitism, athletic ties 
to education, and a critical literary tradition, and secondly to suggest 
parallels between the Imperial era and modern times, as representations in 
both ages exaggerate athletic continuities and mix imitation with 
distortion.

Chapter 2, “Lucian and Anacharsis: Gymnasion Education in the Greek City,” 
demonstrates how Lucian reveals the absurdity and irony involved in 
hallowing athletic forms of Hellenic tradition. Lucian satirically 
juxtaposes and undermines two conflicting conventions, one applauding the 
gymnasium for preserving authentic Hellenic traditions and providing 
respite from everyday life, the other rejecting the military or political 
value of gymnastics and mocking archaizing attempts to recreate Classical 
culture. K. explains that gymnasium inscriptions themselves include 
conflicting viewpoints, at times suggesting or denying the practical 
usefulness of athletics, at others stressing connections with or distance 
from agonistic festivals. Chapter 3, “Models for Virtue: Dio’s ‘Melankomas’ 
Orations and the Athletic Body,” with all but one of K.’s 12 illustrations, 
shows that representations of athletes in statues and inscriptions involve 
cultural aspirations and tensions, as they praise victors as beautiful and 
inspiring citizens, but also espouse unattainable ideals of proportion and 
virtue. Similarly, while Dio’s funeral orations for Melankomas seem to 
praise and criticize athletics inconsistently, K. shows how Dio examines 
and reveals persistent problems in his own life and career concerning the 
challenge of combining the virtuous life of philosophy with participation 
in civic and political life. Chapter 4, “Pausanias and Olympic 
Panhellenism,” continues current re-evaluations of Pausanias’ recording, 
ordering and structuring of Olympia as an emblem of Panhellenic culture. K. 
argues that Pausanias’ selection and emphasis of athletic commemorations 
(inscriptions and statues), his “Olympic enumeration as thaumatography” (p. 
174), reflects contemporary tension between attempts to recapture or 
distance the past. Turning to Rome and Latin epic, Chapter 5, “Silius 
Italicus and the Athletics of Rome,” examines the contested place of 
athletics at Rome and in formations of Roman identity. As Rome introduced 
and later institutionalized athletic contests, the Roman elite used 
athletic stereotypes in literature as a “peg” (p. 212) for their own 
cultural self-examination. K. suggests that Silius in Punica 16 added 
violent gladiatorial combat to the Greek funeral game tradition to express 
Roman anxieties about the brutalizing, desensitizing effects on society of 
prolonged exposure to conquest and civil warfare.

Chapters 6, “Athletes and Doctors: Galen’s Agonistic Medicine,” and 7, 
“Philostratus’ Gymnasticus and the Rhetoric of the Athletic Body,” discuss 
doctors, trainers and rival opinions about athletics and proper care of the 
body. Galen, advocating balance and moderate exercises that benefit both 
body and soul, presents the medical profession as a true philosophical art 
in contrast with the fraudulent expertise of avaricious athletic trainers 
who abuse bodies with harmful regimens. For his part, Philostratus defends 
athletic training as an analytical form of wisdom in order to champion the 
value of rhetoric in contemporary cultural self-scrutiny. His ideal trainer 
was a moral representative of Hellenism who, like Philostratus himself, 
could interpret both athletic bodies and the reflection of Hellenic 
traditions in contemporary athletics. K.’s work closes with a brief 
Conclusion, a detailed bibliography and three indices.

Newby’s work, with some 95 helpful illustrations (including nine color 
plates), explores the prominence, significance and social and cultural 
roles of athletics for both Greeks and Romans by focusing especially, 
although not exclusively, on the abundant visual and material evidence. 
Applying art historical expertise to well-selected examples over a broad 
scope, N. demonstrates that athletics were crucial to Greek ethnicity and 
were indeed significant in the West. Like K., she examines athletics in 
constructions of Greek culture and identity, and in negotiations with Roman 
culture and power. Unlike K., she reads athletics as a generally positive 
form of self-fashioning. Later Greeks, while celebrating contemporary 
accomplishments, consciously asserted their Hellenic identity as worthy 
heirs of classical Greece by evoking ennobling links to athletic, 
intellectual and military virtues of the past; and athletics aided an 
ultimately positive interaction between Greek and Roman culture, and 
between Eastern Greeks and the Imperial administration, especially via the 
emperor cult. Her work consists of nine chapters: an Introduction, a 
Conclusion and seven main chapters organized into two parts, on the Roman 
West and the Greek East.

N.’s Introduction asserts the continuity, vitality and centrality of 
athletics in Greek self-representation at the individual, civic and 
regional levels, and in Rome’s perception of Greek culture, in part because 
the majority of athletes were Greek. She outlines the growth and acceptance 
of athletics from Augustus to the Severans as part of the Empire’s 
“spectacle culture” or system of public entertainments, in part because 
movements of peoples from the East brought a more cosmopolitan culture to 
the West. Part One, “Athletics in the Roman West,” discusses the evidence 
for Greek athletic contests at Rome, exercise in baths and athletic 
decorations (mosaics and sculpture) in villas. Chapter 2, “Greek Athletics 
in the Heart of Rome,” details the introduction of athletics in Roman 
spectacles from 186 BC on, the patronage and festivals of Augustus and 
Nero, major developments with Domitian’s stadium and his festival of 86, 
continued support under the Antonines and a zenith under the Severans, 
notably Alexander Severus, a “keen athlete” (pp. 63, 74–5), and Julia 
Domna. N. declares that the Romans gradually but enthusiastically accepted 
athletics, and that, in addition to mosaics and monuments, literary 
criticisms of athletics, as in Juvenal and Tacitus, show popularity rather 
than opposition. She concedes that, with different ideological values, few 
Romans went beyond watching contests or exercising in baths, and she 
explains how Rome carefully controlled athletics by imperial supervision 
(e.g., of officials and pensions), locating the synod headquarters at Rome 
and inserting Roman festivals into the hierarchy of Panhellenic crown 
games. Chapter 3, “Visualizing Athletics in the Roman Baths,” examines 
numerous athletic scenes in mosaics from baths in Italy (e.g., Ostia, 
Pompeii), Western provinces and the Baths of Caracalla at Rome. Beginning 
with Agrippa’s baths in the Campus Martius, N. suggests public baths with 
palaestra areas encouraged exercise and athletic training, and bathers, 
drawn by the exotic and erotic Greek allure, appreciated and associated 
with the activities depicted in mosaics and statues, even imagining 
themselves as the athletic “stars” of the day. She notes similar interests 
in Gallia Narbonensis and North Africa, in cities like Massilia with Greek 
roots, or those, like Gafsa, with aspiring local elites or imperial 
patronage, but she admits that the rest of the West was less enthusiastic. 
Chapter 4, “Idealized Statues in Roman Villas,” examines the fashion of 
decorating bathing areas or peristyles of villas, especially those 
constructed under Domitian and Hadrian, with carefully selected and 
arranged copies of idealized Classical Greek statues. Statues of athletes 
with strigils suited bath complexes, and the beauty and eroticism of 
pentathletes’ bodies enhanced the popularity of images of discus throwers. 
Statues evoked the Classical gymnasium, but the activities nearby were more 
mental than physical.

Part Two, “Athletics and Identity in the Greek East,” demonstrates the 
importance of athletic festivals and ephebic education for claims to status 
and cultural identity. Chapters 5, “Training Warriors: The Merits of a 
Physical Education,” and 6, “The Athenian Ephebeia: Performing the Past,” 
discuss ephebic training, contests and festivals in Athens and Sparta as 
evidenced by texts, inscriptions and commemorations (e.g., herms, stelai, 
dedications). N. reads later ephebic contests and military performances 
(e.g., Athenian naval mock battles and parades in armor recalling Salamis 
and Marathon, Spartan whipping contests promoting courage and endurance) as 
evocations of past glories and incitements to traditional virtues and 
values. Using inscriptions, Lucian and Pausanias, she argues that later 
Greeks saw the ephebic training of cadets as essential for producing fit, 
beautiful and patriotic soldier-citizens—even during the Pax Romana. In 
Chapter 7, “Olympia and Pausanias’ Construction of Greece,” N., like K., 
discusses both Pausanias’ attention to Archaic and Classical victor 
monuments at Olympia in his construction of a Panhellenic past, and the 
enduring value of victor statues for civic claims to identity and 
achievement. Chapter 8, “Gymnasia, Festivals, and Euergetism in Asia 
Minor,” discussing various locations (e.g., Aphrodisias, Hierapolis, Side), 
but focusing mostly on sculpture in the gymnasia at Ephesus, shows the 
desire by donors of facilities, decorations and festivals to publicize 
their status and ethnicity. As opportunistic individuals and rival 
communities, with roots of varying depths, Eastern Greeks sought validation 
and advancement. Honors for recent athletic victors, like cults to ancient 
victors, represented positive links between past and present. Euergetism 
also assisted the accommodation or solicitation of Roman imperial rule, as 
in the foundation of sacred crown festivals, for which the emperor was 
consulted, received acclamations and was flattered in monuments and coins. 
Rather than resistance or domination, N. paints a picture of assimilation 
and negotiation, as Greeks, especially elite patrons and fathers of 
ephebes, asserted their superior cultural identity, but accepted imperial 
patronage and supervision. A summarizing Conclusion, bibliography and index 
complete the volume.

I offer a quibble and a caution. The essential Greek meaning of “athletics” 
concerns physical contests for prizes, but both K. and N. use “athletics” 
broadly to include bathing, private exercise, personal care of the body and 
relaxation at villas. Gymnastic affectations in decorating villas were no 
more athletic than Trimalchio’s “exercises” at the baths, nor do rhetorical 
or Christian metaphorical appropriations of athletic terms and imagery 
constitute athletic activities. Also, as the authors acknowledge, their 
studies concentrate on the urban elite, to which most athletes, ephebes, 
benefactors and intellectuals belonged. Public baths allowed some social 
equalization, but even the magnificence and decoration of baths (or villas) 
do not prove that lowly or rural Romans bathed or exercised regularly. 
Baths and gymnasia may say more about the intentions of donors than the 
habits of the lower classes. Most Romans and non-elite Greeks probably 
continued to experience intense athletics indirectly as viewers of public 
games.

An art historian stressing nostalgia, allusions and idealizing more than 
conflict and ambiguity, N. draws sound conclusions from often-fragmentary 
physical evidence and copies by usually unknown artists. A cultural 
historian elucidating complexities and tensions, K. details highly nuanced 
readings of (generally) complete texts by known authors. Seeking a broader 
audience, both translate documents and summarize arguments made and to be 
made, but each main chapter of both works harnesses well over 100 learned 
footnotes.

Essential for scholars and serious students of ancient literature, art and 
sport, these stimulating works expand, refocus and raise the study of 
athletic art and literature to the level of sophisticated cultural history. 
Both get beneath the surface of documents and decorations, exposing 
Imperial (and modern) layers of reception, perception and representation. 
Like the authors and artists they interpret, K. and N. rewrite history and 
reevaluate culture according to their tastes, tensions and needs; they 
negotiate in their present with the near and distant past, promoting their 
scholarship in rivalry with earlier readings of athletics, and tempting us 
with stimulating new approaches.

DONALD G. KYLE 
University of Texas at Arlington


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