Ancient Greek Athleticism And The Idea Of Virtue

This morning my friend Dr. Michael Fontaine sent me an email that contained the following quote by the French Enlightenment thinker Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle.  When Fontenelle, at the age of 85, met Rousseau in 1742, he counseled him, “You must courageously offer your brow to laurel wreaths, and your nose to blows.” 

I thought this fortitudinous sentiment would be an appropriate one for a discussion on the subject of ancient Greek athletics.  I recently finished reading Stephen G. Miller’s wonderfully descriptive volume Ancient Greek Athletics, and cannot recommend it highly enough, even to those who have only a passing interest in the subject.  I believe it should be studied and pored over with the same care that we might devote to a work of philosophy or mathematics.  Here, at last, we are provided with a carefully illustrated study of what was a vital aspect of ancient Greek society.  And yet, as Miller notes in his preface, “Ancient Greek athletics as a field of study does not suffer from overpopulation…Aristotle researched the history of athletics, but many modern classical scholars have shunned it.  Plato spends long discussions on the place of athletics in education and society, yet modern books on such topics as ancient Greek history and Athenian democracy can be completely silent about athletics.”

I will not attempt here a complete review of this vast topic, nor will I bore the reader with technicalities that are better seen in pottery or archaeological illustrations than read about in print.  I will only offer my impressions, and comment on those matters that attracted special interest.  All in all, we can say that ancient Greek athletics:  (1) were linked intimately with religion and social mores; (2) were heavily infused with Greek notions of virtue; and (3) are still not completely understood in all details by scholars.  Like any good scholar, Miller is candid about what we know, and what we do not know.  Intemperate, agenda-driven language and errant speculation, he knows, have no place in this field of study:

As much as possible I shall approach this study through the words and the artifacts that have been preserved from antiquity—let the Greeks speak for themselves.  No matter how experienced or knowledgeable a modern scholar may be, the primary sources must always be the point of departure.  I shall try to differentiate between certain knowledge and my interpretation of evidence that is frequently fragmentary, ambiguous, or contradictory—or all of the above.  This will require you to examine these questions and come to your own conclusions, recognizing that some details are not yet known, and may never be.  But I believe that your appreciation of our society’s Greek heritage will thereby be enhanced.

In other words, investigations and conclusions must be based on the record, not on wishful thinking; one may draw inferences from the evidence, but such inferences must be reasonable.  Even assessing the written sources may not always be as straightforward as it appears.  This is something we often overlook, but a problem that I myself have encountered in the tedious and painstaking work of translation.  To illustrate this point, Miller provides a wonderful example when discussing the role of women’s athletics in Greek society:

The problem of assessing the accuracy of written sources continues today.  Since 1987, whenever I have taught a course on ancient athletics, I have measured the amount of space given to different topics in the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I made these measurements on the day I lectured on women’s athletics…The average coverage, measured in square centimeters of print, over these years has been:  advertising, 29.37 percent, horse racing, 5.04 percent; men’s competitions, 64.10 percent, women’s competitions, 1.49 percent.  If two thousand years from now these newspapers are the only athletic records that survive, what will historians conclude about the relative importance of women’s athletics today?

The same sort of experiment, of course, could be applied to other fields as well, with equally misleading results.  In any case, we must try to do the best we can with the tools available to us.  But let us move on from these preliminaries, and see what interesting morsels we may extract from the sandy palaestra of the athletic grounds.

A Greek athlete with a discus (PD: US)

The Greek word gymnos means “naked,” and we should understand that contests were performed in the nude.  The gymnasium was literally a place for nudity.  Those readers who might wince at the thought of errant genitals flapping in the breeze during foot races should remember two things.  First, the body’s cremaster muscle forces the retraction of genitals during such physical exertions, thereby reducing injury or discomfort; and second, ancient Greece was a pre-Christian society which was not burdened by the same neuroses about nakedness that afflict us today.  Even the ancients themselves were not certain why athletics (for men, at least) were conducted in the nude; Pausanias, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Thucydides all arrived at conflicting explanations.  In addition, it seems clear that athletes practiced infibulation, that is, the tying up of the penis’s foreskin.  Perhaps this practice enhanced performance, or perhaps it reduced the risk of injury. 

Athletes were divided into categories based on age.  His personal kit would consist of a jar of olive oil for rubbing, a sort of cap for holding down the hair, a strigil for scraping the skin, and a sponge.  Why did athletes rub their bodies with oil?  Here again, various explanations have been offered, all of them plausible.  Perhaps the act of rubbing helped loosen the muscles; or perhaps a glistening body was more easily visible to the spectators of athletic events.  Pliny (Nat. Hist. XV.4.19) suggested that an oiled body offered protection against the cold, which is true.  A bronze or iron strigil would be used for scraping the accumulations of sweat, oil, and dust from an athlete’s body.  This nasty residue was then sold to enthusiasts of such medicaments, we are told, for its reputed therapeutic benefits. 

Athletic contests were sternly and rigorously officiated by judges.  Infractions were punished by flogging with wooden switches (rhabdoi), or by disqualification from the event.  The organized games at Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea offered crowns to victors, and were thus known as “crown” (or stephanitic) games.  There were also numerous local games held by the various individual Greek city-states.  At the crown games, there were no team competitions:  all contests were individual, with one man facing off against another.  The events included footraces, wrestling, boxing, pentathlon, horse races, and the most intense of the competitions, the pankration, which entered the Olympic games in 648 B.C. 

Warming up before a contest (PD: US)

The pankration was what we would today call a “mixed martial art” that combined boxing and wrestling.  The pentathlon included the discus throw, the long jump (halma), and the javelin throw (akon).  We do not know how the pentathlon was scored, nor exactly how the discus was thrown.  The long jump was performed by contestants carrying heavy weights called halteres.  Perhaps most surprisingly, a musical competition was also included in the games.  There are theaters at Delphi and Isthmia for the mousikos agon, but none at Olympia or Nemea, a fact which remains somewhat puzzling.  Yet Pausanias himself (X.9.2) notes that most men had little interest in the musical contests:  “Most men take no account of the competitors in the musical contests, and I think that they are not worth much trouble.”

As we so often find in the ancient world, the concept of moral virtue was bound up with the practice of athletics.  According to the writer Philostratus (Vita Apoll. V.43), the athletic judges (Hellanodikai) would assemble the athletes together before the festivals and tell them this:

If you have worked to be worthy of going to Olympia, if you have done nothing ignoble or indolent, then take heart and march on.  But those who have not so trained may leave and go wherever they like. 

Modesty and humility were exalted as virtues.  Obnoxious bragging and bombastic displays were not.  The writer Aelian, in his Varia Historia (IV.9), relates the following anecdote about Plato and the games.  Plato once attended the crown games at Olympia, and was alone, as was his usual custom.  He shared a habitation with some other men he met there.  He gave his name only as “Plato from Athens” and ate and drank with them in such unpretentious style that they assumed he was an artisan or laborer, rather than the colossus of philosophy and learning that he was.  Later when these friends visited him in Athens, they joked with Plato about his famous namesake.  “Plato,” they said, “please take us to the Academy, where your famous namesake taught, so that we can learn from him.”  Plato smiled and told them simply, “I am that Plato.”  His friends were shocked at having spent so much time with a great man without even knowing who he really was.  Aelian says,

He had behaved towards them with modesty and simplicity, and had proved himself able to win the confidence of anyone in his company without the usual philosophical discussions. [IV.9]

Other moral lessons were also passed down from generation to generation.  Pausanias (VI.14.5) relates the tale of the famous athlete Milo.  He first triumphed at the Olympiad in 536 B.C. as a boy, and then went on to win five additional crowns in successive games.  He was capable of amazing feats of strength and prowess.  He could hold a pomegranate in his hand with such firmness that no one could take it away, and yet the fruit would always remain intact.  No challenger could ever knock him off an oiled discus when he was standing on it.  Yet he was undone by his arrogance. 

When Milo was walking along a road near Kroton, he spied a dried-up tree trunk into which someone had driven wedges.  He decided to try to pull the trunk apart, as an amusement.  But the wedges fell out, and the tree snapped shut over his body, imprisoning him; he was then eaten by a pack of wolves who came upon him.  A similar fate befell another Olympic hero named Polydamas of Skotoussa, who came from Thessaly.  He was a victor in the pankration at Olympia in 408 B.C.  But those who revel in their strength, as Pausanias says, are fated to be undone by it:

But after all [Polydamas’s feats of strength], the prophecy of Homer respecting those who glory in their strength was to be fulfilled also in the case of Polydamas, and he too was fated to perish through his own might.  For Polydamas entered a cave with the rest of his boon companions.  It was summer-time, and as ill-luck would have it, the roof of the cave began to crack.  It was obvious that it would quickly fall in, and could not hold out much longer.  Realizing the disaster that was coming, the others turned and ran away; but Polydamas resolved to remain, holding up his hands in the belief that he could prevent the falling in of the cave and would not be crushed by the mountain.  Here Polydamas met his end.  [VI.5]

So are we reminded, through these anecdotes on Plato, Milo, and Polydamas, that physical and mental strength carry with them the obligations of modesty and humility.  As Fontenelle counsels, we offer our brows to laurel wreaths, and our noses to blows to be endured with equanimity and patience. Athleticism reinforced the virtues of civic responsibility, personal conduct, and religious observance.  The celebration of physical prowess in Greek athleticism was neither unlimited nor unqualified; it had to be tempered with forbearance, and a constant awareness that hubris was an offense against the gods.  And the punishment for this impiety would be both prompt and enduring.    

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Read more on virtue and conduct in the new translation of Tusculan Disputations:

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