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Ancient Greek Athletics
Ancient Greek Athletics
Stephen G. Miller
Yale University Press, 2004
288 pp., $35.00

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Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, Expanded edition
Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, Expanded edition
Stephen G. Miller
University of California Press, 1991
239 pp., $21.95

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Reviewed by Jeremy Lott


'Be Happy!'

How the ancient Olympics differed from the modern spectacle.

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True story: Over the last year, several acquaintances have told me that they are training to run a marathon. The conversation to follow invariably went something like this:

Me: Are you CRAZY?

Them: What do you mean crazy?

Me: Don't you realize how horrible that is for you?

Them: Uh …

Me: Your body runs out gas and starts to consume itself in order to finish the race.

Them: It's not that bad.

Me: It's incredibly harmful.

Them: You're just out of shape.

Me: Look, the first guy to run the marathon, they guy the race is NAMED FOR, died.

Them: (Blank look.)

So here it is for all you doubters. In 490 BC, a man ran over 26 miles from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce to the residents of the city that their army had defeated the invading Persians. According to Plutarch, that messenger, "running with his armor hot from the battle and falling in the doors of the prytaneis, could only say 'Be happy! We have won!' and immediately expired."

If you want to watch the 2004 Summer Olympics, which begin this week in Athens, with more than a vague sense of how the original games differed from the TV version (they didn't have synchronized swimming then, right?), you might want to take a look at two books by Stephen G. Miller—one brand new, from Yale University Press, the other reissued for the occasion by the University of California Press.

Certainly a time–traveling Greek would be puzzled by the 21st–century version of the games. Now there are summer and winter Olympics, team sports, contests that require a high degree of interpretation (e.g., ice skating; witness the vote–swapping controversy in the last winter games that almost robbed the Canadian team of a gold medal), insane long–range contests of endurance, and women's sports.

That last category, I naively believed before reading Ancient Greek Athletics, would have thrown the first Olympians for a loop. I mean, wasn't there a law forbidding women from the games on pain of death? Miller's answer is, Yes, but it was probably never enforced. As the games evolved, the local high priestess and the young unmarried women ("virgins") were allowed to observe. At least one woman won a prize, by sponsoring a team of horses in the chariot race.

What the women saw would definitely not pass muster with the FCC. Greek men competed in the buff. In the races, the wrestling—all of it—their only covering was an oil that was rubbed all over their bodies. For penalties, judges would publicly flog the contestants. The competition in some events was so fierce that death wasn't at all uncommon.

Perhaps the greatest difference between their games and ours can be got at by the lack of team sports. Greek athletics were a war of all against all. A man's standing, his virtue, his honor, were bound up in how he performed against his peers. That psychotic sense of excellence is missing from the modern games, which began as an internationalist gesture and have snowballed into the present scandal–heavy spectacle.

I leave readers with a story which is simply too bizarre to pass by in silence. The scene is a more–or–less open–fisted boxing match between Kreugas and Damoxenos during the games at Nemea, circa 400 BC, as related to us by the historian Pausanias. Each of the boxers had agreed in front of witnesses to take one punch, undefended, from the other guy. Kreugas went first, planting one on Damoxenos' face. Then it was Damoxenos' turn:

Damoxenos told Kreugas to lift his arm and, when Kreugas had done so, Damoxenos struck him under the ribs with his fingers straight out. The combination of his sharp fingernails and the force of his blow drove his hand into Kreugas' guts. He grabbed Kreugas' intestines and tore them out and Kreugas died on the spot.

The judges found, posthumously, for Kreugas, and expelled Damoxenos from the Olympics. Their ruling, so clever it was almost Talmudic, was that each of Damoxenos' fingers had delivered a separate punch, and so he had violated the agreement. I'm not sure about the reasoning there, but I'm with them anyway. To have ruled otherwise just wouldn't have been sporting.

Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture and assistant website editor for The American Spectator.

Related Elsewhere:

Also posted today is the Books & Culture Corner midyear books roundup.

Ancient Greek Athletics and Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources are available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

Books & Culture Corner appears every Tuesday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

Rediscovering 'Husbandry' | What Colonial farmers have to teach us about living with the land. (Aug. 03, 2004)
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