The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles that opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of the body in different civilisations, cultures, and societies.
This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work since the visual, performative, and literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both the mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.
The series is divided into the following chapters:
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of the Greek Bronze Age
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Archaic Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Classical Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Hellenistic Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of Late Antiquity
Perception of the Athletic Body in Classical Athens
Sports played a significant role in the life of classical Athens. Athens, for its part, had a strong cultural and political influence on the entire Hellenistic world in the 5th-4th centuries BCE and is often considered an exemplary state when studying the Greek culture of the period (Murray, 2002). It was a major center of creation and spread of artworks, inter alia, related to sports. Thus, the material evidence of the importance of athletic culture was a vast corpus of objects connected with sports competitions: prizes, dedications, and sculptural and vase-painted images of athletes. Many references to sports and athletes can be also found in the literary sources of the classical period. Furthermore, the culture of that time assumed the obligatory maintenance of the body in an athletic shape for the citizens, since athleticism was believed to be a visual demonstration of qualities such as strength of character and discipline (Papakonstantinou, 2012).
Black-figured Panathenaic amphora with runners (fragment), 333-332 BCE. [Clay]
Among researchers of ancient Greece, there is an opinion that the cult of sports replaced the earlier hero cult and adopted some of the characteristics of the latter (Murray, 2013). One can draw a parallel between the poetic dedications to the athletes of the classical period and Homeric epic poetry. Here is a fragment from the ninth Olympian ode by the Theban poet Pindar praising Epharmostus, a victor in a wrestling competition:
That which is inborn is always the best; but many men strive to win glory with excellence that comes from training. Anything in which a god has no part is none the worse for being quelled in silence. For some roads lead farther than others, and a single occupation will not nourish us all. The paths to skill are steep; but, while offering this prize of song, boldly shout aloud that this man, by the blessing of the gods, was born with deftness of hand and litheness of limb, and with valor in his eyes; and at the banquet of Aias son of Oileus he laid his victorious garland on the altar. (100-110)
The above text demonstrates the poet’s and, arguably, a common ancient Greek’s perception of outstanding achievements in sports, not only as the results of the hard work and dedication of an athlete but also as the special favour of the gods. An earlier, preclassical Greek, epic literary tradition treats heroes as gifted by gods in a very similar way (Van der Mije, 1987). There are also many tombs with artworks and objects dedicated to sports datable to the Classical period (Kajava & Salminen, 2018). It is unclear in most cases whether the buried were athletes, but the existence of such tombs makes the traditional connection of the sports culture to the hero cult seem significantly stronger.
Athletes were training naked in gymnasiums (from the Greek gymnos – naked). Otherwise, nudity was not natural for everyday life in ancient Greece, especially in cases where it was assumed that men and women met in the same space. Thus, sports and nudity were elements of the male culture, which partly explains the focus of ancient Greek art on the naked male body (Jenkins, 2015). Given the above-mentioned continuity of the cult of sports with the hero cult, the question arises of the artistic inter-influence, since the heroes of antiquity in the classical tradition were often depicted naked. Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator of ancient Greek collections at the British Museum, however, connects this tradition with the general anthropocentric nature of both the artistic and religious culture of ancient Greece, which was deifying the ideal body (2015).
Black-figured Panathenaic amphora with racing hoplites, 490-480 BCE. [Clay]
The popularity of the Panathenaic Games, which brought together athletes and spectators from all over the Greek world in Attica, as well as the development of ceramic craftsmanship in classical Athens, contributed to the wide distribution of a special type of prize vases - Panathenaic amphorae. On one side of the amphorae, the patroness of the games, the goddess Athena, was traditionally depicted. On the other side, a sport in which a vase was awarded to the winner of the competition was depicted. This large group of surviving pottery demonstrates the development of the vase-painting technique of capturing an athletic body in motion. The evolution of the skill of Attic artists, who achieved freedom in depicting the anatomical accuracy of body movement in a relatively short time, was not only the result of the mass production of amphorae. The vase painters seemingly approached the task thoroughly, with a great research interest, given that, according to available sources, the content of the prize amphorae (usually olive oil) was significantly more expensive than the vessels themselves (Petrakova, 2012).
The development of the sculpture of the classical period is also connected with the study of the athletic body in motion. One of the pioneers of the dynamic representation of the body was the Athenian sculptor Myron, whose Discobolus was a breakthrough in the pictorial tradition of ancient Greece (Boardman, 1993). “Myron appears to have been the first to give a varied development to the art, having made a greater number of designs than Polycletus, and showed more attention to symmetry”, says Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (34.19). Despite the continuing prevalence of symmetry over naturalness, the pose of the Discobolus is charged with the tension of the upcoming throw. The sculptor demonstrates great attention to anatomical detail, redistributing the tension of the expressed muscles in accordance with the movement being made by the model.
Roman copy of Myron’s Discobolus, 2nd century CE. [Marble]
Research, conducted by Caitlan Smith, a scholar at The University of Western Australia, who dedicated numerous papers to the issue, shows that not only did sculptors starting from the classical period scrutinized anatomical details of the models, but that there was a difference in depicting the bodies of athletes representing different kinds of sports (Smith, 2020). The various types of training had different impacts on the muscular structures of the athletes, and it would require a great amount of interest and knowledge to depict those differences. The very characteristic of the whole ancient Greek culture contradiction is raised by the dissonance indicated in the same research: the athletic body in classical Greek art was still idealized, though the ideal was achievable since it could be studied by the artists (Smith, 2020). This organic coexistence of the otherwise rather juxtaposed concepts of idealization and realism in the culture of classical Athens is even better illustrated by the evidence in comedy and medical literature where the overtrained athletic body could be depicted as too demanding of nutrition and muscularly disfigured (Papakonstantinou, 2012).
Thus, the athletic body in classical Athens was both a source of admiration and inspiration, as the closest to the idealistic godly image, and an object of sometimes quite impartial study. Successful athletes seemed like the ones favored by deities, enjoyed inclusive respect, and were subjects of artworks and poetry. Nevertheless, this allocation of athletes into a separate class, somehow better than ordinary humans, together with a thorough and distant study of their bodies created an almost mythical, and therefore nonhuman image about them in the classical art and literature, which was partially corrected by the sporadic realistic treatment of the issue.
Boardman, J. (Ed.). (1993). The Oxford history of classical art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, I. (2015). Defining beauty: The body in ancient Greek art. London: British Museum Press.
Kajava, M.; Salminen, E. M. (2018). Greek Inscribed Discs: Athletes, Dedications and Tombstones. In A. Kavoulaki (Ed.), Πλειών: Papers in Memory of Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Ariadne Supplement 1, 295-338. Retrieved from Academia: https://www.academia.edu/6090188/Greek_Inscribed_Discs_Athletes_Dedications_and_Tombstones
Murray, O. (2002). Life and society in Classical Greece. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin & O. Murray (Eds.), The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic world (pp. 240-276). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Murray, S. (2013). The role of religion in Greek sport. In P. Christesen & D. G. Kyle (Eds.), A companion to sport and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity (pp. 309-319). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118609965.ch20
Papakonstantinou, Z. (2012). The Athletic Body in Classical Athens: Literary and Historical Perspectives. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 29(12), 1657–1668. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2012.714929
Petrakova, A.E. (2012). Metodologiya kompleksnogo iskusstvovedcheskogo issledovaniya afinskoy vazopisi: teoriya i praktika na primere kollektsii Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha [Methodology of complex art analysis of the Athenian pottery: theory and practice on the example of the State Hermitage collection] (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Dissercat: https://www.dissercat.com/content/metodologiya-kompleksnogo-iskusstvovedcheskogo-issledovaniya-afinskoi-vazopisi-teoriya-i-pra/read
Pindar. (1990). Odes. D. A. Svarlien (trans., ed.). Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0033.tlg001.perseus-eng1:9
Pliny the Elder. (1855). The Natural History. J. Bostock, H.T. Riley & K.F.T. Maynhoff (eds., trans.). Retrieved from Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=34:chapter=19&highlight=discobolus#note79
Smith, C. (2020). Achieving the Unachievable: the Male Athletic in Hellenistic and Roman Art. Paper presented at The Australasian Society for Classical Studies Annual Conference, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Van der Mije, S.R. (1987). Achilles’ God-Given Strength. Iliad A 178 and Gifts from the Gods in Homer. Mnemosyne, 40(3/4), 241–267. Retrieved from JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4431639
Black-figured Panathenaic amphora with racing hoplites, 490-480 BCE, Attica, Greece. Clay. The British Museum, London, UK. Retrieved from: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/1385212001
Black-figured Panathenaic amphora with wrestlers and a judge (fragment), 333-332 BCE, Attica, Greece. Clay. The British Museum, London, UK. Retrieved from: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/1613209026
Roman copy of Myron’s Discobolus, 2nd century CE. Marble. The British Museum, London, UK. Retrieved from: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/396999001