Sports in Classical Antiquity

In today’s world, we enjoy making fun of barbaric Roman gladiator battles and laughing at the naked statues of Ancient Greek athletes. In terms of historical accuracy, these two examples are pretty truthful. In terms of self reflection, however, we might find these examples uncomfortably familiar. To better understand this and inflict insecurity in your faith for modern society, we will be looking at the culture and customs surrounding sports in Classical antiquity.

In brief, we have shaky evidence of sports among hunter-gatherers dating back to around 7000 BCE. Strength, speed, and finesse were all mandatory for these people’s lives, so it seems reasonable that cultures around the world would ritualize these behaviors even when they transitioned to agricultural societies. The first explicit evidence of these ritualized behaviors comes from the ~800 BCE Greek epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. Ancient Greeks formalized athletic competitions, most famously in the Ancient Olympic Games. The next notable society to do so were the ancient Romans. Of course, everybody knows about their chariot races and gladiator fights; however, to truly understand the two civilizations’ sports, we must dive much deeper into their history and culture.

In Ancient Greece, sports were both very familiar and different to us in many ways. In modern times, athletes of any social background can make their impact on the world stage. For Ancient Greeks though, this was almost completely the opposite. Only aristocrats and those well-off were able to compete in events such as the Olympic Games. They did so in order to show off their abilities, kind of like a businessman playing golf with his friends. However, aristocrats also competed in sports to achieve glory. In Ancient Greece, attaining glory or honor was the ultimate goal for any man. The only way to achieve maximum glory was through dying in combat or winning in sports. So, for Ancient Greeks, athletic competitions might have been just a little bit more important.

As stressful as sports were back in Ancient Greece though, winning came with more than just ultimate, divine, everlasting, ultra-masculine honor. Even though winning the Ancient Olympic Games, the best of all the Ancient Greek events, only was awarded with a crown made of some leaves, athletes’ hometowns would still shower them in gifts and money for bringing fame. That’s not even considering some events like the Panathenaic Games, which directly handed out huge prizes for winning. Furthermore, the best athletes became the equivalent of modern-day celebrities. They were admired by and probably lusted after by almost everyone. Those Ancient Greek statues were made in their images since sculptors considered their bodies to be the peak of physical appearance. However, some people thought that the superstar athletes misrepresented Ancient Greek ideals. These were mainly intellectuals like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates who believed that athleticism should only be a part of a good citizen. Regardless, athletes still had it pretty good. The same can not be said for Rome.

Of course, an unsuccessful gladiator would definitely not be having it pretty good (because they would be dead), but even the most famous gladiators were not considered Roman citizens and in fact were on par with slaves. Furthermore, unlike the recognition and somewhat pricelessness of Ancient Greek athletes, new gladiators could easily be churned out through Rome’s extensive collection of slaves, criminals, and captured foreigners. Seeing as they were likely a slave, the very best case scenario of becoming a highly “paid” gladiator would actually just be their master pocketing most of their money. Still though, successful gladiators were hugely popular among Ancient Romans, even with graffiti of the biggest names found in places such as Pompeii. 

In conclusion, it’s probably not wise to caricature the unusual practices of the Greeks and Romans. Although the physical idolization of Ancient Greek athletes doesn’t exist as much nowadays, our focus and admiration for modern athletes has not diminished. Although we don’t kill people for fun like the Ancient Romans, we still enjoy grown men boxing each other and cheer on football players as they sustain countless concussions and injuries. Perhaps we should analyze our own traditions more thoroughly before judging those of the past.

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