In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sport

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • History of Scholarship on Greek Sport
  • Greek Sport in the Bronze Age
  • Sport in the Homeric Epics
  • Olympia and the Olympics
  • Other Periodos Games and Their Sites
  • Epinician Poetry
  • Athletes
  • Athletic Facilities
  • Social Aspects of Greek Sport
  • Sport and Women
  • Greek Sport, War, and Politics
  • Sport in Greek and Roman Literature
  • Sport in Etruria
  • Greek Athletics in Rome and the Roman World (Except Eastern Provinces)
  • Roman Chariot Racing
  • Chariot Racing in the Late Antique and Byzantine World

Classics Sport
Zinon Papakonstantinou
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0118


Sport was practiced in ancient Greece since at least the Bronze Age; however, athletic activities are not extensively documented before the Archaic period. In the Homeric epics, competition in a number of events (including running, discus, jumping, and chariot racing) is presented primarily as an elite activity that is integrated in the network of the Homeric aristocratic ethos of masculine valor and peer interaction. Archaeological, literary, and epigraphic evidence unequivocally suggests the rapid growth and popularity of competitive sport in the centuries that followed. By the mid-6th century BCE the periodos circuit of Panhellenic athletic games, which were integrated in the celebration of major religious festivals in interstate sanctuaries, was firmly established. City-states almost invariably hosted their own athletic competitions. At the same time, a culture of athletic training in the gymnasia of Greek communities emerged and flourished. Such training was conducted as part of preparation for competitions or in the context of a regime of intellectual and military education of youths, or both. The model outlined above (competitive athletics in Panhellenic and local festivals; gymnasium-centered physical training) was largely adopted by cities in the eastern Mediterranean region following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the creation of Hellenistic empires, and it remained the order of the day in much of the Roman-controlled, Greek-speaking East. As far as the Roman world is concerned, there is some evidence for the relative popularity of Greek-style athletics in Archaic Etruria. Moreover, there were some attempts to establish Greek-style agones in the city of Rome and other parts of the Roman state. But ultimately, the sporting preferences of the Romans as well as of the inhabitants of most of the Roman-controlled West lay in arena spectacles and chariot racing in the hippodrome. Arena spectacles eventually spread in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire as well and coexisted with traditional Greek athletic competitions and the gymnasium culture. The bibliography that follows covers all major aspect of Greek-style competitive and civic athletics from the Bronze Age to late Antiquity. For Roman sports, it focuses on chariot racing. It should be noted that Roman chariot racing was in many respects distinctively different from the equestrian competitions conducted in Greek agones. This article also discusses Greek-style athletics conducted in Rome and the Roman provinces. Arena spectacles such as gladiatorial shows and beast hunts are treated in a separate Oxford Bibliographies article.Preference has been given to more recent titles that contain up-to-date references to primary sources and modern literature, but older and still fundamental items are also duly noted.

General Overviews

In recent decades scholars have approached ancient sport as a complex phenomenon that provides a point of entry for understanding central aspects of the Greco-Roman world. Sport was socially embedded and constituted part of pivotal religious and educational institutions; it provided a platform for forging local and wider identities; it served as a token of social differentiation; and it was often abused for ideological and political purposes. For these and many other reasons, the study of athletics holds particular importance for the professional classicist. Moreover, aspects of ancient sport, and especially the Olympics, have traditionally generated considerable interest outside the strict field of classics. As a result, many overviews, such as Decker 1995, Decker and Thuillier 2004, Golden 2004, and Kyle 2007, as well as textbooks such as Miller 2004, are written not merely for specialists but with a wider readership in mind. Ongoing archaeological discoveries and the application of new approaches will surely contribute further to this fast-developing field.

  • Decker, Wolfgang. 1995. Sport in der griechischen Antike: Vom minoischen Wettkampf bis zu den Olympischen Spielen. Munich: Beck.

    Authoritative and richly illustrated synthesis on Greek sport from the Bronze Age until late Antiquity.

  • Decker, Wolfgang, and J. P. Thuillier. 2004. Le sport dans l’antiquité: Égypte, Grèce, Rome. Paris: Picard.

    Up-to-date, extensively illustrated overview of ancient Mediterranean sport. Besides Greece and Rome, it also contains chapters on Egypt and Etruria.

  • Golden, Mark. 2004. Sport in the ancient world from A to Z. London and New York: Routledge.

    Encyclopedia format, concise discussion of the most important aspects of Greco-Roman sport. Includes bibliographical references. Valuable as a quick reference guide.

  • Kyle, Donald G. 2007. Sport and spectacle in the ancient world. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Comprehensive, authoritative, up-to-date survey of Greco-Roman sport. Suitable as an introduction to the subject and a textbook for courses on ancient sport. Bibliography contains mostly English-language titles.

  • Miller, Stephen. 2004. Ancient Greek athletics. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Designed primarily as an undergraduate textbook on ancient Greek sport, it covers a wide range of topics, including the emergence and development of ancient Greek athletic competitions, Greek sport in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, sport and women, sport and politics. Lavishly illustrated.

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