Greek Poetry and Sport: Introduction and Overview

The topic for this volume on Greek poetry and sport was at the suggestion of Gregory Nagy and it arose in part from his and my recent work on sport in Homer. Many studies on Pindar, Homer, and other poets have discussed the specific uses of sport in each context, and studies on Greek sport have acknowledged the ways in which agonistic values and practices have been reflected in poetic literature. A notable book-length exception in recent years is Visa-Ondarçuhu’s treatment of athletes in archaic and classical literature that includes not only Homer, but also Xenophanes, Tyrtaeus, and Euripides, as well as prose authors like Herodotus (Visa-Ondarçuhu 1999). Müller’s 1995 monograph surveyed the criticism of sport in Greece and Rome, including again Xenophanes, Euripides, and other poetic authors. Yet there has been no single collection of studies specifically on this intersection. The result is, we hope, a productive compendium of different perspectives on the question of how Greek poetry and sport interact.
Greek sport has been a major motif in a number of poetic genres:

  1. epic, from Homer to the Shield of Heracles (attributed to Hesiod), Apollonius’ Argonautica, and Nonnus’ Dionysiaka, all notable for descriptions of sport contests;
  2. lyric poetry, notably Xenophanes and Tyrtaeus for social critiques on sport;
  3. epinician poetry (see Mann, Golden, Kyle, Nagy 1981 on Pindar Olympian 1);
  4. pastoral poetry (notably Theocritus’ Idyll 22);
  5. epigrams both in literary collections and on inscriptional sources (Robert 1968 and Nisbet 2003 on Lucillius [age of Nero]; Ebert 1972 on inscriptions);
  6. drama (tragedy, comedy and satyr plays) evidencing allusions, metaphors, and descriptions of gymnic and hippic contests.

The role that episodes of sport play in each genre, indeed in each author, has varied from praise of heroic achievement, as in epic and epinician works, to criticism or lampooning of the social role of athletes in lyric and satyr plays, and also to nuanced assessments of athletes in many of these genres. In each case, the theme serves valuable poetic objectives in narratives where sport is used primarily as a useful metaphor or device for insights into characters. The following is a survey, roughly by genre, with select examples of the uses of sport in poetry, beginning with evidence of the tradition in pre-Greek, Near East poetry and Indian epic, and then sketching its most obvious Greek roots in Homeric epic.

Pre-Greek Poetic Predecessors

Athletic contests were imbedded in the poetry of other early cultures, first notably at Sumer where King Shulgi’s poems boasted of his public feats of athletic strength ca. 2100-200 BCE (Vermaak 1993). The impromptu wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh may be less an athletic match than an impromptu weaponless fight between antagonists, but it should be noted in view of other general parallels between the Mesopotamian epic and Homeric works (e.g. certain parallelism between the Gilgamesh-Enkidu and Achilles-Patroclus relationships; van Nortwick 1996). The great epic of Indic culture, the Mahabharata (9th-4th c. BCE recension of an oral epic) contains two extended descriptions of sports festivals. The first is a display, held at the court of King Dhrtarastra, of the athletic skills of the young men who have just finished their studies, the Pandavas and the king’s own sons (van Buitenen 1973: 1.125-127). The public contests and displays of partisanship heighten the tensions of the feuding families, a central theme of the epic. Later, while the Pandavas are living in Matsya, a festival of Brahma is the occasion of a great wrestling tournament, with thousands gathering from all countries. The myth focuses on the match between the Pandava Bhima and the largest entrant, Jimuta, who is explicitly compared with the demon Vritra slain by the god Indra. The Indic contest thus echoes the cosmic duel of sky god versus dragon, the exact parallel made in the Polydeuces-Amycus boxing match of Apollonius’ Argonautica. Bhima’s victory was so impressive that the king showered him with largess—Bhima is here compared to Kubera, god of wealth—and staged wrestling exhibitions of the hero with “crazed and powerful lions” in the midst of the women’s serail. The focus here is on the quasi-divine stature of this hero and his ability to please the local host. Though festival contests are found among the myths of other cultures, particularly in connection with funeral games, generally they are treated less than challenge- and bride-contest myths (Weiler 1974: 298-302).
The obvious question to ask, not answerable with any certainty, is whether the Sumerian poems or the Indian poems established oral or written precedents for incorporating contests into Greek poetry. The first-person poetic boast of sporting achievement by Shulgi has no precedent in the earliest archaic Greek tradition, though it does have a general resemblance to the later, and much shorter, inscriptional epigrams by Greek victors (Ebert 1972; Remijsen and Scharff, this volume). Gilgamesh’s fight with Enkidu resembles more a labor of Herakles than any athletic event in later poetry. The games within the Mahabharata present closer parallels to those found in Homer and Apollonius in that they offer a lively digression and further the themes of the greater narrative. Though Indic culture is distant enough from that of the Greeks in time and space, it is tempting to posit a possible communality through Indo-European culture, in which poetry’s use of contests to enliven and vary the epic narrative was somehow carried over to the linguistically related Hellenic culture.


The world of Greek heroes, warriors and kings, as presented by epic poetry, was also in part a world of athletes. Public contests figure largely in the funeral games of Iliad 23, as well as in the occasional games of Odyssey 8.97-384 and the ad hoc boxing match of Odyssey 18.66-101. In all cases, the contests reflect the status of the heroes in the greater story, Achilles as a comrade reintegrated and reintegrating others, and Odysseus in disguise as the unexpected victor, prefiguring his vanquishing of the suitors. The games are not, or not most importantly, diversions from the poetic tale, but crucially move the action forward and represent a more controlled context in which heroic honor, but not life and death, is at stake. An athlete’s fame is, however, closely tied to questions of life and death, in the sense that his achievements at least in part constitute his reputation that lives on among family and countrymen. Indeed the funeral games which seem to have been the forum for numerous games in Greek legend and in early history have a double function as an event that gives honor both to the deceased and to the victors at the games (Willis 1941).
Homeric heroes contend in order to be “best”, but they also sometimes display strong respect and affection for one another. Rivalry and friendship can be in tension. In this culture the quality of timē (“honor” or “respect”) is of great social importance, indexed by birth and status, but also by achievement (Perry 2014, 61-4; Christesen 2012 119-34; Scanlon 2002, 9-12). The inherent tension, or eris, “strife,” results in a society being highly driven by the agōn (“contest”) (Hesiod, Works and Days 20-26; Christesen 2012, 122). The heroes struggle not only with the foe in battle, but also with comrades on the playing field in the Funeral Games for Patroclus (Iliad 23). Performances of status are again the rule for the Odyssey, primarily on two occasions, the games held at Phaeacia in honor of the visitor Odysseus (Od. 8.159-85) and the impromptu boxing match back at Ithaca between Odysseus and the resident beggar, Iros (Od. 18.50-116).
In Iliad 23 we can observe distinctions between the status of the game host as opposed to that of the victors. In the context of what seem to be politically neutral funeral games, Achilles famously exercises patronage over Agamemnon and others. Victors are often determined by the sponsor’s view of the seniority, status, and honor of contestants, and often contrary to any strict place of the actual winners. At the end of the chariot race, Achilles awards a special prize to Nestor (Il. 23.618-623). To the wrestlers Odysseus and Ajax, Achilles says, “do not wear yourselves out and get hurt” (Il. 23.735), thus stopping the wrestling before a decisive victory so as to divide the prizes equally. After the footrace, Achilles gives Antilochus an extra prize for complementing the host for his legendary swiftness (Il. 23.795-796). And finally, Achilles gives Agamemnon the prize for javelin throwing simply out of respect for his being “greatest in strength among spear throwers” (Il. 23.891). The bestowing of gifts, particularly the final complement paid to Achilles’ mighty antagonist from the opening of the epic, presents the Greek heroic model for the use of sport sponsorship as a gesture of political patronage (Kitchell 1998; Scott 1997; and Kyle 2015, 56-62).
The Shield of Heracles offers an animated, ecphrastic description of the contests of boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing, all clustered into one section (301-13) of the short narrative poem on the fight between the hero and Cycnus. The poem probably dates to 580-70 (Janko 1986), which makes it exactly contemporaneous with the ‘athletic revolution’ of that period in which the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean festivals were founded (or reorganized). As enthusiasm exploded for the Panhellenic games and sports generally, the Greek polis experienced economic dynamism, and Greek ethnic identity grew stronger. The Shield poem gave an additional poetic link between the contests and the heroic past. It does not allude to any specific festival, but suggests a rather generic festival occasion with men at leisure in noble activities. The combat sports follow a scene of grape harvest for wine and precede a brief scene of hunting hares with hounds (301-4). Then comes an extended scene of chariot racing for the prize of a gold tripod (305-13). This thumbnail sketch of games deliberately evokes the spirit of Iliad 23, especially the chariot race, and of course alludes to the shield of Achilles ecphrasis (18.478-608), yet elaborates on it by adding the contests. Combat sports and chariot races were arguably the highlight of all the Panhellenic games.
There is a distinct intertextuality, if not rivalry, between the contemporary Alexandrian poets, Apollonius and Theocritus, both of whom give prominence to the boxing match between Polydeuces, the Spartan semi-divine hero, son of Zeus and Leda, and the cruel King Amycus of the Bebryces (Visa-Ondarçuhu in this volume). Theocritus Id. 22 can be compared to Apollonius 2.1-97 as follows: in Theocritus the brutish, inhospitable Amycus is battered but alive and surrenders at the end, while Polydeuces makes him swear never to trouble strangers again. In contrast, Apollonius has Polydeuces kill Amycus (Tyrell 2004: 127-33; Miller 2012: 24-36). Apollonius’s contest may be seen as a rematch of the primordial cosmic match between Zeus and Typhoeus: Amycus is said to be “like monstrous offspring of ogre Typhoeus or of Earth herself such as she brought forth formerly in her anger against Zeus,” while Polydeuces is the son of Zeus (Apoll. 2.38-40; cp. Hes. Th. 820-868). Polydeuces’ triumph here stands for the traditional victory of justice against brute violence. Theocritus flourished at Alexandria 270s BCE, Apollonius also at Alexandria about 270-245 BCE. Apollonius offers a shorter and sharper discourse with a fatal ending and Hesiodic resonances. The popularity of this mythical boxing bout, and indeed its poetic comic potential, has an earlier intertextual genealogy, namely Sophocles’ satyr play, Amykos and the comedy of the same name by Epicharmus (fl. 500-475) (García Romero 2005). We may surmise that the popularity of the motif arose from a mixture of the popularity of this combat sport and from the various treatments of the theme of class tension (some boxers may have been lower class, like Epeius in Iliad 23). It also exemplifies a classic case of civilization versus barbarism, but one elaborated in very different treatments by classical dramatists and Alexandrian poets. The adoption of an athletic contest into the pastoral form may seem odd, but it fits perfectly into the essentially agonistic format as elaborated by Theocritus, normally a contest of songs, serious, teasing or polite. The transformation of the agōn to boxing in a rural setting evocative also of epic scenes is a brilliant innovation of Theocritus.
The showcasing of contests in Greek epic ends with a virtually baroque finish in the episodes narrated by Nonnus of Panopolis, Egypt, writing in the fifth century CE. His is the longest single extant poetic work from antiquity, Dionysiaca, an epic on the birth and mythic ventures of Dionysus. There are two swimming contests in the Ampelus-episode (11.1-55 and 11.406-26) that highlight the vine and wine aspects of the work’s titular deity (Kröll 2013). In obvious emulation of Iliad 23, Nonnus showcases the funeral games for Opheltes, companion of Dionysus, coincidentally homonymous with the baby-hero honored at the Nemean Games (Book 37.103-end). The events are very close in format and in order to those of Iliad 23, in which great prominence is allotted to the chariot race, yet Nonnus omits the javelin throw in the following series of events: 1. chariot, 2. boxing, 3. wrestling, 4. footrace, 5. discus, 6. archery, and 7. armed combat (Willis 1941). The poet’s interest in contests seemingly reflects his own poetic ambition to surpass his rivals, most notably Homer. Nonnus’ creation is 48 books long, exactly twice that of Homer’s two works (Newbold 2010).


Tyrtaeus (possibly of Sparta), writing in the mid-seventh century, mentions the athletic skills of wresting and running first in a list of achievements that popularly give honor to men. Tyrtaeus instead contends that these skills should in fact be valued as secondary to courage in battle, i.e. to thymos or psychē displayed in action (fr. 12 West; 9 G.-P.; 9 D). The poem is an admonition to the Spartan hoplite class, and it reinforces existing ideologies for the Spartan state (Mann 2001: 134). It does not invent new values, but establishes a hierarchy that challenges the supremacy of many other personal aspirations of the elite. The poet does not dismiss athletic pursuits, but is against the overrating of agonistic success. Sports victories and military valor are not absolutely antithetical, but exist in a social tension. It is crucial that Tyrtaeus’ caution is voiced during the period of Sparta’s greatest success at the Olympics: some 32 victories in the seventh century (Kyle 2015: 182; Hodkinson 1999: 149-60).
A famous poem (fr. 2 West) of the poet and natural philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-478 BCE) is the earliest extended criticism of athletes, specifically of the honors accorded them. The poet begrudges the prizes given since “it is not right to judge brute strength above noble wisdom [sophiē]” and since an athletic victory does not contribute to law and order [eunomiē] nor to the economy of the polis (Christesen 2012: 140). Pragmatism, utility for the polis, is Xenophanes’ main criterion. What is the sophiē of line 12? Is it insight, or insightfulness, or just poetic craft? Sophiē is, we may posit, insight and poetic craft, working together, one for inner content, the other for poetic expression. Xenophanes contrasts his sophiē with all the strength of men and horses: strength represents bodily skill; sophiē a mental craft that serves eunomiē. This begs the question of whether the body can also serve eunomiē. Other sources, including Homer, imply that an athlete can be useful for the polis by displaying the prowess of the warrior and by acquiring kudos, a point critiqued by Tyrtaeus.
Xenophanes and Tyrtaeus together express criticisms of sport that imply a critique of broader social ideals and priorities, sport being a symptom of widespread ills. In Xenophanes’ case, we may ask, is the criticism of the athlete’s contesting and winning, or of the social importance placed on it by the audience and sponsorship? Is the criticism of Xenophanes actually a democratizing move, to disrupt the patronage of the elite entertaining the dēmos, and making the dēmos more aware of the need for political engagement? Or are Xenophanes’ elegies a prod to the elite to step up and become engaged in the polis, rather than step into the stadium and waste energies and money? Whatever the motives of these two critical poets, we can conclude that the period when they wrote was the period in which an athletic revolution occurred, culminating in the establishment of the Pythian, Isthmian, Nemean and Panathenaic festivals in the early sixth century. Hence the second half of the seventh century at Sparta and elsewhere saw a burgeoning new interest in athletic participation, a somewhat spontaneous cultural movement afforded by rising economic prosperity. These critical poets were voicing caution lest the movement weaken or displace the traditional polis centered concerns of military might and good civic order. The serious criticisms by poets give way after Xenophanes to new poetic lampoons and satires on aspects of the ‘race of athletes,’ as we will see under the genre of drama.


The majority of victor epigrams are known through inscriptions (some collected in Ebert 1972). The more notable of these were, however, copied and repeated in literary works. These can be found in particular in the Greek Anthology and in Pausanias. Mann (2001: 54 n. 139) cites twenty-five Anthology poems, excluding for his study those that, in his estimate, date from the Roman and Byzantine eras. It is generally difficult to date these poems. We have three fragments of poems by Callimachus in honor of equestrian and athletic victors that bridge the genres of epigram and epinician: they are in elegiac meter but longer than most elegies, and one for Queen Berenike II’s chariot victory at Nemea even calls itself an epinikion (Golden 1998: 86-7). It is noteworthy that Callimachus worked under the patronage of the courts of the Ptolemies; his poems reinforce the hierarchy of the royal victors just as Pindar’s odes could reinforce the ideology of kingship when Pindar composed for tyrants. Poetry adapts to politics (Golden 1998: 87).
The 112 epigrams by Posidippus (fl. c. 284-250), newly discovered and published in 2001, include a series of eighteen “equestrian poems,” hippika, on the topics of victories in chariot and horse races (Dickie 2008; Golden 2008; Gutzwiller, ed. 2004; Bastianini et al. 2001). These also fall into the orbit of the Ptolemaic appropriation of Greek sports for Panhellenic political validation. Fantuzzi has convincingly argued that Posidippus’ hippika validates the Macedonian origins of the Ptolemies and shows how their participation in the Panhellenic athletic contests sought to demonstrate that they were the heirs of Alexander the Great (Fantuzzi in Gutzwiller 2005).


Classical Greek drama abounds in athletic vocabulary, metaphors, and descriptions. There is by no means a self-evident answer to what König refers to as “the problem of why tragedy and comedy were so attracted to athletic metaphor” (König 2002: 190). But it is certain that athletics were a popular cultural phenomenon in the fifth-century, and one with dramatic performances that offer rich poetic potential. Sport is also a highly flexible referent, the precise use of which in any given dramatic context can be turned to meet the needs of the dramatist. It included issues of class, of striving to succeed, of employing tricks in wrestling, etc.; wrestling and footraces were the favorite topics of dramatic metaphor (Pritchard 2012: 123; Poliakoff 1982).
With a larger scope, Larmour (1999) studies Greek tragedy, and the attraction of drama to sport presumably arises at least because of “the plays’ interest in overlaps and disjunctions between heroic and contemporary models of individual virtue, an interest which athletic commemoration sometimes shares; and in the status of athletics and drama as rival claimants for public attention, with their rival visions of the most edifying way to represent the experiences of struggle from which human life can never escape” (in the words of the review by König 2002: 190). Larmour discusses broadly the relation of tragedy to athletics, in regard to their similar function in public festivals and the aspects of dramatic performance which drama shares with sport, most obviously the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to proclaim.
Pritchard (2012: 120-30) reviews the tragedians’ use of sport in their drama generally to convey metaphors for other aspects of life and to uphold athletics generally as laudable activity for heroes. His point is to show that there was not an elite disdain for athletes among the Athenian dēmos. There was, it seems, a unifying democratic dimension to the use of sport in tragedy.
Sophocles offers perhaps the most famous extended narrative of a festival contest, the chariot race at Delphi at which Orestes supposedly died (Electra 680-756; Miller 2012: 54-55). The anachronism may be striking given the supposed (re)organization of the Pythian games in the early sixth century, but the contemporary audience will have believed that these games go back to legendary times. Moreover, the extended passage serves to enliven the drama but also to convince Electra of the heroic pathos of her brother’s death (Grote 1997; West 2012). And there is in Sophocles’ choice definite intertextuality with the near crash in Iliad 23. Finally the fact that the whole passage is a deception speech must have made the audience feel like they were privy to and could even smile at the ruse. Tales of athletic prowess were doubtless often hyperbolized, but this scene presents an original and effective narrative motive for the embellishment.
The popularity of sport made it a fertile topic for references also in comedy. Aristophanes’ Clouds (1-118), for instance, expounds on Greek hippomania (Miller 2012: 50-53). An exchange in Aristophanes’ Frogs (1087-98) has Aeschylus complaining that there are bureaucrats cheating the people and “there’s no one able to carry the torch [in the race of the Panathenaia] anymore because of lack of training [agymnasias],” to which Dionysus replies:

No by god no longer, so that I withered
from laughing at the Panathenaia when
some guy ran slowly, bent over
pale, drunk, left behind
and doing miserably: then the people at the Ceramicus
at the gates struck him
in the stomach, ribs, sides and butt.
After he was beaten by their hands,
he broke wind slightly,
blew out the torch, and fled.

The poet makes the point that general societal decline, politically and individually, is reflected in the lack of fitness at a sacred festival, to a degree that prompts derision and merits disgrace. Pritchard (2012: 116-8) reads the general critique of the new gymnastic education as a falsifying joke to which the audience was privy, and not a bonafide attack. The view here is that the criticism was widespread enough in comedy and satyr plays that there had to be some truth for it to be humorous, and that the audience was a bit skeptical of the new ways of gymnasia in the time of the sophists.

Satyr plays find even more opportunity for exploitation of the comic potential of bawdy athletes, as evidenced by a whole series of satyr plays featuring athletes (Pritchard 2012; 139-63; Sutton 1980). The discipline and aretē demanded of ideal athletes may seem antithetical to the drunkenness and woman chasing of satyrs, but those qualities were not uncommonly displayed by athletes in reality. It is not coincidental that the hard-drinking, womanizing hero Heracles was simultaneously widely worshipped in gymnasia and was a legendary founder of the Olympics.
The most famous illustration of the role of athletes in the mostly non-extant satyr dramas is Euripides fragment 282 (Snell, Kannicht and Radt), a quote from the Autolycus (ca. 420 BCE; Miller 2012: 183 no. 230; Pritchard 2012: 152-6; Mann 2001: 113-7). The lines, supposedly spoken by the antagonist Autolycus, refer to the “race of athletes” as the “greatest evil” in Greece, since athletes do not live properly, overeat, are worn out in old age, and do not serve the city. The intertextuality with Xenophon is patent (as Athenaeus [413c] observed), and the critique of skills useless in wars recalls Tyrtaeus’ poem. But again Pritchard reads the Autolycus fragment against the grain, seeing it as a critique which the audience would find ludicrous. But the centuries old persistence of the characterization argues otherwise. We may first think of Autolycus the grandfather of Odysseus and the best thief among mortals. But there was in fact a contemporary historical namesake, an apparently beautiful young pancratiast, Autolycus, son of Lykon, who won the pancration for boys in the Panathenaia of 422 BCE (Kyle 1987: 198 no. A12). A symposium was then given in the victor’s honor by his lover, Callias III, the Athenian silver-mine millionaire; the party is immortalized in Xenophon’s Symposium (Ath. 212d-e; Xen. Symp. 1.2, 8-9). Autolycus had a statue placed in the Prytaneion (Paus. 1.18.3), an unusually high honor for a Panathenaic victor, perhaps lending to his being lampooned in Euripides’ play. Yet the events around the historical athlete Autolycus do not argue for dismissal of the critique in the fragment, only for an ironic understanding that the stereotype is delivered by the namesake of a famous athlete of mixed repute.


Epinicia, which were originally called enkōmia in the pre-Hellenistic era, first appear with Ibykos, in mid-sixth century, thus simultaneous with the upswing in Greek agonistic festivals in that period (Nagy’s article, this collection; Rawles 2012; enkōmia: Pindar Olympian 2.47). The poems of Pindar, and some of Bacchylides, and even fewer of Simonides are our extant examples. The real high point of epinikia is from the late sixth to mid-fifth centuries, ending with Euripides’ song for Alcibiades’ victory in 416 (Mann 2001: 41-2). Pre-game commissions were possible esp. for very wealthy chariot victors, less so for the non-elite, the less confident, and the less powerful. It may be that the poets made known their availability to all competitors who had the wealth and a decent chance. The actual poem would presumably then have been commissioned right after the victory, and completed within a week or two. The actual performance and reception of the victor at his polis could have been scheduled a month or more after the games. Travel and the training of singers, etc. had to be allowed for (Eckerman 2012). Kurke sees the epinikia as systems of exchange of symbolic capital, between victor and oikos, victor and a society of noble gift-exchange, and between victor and polis (Kurke 1991). Nagy has argued for its links to praise including “a discourse that claims authority to possess and control the epic of heroes” in Herodotus, and to a Panhellenizing aspect of poetry that carries on Homeric tradition (Nagy 1990: quote from 215).
Pindar [518-c. 446 BCE] does not represent the old noble ethic, nor does he operate in an aesthetic vacuum, but his odes reflect the new social situation into which the individual has arrived through socio-political changes in consequence of the rise of the polis. Mann (2001: 48-9) does not assume a model of a unified polis behind the odes, but rather seeks to work out the characteristics of the description of the victor and his polis, and is concerned with the particular system and role of agonistics in individual states.
Kyle (2015:194-7) comments on the financial gain by poets: Simonides (fl. c. 514-479 BCE) first refused, but then, when the fee was raised, accepted the commission for a victory ode for a mule-cart race (Aristotle Rh. 3.2.14(1405b)). Aristophanes lampoons a Pindar-like poet who seeks commissions and must be bribed to go away (Birds 905-57; Miller 2012: 197-8). For Bacchylides of Ceos (c. 520-450 BCE, fl. 490-450), we have three odes extant celebrating the chariot victories of Hieron of Syracuse at Olympia and Delphi. Like Pindar, Bacchylides was a client of Hieron and visitor to Syracuse. But he also wrote for athletes from his native Ceos, and from Aegina, Phlius, Metapontum and Thessaly.

Contributions to this Volume

The following are brief abstracts of the contributions of each author, highlighting and adding some comments that occur to the editor.
Gregory Nagy, “Athletic Contests in Contexts of Epic and Other Related Archaic Texts”: The ritual ordeal of the athlete re-enacts the ordeals of the warrior, and, like heroic deeds, athletic activity compensates for the athlete’s mortality as the athlete figuratively dies a ritual death in recurrent festivals. The origin of athletics is related both to initiation and to funeral games; real or symbolic death and rebirth is common to both activities.
Epinician songs refer to those done “in compensation for” (epi) the ordeal involved in winning the victory. He defines the songs as follows: “an epinician song compensates for the competition of the athlete whose competitive ordeal leads to victory, just as the ordeal of the athlete compensates for the prototypical ordeal of the hero as he struggles to achieve victory over death itself.” Epinician songs also in a sense depict the community’s welfare as being contingent on the reciprocity of aristocratic exchange. Moreover the epinician is described by Pindar as a prototypical song of the heroic era related also to revelry (hence epikōmios humnos). The non-recurrent agōn occurs in Homeric epic, including gymnic and musikos events, the latter possibly including recitation of Homeric epic and hymns, as at the Delia festival on Delos. Later seasonally recurring festivals became the dominant form. The Panathenaia features the “art of the Muses” among its events, namely rhapsodic contests in the reading of Homer. The apobatēs event in the Panathenaia serves as an evocative link between Homeric heroes in combat and the contestants in armor jumping from chariots in the Athenian games.
Thomas Scanlon, “Homer and the Olympics”: Scanlon investigates how one Homeric passage, Iliad 11.689-702, is the only arguable allusion to the Olympics in Homer. This passage and contemporary images of heroic athletics in Greek art provide clues to when and how heroic poetry boosted the prestige of the Olympics. Finally, he briefly surveys the seventh to fifth century receptions of the Homeric and heroic traditions in athletics as evidenced in literature, art, and archaeology. He concludes that sports in many cultures provide a public arena for re-enactment of heroic or mythic aetiologies.
Christopher Eckerman, “Behind the Camera: Athletes and Spatial Dynamics in Pindar’s Olympian One”: Eckerman studies how geography plays a particularly meaningful role in Olympian 1. He considers how mythical geographies relate to real-world geographies, and how Pindar develops meaningful spatial connections throughout his odes in the interest of his patrons. Olympian 1 creates a spatial dialogue, as Pindar develops quasi-cinematic ‘shots’ that focus the mind’s eye on several symbolic places (Olympia, Syracuse, Sipylus, and “heaven”) that are important to both Hieron and Pelops.
Nigel Nicholson, “The Athlete’s Body and the Rhetoric of Injury”: Nicholson observes the anomaly by which surviving vase paintings, statues, poetry (including epic and epinician), and literary accounts of athletes do not reveal or narrate lasting injuries, unless the injury results in death. He sees this as part of an aristocratic cultural ‘code’ derived in part from Homeric epic, in which also warriors are wounded and then die or recover remarkably quickly. The code is established on the premises that a good athlete resembles a good warrior, that a good athlete is a good leader, and that excellence as an athlete is innate and divinely sanctioned. Silence on the surviving wounded warrior serves artistic goals of a rapid narrative, a different world context, and the superiority of the hero.
Patrick O’Sullivan, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, “Pindar and the Poetics of the Athlete”: O’Sullivan’s piece discusses Pindar’s habit of uniting himself with his patrons as men who have much the same distinctive intellectual and ethical qualities. Pindar claims for both himself and the victorious athlete, (as well as the athlete’s clan and even sometimes his entire polis) a natural inborn wisdom or skill (sophia), a generosity of spirit, a moderation and modesty, as well as a capacity for endurance and hard work (ponos)—with this last feature in particular recalling the heroes of Homeric epic. Pindar’s emphasis on the intellectual and ethical qualities of athletes not only goes further than what one finds in the albeit fewer odes we have of Bacchylides, but also counters the thematic criticisms of athletes in works by Xenophanes, Euripides and later authors, whereby athletes are consistently denounced for their supposed stupidity, social uselessness, laziness and over-indulgence by the state. By contrast, Pindar’s celebration of the intellectual and ethical qualities of athletes can often be seen as a celebration of himself as poet, and can even be seen to anticipate appropriations of athletic imagery by Plato and the sophists, as well as looking ahead to developments in ancient literary criticism.
Emily Kratzer, “Mortality is Hard to Wrestle With: Cosmology and Combat Sports in the Alcestis”: Kratzer points up the use of the combat sports wrestling and pancration as crucial motifs that guide the dramatic struggles of the protagonists against the forces of Fate, Death, Grief, and Necessity. The Alcestis features two scenes in which wrestling plays a crucial role. One is metaphorical, at the beginning, in which Apollo is constrained by the Anagkē of Zeus but then “trips up” the Moirai (33-4), and one is the narrative of Heracles’ actual wrestling with Death toward the end of the action (840–857). The fact that the Alcestis is a ‘pro-satyr’ play, i.e. one written to be performed in place of the traditional satyr drama, makes the work particularly effective in the hybrid function of the work. Like tragedy, it illustrates both a series of troubling, unpleasant paradoxes, and, in the satyr-play mode, it presents a struggle in which death remains serious, but can be manipulated if you play be the rules.
Valérie Visa-Ondarçuhu, “Le héros nu: Jason à l’épreuve ou les souvenirs athlétiques d’Achille et d’Ulysse dans les Argonautiques“: The only explicitly athletic contest in the Argonautica is the boxing match of Polydeuces (Pollux) and Amycus, which begs the question of why Jason is not given an explicit athletic identity in line with Homeric heroes. Visa-Ondarçuhu uncovers a rich network of models, metaphors and references which give force to the athletic image of Jason, and in particular explain his being described as “naked” when he performs the assigned labors in the plain of Ares. Polydeuces’ boxing victory serves as foregrounding for Jason’s labors, but other images serve to reinforce the athleticism of one technically not competing. Achilles does not compete in Iliad 23, and Odysseus does so only reluctantly in Odyssey 8. Athletic contests are otherwise artfully alluded to in Argonautika, e.g. an ecphrasis on Jason’s cloak recalls Pelops’ abduction of Hippodameia in the Ur-Olympic games, and is a poignant intertext with Jason’s abduction of Medea. In other passages, Medea is interestingly compared with a judge at the aethlos of Jason’s labors, or with his trainer prescribing the annointing of his naked body before the event. Jason is assimilated to Odysseus but contrasted to Heracles in his labors, but does in any case follow the poetic models of Homer, Pindar, Euripides, and others in this stimulating study.
Charles Stocking, “Ages of Athletes: Generational Decline in Philostratus’ Gymnasticus and Archaic Greek Poetry”: Stocking addresses the intertextuality of Philostratus’ Gymnasticus with the construction of time in Archaic Greek poetry, especially that of Hesiod’s myth of the races of man in Works and Days 106–201. The originality of Philostratus’ approach is to integrate the categories of physis and technē. This technique of using temporal comparisons to resolve or compare athletic performance seems to be used consistently across different periods from Homer to the present.
Sofie Remijsen and Sebastian Scharff, “The Expression of Identities in Hellenistic Victor Epigrams”: This paper aims to analyze whether and how the victors of athletic or equestrian contests express a sense of belonging to the Greek world, kingdoms, regions and poleis in the Hellenistic victor epigrams they commissioned to advertise their success. Some competitors might understand themselves as belonging to a more local or a super-local community, rather than to the polis of their strict citizen membership. The expression of local affiliation in epigrams is worth studying as evidence of contemporary political or cultural allegiances, e.g. in Olympic contests, identifying oneself as “Thessalian” rather than as a citizen of a specific polis in that area in view of a tradition of hippic victors from that region; or the victors from the Ptolemaic family eschewing a connection with Greece and favoring identification with the more regally connected Macedonia. In the Hellenistic period, a victor’s regional community was stressed more than his local polis in the victory epigram.

Some Themes of the Contributions

We attempted to solicit a range of contributors who would represent a diversity of genres, periods and approaches. But contributors were not given any special restrictions on their topics, except to write on some aspect of Greek poetry and sport. Despite this lack of prescribed topics, there is first a good spread of genres covered, indeed, we should say studies that cut across strict genres; secondly there are several threads that unite some studies with one another. The use and ritual incorporation of the hero is taken as a shared concern from very different approaches in Nagy, more centrally on Pindar, and Scanlon, looking at Homer and the Olympic ritual. Geographical space as a feature of poetry is a concern of both Eckerman (in Pindar) and Remijsen-Scharff (in epigrams). Rich intertextuality and the use of athletic metaphor to advance themes and connect with earlier epic within an author’s work defines the core contributions of Kratzer on Euripides Alcestis and Visa-Ondarçuhu on Apollonius’ Argonautika. O’Sullivan, Nicholson and Stocking uncover poetically based cultural touch points, O’Sullivan by discussing Pindar’s praise of athletic virtues held in common with the poet, Nicholson from the view of injuries and death in Homer and other sources on Greek sport, and Stocking from a focus on the construction of eras in Philostratus, who reformulates Hesiod’s Five Races of Man.

Poetry in the Grip of Sport, and Vice Versa

No synthetic conclusions are possible regarding the use of sport in Greek poetry, no simple and unifying ways in which poets used it across the centuries. Yet we can make the important observation that athletic and hippic contests exercised a continuous and crucial hold on the imaginations of poets, from Homer to Nonnus, from Tyrtaeus to Lucillius, from the early Archaic Age to the Roman period. And the phenomenon may reach back to pre-Greek poetic expression. Sport was never out of poetic fashion, never so thoroughly worked in metaphor or stock images or contest descriptions that poets avoided that turf. Poetry’s interest in sport survived the rise and fall of genres like epinikia and satyr plays, and the rise and fall of myriad political and cultural changes in the Greek Mediterranean.
What ensured the tenacity of that grip for so long in the Greek poetic traditions, and why across so many forms of poetic expression? We can only postulate several contributing factors:

  • the strength of the Homeric paradigm;
  • popular interest in and the accessibility of sporting metaphors and images;
  • elite participation in sport (not only in hippic events) and the upholding of elite values, primarily enacted excellence, balanced by the approval of the dēmos of those values and the opportunity the non-elite had to participate in quasi-heroic kudos;
  • the concurrent spread of athletic festivals that involved both poetic and dramatic performances and contests, most prominently in the Classical and Hellenistic periods; along with these came the universal spread of gymnasia also mixing training in poetry and in sport;
  • generic, agonistic resonances between poetry and sport, which may be formulated as the innate tension present in both poetic narrative and athletic agōnes.
For these reasons and doubtless enough others to fill a monograph, poetry was captivated by sport and in turn captured it in its own quest for effective expression. The two immense and important fields of Greek culture deserve to be studied in tandem, and it is our hope that the present issue will inform and tantalize readers to continue to study this productive dialectic.


Agócs, P., C. Carey, and R. Rawles, eds. 2012. Reading the Victory Ode. Cambridge.
Bastianini, G., C. Gallazzi and C. Austin. 2001. Posidippo di Pella – Epigrammi (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), Papiri dell’ Univeristà degli Studi di Milano – VIII. Milan.
Buitenen, J. A. B. van. 1973. The Mahabharata. Vol. 1. Chicago.
Christesen, P., and D. G. Kyle. 2014. A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Chichester.
Dickie, M. 2008. “The hippika of Posidippus.” Papers of the Langford Latin Seminar. 13. Hellenistic Greek and Augustan Latin Poetry, Flavian and Post-Flavian Latin Poetry, Greek and Roman Prose (ed. F. Cairns) 13-54. Leeds.
Ebert, J. 1972. Griechische Epigramme auf Sieger in Gymnischen und Hippischen Agonen. Berlin.
Eckerman, C. 2012. “Was Epinician Poetry Performed at Panhellenic Sanctuaries?” GRBS 52:338-360.
Fantuzzi, M. 2005. “Posidippus at Court: the Contribution of the hippika of P. Mil. vogl. VIII 309 to the Ideology of Ptolemaic Kingship.” In Gutzwiller 2005:249-68.
García Romero, F. 2005. “À propos du drame satyrique Amykos de Sophocle et de la comédie Amykos d’Épicharme.” Nikephoros 18:103-113.
Golden, M. 2008. Greek Sport and Social Status. Austin.
Grote, D. 1997. ” On The Pedagogos’s Deception Speech In Sophocles’s Electra.” Electronic Antiquity 3.6. Accessed 7.15.15.
Gutzwiller, K., ed. 2005. The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. Oxford.
Hodkinson, S. 1999. “An Agonistic Culture? Athletic Competition in Archaic and Classical Spartan Society.” Sparta. New Perspectives (eds. S. Hodkinson and A. Powell) 147-187. London.
Janko, R. 1986. “The Shield of Heracles and the Legend of Cycnus.” CQ 36:38–59.
Kitchell, K. 1998. “‘But the Mare I Will Not Give Up’: the Games in Iliad 23.” CB 74:159-171.
König, J. 2002. Review of Larmour 1999 and Visa-Ondarçuhu 1999. JHS 122:189-191.
———. 2005. Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire. Cambridge.
Kröll, N. 2013. “Schwimmen mit Dionysus: Wasser und Badeszenen als Kompositionselemente in den Dionysiaka des Nonnus von Panopolis.” WS 126:67-100.
Kurke, L. 1991. The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Ithaca, NY.
Kyle, D. 2015. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. 2nd ed. Oxford.
———. 1987. Athletics in Ancient Athens. Leiden.
Larmour, D. H. J. 1999. Stage and Stadium. Drama and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Hildesheim.
Mann, C. 2001. Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland. Hypomnemata 138. Göttingen.
Miller, S. G. 2012. Arete. Greek Sports from Ancient Sources. 3rd ed. Forward by P. Christesen. Berkeley.
Müller, S. 1995. Das Volk der Athleten, Untersuchungen zur Ideologie und Kritik des Sports in der griechisch-römischen Antike. Trier.
Nagy, G. 1986. “Pindar’s Olympian 1 and the Aetiology of the Olympic Games.” TAPA 116:71-88.
———. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Posssession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.
Newbold, R. 2010. “Contests, Competitiveness and Achievement in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca.” Scholia 19: 111-25.
Nisbet, G. 2003. Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial’s forgotten Rivals. New York and Oxford.
Perry, T. P. J. 2014. “Sport in the Early Iron Age and Homeric Epic.” In Christesen and Kyle 2014:53-67.
Poliakoff, M. B. 1982. Studies in the Terminology of the Greek Combat Sports. Königstein/Ts.
Pritchard, D. M. 2012. “Athletics in Satyric Drama.” G&R 59:1-16.
Rawles, R. 2012. “Early Epinician: Ibycus and Simonides.” In Agócs et al. 2012:3-27.
Robert, L. 1968. “Les Épigrammes satiriques de Lucillius sur les athletes.” L’Épigramme grecque (ed. A. E. Raubitschek) 179–295. Vandoeuvres-Geneva.
Scanlon, T. F. 2014. Sport in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Vol. 1: Early Greece, The Olympics and Contests. Oxford.
Scott, W. C. 1997. “The Etiquette of Games in Iliad 23.” GRBS 38:213-27.
Sutton, D. F. 1980. The Greek Satyr Play. Meisenheim am Glan.
Tyrell, B. 2004. The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, the Olympics and Culture Chicago.
Van Nortwick, T. 1996. Somewhere I have Never Travelled. Oxford and New York.
Vermaak, P. S. 1993. “Sŭlgi as Sportsman in the Sumerian Self-laudatory Royal Hymns.” Nikephoros 6: 7-21.
Visa-Ondarçuhu, V. 1999. L’image de l’athlete d’Homere a la fin du Ve siecle avant J.-C. Paris.
Weiler, I. 1974. Der Agon im Mythos: Zur Einstellung der Griechen zum Wettkampf. Darmstadt.
West, S. 2012. “African Charioteers: A Note On Sophocles, Electra 701–2.” CQ 62:502-509.
Willis, W. H. 1941. “Athletic Contests in the Epic.” TAPA 72:392–417. Reprinted in Scanlon 2014:60-88.