The Position of the Athlete in the Social Structure of Ancient Greece

Socrates was famous for questions rather than answers. Even his one recorded intervention in Athenian politics was accomplished without a speech or a statement. Socrates was one of five men who were ordered by the Thirty Tyrants to detain Leon of Salamis. The others complied, and Leon was arrested and killed, but Socrates simply went home. He was likely saved from death only by the democratic restoration soon after. We should, therefore, pay all the more attention to what Socrates said on another occasion when his life was on the line, at the end of his trial for corrupting the youth of Athens (among other offences). Found guilty as charged, Socrates faced the death penalty, but had the opportunity of proposing an alternative sentence. He opted (or so Plato says) for the greatest honour the Athenian community could bestow:

>What is a fitting penalty for a poor man who is your benefactor and who needs leisure time for advising you? Nothing is more fitting than free meals for the rest of his life. And he deserves this more than a victor in the two-horse or four-horse chariot race at the Olympic Games. He makes you seem happy, but I make you really happy. And in any case, he does not need free meals, and I do.

This piece of provocation tells us all we need to know about the status of an Olympic victor in classical Athens, and indeed everywhere in the Greek world and at all times. Such a man stood at the furthest extreme from a convicted criminal, from a poor and eccentric criminal in particular. So it was that the wealthy and powerful – kings, tyrants, members of the aristocratic elite – spent enormous sums to raise and buy and race their horses and chariots at Olympia and to pay poets such as Simonides, Bacchylides and Pindar to sing their praises and to commission statues from the leading sculptors of the day. As for athletic victors at Olympia, they earned the same honours Socrates says were given to Athenian equestrians, a lifetime of free meals in the Prytaneion, and also (like them) front-row seats at festivals and even (though this is uncertain) a generous cash bonus; at Sparta, they fought at the side of the kings. Victories at the other Panhellenic games were similarly rewarded at Athens. And while those gained at local festivals might be less prestigious, they were far from negligible nonetheless: likewise commemorated in song and the occasions for statues, they were enumerated in numbing detail in ever-longer inscriptions from all over the Greek world up until the end of antiquity. Only political power surpassed success at Greek competitive festivals as a basis for prestige in ancient Greece. And just as the politically powerful believed such success legitimated and enhanced their position, athletic excellence could amount to a claim to political power in itself.

Of course, not every athlete was successful, and none won every time out. Was there a social cachet in participation itself? Pindar writes of three wrestlers who were defeated at the Pythian games at Delphi in the mid fifth century: ‘They ran home to their mothers/They slunk through the back alleys, separately and furtively/painfully stung by their loss.’ This may remind us of Reece Bobby in Talladega Nights: ‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’ There is no credit here for merely taking part. But then Pindar’s main concern is to flatter Aristomenes, for whose glory he writes, and stressing the height to which the wrestler’s win has elevated him serves that strategy. Some later inscriptions do present athletes as having competed worthily, notably, conspicuously, in a manner worthy of victory, at important festivals – but not actually winning. At the same time, Christians and gladiators, men (and women) on the margins of ancient society or mired in its lower depths, seek to represent themselves as athletes. There is nothing like this evidence earlier, and it may be viewed as a sign of a change in attitude, of a new regard for athletic competition itself and for those who practice it.

But we should be cautious about this conclusion: athletic activity was always informed by an elite ethos, even in democratic Athens. The competitive program comprised contests of strength, speed, and skill essentially unchanged from those which engaged Homer’s elite heroes. It was inherited from a milieu in which individual excellence mattered more than cooperation in a group; though tribal competitions involving team events (a boat race, perhaps a tug-of-war) were features of local festivals like Athens’ Panathenaea, they were restricted to citizens alone and never became part of the great Panhellenic festivals. It’s worth adding that most other events reserved for Athenians at the Panathenaea involved horses and that the festival, celebrated though it was in a radical democracy, featured more horse and chariot races than athletic contests. These were of course available only to the rich; and this is probably true, though to a lesser extent, for such team events as the tribal torch races. It is likely that these elite overtones always made competitive activity something to be proud of and display.

Here’s an example: The fourth-century BCE orator and politician, Aeschines, was sensitive about his family background. Demosthenes, his rival, liked to depict Aeschines’ father as a lowly schoolmaster, his mother as the devotee of an outlandish cult, his brother as ‘a painter of alabaster boxes and tambourines.’ Aeschines’ own account admits his father’s poverty, but claims that he had competed as an athlete in his youth. Similarly, his brother is said to have spent his free time in the gymnasium. And Aeschines himself lards his speeches with references to the lifestyle choices of the rich and famous, athletics prominent among them, and with suggestions that he too partakes of such pastimes. These links with athletics are clearly meant to establish Aeschines’ credentials as a member of the elite. He repays Demosthenes in the same coin, denying that his supporters include those who exercise along with him. ‘He hasn’t spent his time hunting wild boars or cultivating bodily vigour, but in hunting down men of property.’ It is left to Plutarch, centuries later, to mount a defence: Demosthenes’ guardians defrauded him of his father’s estate – he was, therefore, too poor to indulge in athletic activities – and he was besides sickly. Certainly ancient athletes made no effort to conceal their activities, readily identifiable as they were from their heavy musculature (there were no weight classes for boxers, wrestlers and pancratiasts , and they gorged themselves on meat to bulk up), their close-cropped hair (wrestlers and pancratiasts didn’t want to give their rivals a grip), their bodily vigour. (Aeschines says that this allowed Athenians to recognize those who exercised even if they didn’t visit the gymnasium themselves.) In later antiquity too, athletes flaunted their status, younger ones sporting the cirrus, the topknot which distinguished them from more experienced competitors.

We may say, then, that competitive success brought both esteem and more tangible rewards and that athletic activity and its trappings were always socially respectable and worth showing off. Athletics could thus enhance the social status of even the elite. Did sport also allow many Greeks of more humble origins to improve their social standing? Here we cannot be so certain.

Plutarch offers the following account of the origins and early career of Eumenes, later secretary to King Philip II of Macedon and ruler of Cappadocia.

>Duris says that the father of Eumenes of Cardia was a poor man who worked as a wagoner in the Thracian Chersonese; nevertheless, Eumenes got a liberal education in literature and athletics. While he was still a boy (Duris goes on), Philip visited and took the time to watch Cardian youths practicing the pankration and boys wrestling. Eumenes was so successful a wrestler and so clearly intelligent and brave that Philip, pleased, had him join his retinue. But I find those who say that Eumenes was favored by Philip on account of friendship with his father to be more plausible.

Two versions. As so often, we cannot say which (if either) is true. It is clear that Duris, a younger fourth-century contemporary of Eumenes, thought it unusual for a poor wagoner’s son to get training in athletics, but that he did not regard this as impossible, and that athletic ability, even among boys, could plausibly catch the eye of a king and lead on to fortune. Yet Plutarch (writing perhaps four hundred years later) is not convinced.

This divergence of opinion neatly mirrors modern debates on the class backgrounds of ancient Greek athletes. Learned and lively books by E.N. Gardiner and H.A. Harris popularized the view that archaic Greek sport was marked by the love of competition for its own sake. The great Panhellenic festivals were the crowning glories of this spirit of amateurism because their well-born winners were satisfied with a wreath as a reward; prizes of value and the predominance of lower-class professionals who wanted to win them were (allegedly) later developments, causes of corruption and symptoms of decline. But this picture was ‘conceived by partisans of the nineteenth-century Anglo-American amateur movement.’

Gardiner, Harris, and the many who followed them supplied ancient precedent to legitimize, consciously or not, the ideology of the modern Olympic Movement, committed from the outset to restricting competition to a leisured elite. We now realize that there were no amateurs in antiquity.

The decline of the ideology of amateurism has thus made it easier to recognize the role that money and other material benefits always played in Greek athletics. But another element of the world conjured up by Gardiner and Harris – the early monopoly of aristocrats and their displacement by poorer competitors – remains controversial. David Young has pressed the case for the involvement of poorer athletes from the earliest days of organized festival competition in Greece, pointing to a cook, a goatherd, and a cowherd among early Olympians. Unfortunately, our information on these athletes usually dates from many years after their deaths, and is seldom self-explanatory. Was Coroebus, the first Olympic victor, a cook or a cult functionary involved in sacrifice? Is the designation influenced by its source, himself a cook in a work of fiction, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae? Certainly the humble but unnamed Olympic victor in one of the many anecdotes designed to show Diogenes’ disdain for convention is invented for the sake of a pun: he is said to be ‘tending sheep’ (probata nemonta) so that the Cynic philosopher can jeer at his quick transition from Olympia to Nemea. And the anecdote about Glaucus of Carystus, recognized as a pugilistic prodigy when he beat a ploughshare back into shape with his bare hands, is another story too good to be true. (A very similar tale is told of the discovery of the baseball slugger, Jimmy Foxx; this time it can be proved to be a fabrication.) It is significant that Aristotle (perhaps writing as a contemporary) notes that one such Olympic champion, a fishmonger, was exceptional.

We may also wonder how poorer athletes could afford the time and expense of training and travel to competitions; these were greatest at Olympia, not only distant and hard to reach but requiring athletes to spend thirty days on the site before competition began. Cities might honour victory and even recruit champions – one likely explanation for the fact that Crotoniates won twelve of twenty-seven Olympic stadion races for men between 588 and 484 and once made up the first seven finishers. But they were less willing to subsidize competitors before their success. Though it is often said that Greek cities began to support athletes in the early Hellenistic period, the evidence usually referred to, in fact, reveals the initiative of private individuals, and there is no reason to think that the athlete in question is poor. We cannot gauge the extent of such private subsidies. In one instance, from Egypt, the athletes whose training is supported may be slaves – poor enough, but also outside the usual ambit of Greek festival competition.

Young argues that poorer boys might win local events – natural ability would count for most at this age – and use their earnings to finance careers. This view has won adherents, Nick Fisher among them. It is true that Athens’ Panathenaea offered substantial prizes for athletic victors who were boys or ageneioi, ‘beardless youths,’ perhaps the equivalent of $50,000 today for the boys’ stadion race. Yet few local games can have been as generous as the Panathenaea, itself on offer only every four years; other prizes we know of were paltry by comparison. One indication: about 300 BCE, a coach approached the city council of Ephesus for funds to help a young athlete train and make a festival trip. The boy had already won at least one victory — and yet, it seems, had not earned enough to compete abroad without help. Furthermore, local games with valuable prizes attracted entrants from afar. If we are to judge from the findspots of Panathenaic amphoras, many were won by outsiders. In fact, attracting them might be a priority, important enough for an ex-archon to seek the emperor Septimius Severus’ assistance when athletes passed by the Panhellenia at Athens in the early third century of our era. Visiting victors included boys too: an inscription from the early second century BCE lists more foreign boys among champions at the Panathenaea than native Athenians. Among local competitors, better-off boys could afford more food and the private trainers Pindar praises. As for public trainers, paidotribai, the Athenian ephebate in which they played an important part is attested only from the later fourth century and may not have included the thetes, the poor majority of the population; its Hellenistic descendant was an unequivocally exclusive institution. Young has certainly established the possibility of poorer athletes taking part in archaic and classical competition, but we cannot say that their involvement in any significant numbers was probable. And in fact, though we know the names of quite a few Athenian athletes – Don Kyle’s catalogue lists 116 as certain or possible — there is none whose career follows the trajectory he lays out.

The proportion of elite and other athletes at later periods is beyond our reach and likely to remain so. We know of many athletes whose careers were studded with distinctions – multiple citizenships, magistracies, priesthoods, service on embassies. Do these testify to their origins among the elite for which such honours were usually reserved? Or are they the consequences of victory? We can rarely be sure. There can be no question about the elite status of those who joined athletic victories to success in equestrian competition (such as Sosibius, a major figure at the Egyptian court and Aratus, the Achaean leader of the late third century BCE). Family connections often offer a clue. The wrestler, Hermesianax, whose father and uncle contributed towards building a wall at Colophon about 300 BCE, must have come from a family with means. A series of inscriptions permits us to trace the progress of L. Septimius Flavianus Flavillianus of Oenoanda. This appears to follow the model put forward by Young: he enjoyed significant success at local festivals and went on to win five Panhellenic crowns before returning home for the Meleagria in the early third century of our era. But, in fact, his was no rags to riches tale: his father was a regional official, his aunt, an aristocrat who proudly carved her family lineage onto her tomb.

An important but puzzling piece of evidence is Artemidorus’ discussion of dreams in which a mother gives birth to an eagle. In a poor family, this portends a son who will rise in the ranks to command a military camp; among the rich, an emperor. A third boy, from the moderate or middling class, will become a famous athlete. What does Artemidorus intend by metrios here? Clearly not the top stratum of the population of the Roman Empire. H.W. Pleket understands the term to include the most successful artisans and intellectuals, doctors and lawyers, as well as members of local councils who did not hold high office. However, it is possible that the group he has in mind extends as high as the ‘curial order,’ the local elites of the many small and medium-size cities of the Roman east, who had not yet produced claimants to the imperial throne in Artemidorus’ day, the late second century of our era. Almost all the known victors in the Meleagria at Balboura in Asia Minor in the mid second century of our era belonged to such prominent local families. So too did those at Oenoanda, where ‘the social status of the local participants was high,’ and so too at Aphrodisias, Aezani, throughtout Lycia, among the winners at the Plataean Eleutheria. Nor were these well born athletes runners or pentathletes only, as has sometimes been suggested, shunning the dangerous and disfiguring combat events. It is pancratiasts who make up far and away the largest number of identifiable xystarchs, the leaders of athletes’ associations in the imperial period.

Were there no athletes from outside the elite? Certainly there were. We may adduce third and second century victors in local contests at Sicyon, who make up a group quite distinct from the wealthy citizens who contributed to fund-raising campaigns. Among individuals, we may point to an Olympic champion in pankration in the early second century of our era, whose cognomen, Domesticus, hints at servile origin for his family, and an Egyptian boxer and priest of an athletic guild, nicknamed ‘the dummy,’ who was illiterate. Phorystas of Tanagra, victorious herald at an unspecified ‘noble contest of Zeus’ in the mid third century of our era, triumphed elsewhere with his ‘winged feet’. Is he another athlete of (at least relatively) humble origins? As does Nigel Crowther, I accept that such heralds (and trumpeters too) were likely to be of lower status than other competitors at Panhellenic festivals. Unlike him, however, I regard the reference to ‘winged feet’ as a reference to speaking without stopping for breath, not to athletic competition: we can’t count Phorystas. A fragment of Plutarch speaks of a certain Nicandas, a Boeotian contemporary and a shoemaker, who had nevertheless spent some time at palaestrae. But there is nothing to say that he used whatever he learned there in festival competition.

Examples there are, then, of poorer athletes, but there are not so many that we can talk (as Don Kyle does) of the ‘democratization’ of the Olympics. On the contrary, it is best to accept the conclusion of Pleket, the most thorough investigator of the social status of Greek athletes in later antiquity: ‘From Pindar’s time until Roman Imperial times, members of the upper class were never absent in sport (neither in the running events nor in the body-contact sports).’ And indeed, though victors were eager to claim distinctions of every kind, as first of their city or among Ionians to win an event, or first of all competitors to win in three age classes, or twice on one day, none advertises himself as the first of his family or social class. If ancient athletes did rise in social status through their success in competition, they weren’t eager for their contemporaries to find out. As a result, they are hidden from us as well.

### References

Bartels, J. (2004) ‘Zwischen Adelsprivileg und Massenphänomen. Sport und griechische Gesellschaft,’ in Bartels et al., eds, Sportschau. Antike Athleten in Aktion (Bonn) 7-17.

Fisher, N. (1998) ‘Gymnasia and the democratic values of leisure’ in P. Cartledge et al., eds, Kosmos. Essays in Order, Conflict and Community in Classical Athens (Cambridge) 84-104.

Gardiner, E.N. (1910) Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals (London).

Golden, M. (2008). Greek Sport and Social Status (Austin).

Harris, H.A. (1964) Greek Athletes and Athletics (London).

Hubbard, T. (2008) ‘Contemporary sport sociology and ancient Greek athletics,’ Leisure Studies 27: 379-93.

Kyle, D.G. (1987) Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden).

Kyle, D.G. (1997) ‘The first 100 Olympiads: a process of decline or democratization?,’ Nikephoros 10: 53-75.

Mann, C. (2001) Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (Göttingen).

Pleket, H.W. (2001) ‘Zur Soziologie des antiken Sports,’ Nikephoros 14: 157-212.

Pritchard, D. (2003) ‘Athletics, education and participation in classical Athens’, in D.J. Phillips and Pritchard, eds, Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World (Swansea) 293-349.

Young, D.C. (1984) The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics (Chicago).