Peter J Miller
Sport: Antiquity and its Legacy

Peter J Miller
Sport: Antiquity and its Legacy
Bloomsbury 9781350140219 p/b 223 pages £17.99

Peter J Miller Sport: Antiquity and its Legacy Bloomsbury 9781350140219 p/b 223 pages £17.99


Sport writing can be rewarding genre of literature; often at its best in long form journalism where skilled writers can evoke many aspects of life through observations of individuals participating in sport or as spectators of organised events.  This goes back to Pindar and even to Homer as far as Classics is concerned, but it is possible that that the two disciplines do not overlap much.  It is perhaps rare that an active Classicist is found watching a professional football match or playing an organised game at the weekend; they would rather recall Pliny’s comments on the chariot races (Epist. 9.6).  However, this reviewer maintained an active interest in sport until (suitably) a ruptured Achilles tendon put an end to an otherwise undistinguished sporting career, and still continues to follow some sports as a spectator.  Miller’s book on Sport in the Bloomsbury Ancients and Moderns series, along with Death, Sex, War, and many other topics, explores the ancient attitude towards sport and its legacy in the modern world.  It could equally well be placed in the Classics section of the library as in the Sports section; it may well attract more readers looking in the latter section who would be then introduced to the story of ancient sport in Greece and Rome and would find much that was new to them.

            Miller begins with two chapters summarising the current positions on sport in antiquity: one on Greece and one on Rome.  The main difference he draws between the two is that the Greek attitude to sport was participatory but the Roman one was mainly for spectators.  Consequently, we have in the modern world drawn on these two traditions: our appetite for the grand spectacle of the huge stadiums with vast crowds from the Roman gladiatorial games and chariot races, and the emphasis on competition and personal achievement from the Greek. 

            The Greek chapter covers the early origins of the games and prizes in literature and some archaeological objects, going on to athletic festivals with a concentration on the Nemean games.  (The Olympic Games have their own chapter later.)  Miller discusses at length topics such as the gymnasium, nudity, pederasty and the place of Sparta in this tradition; all live areas of current discussion where contemporary writers looking back to ancient origins may make controversial statements about the classical past.  All these points are discussed sensibly and dispassionately.  Some readers may be puzzled by the reference to the “proverbial Wheaties box” in comparison to Pindar’s victory odes.  This is unexplained but it appears to be an American breakfast cereal, known as the Breakfast of Champions which has featured athletic stars on the box for many years.  Other readers may be puzzled by the reference to Pindar.

            In the chapter on Rome the distinction is immediately made between sport and spectacle.  The Roman passion for sport was concentrated on the two opportunities for shows given before huge crowds in the circus and the arena.  The origins of the chariot races are traced back through archaeological evidence to Etruscan and some Greek beginnings through to its full form in the Circus Maximus of the empire.  Evidence is drawn from epigraphical evidence with a nice comparison of a Roman funerary inscription for a chariot driver with a wall plaque for player in the National Baseball Hall of Fame which read remarkably similarly.  (Contemporary cultural references to sport today tend to be limited to North America.)  A measured discussion of the show business that was the gladiatorial spectacle summarising current work on this cultural phenomenon.  It could be noted here that Miller has an idiosyncratic method of citation: there is no full bibliography to go with the full set of notes where references are gathered.  The reader may be directed in a particular footnote to an abbreviated title such as Chariot Racing and have to track back through the notes to find the first mention of the title instead of turning to the full alphabetical list of references.  Given that many of the titles have similar wording this can be frustrating.  The index is also rather thin.

            The purer aspect of Classical Studies ends here as the following chapters cover ancient and modern together over a number of self-contained topics ranging from the Olympic Games, Physical Culture, to Stadiums and Olympic Art and Cinema. The chapters bring in more than the literary texts and archaeology of the first chapters and include aspects of philosophy and cultural and art history as well as sport itself as a genre of cultural creativity.  These chapters can each be read individually without loss by anyone interested in a specific aspect covered here.

            The ancient Olympic Games are covered in chapter three rather than with the other festivals in chapter one, and there follows an interesting account of the origin of the modern Olympics through the contribution of Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the context of 19th century Hellenism.  As a Classicist, Miller gets the flavour of this period right and this chapter can be recommended to modern cultural historians coming to the question from the modern perspective to appreciate the extent of the impact of classical thought on the founders of the modern Olympic movement.  The contentious areas of race (in relation to the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany) and gender in sport are discussed here with sensitivity and balance as are questions of the “Olympic ideal” and whether it ever existed in the ancient model.

            Beauty, Strength and Physical Culture are treated in a chapter which draws on recent interest in figures such as Eugen Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden.  Miller briefly sketches out the Greek ideas of physical culture using mainly poetic texts (no Plato) before going on (via Winkelmann) to the flourishing of the strength and beauty movements in the late 19th century.  Sandow was an influential figure here as a performer and “living sculpture” he played a part in including Greek and Roman art and culture in a popular and non-elite cultural phenomenon.  Appearing virtually nude on stage as Apollo or the Dying Gaul Sandow was able to attract a large following of the paying public in London and New York.  Similarly, Macfadden established a highly popular magazine called Physical Culture in the early years of the 20th century devoted to physical fitness and natural beauty.  It contained articles and photographic illustrations about the world of physical development for men and women, and even included some historical fiction.  There was plenty of classical reference and content here and it must be assumed that this gave a kind of legitimacy to what may otherwise have been considered rather indecent content.  Discussion of this is largely limited to the UK and the USA but some attention would have been welcome to other countries such as France (with its large part in the establishment of international sport at this time) and Germany with its enthusiastic embrace of physical excellence often with a Greek element.  The Berlin Olympics of 1936 do receive considerable attention in the final chapter on Olympic Art and Cinema.

            Before that there is a chapter on athletic spaces (stadiums, arenas and gyms): a more straightforward with a technical description and analysis of various ancient buildings for sporting events and activities.  He includes some discussion of how totalitarian regimes love stadiums and of how the Olympic torch relay was a wholly invented tradition dating back no further than 1936.  The Berlin games of that year are analysed in the final chapter with a fascinating discussion of the opening sequence of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia (1938) which is available online.  This combination of classical imagery and modernity along with its obvious political connotations from the contemporary point of view is a significant moment in 20th century classical reception.  Miller’s analysis of the official Olympic posters for the early games adds to our knowledge of the position of Classics in the popular consciousness in the 20th century.  The change of style of the posters show how classical imagery begins to fade from its considerable prominence early on to a move towards modernism after 1936 and the consequent hiatus of the Second World War.  Illustrations are provided but in a disappointing black and white (full colour reproductions are available online or in the V&A catalogue of posters (Timmers 2012)).

There are a few slips and typos which should read as follows: discernible p.11; Rugby School (not Rugby College) p.33; Apollinarian p.41; Antilochus p.45; the translation of the inscription on p.47 is given the wrong reference (CIL 6.10050) and should read L. Vipstanius Messalla; foreword p.79.

Perhaps librarians should acquire two copies of the volume: one for the Classical Studies shelves and the second for the Sport Science section.  Both sets of readers would find much to illuminate their studies and all readers can be confident of the scholarship of the Classics elements throughout as they are interwoven with the accounts of modern sport, in particular the treatment of the Olympic Games.



Timmers M. 2012 A Century of Olympic Posters V&A Publishing London


John Bulwer