Online Review: Book

Blood and Entertainments: Sports and Gladiatorial Games in Hellenistic and Roman Thrace

Nora Dimitrova

114.4

By Lyudmil F. Vagalinski (In Bulgarian). Pp. 268, figs. 40. Nous Publishers, Sofia 2009. Price not available. ISBN 978-954-90387-9-8 (paper).

Blood and Entertainments is the first monograph dedicated to the intriguing subject of sports and gladiatorial games in Thrace during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Having originated as the author’s doctoral thesis, the book represents an updated and supplemented edition and discussion of the various types of evidence pertaining to athletic contests and gladiatorial spectacles. Part 1 presents the sources of information for sports in Hellenistic and Roman Thrace: architectural and epigraphic monuments, numismatic evidence, sports accessories, and sculptural evidence. Part 2 discusses these architectural, epigraphic, numismatic, and sculptural data. The monograph ends with a conclusion, an extensive and informative English summary, a catalogue, up-to-date bibliography, glossary, and plates with illustrations. The catalogue is especially valuable, since it contains the major epigraphic monuments and other monuments of relevance, with detailed physical descriptions and accurate editions of the texts.

The methodology of the book follows the traditional model of editions of written and nonwritten monuments: physical description, text (in the case of epigraphic monuments), and commentary. The conclusions take into account the evidence of all presented monuments.

This straightforward organization allows the author to make several important observations about sports and gladiatorial games in Thrace. During the Hellenistic period, sporting events of a traditional Greek type mostly took place in Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, as opposed to inland regions. Later, the inclusion of Thrace within the Roman empire stimulated the spread of Graeco-Roman physical culture throughout the territory of the province. In fact, gladiatorial games are better attested in Thrace than athletic games and other sports. Large numbers of Thracian gladiators appear in the records of the first century B.C.E. as a result of their capture by Rome during the Mithridatic Wars, when the Thracians were allies of Mithridates. Although Thracians were famous in ancient literature for their physical strength and fighting skills, they did not become gladiators voluntarily. The author’s general conclusion is that gladiatorial games and sport competitions in Roman Thrace provide essentially the same picture as in the other eastern provinces of the Roman empire. In Thrace, they are a typical feature of a polis-type culture and developed municipal life, as witnessed in the evidence from the Thracian territories during the first to fourth centuries C.E. (145).

In addition to its helpful arrangement and valuable catalogue, this work opens up the study of sport in Hellenistic and Roman Thrace to every student of ancient sports. Despite that most of the book is in Bulgarian, its extensive and detailed English summary does an excellent job of presenting the main points and conclusions for a broad international audience; moreover, the catalogue of sources provides the type of monument in both Bulgarian and English and prints the original text of the inscriptions (with a Bulgarian translation). The author’s discussion of the sources will be useful to those interested in particular monuments.

A minor recommendation concerns the English version of the title. Since Blood and Entertainments seems a deliberate allusion to the proverbial Latin phrase panem et circenses, it might have been more effective to translate the title as Blood and Circuses. On occasion, the English text of the book is a bit imprecise; for example, “borrowed by” (130) really means “borrowed from,” and “except in a votive relief” (cat. no. 147) should read “in addition to a votive relief.” Such slips should not confuse an attentive reader. In any case, we owe a debt of gratitude to the author for the extensive English translation, far more than is customary in a typical English synopsis of a Bulgarian book.

Vagalinski’s monograph is not only an academic study of high quality and usefulness but also a clear and enjoyable narrative. The author modestly announces in the brief preface: “I truly hope that my striving for reaching an equilibrium between an academic study and a simple exposé is successful” (126). He has definitely achieved this goal.

Nora Dimitrova
Department of Classics
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853
nmd5@cornell.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Dimitrova

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