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Le Sport dans L’Antiquité: Égypte, Grèce, Rome

Le Sport dans L’Antiquité: Égypte, Grèce, Rome

By Wolfgang Decker and Jean-Paul Thuillier (Antiqua 8). Pp. 263, figs. 139, pls. 34. Éditions Picard, Paris 2004. €50. ISSN 1270-0134; ISBN 2-7084-0596-9 (paper).

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Books on ancient sport are fashionable. In 2004, the year of the Athens summer Olympics, there were at least half a dozen published in English alone. A growing awareness of the significance of sport in modern societies along with a desire to explore its ancient origins partly account for the trend. The increased output is also symptomatic of a profoundly different way of examining ancient sport prevalent in the last two decades. More specialized scholarship and a shift of emphasis to the social and cultural aspects of sport and everyday life make synthetic works of the kind under review here indispensable.

What distinguishes Le sport dans lantiquité from other surveys is the breadth of coverage that it provides, a reflection of the expertise of the two authors. From Old Kingdom Egypt to the Late Roman world, Decker and Thuillier have produced a comprehensive, authoritative, and up-to-date overview of ancient sport. The volume is divided in three main parts: Egypt, Greece, and Etruria and Rome (the authors acknowledge a gap in the lack of a chapter on Mesopotamia/Near Eastern sport, a field still in an embryonic stage). These major chapters are then subdivided into several sections according to chronological or thematic criteria. The end product achieves a lucid presentation of the evidence (literary, material, iconographic) for ancient sport and at the same time a judicious examination of major aspects of its history and social significance in the light of the most recent scholarship and archaeological discoveries.

Part 1, by Decker, is dedicated to Egypt and provides an excellent summary of the role of sport in Egyptian court and society. Ceremonial sport was integral in royal ideology throughout the history of Egypt, with the pharaohs themselves often engaging in athletic trials of various sorts. Sport was also part of religious festivals and funeral ceremonies, and it appears to have been widespread within the military and other parts of the population, although the evidence is less substantial.

Part 2, also by Decker, is dedicated to Greece and examines a wide range of topics. It begins with an account of sport in the Bronze Age and the Homeric epics followed by a detailed description of the organization of panhellenic and local festivals and the major athletic events included in their programs. Other sections examine selective aspects of sport, including the social background and life of notable athletes, sanctions and penalties, ancient critiques of sport, and the role of the gymnasion (incorporating a recent interpretation of its origins and role proposed by Christian Mann). Both of Decker’s chapters also include useful introductions to the evidence for sport in Egypt and Greece; Decker is cognizant of the latest scholarship and archaeological advances, and he fully integrates them in his account. In short, it is a very accessible and comprehensive survey of the subject, suitable for all interested audiences.

The third chapter, by Thuillier, examines sport in Etruria and Rome. The title of the chapter is slightly misleading since only 9 of 105 pages are dedicated to Etruscan sport. This is a rather unexpected imbalance given the amount of evidence on the subject and the acknowledged expertise of Thuillier on things Etruscan, as evidenced by his several published monographs. But the chapter provides a vivid reconstruction of sport in the city of Rome (with occasional references to the rest of the empire), centered primarily around the Campus Martius, the baths, the Circus Maximus, and Domitian’s stadium. Thuillier illustrates both the big picture and technical aspects of horse racing (such as the composition and activities of factions and teams) and “Greek-style” sports (wrestling, boxing, pancration, pentathlon) practiced in Rome, amply corroborating his descriptions by reference to images and other material evidence. He also illustrates the degree of involvement of women in sport and other leisure activities, and attempts, at the beginning and the end of the chapter, to debunk some popularly perceived oversimplifications, including Rome’s alleged sporting decline in comparison to the Greeks. At the end, the reader comes away with a solid understanding of the nature of Roman sport and the extent of similarities between ancient practices and modern sporting culture.

The volume is fully annotated and lavishly illustrated. It contains a useful glossary, an index, and a short bibliography of major monographs (more specialized works are referenced in the notes). The user-friendly writing style and the wealth of visual material make the book accessible to all kinds of interested audiences, including the general public, students, and specialists of ancient sport. However, without an English translation it is highly unlikely that the volume will enjoy in the Anglo-Saxon world a wider appeal beyond scholars and other specialists. Overall, this is a dependable and thorough survey of sport in Egypt, Greece, and Rome that will certainly find a prominent place among similar works in the years to come.

Zinon Papakonstantinou
School of Historical Studies
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU
United Kingdom

Book Review of Le Sport dans lantiquité: Égypte, Grèce, Rome, by Wolfgang Decker and Jean-Paul Thuillier

Reviewed by Zinon Papakonstantinou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Papakonstantinou

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