Examining any ancient culture presents a range of difficulties, and particularly when one element of the culture is the focus. The problem tends to be that, given the many centuries between the ancient and modern eras, it is challenging to appreciate how the older society functioned in terms of values and norms so different from the modern, and how these impacted on all aspects of life. For example, it is widely understood that sports had great meaning to the ancient Greeks. Evidence of this is found in both the literature and art of the era, and there is a strong exalting of sport competition as important to the culture. On one level, the same may be said for modern American culture. On another, however, the ancient Greeks held perspectives of sports powerfully connected to philosophical, social, and even military/political realities. As the following explores, then, sports in ancient Greece had an import to the culture both complex and extremely meaningful, as athleticism was so associated with ideas of human – and usually male – physical perfection, and the physical to the Greeks reflected personal character, masculine control over arousal, and a stature supported by the gods.
The role of sports in ancient Greece extended far beyond entertainment for the public, or even competitions in place to promote health and good values in the athletes. Virtually all examinations of the culture affirm that the Greeks insisted upon sports as a means to achieve a larger, human perfection. Plato, for example, was a dedicated supporter of sports, and for a number of reasons. He viewed sport as actual work, by which men, developing muscularity and skill, enhanced their mental and spiritual selves. For the ancient Greeks, and critically, there was no strict dichotomy between mind and body, and the athletic body was taken as evidence of virtuous character and a sound state of mind. Plato then encouraged all men to train in sports, and because the athleticism and competition both promoted well-round being and prepared men for military service (Hughson 28). Moreover, leaders and philosophers of the society relied on myths to validate the need for sport, which in turn were translated into epic literature. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, the impressive athletic ability of Odysseus is attributed to the favor of Zeus, kings of the gods. Similarly, the epic observes that the Phoenicians are esteemed by Zeus for their skill in running (Hughson 19-20). These reference then powerfully reinforce the vast importance given to sports by the ancient Greeks.
Another social aspect to ancient Greek sports lies in the widely known appreciation, if not reverence, the culture held for the muscular male body. There is some debate here as to whether the many vases and works of art depicting nude athletes are in fact realistic. However, there is also extensive support going to how the Greeks perceived male athletic nudity as a kind of practical advantage in competition with other cultures. It also seems there was a sexual, or homo-erotic, basis to this nudity in sports. For the Greeks, the nude athlete necessarily in close contact with other males was enabled to present his complete mastery over his own body, and never betray a state of arousal. Barbarians, it was believed, covered themselves in sports because they lacked this control (Golden 67). There can be no way of knowing how this approach generated art, or how the art actually encouraged the nudity itself. What is irrefutable, however, is that ancient Greek culture, homo-eroticism aside, consistently celebrated the athletic male body, and as representing a human state of being not unlike the perfection of the gods.
This in turn relates to how religion reinforced the importance of sport in the society, a reality hard for today’s world to understand. A modern perspective, for example, would see the religious connections to sport in the culture as strange. In the West, certainly, sport today is linked to ideas of national pride and a general admiration for athletic effort leading to victory. If today’s athletes often express religious values, these are generally removed from the arenas of play themselves, so the Greek emphasis on faith seems out of place. At the same time, however, it is necessary to recognize the nature of ancient Greek culture itself. Virtually every part of life in this society reflected a commitment to cults and myths, as well as a consistent invoking of the gods (Golden 23). That the many presences and roles of the gods were infused in literature and philosophy only reinforces how sports were essentially woven into the fabric of the culture in its entirety. For the ancient Greeks, there was a persistent need to identify and achieve perfection in thought, ethics, and physical form. The gods exemplified this perfection, so the young man dedicating himself to athletics and sports was pursuing an ultimate ideal, which in turn was perceived as reflecting divine favor.
If it is generally known that ancient Greek culture venerated the athletic male, it is important to recognize how many social and cultural elements motivated this veneration. Practically, the skilled athlete could defend his society in war. In terms of philosophy, dedication to sport translated to moral character and mental well-being. Spiritually, the athlete reflected the greatness of the gods and was seen as valued by them. Then, the culture clearly had an aesthetic or erotic interest in celebrating the ideal male body. Ultimately, then, sports in ancient Greece had a place in the culture both complex and extremely meaningful, as athleticism was so associated with an appreciation of human physical perfection, and as this perfection was to the Greeks a reflection of both personal character, control over the body, and a stature supported by the gods.
- Golden, Mark. Sport and Society in Ancient Greece. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Hughson, John. The Making of Sporting Cultures. Routledge, 2013.