Greek Poetry and Sport: Introduction and Overview
- epic, from Homer to the Shield of Heracles (attributed to Hesiod), Apollonius’ Argonautica, and Nonnus’ Dionysiaka, all notable for descriptions of sport contests;
- lyric poetry, notably Xenophanes and Tyrtaeus for social critiques on sport;
- epinician poetry (see Mann, Golden, Kyle, Nagy 1981 on Pindar Olympian 1);
- pastoral poetry (notably Theocritus’ Idyll 22);
- epigrams both in literary collections and on inscriptional sources (Robert 1968 and Nisbet 2003 on Lucillius [age of Nero]; Ebert 1972 on inscriptions);
- drama (tragedy, comedy and satyr plays) evidencing allusions, metaphors, and descriptions of gymnic and hippic contests.
The role that episodes of sport play in each genre, indeed in each author, has varied from praise of heroic achievement, as in epic and epinician works, to criticism or lampooning of the social role of athletes in lyric and satyr plays, and also to nuanced assessments of athletes in many of these genres. In each case, the theme serves valuable poetic objectives in narratives where sport is used primarily as a useful metaphor or device for insights into characters. The following is a survey, roughly by genre, with select examples of the uses of sport in poetry, beginning with evidence of the tradition in pre-Greek, Near East poetry and Indian epic, and then sketching its most obvious Greek roots in Homeric epic.
Pre-Greek Poetic Predecessors
from laughing at the Panathenaia when
some guy ran slowly, bent over
pale, drunk, left behind
and doing miserably: then the people at the Ceramicus
at the gates struck him
in the stomach, ribs, sides and butt.
After he was beaten by their hands,
he broke wind slightly,
blew out the torch, and fled.
The poet makes the point that general societal decline, politically and individually, is reflected in the lack of fitness at a sacred festival, to a degree that prompts derision and merits disgrace. Pritchard (2012: 116-8) reads the general critique of the new gymnastic education as a falsifying joke to which the audience was privy, and not a bonafide attack. The view here is that the criticism was widespread enough in comedy and satyr plays that there had to be some truth for it to be humorous, and that the audience was a bit skeptical of the new ways of gymnasia in the time of the sophists.
Contributions to this Volume
Some Themes of the Contributions
Poetry in the Grip of Sport, and Vice Versa
- the strength of the Homeric paradigm;
- popular interest in and the accessibility of sporting metaphors and images;
- elite participation in sport (not only in hippic events) and the upholding of elite values, primarily enacted excellence, balanced by the approval of the dēmos of those values and the opportunity the non-elite had to participate in quasi-heroic kudos;
- the concurrent spread of athletic festivals that involved both poetic and dramatic performances and contests, most prominently in the Classical and Hellenistic periods; along with these came the universal spread of gymnasia also mixing training in poetry and in sport;
- generic, agonistic resonances between poetry and sport, which may be formulated as the innate tension present in both poetic narrative and athletic agōnes.