Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2005
John J. Herrmann Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003. 215 pp.; 207 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0878466819)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., July 21–November 28, 2004
Head of Zeus, Late Classical period, ca. 350–340 B.C. Marble, from Mount Pentelikon near Athens. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Henry Lillie Pierce Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A strong interest in the ancient Olympics on the part of both scholars and the general public has led several museums abroad to mount exhibitions exploring the artistic and archaeological evidence for Greek sports. The return of the Olympics to Greece in summer 2004 provided the impetus for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), to present Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit, the first exhibition in the United States to rival shows such as Mind and Body: Athletic Contests in Ancient Greece at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, in 1989 or the three Olympism exhibitions at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1993, 1996, and 1998 in terms of the number of objects assembled and the effort devoted to exploring the nature of Greek athletics. The curators John Herrmann and Christine Kondoleon are to be applauded for their considerable success in achieving their three aims of illustrating the essential elements of ancient Greek sports, demonstrating the role played in Greek art by scenes directly drawn from or inspired by ancient athletics and revealing the connection, or sometimes the lack of connection, between ancient and modern sports. The well-written and abundantly illustrated catalogue mirrors the exhibition in that it is directed at the same audience, which comprises mainly but not exclusively nonspecialists. And both the exhibition and catalogue are equally successful in demonstrating how artistic evidence can illuminate the lives of athletes.

While sixth- and fifth-century pottery was the most prominent ancient evidence on display, reflecting the interest that athletics and equestrian sports had for Attic and other vase painters, one strength of the exhibition was the wide range of material assembled, including a significant number of bronze votive offerings, athletic equipment, Greek and Roman coins, funerary monuments for young athletes, inscribed reliefs honoring victorious athletes, and even an ancient whip (not in the catalogue) that the curators were careful to note may not have been Greek. Even the students in my ancient sports course, who had already seen a considerable amount of visual evidence for Greek athletics before going to the MFA, were struck by the number of ways in which ancient artists incorporated athletic themes into their works. More important, though, is that the whole history of Greek athletics was represented, not just the first few centuries of the Olympic games, the period that tends to be emphasized in general handbooks and in exhibitions. Thus, Games for the Gods presented the viewer with both extensive evidence for the history of athletics before the Olympics, such as a discus that may have been a prize or offering from funeral games (the type of contests described by Homer, our earliest source for Greek athletics) and over twenty objects demonstrating the continued interest in athletics in the Roman period and its spread to areas such as Thrace and the Near East. Among the latter objects were several significant loans from other museums, including an often-illustrated statuette from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore of a wrestler holding his opponent in a waistlock, a stele from the National Archaeological Museum in Greece showing a boat race (one of the few team competitions in antiquity), and—one of my personals favorites—a relief from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on which an athlete’s victories were inscribed within the wreaths and the other prizes he received (cat. nos. 92, 162, and 145 respectively). Equally intriguing from the point of view of athletic iconography is a roundel from the MFA’s holdings that comes from a city near Tarsus in Asia Minor and that I suspect may have decorated a gymnasium (cat. no. 161). As the curators suggest, the roundel may depict Agon, the male figure who personified athletic competition but who rarely appears in Greek art.

It is surprising how many significant works of art the curators were able to obtain in what was one of the most celebrated Olympic years. Many of the objects are well known to sports historians, but I found it helpful to see them in the context of a multitude of similar works. For example, having examined several examples in the exhibition of athletes crowning themselves or tying ribbons to their heads (the diadoumenos type, etc.), I would suggest that the statuette of a boxer from the Cleveland Museum of Art (cat. no. 67) is actually signaling his victory by preparing to tie a ribbon to himself and is not about to fasten the thongs used for boxing gloves, which has been the interpretation of his pose in the past. From a scholarly point of view, possibly the most important loan was an Apulian krater from the collection of Peter and Mary Lee Aldrich (cat. no. 140). The scene of bathing athletes on one side is fairly standard, as are most aspects of the opposite side in which an athlete is shown being crowned by Nike (Victory) and receiving the ribbons that he would tie to his body as a sign of his victory. I know of no parallel, however, for the fact that the athlete is not receiving these ribbons from a judge but from a seated figure wearing a traveler’s hat. The curators tentatively suggest that this figure is Pelops, the hero who in some myths founded the first Olympic games, but this interpretation deserves further examination.

While Games for the Gods has been greatly enhanced by objects drawn from other collections, the story of ancient athletics was essentially told using material from the MFA itself, and the depth of the MFA’s holdings was an essential factor in the exhibition’s success. Only an accumulation of representations of the different facets of ancient sports allows viewers, even those moderately knowledgeable about the ancient world, to discover for themselves how Greek sports operated and how Greek artists decided to represent athletic scenes. For example, by placing ten or more images of runners in close proximity, a visitor was able to see quickly what type of foot races were practiced in antiquity, including the race in armor; important details about ancient sports techniques, such as the upright starting position used in all races; the nudity of athletes (common for all Greek sports, but the custom seems to raise more questions in the case of runners); and the tendency of artists to stylize the position of runners’ arms and legs even if this results in an anatomically impossible position.

The large amount of material assembled for this exhibition also determined the summary nature of the catalogue. A publication on the order of a catalogue raisonné, with detailed entries for each object, was impossible: more than 150 entries would have been required to treat adequately the material included in the exhibition. In addition, many of these objects present unusual features that demand extensive study beyond what would be possible in a catalogue. The vase with Pelops and the representation of Agon, mentioned above, are good examples. Another is an Attic vase obtained by the MFA in 1973 (cat. no. 129). In what is likely to be an important discovery—seemingly made very late in the progress of assembling the exhibition, since it is reflected in the accompanying wall label but not the catalogue—the curators realized that the vase actually illustrates two young men performing the bibasis. To my knowledge, this object would thus represent the first visual evidence for this athletic dance, which is associated in literary sources with Spartan girls and involved contestants kicking their buttocks with their heels.

Faced with such challenges, the curators chose instead to produce a catalogue that does not concentrate on the particulars of specific objects, but instead uses them to tell the story of ancient sports. As a result, the format of the catalogue follows the exhibition’s organization very closely. To signal to visitors that the show would explore the relationship between ancient and modern athletics, the museum commissioned a wall mural in the style of Attic vase painting for the entrance, showing a series of ancient runners transforming into a series of modern ones. The first chapter of the catalogue performs the same function: Bill Littlefield uses interviews with modern Olympic athletes to indicate that the reader should think about how the experience of modern competitors, especially their drive to win and the premium they place on becoming an Olympic victor, compares with the life of their ancient counterparts. This theme is then carried through the text by the careful matching, on facing pages, of ancient and contemporary images of athletes engaged in similar actions. Except for one stop-action view of a discus thrower from 1885, all of the photographs are of contemporary athletes in action and at rest; these photos are stunning testaments to the fascination the athletic body holds, as well as to the challenge artists face in capturing the experience of being a competitor. Even a brief comparison of the photographs and the ancient material will instantly raise questions in the reader’s mind such as whether the skin-tight outfits of modern athletes are any less provocative than the nudity of ancient competitors.

The remaining eight chapters, which were presumably written by the curators in tandem since no specific attribution is given, cover social aspects of the games, such as women in athletics; the religious dimension of athletic festivals and athletic life; the gymnastic and equestrian sports practiced at Olympia and elsewhere; life in the gymnasium; and the adulation athletes received in antiquity. The conclusions drawn about ancient athletics are illustrated by excellent reproductions of nearly all the material in the exhibition, along with a map showing the sites mentioned and nine other supplementary illustrations. The connection between athletics and religion is particularly well treated in both the exhibition and the catalogue because of the curators’ decision to include a large number of statues of gods, votive offerings, and vases depicting sacrifices. The reader is thereby given a clear sense of the degree to which Eros, Heracles, Zeus, and the other gods were intimately associated with athletics. The homoerotic aspects of life in the gymnasium is a topic that the catalogue deals with better than the exhibition (28–34, 125–29). As the curators note, the pederastic activity that took place in gymnasium does not correspond to any modern concepts of sexual behavior. Therefore, clarifying the nuances of Greek attitudes and practice in this regard would have required overwhelming the exhibition with wall panels. In point of fact, no object in the exhibition specifically depicts older men approaching young athletes, and the catalogue supplements its substantial discussion of the subject with two additional illustrations to serve as concrete examples of the sexual interest that underlay countless scenes involving young athletes (figs. 7 and 8). It might have been helpful if the text said more about how this interest in good-looking young men played out in different media. Admittedly, this topic is touched on briefly early in the catalogue (29), and the last chapter includes a good overview of the development of athletic statuary. Yet vase painting and the minor arts deserved similar treatment. Readers might then more clearly realize the degree to which the artistic preference for the beardless, relatively unmuscular body typical of a young pentathlete distorted the picture of athletics presented by many vase painters and sculptors. Otherwise, it may not be readily apparent that, in spite of what they see in the catalogue, boxers, wrestlers, and other athletes always tended to be huge since the Greeks never developed weight categories.

Although the catalogue is aimed at the general public, the level of treatment of ancient sports is high enough that the work could provide a good text for a college-level Greek civilization or art-history course; and while the curators are not specialists in Greek athletics, they tended to follow recent research quite closely and evidently consulted with major scholars in the field. The corrections and clarifications I might suggest involve relatively minor points. For instance, it is not likely to mislead any reader that the stele described as honoring a judge for his work in athletic contests actually concerns a judge who settled disputes between cities (cat. no. 146), or that Hieros Agon (“Sacred Agon”) does not refer to the personification of Agon but to the grant of sacred status to a festival so that victors would obtain the same pension as for a victory at Olympia (159). If there is any issue on which the work falls a little short, it is in conveying to the reader that athletics remained a central part of Greek culture for more than a millennium, and that some features of athletic life and the accompanying artworks changed during that period. Thus, a reader may not realize from the statement “Greek and Roman combat athletes are often shown with a distinctive hairstyle, a long lock or braid of hair worn at the top or back of the head” (93) that the athletes in question appear only in artwork produced six or more centuries after the Olympic games were founded. On the other hand, various passages make it clear that athletes would compete in a wide variety of festivals beyond the Olympics, including those that offered substantial prizes. Moreover, the text is liberally interspersed with helpful quotations and citations from Greek and Roman authors, showing that understanding how and why Greeks competed requires integrating the literary and visual evidence.

The catalogue is not without value to scholars. If one is not a specialist, the book provides a good overview of the artistic record for the ancient games along with survey of basic facts in slightly more accessible fashion than Stephen Miller’s new handbook, Ancient Greek Athletics (New Haven: Yale University Press 2004). Of prime importance for those who work on Greek athletics or ancient art is the fact that high-quality photographs are printed here for all but six objects, although unfortunately for many of the vases, such as the Apulian crater mentioned above, only one face is illustrated. While not exhaustive, a checklist provides useful information on the ancient material, including recent work on the provenance of the objects from the MFA holdings but not a discussion of possible parallels or pertinent secondary literature. (This can occasionally be found in the notes and bibliography; n.b. the checklist includes three objects more than the exhibition.) If one is working on a particular subject involving athletics, the catalogue will quickly indicate if the MFA possesses any parallels worth exploring.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of the exhibition and its catalogue is due in large part to the curators’ care to follow recent scholarship in treating both the modern and ancient Olympics in a much less idealistic fashion than was typical in the past. The view that athletes will cheat, will train so hard that they break their ribs, or that they are willing to break their opponent’s fingers certainly clashes with the often-promulgated doctrine that, as in the past, the best athletes today are simply motivated by desire to have the chance to compete. But the more realistic interpretation cannot be denied in the light of the interviews with modern athletes in the first chapter of the catalogue, the images scattered throughout the text that depict the extreme efforts of modern and ancient competitors, or the visual evidence that has been assembled to demonstrate the emphasis the Greeks put on winning.

Stephen Brunet
Associate Professor, Classics Program, University of New Hampshire