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Athletics and Identity in Ancient and Modern Cultures

Conference: 20-21 September 2018
Parliament Hall, University of St Andrews. 

Download programme & abstracts (PDF, 1,573 KB)


Thanks to the generous funding by the School of Classics’ Research Committee and Postgraduate Committee and the British Society of Sports History, the University of St. Andrews School of Classics is delighted to host ‘Athletics and Identity in Ancient and Modern Cultures’ conference. The aim of this conference is to bring together scholars researching across disciplines on different aspects of athletic practice to advance our understanding of the role athletics play in society. While emphasis is placed on Greco-Roman sporting culture, we are also interested in the parallels ancient and modern athletics play in the construction of athletic identity and its societal purpose. 

We strongly encourage postgraduate submissions and attendance.

Confirmed Speakers

  • Prof Onno van Nijf (Groningen)
  • Prof Stamatia Dova (Hellenic College Holy Cross and Center for Hellenic Studies)
  • Dr Sofie Remijsen (Amsterdam)
  • Dr. Sebastian Scharff (Mannheim)
  • Prof Heather Reid (Morningside College and Fonte Aretusa Organization).

Helpful Information

For travel purposes it would be helpful to note that the beginning of the conference is scheduled to start on Thursday 20th September at 15.10 followed by a Drinks reception in the evening. On Friday 21st September, it will be a full day event beginning at 9.00 and closes with our Keynote speaker, a drink reception, and dinner in the evening.

Any further inquiries can be sent to


THURSDAY 20 September 2018
Parliament Hall

14.00-14.40  Registration with Buffet Lunch

14.40-15.00  Welcome and Opening remarks

15.00-15.40  Prof. Stamatia Dova (Hellenic College & Center for Hellenic Studies)" “We have won”: Athens 1896 and the Cultural Politics of the First Marathon"

15.40-16.00 Coffee and Tea Break 

16.00-16.40 Emmanuel Aprilakis (Rutgers) "Ancient Athletics and Jewish Identity: From Maccabees to Josephus"

16.40-17.20 Dr. Sofie Remijsen (Amsterdam) "Athletes as Christian sinners?"

17.20-18.00 Prof. Paul Christensen (Dartmouth) "Athletics and Glocalization, Ancient and Modern"

18.00-19.00 Drinks Reception

19.30 Dinner for Speakers
Zizzi’s on South Street


Friday 21 September 2018 
Parliament Hall 

09.00-09.20  Coffee and Tea

09:20-10:00  Dr. Salvatore Tufano (Sapienza) "Becoming Boiotian as an Athlete: Boiotian Ethnicity through the Study of Local Games"

10:00-10:40  Natalia Kazakidi & Nikoleta K. Vouronikou (Thessaloniki) "Ephebes as competing athletes and ambassadors of local identity"

10:40-11:20  Dr. Mali Skotheim (Wisconsin-Madison) "Identity of the Amateur, Life of the Professional: On the Formation of an Association of Athletes"

11:20-11:40   Coffee and Tea Break

11:40-12:20   Prof. Heather Reid (Morningside) "Athletic Virtue and Aesthetic Values in Aristotle's Ethics"

12:20-13:00   Masa Culumovic (Puget Sound) TBD

13:00- 14:00 LUNCH

14:10-14:50   Dr. Sebastian Scharff (Mannheim) "Becoming Greek by Means of Athletic Competition. The Self-presentation of Non-Greek Athletes in the Hellenistic Period"

14:50-15:30  Giorgos Mouratidis (St. Andrews) "Athletic culture and the Greek elite in the Late Hellenistic and Imperial periods. The paradox of Macedonia."

15:30-16:00 Coffee and Tea Break

16:00-17:15  Keynote: Prof Onno van Nijf (Groningen) "Connecting the Greeks: festival networks in the Hellenistic and Roman periods"

18:30- 19:30 Drinks Reception 

19:30 Dinner (at own Expense)


In alphabetical order.

Emmanuel Aprilakis (Rutgers)
Ancient Athletics and Jewish Identity: From Maccabees to Josephus 

When considering the relationship between Jews and civic athletics in the Second Temple period, the ready image is typically one of strife (see e.g. Kyle 2007). The earliest contacts are related by Maccabees, which explains that the corrupt Jason bought the office of high priest in 175 B.C. and subsequently changed traditional customs to unlawful foreign ones, building a gymnasium in Jerusalem and inducing young priests to neglect their religious services by practicing athletics (2 Mac. 4.7-14). This led to the Maccabean revolt of 168, whereby the traditionalist Jews expelled the Seleucids and their Hellenistic influence from Judea. Already appearing in Maccabees, stories of apostate Jews subjected to lethal arena punishments also appear in Josephus, who writes through the end of the Second Temple period (70 A.D.). Josephus further cements the perceived negative orthodox Jewish view of athletics via his criticism of Herod’s patronization of Greek games and building of theaters and amphitheaters about Judea around 12 B.C. (AJ. 15.264-91).

Thus, the picture displayed seems to be one of overwhelming sustained Jewish opposition to athletics. This paper however seeks to interrogate this conventional view and look for development in Jewish interaction with athletics over the course of the three centuries involved. Countering the monolithic view of complete Jewish indignation against athletics, this paper presents an array of evidence for the positive relationship between Jews and athletics. In particular, Philo, an Alexandrian Jew interpreting scripture in Greek in the early first century A.D., provides the best evidence for Jewish involvement in athletics. Although himself an entirely pious Jew, Philo was clearly a sports fanatic, and athletic metaphors permeate his works (see primarily Harrison 1976). Considering especially Philo’s favorable view of circumcision, early an impediment to participation in gymnasia, this paper seeks to loosen the rigid view of Jewish abstention from athletics. 

Dr. Paul Christensen (Dartmouth)
Athletics and Glocalization, ancient and modern 

The modern Olympics, which were consciously designed to bring together people from different parts of the world, are an important force in the ongoing advance of globalization. Globalization can, for the purposes of this paper, be understood as the process of integrating widely dispersed communities by means of the interchange of world views, ideas, products, and other aspects of culture. The Olympics have become a global mega-event in which thousands of athletes, hundreds of thousands of travelers, and billions of television viewers from all over the world participate, directly or vicariously, in a shared event built around shared practices of sport. The modern Olympics thus contributes meaningfully to globalization by integrating widely dispersed communities.

The ancient Olympic Games can be seen in the much the same light. By the sixth century BCE a combination of trade and colonization had produced a situation in which Greeks lived in communities located across the entirety of the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins; in the decades after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greeks diffused throughout much of the Middle East. Despite the immense distances that separated them, Greek communities were tied together by a network of cultural, diplomatic, economic, and military ties that became increasingly dense over the course of the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. The ancient Olympics formed an essential part of that network because they brought together athletes and spectators from all over the Greek world on an iterated basis to participate in a shared event built around shared practices of sport. The ancient Olympics thus contributed meaningfully to integrating widely dispersed Greek communities.

One could, therefore, argue that neither globalization as a process that integrates communities dispersed over large geographic spaces nor sport as an important element in globalization is a new phenomenon. One could also argue, that in both the ancient and modern worlds, the process of globalization had and has the effect of heightening the importance of local identities. Globalization brings with it increasing levels of homogeneity (one can, for example, eat at a McDonalds in 119 different countries), which in turn frequently provokes a reaction in the form of a perceived need for communities to identify what makes them unique.

What is perhaps surprising is that globalization channels the ways in which local identities are expressed. This phenomenon has been highlighted in the work of the sociologist Roland Robertson, who has helped popularize the concept of glocalization. Robertson uses the term glocalization to identify a complex process of interaction between universalizing and particularizing tendencies in which a move toward cultural homogenization across space is counteracted by an emphasis on local differences that is expressed in ways that are themselves homogenized across space. For example, the spread of particular foods across the globe helps generate an elevated interest in local, “authentic” foods. This particularizing tendency is simultaneously universalizing in that it takes a form that is deeply influenced by the specific forms of homogenization it seeks to counteract.

Sports in both the ancient and modern worlds can be productively interpreted through the lens of glocalization. The ancient Olympics were founded at some point in the eighth century BCE, but did not start attracting competitors from distant Greek communities until the first half of the sixth century BCE. It was just at that point in time that Greek communities began founding their own athletic contests that were intended in part as a celebration of local identity. These local contests represent glocalization in that a process of universalization (participation in the Olympics) provoked a particularizing response (the foundation of an emphatically local festival) that itself reflected a universalizing tendency (competing in major athletic contests). This process was repeated throughout Greek history, but it is not coincidental that local athletic contests were founded in three major waves (the sixth century BCE, the third century BCE, and the first-second centuries CE), all of which coincided with periods of deepened integration of Greek communities both in general terms and in the specific context of the Olympics.

One can see the same process at work today. The emergence of a truly global Olympics is connected to a simultaneous growth of interest in local, “authentic” forms of sport.

Prof. Stamata Dova (Hellenic college & center for Hellenic studies)
“We have won”: Athens 1896 and the Cultural Politics of the First Marathon

This paper examines the cultural significance of the Marathon race at the Games of the First Olympiad in 1896 Athens. Drawing heavily upon the classical past (Christesen, Christesen and Kyle), Pierre de Coubertin's vision of Olympism emphasized the diachronic profile of the games (Callebat, Coubertin, Crowther, MacAloon, Smith); at the same time, the notion of Olympic revival seemed to enable the ideology of continuity between ancient and modern Greece, a topic of considerable debate (Beaton and Ricks, Clogg). Suggested to de Coubertin by noted Hellenist Michel Bréal, who also provided a trophy specifically designed for the event, the Marathon race aimed at exemplifying the reinstated bond between ancient and modern Greece (Coubertin, Lovett, Mallon, Politis).

After tracing the event's inception through Bréal's direct and indirect reception of ancient sources, my discussion focuses on the cultural politics of Spiridon Louis' home victory at the 1896 Marathon. A water-carrier from Maroussi, Greece, Louis was represented in the traditional peasant's kilt (Verinis) and celebrated as the embodiment of the modern Greek hero-warrior (Palamas, Album), thus initiating a momentous discourse on Hellenicity centered on class and ethnicity. Not only did his victory play an important role in the identity formation of the still young Greek state, but it also generated further international support for the Olympic games (Coubertin, Kitroeff, Lovett). While examining Louis' victory in its historical context, my analysis also follows its reception in the twenty-first century through the 2012 repatriation of his Olympic trophy, the Bréal Cup, and the resultant reactivation of his Olympic memory (Connerton, Kitroeff).

Natalia Kazakidi & Nikoleta K. Vouronikou (Thessaloniki)
Ephebes as competing athletes and ambassadors of local identity

This paper examines the participation of the gymnasium ephebes in athletic training, not necessarily for the gymnasium competitions, in the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. More specifically, it aims to investigate the terms and conditions of the special preparation of ephebes, the privileges awarded them by the gymnasium in the context of this preparation and the types of prizes awarded to the winners by the city, the gymnasium officials and the synepheboi.

The evidence of that period allows us to observe important aspects of the training of the ephebes and the special care the gymnasium committee took of them. At the same time, a good deal of archaeological evidence, mainly engraved bases of honorary ephebic statues, which were set up inside the gymnasiums, as well as their statues, document the special recognition enjoyed by the ephebes on account of their ephebic victories. The increase in the numbers of honorary ephebic statues during the transition from the Hellenistic to the Roman period indicates the city’s growing interest in such victories.

However, questions regarding the type of games (local or pan-Hellenic) in which ephebes participated, when the expatriation measure was in force and the corresponding types of awards, need more investigation.

The special attention paid by the officials of the gymnasium (nominated by the city council, e.g. gymnasiarchs and others) to the participation of ephebes in the pan-Hellenic games is indicative of the extent to which the gymnasium continued to be associated with the local political life even after the Roman conquest and to highlight the local cultural identity of the city through its distinguished athletes.

Giorgos Mouratidis (st. Andrews)
Athletic culture and the Greek elite in the Hellenistic and Imperial Period. The paradox of Macedonia

Athletic practice, especially during the Imperial Period, was an important part of elite self-representation (Pleket 1975; Van Nijf 2010). Practicing athletics in – but not necessarily only in – the gymnasion and competing in Pan-Hellenic festivals offered the means to project certain aspects of Greek elite culture and ethnic identity, as did education, civic ceremony and individual care of the body as an embodiment of masculine virtue (König 2005). However, it is an oversimplification to consider this to be the case for the whole Greek-speaking world. Training for athletic competitions was not valued everywhere the same.

Athletic culture in Greek societies of northern parts of the Greek world (Epirus, Macedonia) seems to have followed a different path. We not only find a very small volume of evidence for athletic competition, but this same evidence also suggests an indifference to include such a practice in peoples’ civic identities to an unusual degree.  This paper aims to demonstrate how athletic practice was envisaged in the epigraphic evidence of this part of the Greek-speaking world and discusses how such an analysis affects the image we have of ancient athletics today.

Keynote: Prof. Onno van Nijf (gronigen)
Connecting the Greeks: festival networks in the Hellenistic and Roman periods

“The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself.” With these words Eric Hobsbawm got at the core of the importance of modern sport for the creation of modern national identities in a global context.[1] This paper argues that a similar development can be observed during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. These periods were characterised by global forces that resulted in the creation of a recognisable Greek identity that was shared by a globalised, imagined community of Greeks. This paper will argue that a shared festival culture constituted a major factor in creating this community. The so-called agonistic explosion of the Hellenistic and Roman periods was not simply the effect of an increase in the number of festivals, but also implied an increasing interconnectedness of these festivals that can be fruitfully approached from a network perspective.  

Dr. Sofie Remijsen (Amsterdam)
Athletes as Christian sinners?

The gradual disappearance of athletic contests in the fourth and early fifth centuries coincided with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Now it is no longer accepted that late-antique Christian emperors banned athletic games as part of their anti-pagan policy (Weiler 2004; Remijsen 2015), it has become more challenging to define how exactly the rise of Christianity affected the perception and popularity of athletics in this period of transformation.

Christian literature contains starkly opposing views of athletics: on the one hand this practice is sometimes put in line with other spectacles and subjected to very similar critiques, but on the other metaphorical athletes were used by a large number of Christian authors to define what made a Christian good. What we do not find, however, is detailed discussions of what could or should be the role of athletics in a Christian society. Athletics was never the subject of a public debate; it disappeared quietly. To transcend the generic character of the dispersed critiques and ubiquitous metaphors, we need to carefully relate them to the emerging Christian value-set and check in how far they were specific to athletics. This paper will relate critiques on and developments in athletics and metaphorical references to athletes to the Christian value set as categorized by Euagrius of Pontos and John Cassian into eight sins (which later became the famous seven deadly sins), in order to determine whether athletics was indeed too incompatible with a Christian identity to survive this major transition in society.

Prof. Heather Reid (morningside)
Athletic Virtue and Aesthetic Values in Aristotle's Ethics

When Aristotle praises the beauty of pentathletes in Rhetoric (361b11), it is not the idle observation of a sports fan.  In fact, the balanced and harmonious beauty of these athletes’ bodies reflects Aristotle’s ideal of a virtuous soul as described in the Nicomachean Ethics: one with the ability to discern noble ends and means, and to transform those ideas into physical activity completed by the pleasure appropriate to happiness (eudaimonia). In Eudemian Ethics (1248b9-10), Aristotle takes it a step further, characterizing kalokagathia as “the aretē that arises from a combination” of [aretai].  Taken together, these three passages raise important questions about the relationship between ethics, athletics, and aesthetics.  Is all aretē  beautiful? Is athletic beauty a property of the body or soul?  How are beauty and goodness related?  Is the beauty implied by kalokagathia characteristic of the agent, his motives, his actions, or all three?  Does athletic training cultivate kalokagathia? Is beauty even an appropriate translation for kalon?  In this paper, I argue that Aristotle depicts an active, aesthetic, and autotelic understanding of kalokagathia that transcends the mere combination of virtues to achieve a state of soul characterized by beauty.  In contrast to traditional ideas about inborn virtue and superficial beauty, Aristotelian aretē is a matter of deliberate character training (ethos), complemented by the intellectual understanding of what is beautiful (kalon).  Kalokagathia, meanwhile, is the ability to perform beautiful and good actions for the sake of beauty and goodness.  The pentathlete’s body should be understood as a mimēsis (representation) of the beautiful soul that is cultivated through the athletic and philosophical training characteristic of gymnasia.

Dr. Sebastian Scharff (Mannheim)
Becoming Greek by Means of Athletic Competition. The Self-presentation of Non-Greek Athletes in the Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period saw the rise of a “new society of victors” (Silvia Barbantani) consisting of kings and queens, princes and courtiers, women and non-Greeks. There can be no doubt that the expansion of the Greek world in this epoch triggered the spread of a ‘Hellenic way of life’ which included athletics as a marker of Greek identity. Visible evidence for this process is given by the large number of Greek gymnasia which can be identified throughout the Hellenistic world, even at so far-away places like Ai Khanoum in the East or Elephantine in Upper Egypt. In Jerusalem, the gymnasium even constituted a flash point among Jews in the second century BC.

This paper, however, will not deal so much with the institution of the Hellenistic gymnasium which is comparatively well-studied, but will rather focus on the political and social representation of the athletes themselves. It aims at analyzing in detail how non-Greek athletes from different regions of the Hellenistic world wanted their victories to be understood.

Short case studies will include the self-presentation of Phoenician victors from cities like Sidon and Tyr, the participation of Roman victors in Greek contests and the agonistic engagement of non-Greek royalty like the Numidian prince Mastanabal and Mithridates VI Eupator. It is true, the reasons for the agonistic engagement of these athletes and horse owners clearly differed as did the degree of their activities; and yet, it is clear from our evidence that the reasons for their agonistic engagement depended at least in part on their ethnic identity and local origin. In any case, there can be no doubt that the field of athletics is crucial for a(ny) study of identity in the Hellenistic age. 

Dr. Mali Skotheim (Wisconsin-madison)
Identity of the Amateur, Life of the Professional: On the Formation of an Association of Athletes

The professional associations of actors and musicians, the Technitai of Dionysus, formed in the early third century BCE, and quickly became powerful organizations which secured special rights and privileges for their members, bargaining with festival organizers and civic authorities. These associations were regional in the Hellenistic period, but joined into one umbrella organization, the World-Wide Technitai, in the first century CE. However, despite the professionalization of athletics at around the same time as the professionalization of the theater occurred, in the fourth century BCE, it was not until the early first century BCE that a professional association of athletes formed, on the model of the Technitai of Dionysus. In the first part of this paper, I take up the question of why the professional association of athletes formed so much later than the Technitai of Dionysus, when it would seem to have been advantageous for professional athletes to benefit from the same privileges that actors did in the Hellenistic period. Actors, musicians, and athletes in the Hellenistic and Roman eras faced many similar challenges, and grappled with similar questions of identity, as professional, traveling festival competitors. However, the early formation of associations of actors and musicians, and the relatively late formation of the association of athletes, suggests that athletes maintained a greater attachment to the image and identity of amateurism. In the second part of the paper, I examine the impact of the formation of the professional association of athletes on the representation of athletic identity in the Roman imperial period, in literary, epigraphical, and visual sources, such as the proliferation of coin issues in the Roman period with depictions of athletic iconography.

Dr. Salvatore Tufano (Sapienza)
Becoming Boiotian as an Athlete: Boiotian Ethnicity through the Study of Local Games 

The paper offers a comparison between two Boiotian festivals, the Panboiotia and the Basileia, in order to show what evidence they provide on the survival and the value of Boiotian identity in the Hellenistic and in the Roman period. The Panboiotia were the show of Boiotia’s military nature from the beginning of the Fifth Century BC: the later redesigning of the Hellenistic period transformed the originally religious meeting in a military venue and, from now on, the athletes would be marching under a national agenda. It was not an agonistic celebration which the Romans could accept or like: only under the new koinon of the late Roman republic could the Boiotians recover and regain this regional manifestation.

The Basileia of Lebadeia were, at first, a Theban enterprise to mark forever the military glory of Leuktra: for this reason, they were probably open from the beginning to foreigners alike, but under the Hellenistic koinon the recollection of that great time of effective power, however short-lived, inspired a stronger sense of locality and became the setting of regional meetings. Besides, the federal body which was initially designed to oversee the construction became an ideological weapon, in the hands of the Boiotians, when the new koinon of the first century BC was born. The short season of the Trophonia, between the last two centuries BC, suggests that Lebadeia alone had organised the festival, in the first decades after the Roman expansion in Greece; however, after Sulla’s arrival (and Trophonius’ good omina for the dictator), the naopoioi could certainly be seen as a befitting body of Boiotians who could define their ethnicity through the organization of the festival.


[1] Hobsbawm, E. 1990. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge143.

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