Athletics and sport in ancient Greece


Athletics and Sport Depicted on Pottery

From the theatre we naturally turn to the palaestra and gymnasium, which played so important a part in the public and private life of the Greeks, and, like the former, may be said to be vested with a religious significance, as exemplified in the Olympic and other great games. Hardly any class of subject is found so frequently and consistently on the vases. The series of Panathenaic amphorae alone supply instances of every form of athletic exercise in which the Greeks indulged. Many vases, especially the R.F. kylikes, represent groups of athletes in the palaestra engaged in various exercises, such as boxing, wrestling, running, and leaping; in other cases we have single groups of boxers or wrestlers,or of the παγκράτιον, a somewhat brutal combination of the two. A boxer is sometimes seen putting on his caestus. The πένταθλον, which played so important a part in the national games, is not infrequently found, though often only three or four out of the five contests appear. Here, again, we also find single figures of diskos-throwers or javelin-throwers, representations of the long-jump, and men marking the ground with a pick-axe or poles. An athlete is seen binding round his javelin the cord or ἀγκύλη by which it was thrown, and the pick-axe afore-mentioned also appears in such a way as to indicate its general use by athletes—viz. for digging up the ground over which jumps were made, by way of exercising the limbs. A variation of the javelin contest was one in which the competitors were mounted, and aimed at a shield set up as a target as they rode past. Other important contests are the foot-race; the horse-race, generally taken part in by boys (κέλητες); the chariot-race; the torch-race (λαμπαδηδρομία); and the race of armed warriors (ὁπλιτοδρομία). In the latter contest various types may be distinguished: the arming for the race; the start; the race itself, with runners turning at the end of the stadion; the finish; and a variation in which the runner carried his armour. On the earlier vases this race is run in full armour; on the later, only with helmets and shields. Frequently the victorious athlete, horseman, or hoplite is seen proclaimed as winner, and receiving his prize; also receiving a crown from Nike.

Among more miscellaneous scenes may be mentioned athletes anointing themselves and using the strigil; the κωρυκομαχία or quintain; an athlete expiring; a girl-runner wounded in the foot; men rolling discs; acrobats and female tumblers performing contortions over swords, or lifting objects with their feet. To the list of palaestra scenes may be added those where Nike or another deity appears as patron of the palaestra watching the athletes, and scenes of ephebi washing or bathing in preparation for or after their contests. The athletes are often accompanied by trainers, who use a forked stick to direct their movements. On the later R.F. and the Italian vases it is a regular thing to find on the reverse a roughly painted group of two or three athletes or ephebi, usually wrapped in himatia and conversing together; in such cases the palaestra is indicated by a pair of jumping-weights or a ball suspended.

Subjects coming under the heading of what we call Sport  are not so common, and are practically limited to hunting scenes. They include hare-hunts, stag-hunts, wolf-hunts and fox-hunts, lion-hunts, and boar-hunts; in the latter on early B.F. vases the figures often have fancy names, with a reference in some cases to the hunt of the Calydonian boar, which created the type. Some, especially B.F. vases, depict the departure of a hunter for the chase, or his return loaded with game; or we see a party of hunters resting (all with fancy names). A group of youths capturing and taming a bull may also be mentioned here, and horse-taming is similarly depicted. We see horses being unharnessed, groomed, and watered, or exercised, and a man with a backing horse; and we may also perhaps include among these subjects scenes representing riding-lessons, a school for ephebi, or a boy learning to mount a horse. A favourite subject for the interiors of R.F. cups is that of a young Athenian on horseback, often in Oriental or Thracian costume. On the B.F. vases a horseman or a chariot is sometimes depicted in front view, a notable exception to the preference of the time, and sometimes a three-horse chariot takes the place of the quadriga. Among miscellaneous chariot-scenes may be mentioned a goddess (?) and a hero mounting chariots, a girl in a chariot drawn by hinds; and people travelling in a country cart.

Among the various Games  popular with Greek youths the favourite is, perhaps, that of ball, which was often played by men mounted on each other's shoulders in two parties, this being known as ἐφεδρισμός; a rougher variant, in which the ball was omitted and victory was probably gained by overthrowing the opponent pair, was known as ἐγκοτύλη. Women and children also play at ball, as does Eros. Equally popular was cock-fighting; and we also see a group of boys shooting with bow and arrows at a popinjay or figure of a bird. Of indoor amusements the favourite is the κότταβος, a popular relaxation after a banquet, often seen on kylikes and other R.F. vases. Other games, more suitable to younger boys, are top-spinning and bowling a hoop; others, again, in which boys and girls join, or even occasionally Eros and Satyrs, are the games of morra  (micare digitis , or “How many fingers do I hold up?”), and its variant, the ὤμιλλα, played with knucklebones; swinging and see-sawing; and flying a kite. A game of similar character to the morra  is played by a winged girl, who places her hands over the eyes of a boy in a chair. The so-called magic wheel, which was twirled on a string, is almost exclusively used by Eros on the vases of Southern Italy. Children with their toys, such as go-carts, vases of various shapes, etc., are often depicted on the smaller R.F. vases of the fine style, some of which were perhaps actually made for playthings; and we often see them accompanied by pet dogs, tortoises, and other animals. Similarly there are representations of birds and beasts kept in cages, and of grown-up people playing with pets: a youth and girl with a mouse or jerboa, or a man with a Maltese dog.

Equal in importance in the eyes of the Greeks was the other great division of their education, μουσική; the wider sense in which they used the word, the culture of the mind as opposed to that of the body (γυμναστικη), admits of including under this heading school scenes as well as musical performances. Among the former is the well-known kylix of Duris in Berlin, where a teacher is seen unrolling a manuscript on which appears an epic hexameter; a pupil is about to write on tablets; and others undergo instruction on the flute and lyre. Elsewhere we see a youth writing on a tablet, or on his way to school; a man reading from a roll; and a vivid representation of a schoolmaster giving a writing lesson.

Lessons in music, singing, and dancing are by no means infrequently represented, especially on R.F. vases; we have already seen the young Herakles and Iphikles receiving instruction of this kind, and on the vases both boys and girls take part in the lessons. Dancing scenes include dances of maidens (very common on early B.F. vases), or single figures of dancers; a girl dancing to the flute or with castanets, or a youth to the music of a girl; a woman dancing the Pyrrhic dance in the attire of a warrior, and a sacred Lydian dancer with her wicker head-dress. The grotesque dancers on some early B.F. vases appear to be performing the kordax .

Groups of musicians with no particular signification are often found, generally playing the lyre and flute, or single figures, such as a lyre-player in female costume, or in the distinctive ὀρθοστάδιον of the musician. Other scenes relate to agonistic and musical competitions, which often formed part of the great games; thus we have on some Panathenaic vases and elsewhere contests for victory with the lyre or flute. Sometimes the victorious musician appears receiving the prizeor a crown from Nike; he usually stands on a bema  or raised platform. On one vase a poet recites an epic to the sound of the flute; the opening words appear proceeding from his mouth. On another a man is seen tuning his lyre. Singing was a common recreation of banqueters or revellers, especially as seen on R.F. vases.