In Syracuse, the tyrant Hieron bribed Astylos, a successful Olympic athlete, to compete in the 480 and 484 BC Olympic Games under the national banner of Syracuse. Astylos accepted this offer and the bribe. In Croton (where Astylos was from), the city was outraged that Astylos would desert them for Syracuse, and so the people of Croton elected to expel him from the city state and also demolished the statue in honour of him there. The people of Hieron went further by turning his house into a prison as a sign of their disrespect for him and his family even renounced him.

Now, an interesting question that I want to raise from all this is whether we should see Astylos as being a state actor because he went from competing for Croton to then competing for Syracuse? Or, alternatively, should we see Astylos as a transnational free agent? In other words, he was an individual competitor who had no loyalty to a single city state and wanted to compete by his own individual initiative. This raises a broader question which I wish to investigate in this blog post, namely to what extent were the Olympic Games in the Ancient world a transnational occasion? Can we even talk about transnationalism in the Ancient period? These questions have been debated by historians.

On the one hand, historians who argue the state-centric approach believe that the ancient Olympics were used by individual Greek city states for their own personal prestige. City states such as Athens, Sparta and Croton used sports in order to train their own soldiers for warfare, and sport was something that was almost entirely directed by the city states. Indeed, states wanted to promote training for sport and the Olympics because it was a way in which they could gain prestige over other city states. They offered large financial incentives for their athletes who brought victory to the city states. Much like today, victory in the Olympic Games was a matter of national pride!

The second interpretation I wish to offer is a transnational perspective. According to this approach, athletes were free to enter the Olympic Games on their own accord and athletes did not have to go through a rigorous process in order to apply for the Olympics. Moreover, the main purpose of the state was just to attend to the ritual sacrifices at the Games and not to compete with other city states. For us historians interested in transnational history, let me present the case for this second interpretation.

The spectators for the Olympics travelled to the Games without the encouragement of the state. There was no transport organized by the state and spectators had to organize their own transport and find their own accommodation nearby. Interestingly, it seems that a lot of Greeks went to see the Games because it was part of an ideal aesthetic that they had for it. Solon believed that the spectators went to the Games in order to see ‘manly perfection, physical beauty, wonderful condition, mighty skill, irresistible strength, daring, rivalry’ (Anacharsis 12 Loeb). Similarly, Isocrates praised the athletes and festivals of the Games because they brought people together from across Greece in a single place (Panegyricus 43-4). By having such a magnificent spectacle, it meant that spectators were attracted to the Olympics every four years and it created a form of travel that was stateless, borderless and transnational. The reason why the spectators travelled to the Games was because they wanted to see the spectacle of the games and not because they felt any national pride.

If we take poets, artists and philosophers, we can see that the reason why they travelled to the Games was so that they could display their talent. For example, Herodotus tells us that he presented himself to an Olympic crowd of important men who were interested in his work (Lucian, Herodotus, 1-7). Moreover, we know of Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Isocrates and Thucydides also attending for a similar purpose, in order to present their work to people from across city states in a single location. This was a truly transnational moment because these intellectuals came from across the Greek world and displayed their works to spectators who came from all kinds of city states.

Moving onto the athletes themselves, the point I wish to emphasize is that the city state (or polis) took very little interest in the athletes themselves, until they were actually successful in the games. Moreover, the city states did not require a rigorous selection procedure to be admitted into the games, as we have in the modern Olympics, but rather athletes tended to enter themselves without the direct support of the city state. At home, the city states tended to have facilities such as gymnasiums and other athletic capital that was available for the athletes. The states generally provided these facilities so that soldiers could train and be ready for warfare when needed, but athletes also used them to train themselves for the Olympics too. Thus, we can now see how the agency lies with the athlete to train and enter himself into the Games and not with the state.

The state only took an interest in the athlete when he gained a victory because then the state wanted to use the athlete as a source of national pride. When Eleans of Dispontium won the quadriga (four-horsed chariot race) in 672, his home city made a big deal of this both immediately after the Games and also at the next Olympics. These bragging rights were important in Greece at the time because the city states were extremely competitive with each other.

At times, the city state would back the athlete with extreme force, as in the case when Kallippos of Athens was removed from the Games due to bribery (much like match-fixing nowadays, though that is a conversation for another time!). In this instance, Athens threatened to boycott the Games unless Kallippos was to be acquitted from this accusation. In addition, states would also greatly reward successful athletes and the athletes would sometimes be bribed by another city state to bring glory to them in the next Olympic Games. This merely made the athlete a ‘free agent’ who competed across national borders and paid little attention to the city state he was competing for. Even when city states tried to assert national pride through the Olympics, it seems that spectators, intellectuals and athletes cared very little for this.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of the Olympics

One thought on “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of the Olympics

  • April 27, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    I hugely enjoyed this blog: it is on a topic about which I know very little, and the enthusiasm for the subject really came through, helped by a very lucid writing style.

    I found some of the ideas, on a theoretical level, fascinating. Your opening questions set a brilliant scene for a transnationally-focused debate. I would be tempted, though, to turn one of your first questions –‘can we even talk about transnationalism in the Ancient period?’— rather on its head, or at least to redirect it— to say instead, ‘When can’t we talk about transnationalism, and why should the Ancient period be exceptional?’ Transnationalism, so far as I now see it, is not really about nations as such: it is focused instead upon the idea of flow, of people, ideas, and goods, and upon –to a certain extent— the idea that this happens despite, or even regardless of, man-made borders. Its name suggests that it defines itself in oppositionality to the idea of a nationalist history, and of course the two are rather opposed; I disagree, though, with the idea that where there are not nations, there cannot, too, be transnational history, and so stand alongside your argument.

    I find it interesting, too, that you make the state rather an independent entity: ‘the state only took an interest’; ‘the city state would back the athlete with extreme force’; ‘city states tried to assert national pride’. Who is doing all this— because it is surely not the ‘states themselves’, however we choose to envisage them, whether in the judicial structures, or the military hierarchies, or the other constructs? You attempt to draw, or perhaps end up drawing, a dichotomy between the state and the individual actor; we didn’t end up discussing this during the semester as much as I would have liked, though that is my fault for not bringing it up more, but the implications of the transnational lens upon such issues is something by which I have found myself increasingly interested.

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