Clas 324: Greek and Roman Athletics
Greek athletic games and Roman gladiatorial battles each developed—in different ways— out of the realities of warfare in the ancient world. America’s favorite sports—from the “one winner” model of the Olympics to the “team” model of football—are the descendants of these ancient “war games.” This class examines such sports and the societies that enjoyed (and enjoy) them. We’ll look at similarities, and differences. The cool stuff, the weird stuff, and the really freaking freaky parts. For whereas the Greek panhellenic (“all-Greece”) games replaced the blood of the battlefield with dramatic displays of the military physicality, Roman gladiatorial events replicated this blood with realtime, armed combat before crowds of thousands. Similarly, although the Olympics and college football are both popular spectator sports, they say different things about the viewers’ desires to see acts of strength, bravery, power, and—not rarely—real violence.
We’ll begin with an examination of the origins, events, architecture, and cultural importance of Greek athletics—from the earliest beginnings (maybe) in the Homeric poems to the florescence of athletics— and culture—in the archaic and classical periods. Next we’ll look at the politically and culturally contested “re-foundation” of the modern Olympics—considering what has changed, what hasn’t, and how the games constitute an ongoing contest to appropriate a Mediterranean past for political clout.
In the second half of the term we move to the Roman gladiatorial games (which are, I’ll try to convince you, one of the weirdest, most frightening phenomena going). We'll conclude with the birth and rise of football on the college campus and beyond, with an eye to both the centrality of this sport and the many controversies and inequities that surround it. We shall focus throughout the term on issues of ethnicity and nationality; social status (slave v. freeborn); gender (exclusion, and inclusion, of women), and the socioeconomic and ethical implications of our modern treatment of athletes.