Time in ancient and modern sport

It’s interesting to look at the way in which ancient sport deals with time.

One of the striking things is that it’s very hard to find any interest in medium-term timescales: in other words hard to find examples of ongoing competition played out over a period of weeks and months. We’re used to this in big tournaments with a knock-out structure or in leagues with regular matches for more than half the year–those models are common in many different sports. Other structures are unique to particular sports: for example the concept of the series in test match cricket (up to five matches of five days each, played by two teams across a couple of months of the summer), or the big three-week stage races of professional cycling: the Giro d’Italia in May, the Tour de France in July, the Vuelta a España in August/September.

Following these events is one of the great pleasures available to the modern sports fan, with their drawn-out suspense and their ups and downs over a long period. And it’s one of the things that makes modern sport completely different from its ancient equivalents (or even from sporting activity before about the mid 19th century: many of these ways of organising sport came into being around the same time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: FA cup in 1871-2, first test match in 1877, English football league in 1888, Tour de France in 1903–this photo from 1906).

In other respects, however, the differences are much less. Ancient sportsmen and sports fans engaged with sport as a short-term activity, just as we do, in contests which last for seconds or minutes or (occasionally) hours.

That doesn’t mean that ancient sports fans had to be content with living in the moment. They also often perceived a long-term narrative, measured by years and decades. That’s apparent especially in texts which look back over the careers of famous athletes.

Ancient victory inscriptions

We have many surviving examples of this in victory inscriptions (especially from the Roman Empire). In the absence of journalists, athletes had to advertise their achievements for themselves. These texts were set up by athletes or by their home cities or by the athletic guild as ways of celebrating a glorious career, often accompanied by statues. They offered a kind of CV or palmarès inscribed on stone. Some of them give extraordinary impressions of the dominance of the great athletes they celebrate, and a vivid picture of the geographical range of the ancient festival calendar. (For a modern parallel, here’s Lance Armstrong’s palmarès–enjoy it while you can, since it may be looking a bit different in a year’s time…)

Some of the more famous examples are fairly easily available (e.g., good examples in Miller (2004) Arete–numbers 210 and 213). But there are plenty of others out there which aren’t easy to get hold of in translation.

Marcus Aurelius Abas

Here’s a fairly typical one (from Moretti, Iscrizioni agonistiche greche, number 76–and there are nearly 100 others there with Greek text and Italian commentary for anyone who wants to look).

It’s from the city of Adada–a small city Pisidia, now south-west Turkey. It’s probably from the late second century AD.

The Council and the Assembly have honoured Marcus Aurelius Abas, citizen and councillor, amazing running victor in the sacred games, a long distance runner, the first and only Adadan of all time to win the following sacred, iselastic contests:

The Capitolia in Rome

The Eusebeia in Puteoli

The Sebasta in Naples

The shield games of Argos, without competitors

The Asklepeia of Epidauros

The Olympia in Pisa

The Ourania (?) in Sparta

The festival of the Bithynian league in Nikomedia

The long-distance race and the diaulos (400 metres) in the Artemisia at Ephesos

The Hadrianeia in Ephesos twice

The Balbilleia in Ephesos

The festival of the Asian league in Kyzikos

The victory games in Ephesos

The Panhelleneia in Athens.

Compared with some, this list is pretty brief and modest. Many of the others boast of having won several successive victories at the Olympics and other festivals, instead of just one (then as now, an athlete who boasts of three Olympic victories is one who has dominated the sport for nearly a decade). And the point about being the first citizen of Adada ever to win this combination of victories is fairly unambitious compared with his more dominant contemporaries: some of them claim that their achievements are unique in the whole world.

But still this gives a powerful impression of how fascinated ancient viewers were with looking back over the whole sweep of an athlete’s career.

The detail about victory without competitors in Argos is also fairly common, and very prestigious–it basically means that all other competitors withdrew, conceding the race in advance.

Postscript: athletes and Roman emperors

Incidentally I think it’s also interesting to see the position of Olympia in this list–relegated to sixth place. More often Olympia comes at the beginning of lists like these, but there are other examples like this one from the second century where it slips down the list (see Moretti 69, with translation here, for another example).

More than anything that’s a sign of the importance given the festivals founded by Roman emperors or in honour of Roman emperors, which came to have an almost equal prestige to the old contests of the Greek world. The Capitolia, for example, the first festival listed here, was founded by the emperor Domitian in the city of Rome in the late first century AD, and very soon became one of the most important of all festivals in the Greek athletic calendar. (The Piazza Navona in Rome is built over the stadium constructed by Domitian for the games–you can just about see the long, thin stadium shape in this Piranesi etching from 1748).

Arguably the sponsorship of successive emperors was a major factor in the renaissance of Greek athletic festivals in the Roman Empire, Olympia included–surprising in a way, given that we tend to think of the Olympics as Greek rather than Roman…