Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Professor D. J. Geagan


This dissertation investigates the historical development and significance of athletics in ancient Athens. There has been no thorough historical treatment of this topic previously, and histories of ancient sport have tended simply to include Athens in a general picture of the rise and fall of Greek athletics. There also has been no extensive collection and presentation of the wide variety of relevant evidence including ancient authors, archaeology, vase-paintings and epigraphical testimonial. This evidence and the analysis presented here show that athletics were very significant in the civic and political life of Athens, and that the histories of Athens and its athletics were inter-related.

Taking an historical approach, the study deals with the "when, who, where and why" of Athenian athletics rather than the "how" or the technical aspects of various events. "Athletics" refers to that realm of activity related to the preparation and competition of persons for prizes at public contests in events requiring physical strength and skill. Equestrian competitions also are covered. The focus is on the internal affairs of Athens, and chronologically the main concentration is on the late archaic and the classical periods when athletics were part of civic life and evidence becomes more substantial. The study stops with the end of Athenian independence in 322 B.C. as Athens and its athletics entered a new phase in the Hellenistic age.

At Athens the prizes, participants, sites and circumstances of athletics show that this state and this area of activity affected the life and character of each other. Rather than a Panhellenic sanctuary, Athens was a dynamic polis; and athletics accordingly developed in relationship with public life, the social elite, and civic administration and finance. Here one can speak of "civic athletics" with a significant degree of state involvement, as in the administration of athletic festivals. Athens and its athletics had a constructive and harmonious relationship overall. The Athenian as victor, benefactor or spectator gained glory, recognition or pleasure, and the city benefitted from flattering festivals and facilities and from an enhanced civic consciousness.

After the introduction the dissertation comprises six main sections. Part One outlines the rise of athletics at Athens from aristocratic and probably funerary origins up to the recognizable emergence of civic athletics with the Panathenaea of ca. 566 B.C. Part Two examines the athletic festivals and events, and notes an Athenian tendency from Peisistratos onwards to direct local and even funerary athletics to the unity and glorification of the state. Part Three investigates the rise, expansion and topography of Athenian athletic facilities including the Agora; the study notes the significance of political factors in the development of such facilities. Part Four, presenting the results of a prosopographical examination of all known Athenian athletes, concludes that Athenian athletics remained elitist but that the elitism changed from one of birth to one of wealth. Part Five examines criticisms of athletics in Athenian sources to show the limitations of these as evidence. A discussion of training notes the trend of athletic specialization but discounts professionalism in the sense of the financial dependency of athletes. Athletic awards at Athens simply were traditional and popular expressions of civic appreciation. Part Six demonstrates and explains the direct, then the indirect, and finally the disappearing relationship between athletics and Athenian political leadership. The conclusion, suggesting five significant developmental stages, places the history of Athenian athletics within the wider context of the history of the state itself. Appendices deal with problems, such as supposedly Solonian laws about athletics, or present collections of evidence, such as the catalogues of Athenian athletes.

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