Athletics in the Era of Peloponnesian War


CHS–International Olympic Academy Pre-doc Fellow in Sport and Society 2020–21

When I applied to the Center for Hellenic Studies with a project, I set out to study Sport as the element that accompanies social development in all aspects of public life. At the same time sport is the instrument by which the cultural values ​​of Greeks are strengthened through the sphere of competition, as expressed by all city-states. However, my research focuses on Greek cities that were the dominant dipole in power and competition during the 5th century BC, and specifically in Athens and Sparta. Given the competitiveness that distinguishes them and culminates in the outbreak and conduct of the Peloponnesian War, as well as the fact that the social structure of the two cities is drastically different, the subject of my research is the way the two great rivals manage sports in framework of social cohesion, integrating it into their political and social becoming, as a key cohesive element of the society of the 5th century B.C.

Regarding Athens, the city’s acquaintance with sports begins with the first Athenian Olympic victory in 696 BC. That relationship was later cultivated when Solon attempted in 594 BC. democratization of sport, legislating monetary rewards for sporting victories (Plut. Solon 23.3). In this way he pushed members of the lower social classes to engage in sports, although such occupation is considered primarily characteristic of the upper classes, as argued by both, Aristophanes (Plutus 281, 552-554) and Aristotle (Politics 1273a 21- 36).

In the context of the tendency to expand sports and to acquaint Athenians with sports events, the inclusion of sports games in the annual festive program of Athens (Arist. AthenPol. 60) is included, as well as new institutions, such as the Dithyrambic Dance Competitions, aiming to involve the Athenians. This tendency strengthens the stability between members from different classes or tribes and urges them to see Athens as a political, cultural and religious homeland, with the ultimate goal, according to Aristotle, for more to participate in the regime (Arist. Athen. Pol. 21.2 ).

Consequently, by creating the context in which the Athenian citizens belong together, regardless of social class, festivals are finally a point of reference for the Athenians, as they stand out in relation to all other Greeks. This differentiation is reinforced by the tendency of Classical Athens to have festivals that surpass any other Greek city (Xenof. Athen. Pol. 3.2 and 8). These events and spectacles stand out for their magnificence and become an object of admiration, since Athens is a place where the festive events never end (Isocr. 4.43-46). Therefore, Athenians are completely familiar with sports, as the city itself offers them a wealth of opportunities, which is only possible in democratic Athens.

However, the Athenians’ acquaintance with sports is not limited to the festivals. It is also achieved by the Athenian educational system, since one of the courses included in the basic education of children is Gymnastics. Nevertheless, the fact that Athenian education is a private matter, as both, the duration and the type of education, depend on the financial capacity and the choices made by each family (Pl. Prot. 326c), but also the opinion of ancient writers that sports training is necessary to achieve victory,lead us to the conclusion that engaging in sports is not equally accessible to all social classes in Athens.

This is because the poor Athenians do not ultimately choose the subject of Gymnastics but that of Letters, as the most useful for them, in order to help them cope with their private obligations and to participate in city’s public affairs (Pl. Prot. 313a, 326b-c). This fact is also certified by modern writers, who characterize the involvement with music and sports as a subject and activity mainly of the upper social classes. However, despite the fact that sports are actively involved primarily by citizens of the upper economic classes, athletes have full acceptance of all citizens, as certified not only by the public care of the festivals, but also by Comedy. 

The explanation for all these should be sought in the relationship between sport and war and its democratization. Since the lower social classes, which are ideologically linked to the military values ​​of war, due to their participation in war, they acquire a culture, common to sports and military affairs, which exist between the Athenian athletes and the warriors. Why is it common? Because both, sport and battle, contain the element of the fight, based on specific rules. 

Therefore, it is understood that athletics, while containing the element of competition, is essentially a unifying element for Athenian society. In other words, Athenian festivals, along with the games they contain, give every Athenian the opportunity to share common experience. Through this common experience, social harmony is promoted and social consciousness spreads, since sport becomes a common property for all social classes, whether they participate directly as athletes, or indirectly as spectators and benefactors. This is in line with the nature of democracy and the values ​​of equality and equity.

In relation to Sparta, according to Pericles (Thuc. 2.39) there are great differences in the educational and military system of Athens and Sparta in terms of the duration of Spartan education and the type of education provided. More specifically, the education of the Spartans begins at a very young age and continues throughout their lives (Xen. Lac. Pol. 2.1-2), with the ultimate goal of preparing the young Spartans to become proper citizens and soldiers. However, even when the Spartans become adults and formal education has been completed, engaging in sports continues (Xen. Lac. Pol. 5.8).

At the same time, a reference point for Spartan education is its public character, which imposes an education common to all. In fact, this is certified by Aristotle, who in his effort to support the public character and the common educational system that every city should have (Pol. 1337a13-16), does not fail to praise the Spartans, because they pay great attention to their children and impose the same education for all (Pol. 1337a24-26).

In terms of the content of the education provided, a key feature is the toughness and rigor of the morals to be cultivated. Despite the fact that Spartan education includes courses that were the basic education of the time, namely Letters, Music and Gymnastics (Plut. Lyc. 21.1-2), the course that ultimately dominates throughout the educational process and not only, is that of Gymnastics. In this educational system Spartans had included various kinds of physical exercises, in order to lead them to the acquisition of bravery (Plat. Laws 636a-c). The view that Gymnastics contributes to bravery (Arist. Pol. 1337b) finds its full reflection in the Spartan educational system, which reinforces the need of the Spartans to develop a strong military force from their own citizens.

In essence, sport plays a major role in all phases of Spartan education and the more the children grow up, the more competitive it becomes. Because sports are considered preparation for war, the law that requires all Lacedaemonian citizens to exercise throughout their military service is also justified (Lac. Pol. 12.5-7), following their daily routine engagement. Therefore, sports are the way in which men are prepared to play the role of a soldier, because they are required to show physical aggression. For this reason, the educational process in Sparta is extended until adulthood, turning the city into a permanent military camp (Plut. Lyc. 24.1 and 25.3). It is a process common to all, even to the women of Sparta (Lac. Pol. 1.4), proving at the same time the role sports played in Spartan Society.

More specifically, Spartan society is a closed society (Thuc. 2.39) with complete submission to the laws (Thuc. 1.18). This obedience required constant practice in order to familiarize the citizens with law and to make this possible, Lycurgus used sports and hard military training, which begins in childhood. This training encorporated rules and principles, which must be followed by the trainees. Therefore, sport is the powerful mechanism used in Sparta in order to introduce compliance with rules and behaviors, especially since it extends throughout the life of the Spartans.

Particularly important is the cultivation of collectivity, on which the Spartan education is based. Throughout the training, the children were divided into groups, such as ίλες and συσσίτια. In these groups the young Spartans practiced hard and were disciplined in strict rules of conduct (Lac. Pol. 2). At the same time, an important role in the cultivation of collectivity is the special place that dance and group games hold in Spartan society. Through the very demanding rules that everyone is forced to obey, the submission of the individual to the group is taught, a fact that is the basic element of socialization of the Spartans.

For this reason, Spartans, by integrating into all these group activities, perceive and support the priority of the group over the individual. This priority is also cultivated in sports education, as sport forces them to live in an environment of coercion and rules, which everyone must obey, while in case of violation of these rules, very strict penalties will be followed.

It is therefore understood that Spartan cohesion is the result of the education and life style shared by the Spartans, who are forced by law not to live individually, but to learn everything collectively (Plut. Lyc. 25.3). Through the activities we have already described, the group acquires coherence and consistency, because citizens share common values, which everyone is forced to obey. In this way the educational system of Sparta combines education, socialization and initiation, turning sport into a kind of preparation for further politicization.

In conclusion, the two cities may differ in the way they manage sports, but in essence they have the same purpose: to maintain social cohesion. In Sparta it is achieved by the participation of all Spartan citizens and by the effort to feel community through the common experiences they try. In Athens, although they participate not only as athletes but also as spectators or benefactors, they try experiences that are common and shared by all. Consequently, despite the different types of participation, sport is finally becoming the strong link, connecting the citizens in the two major cities.

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