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Sport in Greece and Rome

By R.S.J. Carland | Published in History Today 1985 
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R.S.J. Carland reviews two books on sport in the ancient world.

Sport in Greece and Rome, by H.A. Harris. 288 pp. (Thames and Hudson, £14);

Sports and Games in the Ancient World, by Vera Olivova. 208 pp. (Orbis Publishing, £12.99)

As was the case four years ago, the latest in the modern series of Olympic Games has generated considerable interest in the significance and role of athletics in antiquity, which publishers have been quick to satisfy. Of all the institutions of the ancient world, that of the Olympic Games in particular, and delight in physical exercise in general, has the most immediate and perennial appeal. The late H.A. Hams' Sport in Greece and Rome is a reprint of the first edition published in 1972. Its particular strength, as well as its limitation, is its close concentration upon the rules and regulations of the various sporting activities, as well as the particular skills and techniques of the competitors. The author's descriptive style is much enriched by a multitude of well-chosen quotations from ancient authors. Professor Harris's fascination with the subject is clearly much informed by his own love of sport, particularly the more exclusive athletic activities such as the Oxford and Cambridge University boat race, which provides him with an extensive range of not always very instructive modern parallels that lend his book an outmoded, 'period' quality. Nor does he make any serious attempt to explain the very important connection between athletics and religion, which he impatiently denounces as 'exaggerated' and apparently judges to be fortuitous. Professor Harris' book is, in a word, thoroughly old-fashioned, though his antiquarian fascination with details of sporting activity nonetheless makes a serious contribution to scholarship and furnishes a very readable, if quirky and at times somewhat crusty narrative.

Whatever its merits as a text, however, Sport in Greece and Rome with its fudged black and white photographs can hardly stand comparison with the superb full gloss illustrations in Vera Olivova's Sports and Games in the Ancient World . Dr Olivova's book, which deals with sport not only in Greece and Rome, but also in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Crete, takes a far less technical approach to its subject. Each description is lucid, brief and self-contained, and assumes no previous knowledge of the ancient world. It is clearly intended for the general reader rather than the scholar, and as such performs a very useful service in inviting comparisons between a series of ancient cultures. In some respects, the most stimulating if not wholly original part of the book is its prologue, in which the author touches upon the psychological and social reasons for the development of sporting activity – both as a way of achieving physical and emotional relaxation, canalising aggressive instincts, and ensuring the favour and protection of the gods. My one criticism of the book is that at times it becomes somewhat unfocused, the result of a rather loose-ended definition of the term 'sports and games'. Dr Olivova's section entitled 'The Mycenaean Warriors’, for instance, contains no material evidence whatsoever to support the view that the Mycenaeans indulged in physical activity for its own sake, and this fact needs to be openly, and straightforwardly acknowledged. Judged overall, however, this defect is not obtrusive and in no way detracts from the impressive coverage which Dr Olivovi's book lends to its theme.



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