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Minas Minoides, Philostratus’ Gymnastikos and the Nineteenth Century Greek Olympic Movement

Zinon Papakonstantinou

The editio princeps of Philostratus’ Gymnastikos appeared in 1858 in Paris. The editor Minas Minoides, a classical scholar from the region of Macedonia who resided permanently in France, discovered the manuscript probably in a monastery in mount Athos while on a mission of the French Ministry of Public Instruction. Minoides took part in three such missions from 1840 to 1855, the purpose of which was to acquire manuscripts for the cabinet des manuscrits of the Bibliothèque national (Omont 1916). Minoides quickly developed a reputation for mishandling and even smuggling manuscripts without the permission of monastic authorities (Koutzakiotis 2001). Upon his return to Paris Minoides proceeded with the publication of his discoveries, which included a manuscript of the fables of Babrius. Minoides, who refused access to the manuscripts he discovered in Greece to other scholars, fabricated a number of fables and in 1857 sold the Babrius manuscript to the British museum (Sandys 1908, 380-1).The fabrication was quickly discovered, thus marring Minoides’ reputation for ever (e.g. Gardiner 1910, 220). This affair also influenced the reception of Minoides’ edition of the Gymnastikos, which was regarded with suspicion until the original manuscript was rediscovered in the Bibliothèque national in 1896. Despite his scandalous behavior, Minoides received numerous honors by the French state, including a Knighthood in the Legion of Honor and a pension.

The importance of the Gymnastikos for the history of ancient Greek sport has overshadowed the scholarly contributions of Minoides to the subject.  In his Préface to the edition of the Gymnastikos Minoides provided an overview of ancient Greek athletics that, as it was remarked by contemporaries (Guardia 1858), entirely overlooked past scholarship, including Krause’s magisterial Die Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen (Leipzig, 1841). In the Notes sur Philostrate that follow the Greek text and the French translation Minoides discussed quite competently technical aspects of Greek sport. Minoides was therefore a skilled philologist but was not interested in a critical evaluation of the Gymnastikos in its appropriate historical and intellectual context. Nevertheless, his work is not without significance: for instance Minoides appears to have been the first to argue for the misleading notion that wars were suspended during the ancient Olympic games. This idea eventually developed into the modern myth of the Olympic peace-making truce.

Minoides’ real objectives in the Gymnastikos were revealed in the appendix entitled “Institution des jeux olympiques en Grèce”. In this piece Minoides weighs into contemporary Greek debates regarding the revival of modern Olympic games by arguing forcibly that the establishment of athletic training regimes and contests will be beneficial to the bodily and moral strength of Greeks. Already in 1837 Minoides had published his “Hortatory Speech to Greeks in Favor of Regular Physical Exercise”. His arguments were fully in keeping with the dominant discourse of ethnogenesis that aimed at establishing Greece as a “nation” with a distinguished past (see Paparrigopoulos 1853). The invention of traditions – in the case of Minoides, the cultivation of body and intellect through sport – that were perceived as ingrained traits of the “nation”, was an integral part of this process.

In sum, Minoides edition of the Gymnastikos as well as his other work on ancient Greek athletics should be seen primarily in the context of the nineteenth century Greek national movement and the attempts to consolidate “Greece” as an imagined community through the use and abuse of classical antiquity. 

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Ancient Athletics and the Modern Olympics: History, Ideals, and Ideology

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