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Social Mobility and Athletics in Archaic Greece

Cameron Glaser Pearson

University of Warsaw

For the Archaic period in Greece, a new model of performed social mobility has been put forth by Duplouy (2006: esp. 20-34; 2015). Yet, other scholars doubt this model’s applicability to such a pre-modern economy (Prost, Zurbach). Focusing on the example of athletics, this paper will argue that evidence supporting social advancement can be found in inscriptions which frame athletic contests as taking place between the entire “demos” or citizenry.

Pleket and Kyle’s seminal works argue that only those of the leisure-class could afford the time for training and the travel that the contests at Olympia and elsewhere would entail. However, Young provides some possible evidence for athletes who were neither wealthy nor noble (ch. 6).  Furthermore, Christensen proposes a gradual “democratization” of athletics after 700 BCE, but only cites evidence for a general expansion.

A survey of the rare inscriptional evidence concerned with athletics from this period shows that athletic contests are often framed as civic. A stele from Eleusis from about 550 BCE, most likely refers to a racecourse (dromos) as in IG  I3 507 and 508 (see also 988):

            δέμοι Ἀθεναίον ἄ[ρχο]ν̣ | στέλ̣α̣ς καδέθεκεν (sic)

            Ἀλκίφρον | καὶ τόνδε δρόμον ποίεσεν | ἐραστὸν

            Δέμετρός τε χάριν ¦ [καὶ Φερσεφόνες τ]ανυπ̣έπλ̣ο.            (CEG 301)

For the people of Athens, the [Archon] Alkiphron set up stelai and made this lovely dromos (for racing?) as a pleasing gift for Demeter and long robed [Persephone].

Another stele dedication in Argos, dated to around 500-480, also names the victories as won at the δαμοσίοις ἀέθλοις (civic contest; Moretti no. 10, line 2). Werlings has shown that demos and its synonyms generally indicate the civic sphere and the city’s inhabitants in this period, though we do not know who made up this group. Even when the word demos is not used, contests are framed as civic when they celebrate a deity, such as Moretti no. 9, commemorating Aiglatas’ victories in Sparta at festivals for Athena and another called the “Syrmaia.” Another dedication on a bronze discus, dated 550-525 BCE, proclaims victory over the Kephalonians as a group, indicating again a civic contest.

            Ἐχσοίδα μ’ ἀνέθεκε Διϝὸς ϙόροιν μεγάλοιο  ⁝̣

            χάλκεον, hôι νίκασε Κεφαλᾶνας μεγαθύμος.          (CEG 391)

Exoidas dedicated me to the twin sons of great Zeus (Dioscuri), a bronze [disc] with which he defeated the great-hearted Kephalonians.

These examples indicate that those lucky enough to have been members of a polis could probably participate in these contests. It could well have been that those with more wealth and free time had an advantage, but Fisher has shown that wealthy patrons in late Archaic Athens likely sponsored young athletes in a similar way to paying for the training of a chorus. This is also what probably happened in many cities. There is little reason to suppose that citizens could not gain prizes and social capital from many of these competitions.   

These examples do not give us evidence of citizens gaining social mobility, but they do frame some athletic contests as an endeavor among citizens, rather than as purely “aristocratic,” such as in the case of the symposium, with which athletics is paired in the “aristocratic lifestyle” (e.g. Murray).

The sociological conclusion that these examples draw out is that we should think of the citizens of most Archaic poleis as an elite, under which were the slaves, many metics, perioikoi, penestai, and thetes. Kistler and Hammer have pointed out the flaws in using the theory of a “middling ideology” to explain social and political changes during the Archaic period (e.g. Morris: esp. 155-7; Christensen). The evidence presented here supports the economic model proposed by Bravo, which emphasizes merchant trade. Thus, we do not have an “open society” in the words of Duplouy, but one in which the elite, that is the citizens, can compete and gain wealth, prominence, and social advancement through athletics. 

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Political Enculturation

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