Both sports and choral dancing became increasingly important parts of Athenian life over the course of the sixth and fifth centuries. In the century and half after 566 the Athenians established numerous contests in athletics and dancing, built three public gymnasia, erected monuments to successful choruses and athletes, and offered lavish rewards to victors at the Panhellenic games. (This paper considers choral dancing only as a discrete, intensely physical activity; it does not deal with choruses that were part of tragedies, comedies, etc.) During that same period Athens became one of the most democratic states in the Greek world. While there can be no doubt that democratization created conditions favorable to the broadening of participation in sports and choral dancing, the purpose of this paper is to argue that the reverse was true as well and, more specifically, that participation in and spectatorship of sports and choral dancing contributed meaningfully to democratization in Athens.
There is of course a vast literature on the origins and development of Athenian democracy, but relatively little scholarship that directly addresses the question of a possible causal relationship between sports, choral dancing, and democratization. R. Osborne (1993) argued that competitive festivals in Athens encouraged esprit de corps and appropriate forms of philotimia. S. Miller (2000) has made the case that athletic nudity promoted democracy by eroding social distinctions based on wealth and class. There has also been much discussion about the extent of participation in sports and choral dancing in Athens by non-elites prior to c. 400 BCE. The two basic positions have been most thoroughly articulated by N. R. E. Fisher (1998, 2011) and D. Pritchard (2003, 2004). Fisher’s position is that non-elites began participating in sports and choral dancing in significant numbers early in the fifth century, Pritchard’s that these activities remained the preserve of elites to the end of the fifth century. (The work of Calame (1997) and others on choruses is important but does not explore the relationship between dancing and democracy in Athens.) This paper takes a fundamentally different approach than the extant scholarship because it uses sociological concepts and theories and focuses on the socio-political mechanisms by which sports and choral dancing sustained democratization.
The paper has three parts. It begins with some brief suggestions about how sociology might inform the study of ancient sports and dance. This entails highlighting a basic societal need to find a balance between order and personal autonomy and identifying the primary means by which order is achieved, namely socialization, consensus, and coercion. The second part rapidly sketches how the democratization of Athens created new challenges in achieving a balance between order and autonomy. The third and by far the longest part of the paper discusses how sports and choral dancing (1) socialized Athenians into habits that buttressed democratization, (2) helped them achieve consensus, (3) exerted coercive force that induced obedience to written and unwritten rules without the use of overt compulsion, and (4) taught Athenians how to manage the enhanced autonomy that came with democratization. One strand of the argument will give a sense of how the whole would be presented. Democratization makes social order more difficult to achieve because the empowerment of large numbers of people makes overt coercion less acceptable. Participation in sports and choral dancing in Athens imposed a form of physical discipline of the sort discussed by Foucault (1977) and Bourdieu (1988); both activities engendered obedience to rules and authority figures and in that way exerted coercive force in a covert rather than overt fashion. Widespread, regular participation in sports and in choral dancing thus underpinned democratization by fostering appropriate, even necessary, habits and behaviors. The same basic approach will be applied throughout. The result is a new and expanded view of the relationship between democratization, sports, and choral dancing in ancient Athens.