The End of Greek Athletics in Late Antiquity (Remijsen)

This new book by Sofie Remijsen, scheduled for publication this month with Cambridge University Press, offers a fresh evaluation of how and why the tradition of athletic competitions came to an end in late antiquity. A work like this is long overdue in light of the long-standing and battered assumption that an imperial edict of Theodosius the Great simply shut the games down in the later fourth century. Judging from the book description, Remijsen will debunk that myth in a sweeping study of the entire circuit of Greek games.

As the book description puts it at the publisher page, “This book presents the first comprehensive study of how and why athletic contests, a characteristic aspect of Greek culture for over a millennium, disappeared in late antiquity. In contrast to previous discussions, which focus on the ancient Olympics, the end of the most famous games is analysed here in the context of the collapse of the entire international agonistic circuit, which encompassed several hundred contests. The first part of the book describes this collapse by means of a detailed analysis of the fourth- and fifth-century history of the athletic games in each region of the Mediterranean: Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Italy, Gaul and northern Africa. The second half continues by explaining these developments, challenging traditional theories (especially the ban by the Christian emperor Theodosius I) and discussing in detail both the late antique socio-economic context and the late antique perceptions of athletics.”

 

The Table of Contents itself suggests that this work will offer a new starting point in its comprehensive discussion:
Introduction
Part I. An Overview of Athletics in Late Antiquity:
1. Greece
2. Asia Minor
3. Syria
4. Egypt
5. Italy
6. Gaul
7. North Africa
Conclusions to Part I
Part II. Agones in a Changing World:
8. A religious ban?
9. An imperial ban?
10. The athletic professionals
11. Athletics as elite activity
12. The practical organization of agones
13. The agon as spectacle
Conclusions to Part II.

 

Since our corporate friends at Google have already scanned sections and random pages of the book, I can see that there are frequent discussions of Corinth and Isthmia throughout, which will no doubt provoke fresh debate among Corinthian scholars, or at least a broader framework for consideration. Indeed, the work clearly advances the view that the ending of the athletic contests were much later than traditionally imagined (390s). Remijsen, for example, concludes (p. 167) that the Isthmian games ended in the period of AD 410-435, a date significantly later than either of the prevailing views which see athletic competition and religious cult ending in either the mid-third century date, or the late fourth. Moreover, pushing the end of athletic contests into the fifth century will also have broader implications for Corinthiaka. One passage I read, for example, reevaluates Antony Spawforth’s influential view (and that of Bruno Keil long before him) that the Emperor Julian’s Epistle 198 (“The Letter on behalf of the Argives”) was written not by Julian but some other author in the later first or early second century AD; Remijsen argues, rather, that the letter fits well within a mid-fourth century context.

 

That all of this comes from a snippet view suggests that the work has broad implications for the archaeology and history of the Roman and late antique Corinthia. Looking forward to reading the work and the critical reviews.
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Categories: Isthmus, Late Antiquity, Periods, Roman, Sites, Isthmia, Sites, Urban Center

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