IT is in Homer that we first find the true spirit of sport, the desire to be ever the best and to excel all other men, the joy in the effort. Every Achaean warrior is an athlete and the description of the funeral games in the twenty-third Iliad is by far the earliest account of sports that we possess, and for the sheer joy of sport has never been surpassed.
This is no place to discuss the date and authorship of the Homeric poems. It is sufficient to say that while most authorities date the poems not earlier than the ninth century, it is generally agreed that the state of society that they describe existed at least two or three centuries earlier. The fair-haired Achaeans of Homer are not the original inhabitants of Greece; they are immigrants from the North, perhaps akin to other fair-haired giants from central Europe who made their way westward as far as our own islands. As far back as the middle of the second millennium tribes of hardy northerners began to move south along the river valleys and across the mountain passes from the plains of central Europe. Some crossed the Straits to Phrygia and Asia Minor, others made their way by sea to Crete; others, chief among whom were the Achaeans, overran Greece, partly destroying, partly absorbing the Minoan civilization. There they settled, their chieftains occupying Mycenae and other old Minoan strongholds, their clansmen dwelling round them. They were a restless, warlike folk, constantly raiding one another’s territories and driving off the cattle in which their wealth chiefly consisted. Their chieftains, ‘horse-tamers’ and ‘shepherds of the people’, ruled by hereditary right, but held their power by virtue of their military prowess, their superior armament, and their physical strength. They went to war in chariots, and battles resolved themselves usually into a number of hand-to-hand fights between individual chieftains. In such a society military and physical exercises are the chief part of every boy’s training, and the natural recreation of the men. In sport as in war the hero seeks to be ever the best. ‘My father’, says Glaucus in the Iliad,¹³ ‘bade me ever be far the best and far excel all other men, and not to put to shame my father’s lineage.’ The spirit which in the Age of Chivalry produced the Tournament, produced athletics among the Homeric Greeks.
The word athlete ( θλητ ρ) is first used in a delightful passage in the Odyssey describing how Odysseus after being shipwrecked succeeded in reaching the land of the Phaeacians and was hospitably entertained by their King Alcinous.¹⁴ Where Phaeacia was and who were the Phaeacians are questions that do not concern us here. They were probably not Achaeans. But the passage is none the less valuable as showing that Homer regards sports as a natural part of everyday life.
Alcinous has entertained Odysseus at a banquet. After the banquet the minstrel sings of the Trojan War, but Alcinous observes that Odysseus is much affected by the song and proposes quite naturally that they shall adjourn to the agora, where his guest may see the skill of the Phaeacians in sports. There the young men disport themselves with running, jumping, wrestling and boxing, and throwing the diskos. After a while Laodamas, the King’s son, invites Odysseus to try his skill in sports. ‘Thou art like’, he says, ‘to have skill in games, for there is no greater glory for a man while he yet lives than that which he achieves by hand or foot.’ But Odysseus excuses himself; he is worn out with his sufferings and sick at heart for home. Thereupon one of the young Phaeacians forgets his manners and replies: ‘No truly, stranger, nor do I think thee at all like one that is skilled in games whereof there are many among mortals; rather art thou such an one as goes to and fro in a benched ship, a captain of sailors who are merchantmen, one with a memory for his freight, or that hath charge of a cargo homeward bound and of greedily-gotten gains: thou art no athlete.’
‘No athlete’, the words have a strangely modern ring. How often do we hear the expression ‘he is no sportsman’, and how often is it used by those who like the young Phaeacian are no true sportsmen themselves! Homer, we see, expects every warrior to be an athlete, and the true athlete has nothing to do with ill-gotten gains. Indeed, in these impromptu games there are no prizes, the young men race and wrestle and box for the sheer joy of the contest.
Odysseus is stung by the taunt. He retorts angrily, and picking up a diskos—a stone heavier than those that the Phaeacians were wont to hurl—he lightly slings it far beyond their marks and challenges any of the Phaeacians to beat his throw or to try a bout with him in boxing or in wrestling. For, he says, he is no weakling in these sports. In archery, indeed, he surpassed all other men, save Philoctetes. Only with the men of old he would not contend, with Heracles or Eurytus ‘who contended even with the immortal Gods’. But the Phaeacians have seen enough. Alcinous apologizes for the young man’s rudeness and proposes to show his guest a display of dancing. For ‘the Phaeacians are no perfect boxers nor wrestlers, but speedy runners and the best of seamen; and dear to us ever is the banquet and the harp and the dance, and changes of raiment, and the warm bath and love and sleep’. No, the Phaeacians are not Achaeans, nor are they athletes in spite of their boasts.
Far fuller is the description of the funeral games held in honour of Patroclus which occupies most of the twenty-third Iliad. The custom of celebrating funerals with games is found in many lands; in Etruria, in the Caucasus, in Ireland, even in Siam and in North America. In Greece it was of extreme antiquity and continued all through Greek history. The aged Nestor in the Iliad recalls his youthful triumphs at the funeral games of Amarynces. The funeral games of Pelias, the uncle of Jason, were represented on two of the most famous of early works of art—the chest of Cypselus at Olympia and the throne of Apollo at Amyclae. Funeral games are depicted in many early vases, the well-known François vase at Florence and the Amphiaraus vase in Berlin (Fig. 8). Sometimes games were held periodically in honour of some departed hero; and it has been argued that all the great athletic festivals in Greece were originally connected with funerals. Many writers have tried to find a ritual significance in the games themselves. Fighting events have been supposed to be substitutes for human sacrifice, the chariot race a ritual contest for the throne. The celebration of games, it is suggested, was particularly pleasing to the spirit of the departed who had found pleasure in them in his lifetime. There may be some grain of truth in such suggestions, but certainly in Homer we find no hint of any ritual idea underlying the games, nor is there any need of such an explanation. Sports in Homer are part of the daily life and purely secular. Any important occasion would be a natural excuse for holding sports, the gathering of an army for war, the wedding or the funeral of some great chieftain. For where people are gathered together, something must be done to entertain them, and the most natural form of entertainment is some form of competition. In the case of a funeral the practice has the special advantage that it enables the heir to provide mementoes of the dead in the form of prizes, which may be weapons or other objects that belonged to the dead man. In the games of Patroclus, as we shall see, Achilles provides prizes for all the competitors.
8. THE AMPHIARAUS VASE. B.-F. CORINTHIAN COLUMN-KRATER, SECOND QUARTER OF THE 6th CENTURY. Berlin 1655, F.R. 121
Top. Wresting match, Peleus and Hippalcimus, cp. Fig. 155, p. 188. Middle. Departure of Amphiaraus.Bottom. Chariot-race. To left three judges seated. In front of them three tripods, the prizes. Six chariots racing
The first event in the programme is the chariot-race, and naturally so. For the competitors in these games are the chieftains, who had brought with them from the North their love of horses. Greece is no land for horses but, in the plains of Thessaly, Attica, Argos, and Elis, they bred horses and they prided themselves on their studs. Chariot-races had long become an institution: Nestor recalls the chariot-races of early days. The chariot used was the two-horse war-chariot. In war it was driven by the charioteer while the owner stood beside him and dismounted to fight, but in sport the owner himself drove. There is indeed one allusion in the Iliad to a four-horse chariot.¹⁵ Nestor tells Patroclus how he sent a chariot and four horses to compete in Elis for a tripod, and the horses were seized by King Augeas. The passage is probably a late addition to the poem suggested by the chariot-race at the Olympic Games.
For the chariot-race Achilles offers five prizes—‘for the winner a woman skilled in fair handiwork and a tripod, for the second a six-year-old mare in foal, for the third a goodly cauldron untouched by the fire, for the fourth two talents of gold, for the fifth a two-handled urn’. For the five prizes there are five competitors, Eumelus, Diomedes, Menelaus, Meriones, and Antilochus, the son of Nestor, who impresses on his son that a race is won by craft rather than speed, and gives him special advice about the turn. The course is of the simplest, really a cross-country race. The turning point is marked by a withered tree-stump with a white stone on either side and round it is smooth driving. It is out of sight, and Achilles posts here godlike Phoenix to mark the running and tell the truth thereof. To this point the chariots are to make their way over the plain, turn round it to the left and return to the start.
The charioteers draw lots and take their places. All the chariots negotiate the turn safely and on the return journey Eumelus is in front, closely followed by Diomedes. The latter, just as he is about to pass Eumelus, drops his whip; it is Apollo’s doing, for Homer attributes all accidents to the gods. But Athene is not behindhand, she restores the whip to her favourite and then in revenge breaks the yoke of Eumelus’ chariot so that he is thrown to the ground and Diomedes takes first place. Behind him come Menelaus and Antilochus. The track at one point is a narrow ravine, the bed of a winter torrent where there is barely room for two chariots. Menelaus, who is in front, is driving cautiously in the middle of the way, and Antilochus seizes the opportunity to try to pass him by forcing him to the side of the track. Menelaus protests in vain, and drawing aside for fear of an accident allows him to pass. Meanwhile the spectators, who have not seen what was happening owing to the drop in the ground, are quarrelling as to which chariot is leading, and here we have the first and as far as I can find the only example in Greek sports of a bet on a race, Idomeneus offering to wager Aias a tripod or a cauldron.
The prize-giving delightfully illustrates the informal character of these sports. Diomedes of course receives first prize, but when Achilles proposes to give the second prize to Eumelus, who but for his accident might have been first, Antilochus refuses absolutely to abandon his claim. Thereupon Menelaus protests that Antilochus has cheated him of second place by ‘boring’ his horses. But Antilochus apologizes and excuses himself on the ground of his youthful impetuosity. The quarrel is happily settled, Achilles provides a special prize for Eumelus and gives the fifth prize to the aged Nestor as a ‘memorial of Patroclus’ burying’.
The next two events, boxing and wrestling, are of peculiar interest. For they are both specialized forms of sport implying the existence of rules or at least customs for their conduct. In Homer they are already arts, practised and handed down by the Achaean warriors, just as jiu-jitzu was by the Samurai of Japan. The descriptions though brief show that the poet thoroughly understood these sports. We may note too how he applies to them the epithet ‘grievous’ ( λεγεινós), the same epithet as he uses of battle. Yet grievous though the contest may be the Homeric warrior ‘takes his delight in it’ whether in sport or war. These two events as we shall see were at all periods extraordinarily popular among the Greeks.
For boxing Achilles offers two prizes, a ‘six-year-old mule for the winner, a two-handled cup for the loser’. At once Epeius advances and in a somewhat braggart speech claims the cup. His challenge is accepted by Euryalus, the son of an old champion who had defeated all comers at the funeral games of Oedipus at Thebes. The two strip and gird themselves with girdles such as we see represented on a few early Greek vases, then they bind on their hands not a caestus, such as is depicted in Cretan scenes, but well-cut thongs of ox-hide, precisely similar to those worn by Greek boxers in the fifth century. Then they lift up their hands and fall to. Only the finish is described, and it is an excellent description of a knock-out blow. ‘Noble Epeius came on and as the other spied for an opening smote him on the cheek’, evidently on ‘the mark’, ‘nor could he much more stand, for his fair limbs failed straightway under him, and as when the north wind blows a fish leapeth on a tangle-covered beach and then the black wave covereth it, so leapt up Euryalus at the blow. But great-hearted Epeius took him in his hands and set him upright and his dear comrades stood around him and led him through the ring with trailing feet, spitting out clotted blood, drooping his head awry.’ The courtesy of Epeius towards his vanquished opponent is a charming touch especially after his boast before the fight that he will ‘bruise his adversary’s flesh and break his bones’. This courtesy towards the loser is all too rare among the later Greeks.
In the Odyssey¹⁶ we have a still more vivid description of a fight, this time without gloves, which shows how familiar the Achaeans were with the art of boxing. Odysseus returning home disguised as a beggar finds at the door of his palace the beggar Irus who insults him and threatens to beat him. The suitors overhearing the quarrel are delighted at the prospect of a fight between a pair of beggars whom they suppose to know nothing of boxing, ‘never before has such a thing happened, such goodly game the Gods have brought to our house’. They insist on a fight and promise a haggis to the winner. So the two gird their rags about them. But when Odysseus strips, the suitors are amazed at his thighs, goodly and great, his broad shoulders and breast and mighty arms. Irus too is amazed; but the suitors will not let him off. So they lead him to the ring and the two put up their hands. The fight of course is a foregone conclusion. Odysseus’ only doubt is whether he shall kill Irus outright or merely knock him out. He decides to knock him out. Irus leads off with a clumsy left hander at his right shoulder, which Odysseus counters with a blow ‘on the neck beneath the ear’ which of course knocks him out. The poet has seen many a fight and knows exactly what he is talking about.
For wrestling, again, Achilles offers two prizes, a tripod valued at twelve oxen and for the loser a woman ‘skilled in all manner of work’ valued at four oxen. Again there are two competitors, Aias and Odysseus, the types respectively of strength and cunning. The match was conducted under the rules of what the Greeks called ‘upright wrestling’ in which each tried to throw the other to the ground. Girding themselves the two advanced into the ring and clasped each other with stalwart arms ‘like gable rafters of a lofty house’ (see Fig. 8). It is exactly the attitude adopted by Westmorland and Cumberland wrestlers to-day and is often depicted on Greek vases. They try to throw one another in vain. ‘Their backs creaked, and sweat ran down in streams and frequent weals along their ribs and shoulders sprang up.’ At length as the spectators were getting weary Aias suggested that each in turn should lift his opponent and try to throw him. The advantage here is clearly with the heavier man, but Odysseus was equal to the occasion. Aias tried first and lifted Odysseus, but the latter ‘not unmindful of his craft smote deftly from behind the hollow of Aias’ knee’, or, in modern parlance, hammed him. Aias fell backward with Odysseus on the top of him. As both fell together the bout was inconclusive. Next Odysseus tried to lift his bulky opponent, but only able to raise him a little from the ground he crooked his leg inside the other’s, a chip known as ‘the hank’, or perhaps ‘the inside click’ (see Figs. 154, 164). Both fell to the ground together, and once more there was no result. When they prepared to wrestle again, Achilles declared the match a draw and awarded to each an equal prize.
Next comes the foot-race. The course is like that for the chariot-race, round some distant mark and back to the starting-place, close to the funeral pyre where the ground was wet with the blood of the slaughtered victims. There were three prizes and three competitors, Aias the son of Oileus, Odysseus, and the youthful Antilochus. As they near the finish Aias is leading with Odysseus close behind. Once more a God interferes. Odysseus prays to Athene and she makes ‘his limbs feel light, both feet and hands’, a delightful description of a spurt. But not content with this legitimate aid she causes Aias to slip in the blood of the victims. The Achaeans laugh as they see him ‘sputtering away the filth’, but there is no ill-feeling. He merely comments that a ‘goddess marred his running’, and Antilochus, who comes in last, adds, ‘Friends, ye will bear me witness that even herein also the immortals favour elder men.’
Here probably the original account of the games ended, though perhaps we may include the competition in javelin throwing with which the book ends. The competition never comes off. For as Agamemnon is one of the competitors Achilles declares a contest useless and awards the first prize to him. The intervening passage is regarded by even the most conservative of critics as a late interpolation. The description is lifeless, and the style far inferior to that of the rest of the book. Three events are described—the armed fight, throwing the weight, and archery.
The armed combat between Diomedes and Aias seems at first sight a murderous form of sport. For Achilles offers a prize to whichever of the two ‘shall first reach the other’s fair flesh and touch the inward parts piercing through armour and dark blood’. But he evidently has no expectation of a serious or fatal result, for he promises to both a fair feast after the combat. And in reality, when after much brave display Diomedes, perhaps losing his temper, makes persistent thrusts at Aias’ throat, the spectators stop the contest for fear of hurt to Aias.
The inclusion of this event is remarkable. Such fights were quite alien to the spirit of Greek sports; they were not practised in the gymnasia nor do we find them in any athletic festivals. For we must not confuse these serious fights with the hoplomachia which we find taught in the gymnasia in later times by a special hoplomachos, harmless contests in the use of arms like our competitions in fencing or bayonet fighting. Yet there must be some ground in tradition or actual practice for the inclusion of this event in the Homeric poem, and though the armed combat was never recognized as a form of sport, we do find it existing in places as a part of funeral ritual, a substitute for the human sacrifice which was actually offered by Achilles on the pyre of Patroclus, a blood offering in which the departed warrior might naturally delight. Such fights were a feature of Etruscan funeral games, and from them developed the gladiatorial shows of the Romans. For Greek lands we have the evidence of a fifth-century sarcophagus from Clazomenae in the British Museum, on which are painted scenes from the funeral games (Fig. 9).¹⁷ Here amid chariots preparing for the race we see pairs of warriors armed with shields and spears fighting to the accompaniment of a flute player. A fight is also depicted as part of funeral games on an eighth-century Dipylon vase.¹⁸ Further, we learn from Athenaeus that the practice still survived in the fourth century B. C. He tells us that Cassander on his return from Boeotia buried the King and Queen and Cynna, the mother of Eurydice, and among other ceremonies instituted a contest in single combat.¹⁹ Plutarch suggests that armed contests at one time took place at Olympia, and his statement has been used as an argument for the funeral origin of the Olympic festival, but he seems to have little belief in his own suggestion.²⁰
Throwing the diskos is one of the most popular diversions in Homer. We have seen that Odysseus proved his might by hurling a diskos heavier than any that the Phaeacians were wont to hurl. So too the suitors of Penelope amused themselves with throwing ‘diskoi and hunting-spears’, in a levelled place before the palace of Odysseus.²¹ It was the recreation of the common soldiery too. When Achilles was sulking in his tent his men ‘sported with diskoi, with casting of spears and archery’.²² So common a sport was it that Homer uses the term ‘a diskos’ throw’ just as we do a ‘stone’s throw’, as a rough measure of distance. But what does he mean by a diskos? He can hardly mean the artificial diskos of the later gymnasium. We cannot suppose that there was a store of such implements of various sizes in the agora of the Phaeacians, or in the camp at Tróy. The word ‘diskos’ merely means ‘a thing for throwing’, and can be used of any natural object convenient for throwing, especially a stone. Greece was a land of stones, and stones provided a natural weapon in war, and a natural test of strength and skill in throwing. The Homeric warrior in battle hurled rocks that ‘two men such as live now could scarcely lift’, and when the common soldiery took part in the fight, stones flew fast. The diskoi in the agora of the Phaeacians on the sea-shore may have been flat stones such as fishermen use for holding down their nets or tackle when laid out to dry, or stones for mooring their boats.
The diskos that Odysseus threw was a stone, but at the games of Patroclus the object thrown is described ‘as an unwrought mass of metal’ ( óλoς²³). This pig of iron, probably the contents of one of the open-air furnaces common in the Mediterranean world, is not only the weight thrown but the prize. It had been taken by Achilles from Eetion of Thebes who used to throw it, and it will provide the winner, says Achilles, with as much iron as his shepherd or ploughman will use in five years. Yet in spite of its weight, the winner hurls it as ‘lightly as a herdsman flings the ‘bola’ ²⁴ when it flies whirling through the herds of kine’.
9. THE ARMED COMBAT. SCENE FROM CLAZOMENAE SARCOPHAGUS IN BRITISH MUSEUM. EARLY 5th CENTURY. Murray, Sarcophagi in B.M., pls. II-VIII
On either side chariots preparing for the race. In centre two warriors fighting. They are armed with helmets, shields and swords. Between them is a youth playing the double-pipe. The chariot-race itself is shown on the other side of the sarcophagus, also pillars bearing bowls for prizes
Stones and arrows are not aristocratic weapons, they are the weapons of the common soldiers and weapons of chase rather than of war. For this reason the bow has a more honoured place in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. In the Iliad even Odysseus figures as ‘a spearman renowned’ not as an archer. It is for the most part the Trojans who fight with bow and arrow, especially Paris. The Achaean warriors generally regard the bow with dislike and contempt, not unmingled with fear, for the arrow makes no distinction between the brave man and the coward. The Greek hoplite of the fifth century had the same feeling. Hence, though archery was part of the training of the Epheboi and there were local competitions in it, it did not figure in the programme of the great Games. The description of the contest in the Iliad is singularly unreal. The prizes offered, twelve double axes for the first prize and two single axes for the second, are suspiciously reminiscent of the Odyssey. And the contest itself is absurd. The first prize is to go to the man who hits a dove suspended by a string to a mast, the second prize to him who performs the far more difficult task of severing the cord.
Whenever games are mentioned in Homer we find the true spirit of sport, the joy in the contest. But the Homeric sports are as yet far removed from the sports of historic Greece. In the first place they are, like Homeric society itself, aristocratic. Only chieftains compete, and the principal events, the chariot-race, boxing, and wrestling, seem to be the monopoly of the nobles, though their followers as we have seen have their own recreations. Secondly, the sports are informal and spontaneous. There is no organized training; there are no organized competitions. The nearest parallel to them is to be found in the sports of the Highland Clans, but it is probable that, if we knew more, other parallels might be found wherever a similar state of society has existed. The heroes of the Sagas delight in contests and feats of physical strength; but we have no record of the sports of the warlike tribes of northern and central Europe. In the next chapter we shall see how from the sports of the Achaeans was developed the athletic ideal of the fifth century.