The international associations of competitors


A unique case of globalization in the ancient world


Mosaic (first century AD) depicting a statue of a successful boxer.
(Picture: Mosaic from Stabiae Villa San Marco in glass tesserae depicting a statue of a gloved boxer on a pedestal wearing a wreath, 1st century AD, Naples National Archaeological Museum by Carole Raddato licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Competitions for athletes and artists (agones) were a common feature of urban life in theMediterranean: the famous contests of Greece were copied in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Italy and even in southern Gaul and northern Africa. The spread of these competitions across the eastern Mediterranean goes back to the Classical and, in particular, the Hellenistic period.


Only several centuries after this phase of internationalisation (i.e. the spread across regions not governed by the same central government) the agonistic circuit went, from the first century BC onward, through a process of globalisation (i.e. the process of integration across the inhabited world, as it was known in Antiquity). This means that from the first century BC on the competitors were real cosmopolitans: they had multiple citizenships, competed in as many contests as possible, and spend their entire professional careers travelling from one Roman province to the other.


Such a globalization process required substantial information exchange: for instance, the competitors needed to know when, where and in which disciplines they could compete, and which prizes or privileges could be won. That this contest circuit was internationally fully functional implies a level of connectivity that was rare in the ancient world, certainly considering the fact that these athletes and artists were not using the communication systems of the Roman state. After all, athletics and performing arts belonged to the field of leisure.


Recent research on the agonistic circuit has mainly investigated the role of the Roman emperors. Their supervisory role was mainly reactive, however. The proactive players that made this globalization process possible were the two international associations that represented the athletes and the artists: the so-called xystic and thymelic synods. These associations were formed around the same time that the agonistic circuit gradually became globalized. With headquarters in Rome and branches across the Mediterranean, they were the only professional associations in the ancient world that transcended the level of the ancient city, and they did so with great success. They gave the ancient competitors a powerful lobby, and a bureaucracy typically associated with modern rather than ancient sports. This project will result in the first comprehensive study of these two synods, the origin and workings of which are until today badly understood.



Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst Baden-Würrtemberg

Project supervision:

Jun.-Prof. Dr. Sofie Remijsen


Bram Fauconnier M.A.