The Self-Representation of Hellenistic Athletes – Social, Political and Ethnic Identities


Hellenistic statue of a boxer
(Picture: Boxer of Quirinal, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest, 100-50 BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome by Carole Raddato licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Self-Representation of Hellenistic Athletes – Social, Political and Ethnic Identities

Research into Hellenistic sport has so far been very limited: no conference, edited volume, or monograph has yet been devoted to it. This gap is to be filled by the present project. As a first step, a thorough compilation will be made of the literary, epigraphic and papyrological sources for Hellenistic agones. Using this collection of material, a prosopography will be constructed of all known victors of athletic and equestrian competitions. The focus will then shift to agonistic victory epigrams, which provide information about the athletes’ identities. Here, three dimensions are to be distinguished: the social, the political and the ethnic.


With regard to social identities it needs to be recognised that sport in Hellenistic times was no longer an exclusively aristocratic domain. Public funding of sport made it possible for talented but less well-off men to acquire the (financial) resources needed for training and for travel to competitions. In this light, the question arises of whether the change in the social status of athletes had an influence on their self-representation: that is, whether athletic success continued to be exhibited as proof of aristocratic superiority or whether the so-called democratisation of sport can be recognised also at the level of athletes’ self-representation.


With regard to political identities there is new research to be taken into account, which – in contrast to the former decadence model – has impressively shown the unbroken power of the polis in Hellenistic times. In this context, the victory epigrams may reveal  an aspect that has so far been overlooked. Throughout these texts, the polis is presented as a community focused on agonistic fame. It needs to be investigated in detail whether and how the relationships between victors and the polis, as documented by the epigrams, vary according to either region or period. Alongside this, it is important to examine also the consequences of the developments that saw athletes now representing kingdoms, as well as monarchs themselves participating in horse and chariot races and using their victories for political purposes.


As a third dimension, ethnic identities are also to be examined. Greeks as well as so-called ‘barbarians’ regarded agones as something specifically Greek and hence as a marker of ethnic differences. However, since these differences were seen as cultural rather than genetic, members of the non-Greek elites, for example Phoenician aristocrats, made use of sporting contests as a means of acquiring Greek culture. It is striking too that, in the context of agones, victors attached to the Ptolemaic court always emphasise their Greek-Macedonian identity and never an Egyptian one.


In the course of this research project a conference will be organised and the proceedings published as an edited volume, in addition to the publication of a short monograph.



Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft


Project leader: Prof. Dr. Christian Mann

Associated leader: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Sofie Remijsen

Researcher: Dr. Sebastian Scharff


Selected bibliography