Mark Golden


On his book Greek Sport and Social Status

Cover Interview of May 06, 2009

The wide angle

My earliest publications, on childhood in ancient Greece, grew out of my involvement with the movement to force the University of Toronto to provide day-care for the children of its students and the surrounding community.  (We took over two buildings, one for nine months; the university eventually saw things our way.)

At the time, most accounts of parent-child relations in ancient Greece and Rome were influenced by a kind of demographic determinism.  Ancient families, it was argued, lost so many babies and young children that they simply could not afford to invest much emotion in them. On the contrary: I thought Greek and Roman parents were well aware of the risks their children faced and did everything they could to help them survive nonetheless.  When they failed—as they too often did—they were sustained by ritualized mourning practices and by the knowledge that many of their kinfolk, friends, and neighbors had suffered similarly.  Our contemporary unwillingness to take responsibility for others’ children—exemplified by the university’s reluctance to provide day-care—made it hard for scholars to understand how individuals’ grief might be shared and so made more bearable.

My more recent work—this is my third book on ancient Greek and Roman sport—came about much more accidentally. I inherited a course on Greek sport, an unfamiliar subject for me, from a real expert, Don Kyle.  Mastering the material and trying to find something to say that Don hadn’t pushed me in directions I never knew existed.  Greek Sport and Social Status is in many ways a continuation of my earlier book, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (1998).  There, I identified a discourse of difference: Greek sport provided a field for the development and display of divisions among groups as well as among individuals.  Sport further ordered these into hierarchies.  Because of their involvement in regularly-scheduled and recurrent athletic festivals, Greeks ranked above foreigners (“barbarians”), men above women, the free above slaves.

Naturally, winners were always superior to losers, and the Greeks rarely distinguished second or third place from other also-rans.  My new book extends this analysis into other eras—the Hellenistic, Roman and modern periods—and unexplored areas like gladiatorial combat.  Alexander’s successors proved to be motivated much like the kings and tyrants of the archaic and classical periods (especially in their exploitation of equestrian success) and the elite of the eastern Roman Empire staged gladiatorial spectacles for the same reasons their ancestors presided over athletic festivals.  In both cases, references to the past added value to present-day triumphs.  The modern Olympics play up their (often imaginary) echoes of the ancient games for the same purpose.