Euripides on Athletes: Ready for Football?

Euripides, fr. 282 (Autolycos)


“Of the endless evils plaguing Greece
None is worse than the race of athletes.”


κακῶν γὰρ ὄντων μυρίων καθ’ ῾Ελλάδα
οὐδὲν κάκιόν ἐστιν ἀθλητῶν γένους·


With football season fast upon us, it is useful to remind ourselves that Western culture has had a fixation with sport for quite some time. But one big difference in Ancient Greece is that sport was a leisure activity, not big business like the NFL. (Or, to be realist, like NCAA division 1). In the Odyssey, Odysseus finds the Phaeacians delighting themselves in competitions after banquets, where they, the prototypical ‘loungers’, claim that nothing is greater.


Homer, Odyssey 8.147-8

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”


οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.


Or so a Prince Dandy says to the long-suffering war veteran Odysseus. Sports and games are ritual substitutes for war and distractions from the fact that the soldier faces far higher stakes than the sportsman. It is no accident that this scene happens among the Phaeacians who live a charmed life far from all other men…until Poseidon drops a mountain on them. And it is also no accident that the other characters who spend time playing sports in the Odyssey are the suitors back in Ithaca…

That we have an entire genre of ancient poetry dedicated to Athletic victories is telling (Epinician poetry). Also telling is that in this poetry the victory of an athlete is reflection of the virtue of his family and city. Not too far off from our civic pride in our own sports teams (often ironically manned by players from far off).


Pindar, Pythian 5.12-13


“The wise carry even their god-given strength better.”


σοφοὶ δέ τοι κάλλιον
φέροντι καὶ τὰν θεόσδοτον δύναμιν.


And, yet, we do find some anxiety in the ancient world about the worship of sports and their heroes. Xenophanes complains about this in a way that may help us to understand Euripides’ lines above. His concern is that what men value on the contest ground is mistaken for a virtue that will help order their city well. (And there may be a dig at Achilles here.)


Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·


The fact is that sports developed in ancient Greece as an aristocratic ritual that eventually took the place of actual bloodletting. They allowed the nobles to compete for honor without killing each other. Our modern blood-sports, however, aren’t the province of our moneyed classes (well, they own the teams). Instead, mostly lower-class youths compete for a rare opportunity for glory. And the deck is stacked against them in many ways.


Horace, Epistles 1.19.48-9


“Sport tends to give rise to heated strife and anger, anger in turns brings savage feuds and war to the death”.

ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen et iram, ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus

Homer, Iliad 7.81-91: Both Victor and Vanquished win Glory (A Consolation before the Superbowl)

“If I kill him and Apollo grants me that moment of victory,
I’ll gather up his arms and take them to sacred Ilion
where I will dedicate them in the temple of far-shooting Apollo.
Then I will return his corpse to the well-benched ships
so that the fine-haired Achaians may bury him
and heap up a burial mound on the wide Hellespont.
Then someday one of the later-born men may say
as he sails by in a many-locked ship on the wine-faced sea:
‘This is the gravemarker of a man who died long ago,
a man glorious Hector killed when he was at his best.’
So someone someday will say: and my glory will never perish.”

εἰ δέ κ’ ἐγὼ τὸν ἕλω, δώῃ δέ μοι εὖχος ᾿Απόλλων,
τεύχεα σύλησας οἴσω προτὶ ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν,
καὶ κρεμόω προτὶ νηὸν ᾿Απόλλωνος ἑκάτοιο,
τὸν δὲ νέκυν ἐπὶ νῆας ἐϋσσέλμους ἀποδώσω,
ὄφρά ἑ ταρχύσωσι κάρη κομόωντες ᾿Αχαιοί,
σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύωσιν ἐπὶ πλατεῖ ῾Ελλησπόντῳ.
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον•
ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ὅν ποτ’ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος ῞Εκτωρ.
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει• τὸ δ’ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται.

Too often we use war metaphors to talk about sports—the reasons are simple, most of us act as spectators in both and sports are quite obviously ritualized substitutes as honor competitions. But the stakes are far from the same. At some level, the implied equivalence is a great insult to those who do risk their lives and all of the non-combatants who suffer.

Of course, I offer this as a prelude to the fact that I do irrationally care about the outcome of tonight’s Superbowl. While it might be of little solace to the players (and even less than the fans) that victor and vanquished are united in the story that comes after (and during) the event, Hektor offered some comfort in the speech above. For whatever its worth, it was the comfort that he probably needed most himself.

And don’t hate me: as a New Englander (in exile) it is my sacred duty to root for the Patriots.

Homer, Odyssey 7.250-253

Come, however so many are the best dancers of the Phaeacians.

Dance, so that our guest may tell his family

once he gets home how much we surpass

the rest of mankind in sailing, running, dancing and song!


ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε, Φαιήκων βητάρμονες ὅσσοι ἄριστοι,

παίσατε, ὥς χ᾽ ὁ ξεῖνος ἐνίσπῃ οἷσι φίλοισιν

οἴκαδε νοστήσας, ὅσσον περιγιγνό μεθ᾽ ἄλλων

ναυτιλίῃ καὶ ποσσὶ καὶ ὀρχηστυῖ καὶ ἀοιδῇ.


Alkinoos tells this and then the Phaeacians perform their dance, part of which involves the use of a ball passed and forth between two princes. (Some ancient form of hacky-sack?) In way, this ritual has something to do with Greece in the World Cup, right? Here’s the full text.