The Greeks loved competition. Doctors, sculptors, playwrights, artists, poets, dancers, kissers, beautiful children; all these and more pitted themselves against their peers for the sake of honour and glory.[1] Perhaps one of the most enduring forms of competition propagated by the Greeks comes in the form of their athletic games, the most obvious example being the Olympics, which today bears the name of the Ancient Greek competition but shares only a few similarities with its ancient progenitor. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we find references to physical competition throughout the plays of the period, and that modern scholars have found interest in studying them.

Euripides’ work demonstrates a fascination with sport and athletic competition that is not seen to the same extent as in the plays of fellow tragedians Aeschylus or Sophocles. Though more common in Euripides’ comic satyr-plays, the topic is not absent from his tragedies, nor should it be considered a purely comic subject. As Mark Golden argues, “Sport was like religion and warfare in affording a field for the creation and reinforcement of divisions among groups and the ordering of these groups into hierarchies.”[2] In works like Trojan Women, Alexandros, and Hippolytus, motifs of sports and athletics serve to identify characters as noble and valiant men, distinguishing them from the lesser members of their peer group, often demonstrating, and foreshadowing, just how far they have to fall.

Sport and Status

The prestigious place held by athletics in Greek society cannot be overstated, especially in Athens where citizens were quick to demonstrate their agreement with pro-sports policies and their dislike of sport’s public criticism.[3] Successful athletes enjoyed the social benefits of what would now be recognised as “celebrity culture”, where members of the non-elite in Athens carefully followed the careers of both local and foreign competitors, and fellow citizens who claimed victory at the Olympics or Panhellenic games were considered to be “public benefactors of the first order.”[4] This high regard appears to have been rooted in something deeper than the fact of victory however: it was a commonly held belief that athletes and soldiers faced similar struggles and levels of personal risk. This was not necessarily an exaggeration: the Spartan commander Thibron, for example, was killed during routine discus practice with a friend. In order to win their agones and claim victory, both soldiers and athletes had to endure danger and demonstrate excellence in their field.[5] Sport was serious business in ancient Greece. The young men at the heart of Euripides’ plays, those like Paris and Hippolytus, used athletics and warfare alike to confirm their noble identities. For,

            “[t]he love of play is universal in all young things […] But play is not athletics […] The child plays till he is tired and then leaves off. The competitor in a race goes on after he is tired, goes on to the point of absolute exhaustion.”[6]

Sport and athletics appear in Greek tragedy not as hobbies or as pastimes, the indulgent luxuries of wealthy nobles, but as a testing and integral part of cultural experience and identity formation. Athletic imagery in Euripides’ tragedies, therefore, cannot be taken as a mere reflection of a sport-obsessed society, for its implications go to the root of morality, nobility, and – through these – identity.

The concept of agon is most familiar to readers and audiences of tragedy as the term for debate between two characters or between a combination of actors and chorus. From its origins, agon, initially referring to the assembly where people met to see the games or the place of contest, expanded to mean more generally “a struggle or battle”. From agon comes agonia, first meaning “the struggle for victory”, often being applied directly to gymnastic wrestling, and expanding to encompass the wider struggles implied by “agony”.[7] In a natural extension of its original definition and, as a reflection of their later nuances, it is unsurprising that the terms became associated with the competitions in athletics, chariot racing, music, and literature held at festivals. On several levels, agon unites ideas of athletics, tragedy, and struggle. By striving to push the body to its physical limits, beyond (as Gardiner points out) “the point of absolute exhaustion”, it is not too much of a leap to extend the notion of struggling to suffering – a concept at the heart of tragedy.

Indeed, the relationship between suffering and athletic participation can be found in fragments of Euripides’ Alexandros: the games placed at the centre of the play’s action are founded in honour of the apparent death of the infant Paris, whose later return and victory almost results in his murder. Again refuting any potential claim that sport was the site of leisurely retreat for the wealthy, Paris’ victory comes in spite of his upbringing in the countryside as a herdsman, something which causes his brothers to consider him equal to a slave. Although, following classical notions of noble families, Paris’ prowess in Alexandros is very likely linked to his lineage, care is taken to distance the nobility conferred by striving in the games from the leisure and wealth of his royal family:

 “Wealth and excessive luxury, it turns out, are a bad sort of training for manliness. Poverty is a misfortune, but all the same it rears children who are better at working hard and getting things done.”[8]

The implied suffering of his young life prepares Paris for the demands of athletic competition far better than a life of luxury; whilst poverty was obviously not held up as an ideal state – the diets of professional athletes being far richer than those of their fellow citizens – what came to be admired was the avoidance of excess and the notion of hard work with which poverty is necessarily associated.[9] Euripides’ Paris therefore excels in virtue, athletic ability and, as we may glean from the play’s fragments, agon. In winning both the games and the favour of Priam over Deiphobus, Paris achieves a double victory. He emerges from the tragedy as “such a perfect man that (like Oedipus), had he not been predestined to prove a curse, one would have expected him eventually to become the greatest of leaders, to raise his country to the summits of glory.”[10] The shadow of the Trojan War is present from the beginning of the play to its end, reinforced through the physical struggles of the games. The perfection that Koniaris identifies in Paris’ character, demonstrated through his twofold victory, serves to demonstrate just how far he, and by extension his people, will fall. The physical struggle inherent in Paris’ victories is but a fraction of the suffering yet to come. In this moment, Paris represents Troy at its peak, but an audience knows his physical exertions merely foreshadow the events preceding Trojan Women. At that point, however, a different young Trojan prince is used to represent the body politic, which lies dead below the towers of Troy. The celebration and success at first enjoyed through physical exertion merely acts as tragic counterpoint to the devastation seen in Trojan Women.

From Player to Played

Read as part of a trilogy with Trojan Women and thus within the context of the sack of Troy, Alexandros depicts what seemed to be victory, yet was really defeat; what looked like a circumvention of evil was actually an undermining of deliverance; what appeared to be a brave, young and beautiful prince, the hope of his people, is revealed to have been, all along, the curse of Troy embodied.[11] The athletic discourse of Alexandros forms a structural link to Trojan Women, connecting Paris’ place in Trojan society to the utter destruction of the war even more closely. In order to achieve this, Euripides appropriates athletic imagery in the latter play to dramatise the complete collapse of the community. In a stark reversal of the normal cultural analogy between war and athletics, war in this case destroys Troy’s athletic culture and, by extension, its ability to use sport as a means of forming identities for both individuals and the community as a whole.[12]

In no instance is this appropriation clearer than in the death of Astyanax. Whereas the games of Alexandros enabled Paris to win recognition, regain his true identity, and be incorporated back into Trojan society, Astyanax’s death is the reverse of these fortunes. He is literally cast out of the city and thrown to his death from a tower (Line 1121); he is transformed from a potential athletic subject into an athletic object, and denied the possibility of proving his nobility, both because of this objectification and the more final fact of his death. The report of the Chorus presents the boy’s death as a perversion of athletic practice:

“ἰὼ ἰώ,
καίν᾽ ἐκ καινῶν μεταβάλλουσαι
χθονὶ συντυχίαι. λεύσσετε Τρώων
τόνδ᾽ Ἀστυάνακτ᾽ ἄλοχοι μέλεαι
νεκρόν, ὃν πύργων δίσκημα πικρὸν
Δαναοὶ κτείναντες ἔχουσιν.

[Ah me! ah me! new troubles fall on my country, to take the place of those that still are fresh! Behold, you hapless wives of Troy, the corpse of Astyanax, whom the Danaids have cruelly slain by hurling him from the battlements.]” (Lines 1118-1122)

What is lost in this translation, and in many others beside, is the image behind the word “δίσκημα”, usually translated vaguely as “a thing that is thrown” – although Morwood’s translation uses the rather quirky and strangely specific “throwing him from the towers, in a grim game of quoits” (Lines 1121-22). When it appears in the more familiar form diskêma, it’s allusions to the discus become more obvious to readers unfamiliar with Greek: the metaphor is not merely convenient for denoting the exact circumstances of the boy’s death, but is making a deliberate allusion to athletic practice. If, as Goslin suggests, Hector’s shield took the place of the ekkyklema, the visual impact of the scene would have dramatically reinforced the discus imagery, since the round shield is suggestive of its shape. The relationship between the Trojans and Greeks has, through the latter’s victory, fundamentally changed. No longer are they equal participants, athletes wrestling one another on an epic scale, but in the victory of the Greeks, the Trojans – represented through Astyanax the “discus”– have become objects in a new athletic game, this time played to destroy rather than establish Trojan nobility and society. Once a proud and noble people, this incident serves to demonstrate the depths of their tragic fall.

Unlike Paris, Astyanax is never able to prove or define himself in the usual social spheres, given that he is still a child when he dies. The first section of Hecuba’s lament, after her own age and childlessness, falls within the paradigm of athletic competition, just as the Chorus in Hippolytus mourn the end of his chariot-racing career (Lines 1131-1141). The status and glory that these two characters could have reasonably expected as the sons of epic heroes is contrasted sharply with the presentation of their bodies. These vehicles of athletic prowess are presented to the audience soon after their fatal misfortunes: Hippolytus presents himself on stage with an immediate reference to his “body in bloody ruin” (Line 1348), urging the audience to join the Chorus in lamenting over “his youthful flesh disfigured” (Line 1344); and Astyanax lies limp, with attention drawn to the gruesome detail of his “fractured bones” (Line 1176). Given what we know about the importance of sport to the self-definition of young noblemen, it is unsurprising that, when presented with the physical reality of her grandson’s death, Hecuba’s thoughts turn first to athletics:

            “Ah! my child, it is not as victor over your comrades with horse or bow— customs Troy esteems, without pursuing them to excess—that Hector’s mother decks you now with ornaments from the store that once was yours…”(Lines 1209-14)

During this part of her speech and beyond, Hecuba places funerary “ornaments” on his body, but these “tokens from his patrimony should have been rightly used years later to celebrate athletic victories of the grown boy”.[13] Instead, the trappings of vitality and youth, these objects, passed down from one generation to the next, become tragic symbols of death and representative of the complete and lasting destruction of Troy. Hippolytus’ death, the result of being dragged behind his chariot, inverts another athletic sign into a symbol of death. After false claims of rape by his stepmother, Hippolytus is exiled, cut off from his father, and consequently denied his place as Prince. His last means of proving his nobility – his chariot – becomes the very mode of his demise, another tragic inversion of an athletic object’s symbolism.

 

The centrality of sport and athletic competition to Greek identity, especially in the case of young nobleman, cannot be ignored in the tragedies of Euripides – even if they only appear as subtle references. Victory in athletic games is a milestone frequently compared to events like marriage and the deaths of relatives (Hipp. Lines 1140-1, TW, Lines 1216-1226). It is presented as a formative experience: a struggle which must be overcome in order to progress. When used in the context of tragedy, athletic metaphors and symbols serve to intensify the calamity of the situation: the valiant (in Alexandros at least) Paris, the skilled Hippolytus, and the child Astyanax are all representatives of the next generation of heroes. That they are killed because of, or in association with, symbols tied to ideas of their nobility and youth, only reinforces their tragic ends.

[1] Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, (Cambridge University Press, 1998): 28-29

[2] Ibid. 176

[3] David M. Prtichard, “Athletics in Satyric Drama”, Greece and Rome (Second Series), Vol.59, April 2012: 11

[4] Ibid. 15.

[5] Ibid. 9

[6] E. N. Gardiner, Athletics of the Ancient World, (Oxford University Press, 1930): 1

[7] Wallace, Dr. Jennifer, “Greek Tragic Performance: Competition, Masks, Ecstasy”, University of Cambridge, Lecture Block Room 3, 15.10.14, lecture

[8] Euripides,‘Alexander’ in Fragments: Aegues-Meleager, trans. Collard and Cropp, (Massachusetts, 2008): Fragment 54

[9] David M. Prtichard, “Athletics in Satyric Drama”, Greece and Rome (Second Series), Vol.59, April 2012: 2

[10] George Leonidas Koniaris, “Alexander, Palamedes, Troades, Sisyphus – A Connected Tetralogy? A Connected Trilogy?”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 77, (1973): 95

[11] Ibid. 104-105

[12] Owen Goslin, Astyanax and the Discus: Athletic Discourse in Euripides’ Troades, http://apaclassics.org/annual-meeting/145/abstracts/owen-goslin

[13] H.G. Edinger, “Euripides’ ‘Troades’” in Hermes, 120. Bd., H. 3 (1992): 381