The Romans and Greek sport

The Romans got to know Greek culture early in their history, as is shown by the vases and mural paintings with Greek athletes in Etruscan tombs. During the Republican period, however, the Romans were reticent about Greek culture, because they associated the gymnasion with effeminacy and immorality. Especially pederastic practices and nudity were considered shameful. Local sport events, such as Roman chariot races, gladiator fights or boxing matches, were popular, but it was unthinkable for a decent citizen to perform publicly, because that was an activity for slaves.

After Rome had conquered Greece in 146 BC, the influence of Greek culture grew rapidly in the capital. Wealthy Romans set up statues of Greek athletes in their gardens and bathhouses, and occasionally they organized games following the Greek model.

The activities of some emperors who greatly admired Greek culture (Augustus - Nero - Domitian) intensified the pro-Greek evolution. In AD 86, Domitian founded the Capitolian games, the first permanent Greek games in the Rome. Thus, Rome received a prominent place on the Greek sport circuit, although the Greek games in the capital kept a local flavor, e.g. Roman horse races and competitions in Greek and Latin recitation. The international athletic guild also moved to Rome to enjoy the imperial privileges fully.

Already in 186 BC, Romans could take part in the Isthmian games. The participation of Romans in athletic contests remained limited, though. Even at the contests in Rome, the participants where mostly Greeks who had travelled to the West. During the imperial period, many Roman citizens did practice Greek sports, but only recreationally and in the sheltered environment of the bathhouses. Unlike in the East, Greek sports never became an essential part of education in the West.

© KU Leuven, 2012