Slaves and sport

In Antiquity, there was a strict distinction between the free and the unfree. The free men were full citizens, taking part in the government of their city. The unfree were slaves without rights, who could be sold and were used for all work. No doubt some slaves were in good physical shape because of their hard work, but this did not give them the possibility to excel in sports.

Sport was a very honourable occupation in Greece. Good athletes were respected and many had an important position in the community. Sport was in Greece above all a domain of the free, in which slaves could barely participate.

There is no record of a single slave victor of Greek games. Participating in the crown-games was strictly forbidden for them. At some local games, however, they were permitted to compete, although their participation was not encouraged. An inscription from Misthia, a small town in Asia Minor, states that slave victors had to give one fourth of their prize money to the other participants. In this way, it could be avoided that masters trained their slaves as athletes to profit from the prize money.

That we, despite the fact that the participation of slaves was allowed at some prize games, do not know any slave victor is probably due to their lack of training. Slaves were not or only exceptionally allowed in the gymnasion. Slaves could only be present there as members of the cleaning staff. In this way, they could not develop their talents and technique. It cannot be excluded that some of the winning horses at the Greek games were driven by slaves. But since the owner was the victor and the charioteer unimportant in the opinion of the Greeks, we know very little about Greek charioteers.

In Roman sport, the status of the participants was completely different from Greek sport. While in Greece sport was practiced for the fame for oneself, the family and city, Roman sport was directed mainly towards entertainment. Roman gladiators and charioteers were no citizens, but people with a low status, such as slaves. Unfree Roman sportsmen could become international celebrities.

© KU Leuven, 2012