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According to Marilyn Stokstad, "the visual arts are among the most sophisticated forms of human communication, at once shaping and being shaped by their social context (xxxviii)." As this quote implies, artistic pieces invariably are a reflection of the culture in which they were created. Thus, art is a potent means of deciphering the values and belief systems of ancient societies. Apoxyomenos (330 BCE), or The Scraper, created by the sculptor Lysippos, is an enduring testament to the importance ascribed to athletics by the citizens of ancient Greece.
Artistically, Apoxyomenos deviates from the standard Classical representation of male athletes. The majority of Classical sculptors portrayed athletes actively engaged in competition. However, this figure is gazing into the distance while removing oil and dirt from his body using a strigil (Stokstad, 165). This practice was commonly associated with athletes in ancient Greece and, thereby, communicated to the viewer that this was a piece pertaining to athletics.
Athletics were an expression of the philosophical, religious and civic values that were at the very heart of Greek culture. In the world of the ancient Greeks, well-educated individuals were expected to be balanced mentally, spiritually, and physically (http://www.mediaconcero.com/olympic/olympia/ideal_o.php, September 27, 2004). It was felt that athletics aided in the creation of such an individual. Athletic events during this period were not simply displays of physical prowess, but an integration of the facets of Greek culture.
Education and intellectual discourse were accessories to athletic events. During competitions, spectators would engage in lectures and philosophic conversations concerning current events and other scholarly subjects. In fact, the Greek word for "gymnasium" was the same as the Greek word for "school (http://www.mediaconcerto.com/olympic/olympia/ideal_o.php, September 27, 2004)." Athletic events became a center of learning and exchange of ideas in Greek civilization.
Athletic events at this time were also closely related to the religious beliefs and practices of the Greek citizens. Each competition was devoted to a specific pagan god. For example, the patron of the Olympics was Zeus. The Greeks believed that the physical strength and ability of athletes was a direct gift from the gods (http://www.meiaconcerto.com/olympic/olympia/ideal_o.php, September 27, 2004). Therefore, each athlete competed not only in honor of his city-state, but also in honor of the gods.
Civic implications were also apparent in ancient Greek athletics. The ancient world was one of constant conflict and political turmoil, and it was necessary for each city-state to possess a strong military in order to preserve their autonomy.
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Further, athletics served to unify individual city-states by promoting national pride. The only award given to a victorious athlete in competition was a crown of olive leaves and honor and respect for their respective city-state. The events created an atmosphere in which all of the city-states of this culture were unified. At these competitions, city-states would put aside all differences and support their communities peacefully and emphatically, even if they were at war with another region (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/shefton-museum/greeks/games.html, September 27, 2004). The solidarity of Greek culture and tradition under the idea of athletics permeated all national boundaries and governmental disputes.
The ancient Olympic games were perhaps the greatest expression of the importance of athletics in Greek society. In the article "Sports, Nationalism and Peace in Ancient Greece," Nigel Crowther makes the point that "the ancient games were the biggest single gathering of any kind in the Greek world, and thus their importance to the Greeks can hardly be overemphasized (1999)."
Every four years approximately forty thousand Greek athletes and spectators arrived in Olympia to celebrate sports. These events, in a sense, were an exercise in "internal nationalism" and served to unite the disparate Greek city-states under the auspices of sport (Crowther, 1999). As discussed above, a general cessation of hostilities occurred and athletes and spectators were ensured safe passage to and from the games. It is important to note that until the Roman occupation of Greece, only those of Greek origin were able to compete in and attend the games (Young, 2004). The games, above all, were intrinsically Grecian.
Much like the modern Olympics, athletic events at the ancient Olympic games focused on intense competition, or agon, and the obtainment of excellence, or arete. The events primarily highlighted competition amongst individuals. The most common events were foot races, the Pentathlon (composed of running, jumping, discus and javelin throwing, and wrestling), and equestrian competition (Crowther, 1999). These events were derived from the military training practices of the time.
The intense training regimes and preparations Greek athletes followed further underscores the importance of sport in their culture. Training for athletic competition was a way of life and athletes devoted their entire lives to training for their event. Some athletes, such as Melancomas, believed that training for competition was actually far more rigorous than training for war (Crowther, 1999).
In addition to physical training, the Greeks recognized the importance of hygiene in fitness. They felt strongly that a fit body was a clean body. Athletes coated their bodies in olive oil before competing, in order to prevent dirt from clogging the pores of their skin. The oil was kept in a container known as an aryballos. Dirt that had stuck to the body during the course of competition could then be scraped away using a strigil (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass, September 27, 2004). It is from this practice, that the subject matter of Apoxyomenos is derived.
The energy and effort devoted to the creation of Apoxyomenos is an implication of the significance of sports in ancient Greek culture. The subject matter of this piece is an indication of the philosophical, religious, and civic beliefs that were the fabric of Greek life and provides invaluable insight to a civilization that modern man can now only imagine.
Crowther, Nigel. 1999. "Sports, Nationalism and Peace in Ancient Greece." In Peace Review, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 585-590.
Lahanas, Michael. "Sport in Ancient Greece." 2004. September 27, 2004.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.
"Olympic Legacy." 2003. September 27, 2004.
"The World of the Greeks."2004. September 27, 2004.
Young, David. C. 2004. "With Hands or Swift Feet." In Natural History, vol. 113, no. 6, pp. 24-32.