Update 1: Arete and its Memorialization Through Athletics

About two weeks ago, I traveled to California to visit the Getty Villa, one of the premier collections of antiquities that I hope to observe this summer. I was able to meet with the head curator of the Getty Villa, Dr. Claire Lyons, and walk the galleries with Dr. David Saunders, a senior curator at the Getty specializing in ancient Greek vase painting. There were several pieces on display that directly pertained to my area of study: ancient athletes and the ideals that they evoke. With “arete” supposedly consisting of the deliberate balance between body, mind, and soul, it quickly became evident that athletics were seen as a way to celebrate the well-trained body and the aura of the victorious athlete.

 

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Among the extraordinary pieces that the Getty Villa had on display was perhaps one of the finest bronze statues that exist from the end of the Classical Period, circa 300 BCE. It provides a glimpse at how the ancient Greeks idealized athletes, especially those who were exceptional in body and success. This statue of a man noticeably in the nude provides a clue into how it can be attributed specifically to an athlete. After all, the ancient Greeks only depicted three types of beings in the nude: gods, heroes, and athletes. This man is actively in the act of crowning himself with a wreath, the clear sign that this man was an athlete. This is clear because this was the action of every athlete who was victorious at any of the city games held across Greece. This is yet another clear distinction; not only was this man a beautiful athlete, but he was a victorious athlete. And in that, the wreath on his head is believed to be an olive wreath. This is significant in that the only known games where the winners received olive wreaths instead of laurel wreaths were the festival games at Olympia, the most hallowed games in Greece. He is immortalized in bronze at the apex of his physical ability and his glory. As Dr. Saunders explained, the original color of the bronze was constructed to mimic well-tanned flesh. The arrogant expression on his face shows that he is proud in his moment, a victorious athlete at the Olympic games. His eyes (which have long since been missing) would have been inlayed with precious stones that would give them a glimmering quality. Returning to the point about who would have been depicted in the nude, the athlete’s physical gifts with his tanned and muscular body have to be considered along with his clear athletic success. In order to achieve arete, a sound body had to be achieved, and athletes certainly exemplified this quality. This amazing and one-of-a-kind bronze is a priceless artifact now, but in villages where large games would be held, countless bronzes just like this would line the sanctuaries and preserve the names of the victorious athletes in the past. It becomes clear that athletes were the personification of the “sound body” tenet of arete, and this is something that I am sure to focus in on as I examine more works from the ancient world.

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Above are two pieces of ancient Greek pottery that also depict athletic scenes from around 500 BCE. On the left is a wine cup (kylix) depicting athletes training in the discus, javelin, long jump, etc. A notable inclusion is the robed boy at the top of the picture playing the flute. He provides music for the training, providing a glimpse into how athletes not only involved themselves in the gymnastic (exercise) tenet of arete, but they were also schooled in the arts. On the right is a wine cooler (psykter) depicting youths in the gymnasium, or training ground. There are notable incriptions next to certain youths such as “Hegerthos kalos” (Hegerthos is beautiful/fine”) and “Leagros kalos” (Leagros is beautiful/fine). The artist makes a point to label these youths training as beautiful, which speaks to their physical appearance and possibly also to the courting of young boys by older men at the wine-drinking party called the symposium.

I will be traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the coming weeks to have a look at more antiquities. Further areas that I want to delve deeper in include the celebration of the human body through athletes and the balanced lifestyle that athletes subscribed to that included not only physical training, but the finer arts like music and literature.

Comments

  1. Abby Jackson says:

    Hi James! Looks like you have a great start on your research already. There is so much information in this post that I never knew about ancient Greece! I of course knew about how important gods and heroes were to the ancient Greek, but I did not know the extent to which the ancient Greeks also revered athletes. It is interesting that the statues of the athletes resemble statues I have seen of Greek gods or heroes, as if the ancient Greek are trying to emphasize how god- or hero-like they considered their athletes to be. I look forward to hearing more about your research and what you find!

  2. tepayer says:

    Thanks for the research update! After you defined the concept of ‘arete’ in your original post, it’s really interesting to see how it is on display in artwork through the pictures and description you’ve provided. It’s also interesting to see the overlap between athletics and the arts, which I think we perceive today as two different worlds, and I look forward to hearing if you see more of than overlap in other pieces that you study. Thank you for all the detail in your update, and I hope the rest of your research goes well!

  3. bchristenson says:

    James,

    This was a great post. I especially appreciated your attention to detail. I would never have known the significance of an olive wreath versus a laurel wreath. I also didn’t know that using bronze for statues was meant to mimic the skin tone of a tanned athlete. I also didn’t know that precious jewels would’ve been inlaid in the eyes. It seems like you got to spend a great summer, and it’s a real treat to hear your enthusiasm for your work come through even in a brief blog post.

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