Update 3: Arete and its Memorialization Through Athletics

The last couple of weeks of my research has brought me to the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Upon my visit to the Penn Museum, it became clear that arete manifests itself in many different forms. It is not only limited to athletics, but athletes themselves very often act as a living embodiment of this concept. Though athletes obtained a larger-than-life persona, especially those who were victorious in the “crown games” at Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi, and most notably Olympia, even they had idols to look up to. The one figure that athletes sought inspiration from was none other than the most storied Greek hero of all time: Herakles.

Herakles famously completed 12 impossible “Labors” for King Eurystheus of Mycenae. These labors were called “athloi,” or contests, ultimately derived from the verb “athleuein” meaning “to compete for a prize (Miller 11). Thus the word “athlete” literally means “one who competes for a prize” and can be traced all the way back to Herakles’ early contests from which his fame and immortality sprung forth. Herakles’ arete served as a model for all athletes to transcend their humanity and achieve all they could possibly achieve (Herrmann, Jr. and Kondoleon, 53).  From my findings at the Penn Museum, there is an inextricable link between athletes and their heroic idol.




The first image is a stamnos from 490 BCE (container used to store liquids) depicting Herakles wrestling the Nemean Lion, his first of 12 Labors. The Nemean Lion’s hide was impervious to all weapons, leaving Herakles no choice but to wrestle it to the ground and strangle it with his won hands. It is an image that instantly makes the viewer think of two wrestlers trying to gain position on their opponent. the bottom image comes from a kylix (wine cup) also made around 490 BCE. Two wrestlers create the exact same positions compared to Herakles and the Nemean Lion. In this way, athletes take on a heroic quality of their own as they compete to gain victory and move closer to achieving arete.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had on display one of the most finely preserved Roman copies of the since-lost bronze sculpture by Polykleitos called the Diadumenos (The Fillet-Binder).



Often times the victor at the “crown games” at Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi, and Olympia would receive a myriad of gifts and offerings from fans (sound familiar to the modern day?)  besides the respective laurel or olive wreaths bestowed upon them by the contest judges. Among these gifts were “tainia,” or victory fillets. The victor would tie these pieces of fabric around his head and arms to signify his contest win. Though the hands and the fillet are now missing, one gets the big picture when looking at this marble Roman copy. As I spoke briefly about in my last post, Polykleitos of Argos used the nude athlete as the physical manifestation of his sculpting philosophy. He used athletes to represent his property of “symmetria,” or “commensurability of the parts.” In other words, Polykleitos sought to portray humans in perfect proportions, with each part of the body being of precise relative measure in comparison with the parts surrounding it. Polykleitos’ treatise would have most likely gone into great depth on the mathematics and strategies used to obtain his masterpieces, but the copies that remain offer a glimpse into his philosophy and how it relates ultimately to arete in athletes.

The sculpture above is a representation of motion and stability in balance (Miller 230). The victorious athlete bears weight on his right leg while he prepares for motion with his left leg. There are two lines of opposition in the sculpture that are perfectly balanced. The first comes from his downward gaze and is reinforced by the angling of his shoulders. The next line of opposition comes from the corresponding bend in his hips in the opposite direction. It is a balance both in a visual perspective with the lines of opposition from the “contrapposto” pose as well as in a temporal perspective, stability and motion combined. A moment in time that encapsulates balance in all regards. And that is exactly what the Greeks encourages in the pursuit of arete. The athlete in his most glorious time, at the apex of his achievement, still bows his head humbly to adorn himself with the victory fillet. Going back to previous posts, the Greeks encouraged a balance of both physical training and the arts in the education of athletes. To achieve arete, one needed a perfect balance of mind, body, and soul. That is what shines throughout the art of the Archaic Period and Classical Period, and what I argue defines athletes of these eras and what is lost in future generations.


  1. Jo Weech says:

    These blog posts are really interesting! You’d be hard pressed to find someone on campus who hasn’t heard of the Olympic games, but the details of Greek athletics aren’t as widely known. This is a topic that I hadn’t heard much about before. From your posts, it is clear that these ancient athletes spent a lot of time training both their bodies and minds to achieve balance. What is it about modern day athletics that makes you think such balance “is lost in future generations”?

  2. jcpsathas says:

    Hi Jo! I think what I just meant by that comment is that such a balance between body, mind, and soul is possibly not as celebrated as much as it was back in ancient Greece. There is no doubt that athletes today have to have their bodies and minds right to compete at a high level, but nowadays it seems as if only the physical training is emphasized. Story after story of the best athletes documents the long days spent training from a very early age, and many athletes today make workout videos going through their daily exercises. Aristotle warns against such over-training, noting how only two or three athletes who won in the youth division of the Olympic Games went on to win as adults. Such training, he argues, leads to over-specialization and thus they are useful to the state in only one task. I appreciate your question, and I’ll definitely explain how the balance is not “lost” but rather not as emphasized in today’s culture.

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