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The agonothesia is, in a sense, a hallmark of the post-Classical world. The term and a version of the concept existed since at least the fifth century BCE, but its integration in the festival and overall agonistic apparatus of multiple poleis really takes off in the early Hellenistic period. More than merely an institution, one can legitimately claim that the agonothesia was, through its operation and manifested outcomes, a Hellenistic cultural practice: agonothetai and their complex work exemplified modes of thinking and behavior on Greek sport and festival, while at the same time they partly catalyzed and solidified statuses and hierarchies in a social world in which elite benefaction played an increasingly dominant role.

For this and many other reasons it is rather surprising, as the author of the book under review rightly remarks (15-23), that the agonothesia received little scholarly attention until recently. The tide has turned, but there is still a lot to be done to unlock the full complexity of Greek agonothesiai. La cité des spectacles permanents is conceived by its author, and rightly so, as a step in that direction.

Focusing on Athens, the book is divided into two volumes. Following a brief overview of past scholarship and an equally brief introduction to the structure and contents of the book, the bulk of volume I is dedicated to the reproduction, at times with critical emendations, of epigraphic texts that touch on the Athenian agonothesia during the Hellenistic and Imperial periods. Each inscription is accompanied by translation and commentary. Commentaries on individual texts are bound to be idiosyncratic. In this instance, commentaries tend to focus on prosopography, the historical development of festivals, and the duties of agonothetai. A knowledgeable reader will find in these commentaries plenty of insightful points as well as many points to argue against. A detailed discussion of the latter is better reserved for specialist studies. Volume I concludes with three short appendixes, several tables, and some illustrations.

Volume II consists of nine chapters, a Conclusion, Bibliography, English summary, and several indexes. The core of the book is the ‘historical synthesis’, i.e. chapters 1-9 plus Conclusion. The focus, as the author points out (28-29), is on institutional development. For the most part, the narrative proceeds in chronological order. Chapter 1 concerns itself with the earlier attestations and practices of the Greek agonothesia. Chapter 2 focuses on the emergence of the agonothesia in Athens, chapter 3 on the development of the institution in Athens from the early to middle Hellenistic period (up to 167 BCE), and chapter 4 on the Athenian agonothesia during the late Hellenistic period. Chapter 5 shifts to the duties of Athenian agonothetai in the course of festivals; chapter 6 concentrates on the multifaceted issues of financing festivals and the practice of euergetism through the Athenian agonothesia during the Hellenistic period; chapter 7 looks at the life trajectories of some well-documented Athenian agonothetai; chapter 8 turns on the Athenian agonthesia during the Imperial period; and finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of issues of financing and sponsorship of Athenian agonistic festivals during the Imperial period.

A word on methodology. Several decades ago, Moses Finley issued a stern warning about what he dubbed “Tell-All-You-Know-About-X” books in the field of ancient history.[1] By that he meant books that attempt to include even the most minute statement or artefact found in the ancient record in connection with a subject – as Finley puts it, these studies aim at abolishing any criteria of source selection.[2] Such studies tend to privilege an alleged exhaustiveness over the articulation of complex analytical questions, the deployment of models, and the discovery of patterns. In the book under review this apparent quest for comprehensiveness is combined with the aim to study merely the Athenian manifestations of an institution/cultural practice attested in numerous civic entities of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods. The author of the book under review justifies the choice of pursuing this type of institutional history with the chimerical claim that case studies on the agonothesia of all poleis/localities are needed before one is to attempt a global, as he calls it (875), assessment of the agonothesia across the Greek-speaking world.[3] This is the reason why the author is critical (19-20; 859-860) of the overview of the agonothesia in the Greek world by F. Quaß – an overview which, especially for the Imperial period, was based on a broad range of testimonia from a wide range of communities, thus revealing the wealth and diversity of localized practices while adumbrating overarching themes characteristic of the practice of agonothesia throughout the Greek world.[4] Furthermore, and in addition to local conditions, a synoptic quest for cultural patterns can also be sensitive to long-term historical developments. The narrative of La cité des spectacles permanents is at its most convincing when the author is forced, due to the lack of extensive Athenian evidence, to draw parallels from other polities – e.g. on chapter 8 and 9 of vol. II, dealing with the agonothesia and festival culture in Athens during the Imperial period – thus demonstrating that the agonothesia in Athens (or in any other community or league/region) cannot be adequately understood in isolation.

All this should be perceived as a heads-up for the prospective reader, not as a claim that the book under review is devoid of value. Bringing together the epigraphic and literary testimonia on the Athenian agonothesia in volume I renders this section of the book a point of reference for the many scholars interested in Athenian religion, festivals, and sport. Moreover, some of the thematic chapters in vol. II move beyond the strict confines of the agonothesia to consider other related parameters. For instance, chapters 7 and 9 of vol. II examine in some detail other facets of festival financing in addition to the contributions of the agonothetai. For all these reasons La cité des spectacles permanents will have a long-lasting presence in research on Athenian festivals and sport.


Zinon Papakonstantinou, University of Illinois at Chicago

Publié en ligne le 25 janvier 2024


[1] M. I. Finley, Ancient History Evidence and Models, New York: Viking, 1986, 61-62.

[2] Source selection is not to be misunderstood as source ignorance. An ancient historian can have an intimate knowledge of all sources related to their research subject, but deploy only a subset of them as befits the preferred mode of analysis.

[3] It is unrealistic to expect analytical scholarship to be suspended on the uncertain anticipation of specialist case studies of an institution or practice in every corner of the Greek-speaking world. Such studies might take decades or more to materialize.

[4]  F. Quaß, Die Honoratiorenschicht in den Städten des griechischen Ostens: Untersuchungen zur politischen und sozialen Entwicklung in hellenistischer und römischer Zeit, Stuttgart: Steiner, 1993, 275-285 (Hellenistic) and 303-317 (Imperial).