Donald Kyle, of the University of Texas at Arlington, is a key member of a very special team: a select band of North American-based historians of ancient Greek (and to a smaller extent Roman) sport, one that also includes Mark Golden, Stephen Miller, Wendy Raschke, David Sansone and Thomas Scanlon. Rather than offering a shorter, textbook-style work, Kyle has, in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World , made a powerful case, yet again, for the value and integrity of sport history - that is, the linkage of sport (however defined, it must at least include serious competition at its core) to gender, religion, politics and other broadly sociological issues.
Kyle takes the "ancient" in his title very seriously. The first sixth or so of the book progresses from 3rd-millennium BC Mesopotamia to the Aegean Greek Late Bronze Age, and the final third is concerned with Macedonian and Roman attitudes to and practices of performative sport and spectacle: from Philip and Alexander the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC through the post-Alexander Hellenistic world and the triumphs of the Roman Republic, to the Later Roman Empire of the 4th century AD.
In neat ring-composition style, Kyle concludes with a section on Greek Games in the Roman Empire, because it was in AD393 that the Olympics were finally, after an uninterrupted run of well over 1,000 years, dealt the coup de grâce by an anti-pagan Christian Roman emperor.
In a way, this book has global applicability, yet it is pre-Hellenistic Ancient Greece - a complex mosaic of 1,000 or so deeply agonistic communities - that lends itself particularly to Kyle's culturally contextualised approach and that understandably receives about half his pages.
Readers of Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World are thus treated to a rich and varied feast of Greek competitive feats, athletic, hippic and otherwise - including hunting, beauty contests and sexual conquest. They range from the unashamedly masculine and aristocratic fictional games of Homer to the real-life "civic" sports and female athleticism of the Classical 5th and 4th centuries.
There are many plums in this rich and well-illustrated (if somewhat highly priced) pudding of a book. Do not hesitate to put in your thumb.
Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history and fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.
Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. First Edition
Author - Donald G. Kyle
Publisher - Blackwell Publishing
Pages - 403
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 22970 4 and 22971 1