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Abstract–Ages of Athletes: Generational Decline in Philostratus’ Gymnasticus and Archaic Greek Poetry

This paper examines the organization of athletic history in Philostratus’ Gymnasticus. In the introduction to the Gymnasticus, Philostratus presents a diachronic model of physical decline in athletes and athletic training, from Greek mythic heroes such as Herakles to the poor performance and appearance of athletes in Philostratus’ own time (Gymnasticus 1 [K261.15-262.2]). Philostratus’ history, however, is not just an expression of nostalgic desire for a bygone era. Rather, this diachronic model of decline has a didactic purpose. In order to understand this purpose, I suggest we consider Philostratus’ model of decline in relation to Archaic Greek poetry. In fact, as I will argue, Philostratus’ history of athletes follows a logic that parallels the story of the ages of man in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Just as Hesiod’s ages of man is organized into antithetical pairs that ultimately present a contrast between dikê and hubris, so Philostratus’ “ages of athletes” also forms antithetical pairs that negotiate between different conceptual categories, not dikê and hubris, but technê and phusis. This critical difference between Philostratus and Hesiod underscores the larger purpose of the Gymnasticus to re-embody the Greek past through athletic training. Where Hesiod’s narrative of the ages of man is clearly meant to favor dikê over hubris, Philostratus’ temporal structure is meant to demonstrate how technê and phusis were once mutually interdependent in the Greek mythic past. By re-aligning the technê of training with phusis, this past, Philostratus argues, can be physically realized in the present. Thus, by adopting an archaic Greek model of generational decline and adapting it to athletic training as a form of technical knowledge rooted in nature, Philostratus presents a new, more physical way of participating in that common Greek and Roman effort, which Bernard Knox had defined as “backing into the future.”

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