The Use and Abuse of Ancient History in Victorian Sport
Nineteenth-century elite education in Britain was dominated by classics inside the classroom and sport outside, often to the exclusion of almost everything else. The move towards athleticism in the public schools and universities ultimately transformed the social landscape by creating, codifying, regulating and promoting new games such as association and rugby football while reforming existing sports such as athletics, boxing and rowing. As these sports became more popular, bitter struggles erupted for their control. These often ostensibly centred on the issue of amateurism, but had an element of class conflict as their underlying cause. As part of this dialogue, some classical scholars created a powerful and widely accepted narrative which projected an image of the ideal Victorian sportsmen on to the athletes of ancient Greece in order to create a pedigree for elite amateurism. At the same time, they created a second narrative, detailing negative aspects of sport during the Roman period, in order to highlight the so-called ‘evils of professionalism’. My research looks at how these narratives were created and why, and examines the personal networks which intricately linked the classicists behind them with the leading sports administrators, politicians and educationalists of their day.
Beyond looking at the way in which ancient history was recast to try and influence sporting discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, my research will also be looking at the direct impact which classical influence had on the development of sport. This will include looking at how classical culture shaped Victorian ideas of manliness and masculinity, how classical ideals played into the sporting culture of public schools and universities, and the interaction between classical ideas on medicine and training regimes with scientific advancements in these areas during the period. The research will also consider how the sporting vocabulary of the ancient world was adapted to modern sport and the implications of various shifts in meaning.
An important part of my research will consider athleticism in the light of Muscular Christianity and Social Darwinism. This will consider how many of the traits initially associated with the ideal muscular Christian were drawn from Greek stoicism and Roman ideas of manly patrician behaviour. However, as the nineteenth-century progressed ideas of Social Darwinism increasingly encroached on Muscular Christian ideals, and this often drew on the example of the Spartans to encourage the idea of self-sacrifice and military service for the state. Laconophilia, the idealisation of Sparta, was also used in the nineteenth-century to legitimise ideas of European racial superiority and harsh attitudes towards of colonised peoples abroad and the working class at home.
Research Degree: PhD, Full-time
Department: History, Politics and Philosophy
Research Centre: Leisure, Consumption and Material Cultures