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A Quantitative Analysis of Pausanias' Testimony on Athletic Statues at Olympia

This page authored by Jorge Bravo, Carleton College, based on an original activity by Jorge Bravo, Carleton College.
This material was originally developed by the QuIRK at Carleton College
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Students read an extended account of Pausanias' Description of Greece in which the author describes a great number of statues of athletes (nearly 200) that he observed in the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games. Students then use this account (with supplemental information from other sources) to construct a set of data about the statues, including the athlete's names, their home city-states, the athletic events being commemorated, the time period of the athletes' victories, and the sculptors. Next, the students quantify the data and look for significant patterns. For instance, are certain Olympic events represented more than others among the statues? Do the athletes of certain city-states predominate? What is the distribution of the statues over the various time periods? Finally, in a 3-6 page paper, each student presents the results of the quantitative analysis and, in conjunction with qualitative arguments, explains them in light of the author's biases and the cultural context of ancient athletics.

Learning Goals

Through this activity students will develop their understanding of several concepts and skills:
  • the value of a close reading of an ancient text
  • the potential for bias in a primary source
  • some standard resources used in classical studies
  • extracting quantitative data from a literary text
  • working with spreadsheets, tables, graphs, and maps
  • constructing quantitative arguments and presenting them in writing
  • applying concepts about ancient athletics learned in the course

Context for Use

This assignment was designed for use in a first-year seminar on ancient athletics but could work just is easily in a course open to other class levels. Since the seminar is a writing rich course, the assignment is designed to culminate in a short paper, one of several spaced throughout the term. The class size is limited to 15 students; as the steps involved require some collaborative work among groups of students, the assignment may prove difficult for larger class sizes. The assignment presumes some knowledge already of the cultural context of Greek athletics and so should be introduced later in the term. To allow students time to do the various steps in the activity, it is spaced out over more than two weeks of the term.

Description and Teaching Materials

The class is into 3 groups of 5 students. Each group is responsible for generating a complete set of data based on Pausanias' testimony.

Each member of the group will be assigned a section of Pausanias' account to read, using the text available through the Perseus web site (see Resources, below); the student will then enter data from that section into a common spreadsheet for the group.

The student makes an entry on the spreadsheet for each statue described by Pausanias. It includes, in separate columns, the reference to the specific passage where the statue is described, the name of each athlete commemorated by a statue, the home polis of the athlete, the event(s) in which the athlete was victorious, and the name of the sculptor of the statue. Using a supplemental table provided by me, the student also includes in another column the time period in which the athlete flourished.

Once each group has assembed a complete set of data, it will use the data to create tables and graphs that represent the following relationships:
  1. The number and percentage of athlete statues from each named polis
  2. The number and percentage of athlete statues for each Olympic event
  3. The number and percentage of athlete statues from each time period
  4. The number and percentage of athlete statues for which the polis is known vs. unknown
  5. The number and percentage of athlete statues for which the sculptor is known vs. unknown

Using the Barrington Atlas (see Resources), the students look up the locations of all the city-states of the victorious athletes. They plot their locations on a map and indicate the numbers of athletes from each polis there as well.

As a class we discuss the results of the analysis and generate ideas about how to approach the writing assignment. That assignment is to write a 3-6 page paper in which each student presents the results of the quantitative analysis and combines them with qualitative arguments to address the following questions about the value of Pausanias' account for the study of ancient Greek athletics:
What difficulties do we encounter in gathering data from a text like this?
What explicit and implicit biases does Pausanias have in describing that statues of athletes that he saw at Olympia?
How likely is this account to reflect accurately the original distribution of the statues?
Apart from his own biases, what other factors might account for the distributions of statues that are observed?
What does this account illustrate about the nature of ancient Greek athletics as practiced at Olympia?

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is a good idea to allow time in class for discussion of any questions or concerns that the students have during the stages of the assignment, including a brainstorming session about how to explain the results after the data has been analyzed. Drawing on library and IT staff support is also helpful. Students may need an orientation to the resources and applications used in the activity, and arranging with staff for an open computer lab or staff office hours allows students to get the help they need with entering and analyzing the data.


Students will submit a copy of the data set that they have generated as well as graphs/tables/maps that they create with the data. They will also write a short paper in which they present and discuss the data. Criteria used to evaluate the paper will include 1) the ability to describe the data clearly and note significant patterns that emerge and 2) the ability to construct clear arguments based on these findings that assess Pausanias as a source and that explain the cultural context of ancient Greek athletics.

References and Resources

This site offers a publicly available English translation of Pausanias' Description of Greece.

Talbert, R. J. A., ed., Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton 2000).
This reference work allows students to identify and map the locations of the various city-states represented among the victor statues.

Herrmann, H. V. "Die Siegerstatuen von Olympia." Nikephoros 1 (1988): 119-83.
This article addresses the topic of Pausanias' account of the victor statues at Olympia. It includes a handy table of the statues mentioned by Pausanias and thus serves as a model for the data set that the students will be producing. It also compiles the dates of the various athletes, based on other available information, and is the source of the date information that the students add into their own data sets.

Pausanias. Description de la Grèce, vol. V, Livre V, L'Élide (I), trans. and comm. M. Casevitz, J. Pouilloux, and A. Jacquemin (Paris 2002).
Pausanias. Description de la Grèce, vol. VI, Livre VI, L'Élide (II), trans. and comm. M. Casevitz, J. Pouilloux, and A. Jacquemin (Paris 2002).
This commentary in French is the most recent scholarly commentary on Pausanias' Description of Greece. The volumes on Books V and VI offer detailed discussion of Pausanias' account of Olympia and may prove useful in resolving difficult passages that the students may encounter as they do their reading.