Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Aara Suksi


In this thesis I collate the textual, artistic, and material evidence for acrobatics in sport and spectacle in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece, and analyze gymnastic performances with regard to their respective socio-cultural contexts. I develop the theoretical perspective that all body movement is socially qualified in order to demonstrate how the extreme manipulations of an acrobatic body carry particular social meaning: in sport, the male acrobatic body approaches superhumanism, and in spectacle the female acrobatic body approaches subhumanism. I argue, on the one hand, that men’s tumbling took place at the early Panathenaia festival in Athens, both in martial dances and in competitions featuring springboards and equestrian acrobatics. Artistic representations emphasize a participant’s controlled aerialism while he wears armour, and thereby express his prowess as a warrior-athlete. On the other hand, acrobatics was also a kind of spectacular ‘wonder-making’, and I argue that the abnormal physical alterity shown by women’s acrobatic bodies rendered the performer a marginalized and unnatural ‘other’. I use two particular feats, namely, tumbling among upright swords and acrobatic stunts on a potter’s wheel, as case studies for my argument that the spectacular acrobat embodied her social inferiority. In this thesis I offer the first complete treatment of Greek acrobatics in which careful consideration is given to the relationship between social realities, text, and art. It is also the first to use sociological theories of the body as a method for approaching ancient Greek representations of acrobats’ extreme physicality.