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Bill Thayer

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p415 Discus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p415 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DISCUS (δίσκος), a circular plate of stone (δίσκοι, Pind. Isth. I.34), or metal (splendida pondera disci, Mart. XIV.164), made for throwing to a distance as an exercise of strength and dexterity. This was, indeed, one of the principal gymnastic exercises of the ancients, being included in the Pentathlon. It was practised in the heroic age (Hom. Il. II.774, Od. VIII.129, 186‑188, XVII.168).

The discus was ten or twelve inches in diameter, so as to reach above the middle of the forearm when held in the right hand. The object was to throw it from a fixed spot to the greatest distance; and in doing this each player had a friend to mark the point at which the discus, when thrown by him, struck the ground (Od. VIII.186‑200; Stat. Theb. VI.703). The distance to which it was commonly thrown became a measure of length, called τὰ δίσκουρα (Il. XXIII.431, 523).

[image ALT: An engraving of a naked man, standing, somewhat bent at the knees, with his left hand on his right knee, about to heave a frisbee-like object with his extended right arm raised to a level slightly above his head. It is a representation of an ancient Greco-Roman discobolus, as carved by Myron; the throwing of the ancient discus is the subject of this webpage.]
The space on which the discobolus, or thrower of the discus, stood, was called βαλβίς, and was indicated by being a little higher than the ground surrounding it. As each man took his station, with his body entirely naked, on the βαλβίς, he placed his right foot forward, bending his knee, and resting principally on this foot. The discus being held, ready to be thrown, in his right hand, he stooped, turning his body towards it, and his left hand was naturally turned in the same direction (Philostr. Imag. I.24; Welcker, ad loc.). This attitude was represented by the sculptor Myron in one of his works,a and is adduced by Quintilian (Inst. Or. II.13 §10) to show how much greater skill is displayed by the artist, and how much more powerful an effect is produced on the spectator, when a person is represented in action, than when he is at rest or standing erect. We fortunately possess several copies, more or less entire, of this celebrated statue; and one of the best of them is in the British Museum (see the preceding woodcut). It represents the player just ready to swing round his outstretched arm, so as to describe with it a semicircle in the air, and thus, with his collected force, to project the discus at an angle of forty-five degrees, at the same time springing forward so as to give to it the impetus of his whole body. Discum "vasto contorquet turbine, et ipse prosequitur." (Statius, l.c.).

Sometimes a heavy mass of a spherical form (σόλος) was used instead of a discus, as when the Greeks at the funeral games contended for a lump of iron, which was to be given to him who could throw it furthest (Il. XXIII.826‑846). The σόλος was perforated in the centre, so that a rope or thong might be passed through and used in throwing it (Eratosth. ed. Bernhardy, p251). In this form the discobolia is still practised by the mountaineers of the canton of Appenzell, in Switzerland. They meet twice a year to throw round stones of great weight and size. This they do by a sudden leap and forcible swinging of the whole body. The same stone is taken by all, as in the case of the ancient discus and σόλος: he who sends it to the greatest distance receives a public prize. The stone is lifted as high as the right shoulder (see woodcut; κατωμαδίοιο, Il. XXIII.431) before being projected (Ebel, Schilderung der Gebirgsvölker der Schweitz, I p174).

Thayer's Note:

a Very very rarely do we see a photo of Myron's discus thrower other than from the obvious, "famous" side. Among many photos online, easy to find, I've chosen this page at Sergey Sosnovskiy's Database of Ancient Art with its five views of the Discobolus.

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Page updated: 25 Mar 10