Volume 9, Number 3

Editor's Note

Welcome to the American Journal of Play special issue on play in the ancient world, another in the series of theme issues we publish from time to time. Each focuses on an important topic in the fast-developing study of play. Each is guest edited by a distinguished expert on the topic. And each includes work by the leading researchers and thinkers on the topic. For this issue, guest editor Thomas Banchich has assembled a series of articles exploring what we know about play in ancient Greece and Rome and how we come to know it. We begin with two interviews. The first discusses play in ancient Greece with Simon Goldhill, and the second play in ancient Rome with Garrett Fagen, and together they include such topics as theater and comic literature, philosophy and social wit, and what jokes, leisure pursuits, and laughter in the two ancient cultures reveal about them. Our guest editor himself considers how the Greeks perceived playfulness; Dion and Marion Sommer compare ancient and modern toys; and Stephen E. Kidd argues for the seriousness of playful ancient episodic novels as a genre. We have also included a complimentary piece written by medieval scholar Andrew Higl, who examines a tenth-century collection of riddles written in Old English, some of which derive from ancient Greek sources. Taking note of what about play has changed and what has remained the same, these interviews and articles offer insight into the historically contingent nature of play and how it illuminates both ancient sensibilities and our own.



Simon Goldhill is Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge where he is a fellow of King’s College; he is also the John Harvard Professor of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge. He is the director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) and a fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Best known to the public as a champion of the classics through interviews and lectures and in frequent appearances on television and radio, among scholars he is celebrated for his work on Greek tragedy. His Jerusalem: City of Longing won the Independent Publishers gold medal in History for 2009; his Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity won the 2012 Robert Lowry Patten Award for the best book on Victorian literature; and his Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy won the Runciman Award in 2013 for the best book on a Greek topic, ancient or modern. His many other books include Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality; and Love, Sex, and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives. In this interview, Goldhill talks about play in ancient Greece—its importance in Greek theater and literature, philosophy and social wit, games and sports, jokes and sex, and love and family life. He both reflects upon how Greek sensibilities still flow through our contemporary hearts and considers how play helps distinguish between modern and ancient people. Key words: ancient play versus modern play; play in ancient Greece; theater as play; symposium as play; games and sport in ancient Greece; humor in ancient Greece; play in Greek literature; eroticism as play; violence in play


Garrett Fagan served as a professor of Ancient History at Pennsylvania State University and Andrew G. Mellon Professor-In-Charge at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. He taught at York University in Toronto and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he held a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany. Born in Dublin, Fagan trained at Trinity College and later at McMaster University in Canada where he specialized in Roman history and archaeology. Fagan wrote Bathing in Public in the Roman World and The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games, and he coedited Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoar-chaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public. His many scholarly articles include “Violence in Roman Social Relations” and “New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare.” Fagan developed three Great Courses for The Teaching Company that appear on disk and as a mobile app, and he has been featured in the PBS series Nova and on the History Channel for cable television. In this interview, Fagan ranges widely over Roman play—its toys, spectacles, contests, sports, games, comic literature, and jokes and the nature of Roman leisure and laughter. Key words: ancient play versus modern play; games and sport as play; humor in ancient Rome; play in ancient Rome; play in Roman literature; pseudoarchaelogy; theater as play; violence in play


by Thomas Banchich


The author uses the inscriptions and images on several ancient Greek vases to consider how social context, the meanings of play-related words, and particular features of the Greek language contributed to the ability to signal and perceive playfulness. He emphasizes the importance of the lexical range of some Greek words and how expectations linked to specific social settings—
especially to the Greek symposium—could promote the perception of play. He maintains that the historical, cultural, and linguistic perspectives of the ancient Greeks warrant the attention of modern students of play. Key words: ancient Greece; lexical range; personification of play; playfulness; symposium

by Maria Sommer and Dion Sommer


The authors note that ancient Athens, in important ways, connected children, toys, and play. But they also find the scholarship of toys sparse and scattered. They discuss obstacles that can skew our modern view of the Greek mind, and they caution that modern eyes should not see play where the Greeks saw ritual and religious devotion. With these challenges in mind, the authors draw from archaeological, linguistic, and literary evidence found in ancient toys, art, and texts to offer an ecology of play that fits both modern and antique societies and guides future investigations of the subject. Key words: ancient Athenian toys; archeology and childhood in ancient Athens; classical dolls; classical rattles; classical wheeled horses; geometric and classical periods

by Stephen E. Kidd


The episodic structuring of ancient novels gives rise to the impression that they are not a serious genre in contrast to other genres like tragedy. Episodic plots tend to imply a playfulness not bound to causality but instead a spontaneity that includes the freedom to reinvent themselves. The author argues that novels like Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Lucian’s True History, and Xenophon’s Ephesian Tales share an episodic plot structure, even if they are not all similarly playful in tone or content. For that reason, appreciating the aesthetic effect of such episodic structures not only allows us better to understand these novels and their reception but also helps explain the nature of both seriousness and play. Key words: causality in the ancient novel; episodic plot in the ancient novel; playfulness in the ancient novel; seriousness in the ancient novel

by Andrew Higl


The author discusses the Exeter Book riddles, some of the earliest poems in English, specifically Old English, as perfect examples of how play and poetry intersect. Their playfulness, he claims, is most apparent in the original manuscript, but notes that few modern readers read Old English. The orthography of the manuscript also helps to make the play of the poems more obscure. Moreover, contemporary readers nearly always encounter the riddles in modern editions and with modern English translations, and editors and translators often provide the riddles with clear divisions and interpretive notes. They sometimes offer their own solutions to the riddles (although the actual manuscript provides no explanation for them). All of which leads to
a different and less playful experience for readers of the riddles. The author explores what it means to play the riddles in their original context, making the individual reader the riddle hero (hæleþ) whom the text calls on to construct playful worlds of imagination and language. He examines how the Old English riddles demand to be played and how they oscillate playfully
between the mundane, the sacred, and the obscene. Key words: Beowulf and play; Old English poetry; riddles and play in poetry

Book Reviews

by Howard P. Chudacoff

What fun it is to read a book about how fun has influenced human history! In Wonderland, Steven Johnson, iconoclastic cultural critic of the best sort, has turned several historical interpretations inside out to reveal that amusement and amusing things have produced some of the most profound transformations that fill everyday life. In six meaty chapters, savored with engaging stories and illustrations, he explains how “delight” was a driver of historical change through a “hummingbird effect,” mean-ing a “process in which an innovation in one field sets in motion transformation in seemingly unrelated fields” (p. 12). Thus innovative playthings such as music boxes and player pianos influenced the development of computer software, a bouncing ball used in a natives’ game observed by Columbus led to an international rubber industry, and the taste for exotic spices, such as cinnamon and pepper, propelled the expansion of international trade and the spread of Islam. 

by Kristie Lynch

Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, PreK–2 is a thorough look at younger children’s play through inquiry and exploration. Author Renee Dinnerstein divides the book into two primary aspects that promote play choice: part 1 discusses the importance of play, different types of play, and classroom logistics of play-centered development; while part 2 delves into the explanation and creation of these varied, multilayered centers using blocks, science, reading, dra-matic play, math, and art. 

by Rebecca McMahon Giles

The imaginative, exploratory play inspired by blocks uniquely contributes to children’s development in every domain—social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. Their matchless versatility has made blocks a mainstay in early-childhood settings for over one hundred years. Creative Block Play firmly positions the time-honored tradition of playing with blocks as an essential component of today’s curriculum for young children. Drawing on a wealth of personal experience, Hansel introduces readers to the endless possibilities of learning through building and playing with blocks. 

by David B. Jones

Safe and Fun Playgrounds provides an easy-to-understand handbook to create, maintain, and supervise playgrounds. As founders of the National Programs for Playground Safety (NPPS), the authors present four principles of playground safety: supervision, age-appropriate design, proper surfacing, and good equipment maintenance (SAFE). The authors base their writing on eighty years of combined professional experience and exten-sive research. The handbook also includes a supervisory checklist, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility checklist, routine safety and inspection checklists, and state regulations. 

by Ian Andrew Johnston and C. Shawn Green

Although the term “video games” no doubt still spurs, at least in some individuals, thoughts of “mindless entertainment” that is primarily “for kids,” the current scientific consensus holds that video games, in fact, can be incredibly powerful tools, with a wide range of applications beyond entertainment. Indeed, today there are already video games that train individuals to perform better such difficult and complex jobs such as endoscopic surgery; to rehabilitate medical patients who have visual, cognitive, and motor deficits; to teach children scholastic content; and to spur interest in solving major societal problems. And in retrospect, these various functions may not be surprising. After all, if video game developers could become adept at teaching players to “rescue a princess” or “find a hidden treasure” more effectively, it would stand to reason that they could also become adept at teaching players’ other skills or knowledge. 

by Nicholas David Bowman

The concept of moral panic is a fascinating and scintillating one for scholars, because it speaks to the unfortunate, albeit inextricable, interaction between society and social science. Scholarship generally intends to help us better understand the world around us, but we usually prefer scholarship aimed at risk identification and aversion. Such preferences grow even stronger in the face of salient social and cultural flashpoints—for example, the sudden shift in funding towards auto-immunode-ficiency (AIDS) research after the disease was contracted by American teenager Ryan White, one of the first nonhomosexuals to die from the disease in the 1980s, or the September 11 terrorist attacks, which led to a focus on identifying and stopping ter-rorist threats. Indeed, in Moral Combat, media psychologists Patrick Markey and Christopher Ferguson discuss the Columbine school shooting in April 1999 as a flashpoint for a marked refocusing of media research on the psychological and social ills of video games. Data provided in chapter 2 (or level 2, using the book’s parlance) demonstrates a nearly five-fold increase in the number of scholarly publications on violent video games in 2001 in a self-labeled “post-Columbine era” that shows no signs of slowing. 

by Alex Chalk

Do violent video games cause violence? Despite countless publications, legal battles, and media firestorms, the territory between video games and violent behav-ior remains a murky one. In this book, Timothy J. Welsh takes a new delve into the matter, bringing along a novel framework that shines a fresh and much-needed light on the relationship between video games, representation, play, violence, and the wider media landscape in which we consider these questions.

In Memoriam

Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychobiologist best known for his work on animal emotions and a charter member of the editorial advisory board of the American Journal of Play, died on April 18, 2017. Panksepp was not only an eminent researcher but also a pioneer in the evolutionary neurobiology of human nature. He founded the new field he called affective neuroscience and investigated the primary processes of brain and mind that enable and drive emotion and in which he located the deep roots of play. His stunningly original and amazingly wide-reaching discoveries in both the circuitry and chemistry of the human brain and its social mind hold much promise for future research. Some play theorists, like his friend and colleague Stuart Brown, have compared Panksepp’s investigations into the neural foundations of social joy to the paradigm-shifting discoveries of more famous twentieth-century scientists such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. As proof, they cite Panksepp’s half-century of discoveries and the books and scientific articles that, according to Brown, culminated in “a grand unifying, neuroevolutionary theory about the brain substrates of the ancient mind that all mammals still share.”

As an undergraduate, Panksepp briefly considered a career in electrical engineering before turning instead to psychology, which led him to a 1969 University of Massachusetts PhD dissertation examining how electrical stimulation of brain regions affects aggressive behavior. Panksepp wrote more than three hundred articles in scientific books and journals, along with the pathbreaking 1998 Affective Neuroscience, in which he detailed the neurology, neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, and functions of the emotional brain. For Panksepp and his students, studying animal play offered a window into what they and other thinkers came to call the BrainMind or MindBrain. He discovered that rats chirp (“laugh”) during their rough-and-tumble bouts and that play deprivation is a potent moti- vator akin to thirst or hunger. Optimal brain development depends on healthy play experiences in early life, Panksepp contended, and he observed that over the long evolutionary haul, play has promoted social bonds and nourished social learning. In his lengthy, lustrous career, Panksepp was the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University; a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychobiology at Bowling Green State University; and head of Affective Neuroscience Research, Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University.

Panksepp first appeared in theses pages in a long interview conducted for a special issue of the American Journal of Play (volume 2, number 3) that explored pioneering discoveries about the MindBrain and play. In this searching conversation, he reached back into the history of our species to find that over the long evolutionary haul, play has promoted social bonds and nourished social learning. Looking back more specifically on individual life histories, he observed that optimal brain development depends on healthy play experiences in early life. And as the interview turned autobiographical, he discussed his own remarkable early experiences to highlight an important role for play.

Born in Estonia in 1943, Panksepp was not yet a year old when, in 1944, his family fled west to escape the invading Russian Red Army. After the Allied victory, the family lived in a series of displaced persons’ camps in Germany until 1949. He remembered the internment not for the crowding and deprivation that so affected adults but as a deceptively carefree interval sustained by continual rough-and-tumble play with age-appropriate playmates. With adults otherwise preoccupied with the exigencies of camp life, the kids who abounded there, left largely on their own, ranged and rummaged and played freely. He recalled skinning his head while scrambling over ruined tanks and wrecked army trucks, and he remembered joining the mock battles where kids substituted snowballs with clods of earth that had been churned up by explosions. As an adult scientist, Panksepp open-mindedly regarded these episodes of free play as a “fun way to test the social realities into which one was born.” And he noted how this testing highlighted the evolutionary function of play—finding out “what is fun and fair or not fair on the field of life.” The twin experiences of hardship and liberty that defined his early life granted Panksepp a lifelong habit of flexibility that extended to his scholarship and research.

This constitutional open-mindedness led, accidentally, to one of his most important, simple, and ingenious discoveries—that rats, like us, laugh when tickled, even though we humans and those rodents last shared a common ancestor seventy-five million years ago. And he made this discovery even though rats chirp in the ultrasonic range, well above and beyond the range of human hearing. To overcome this sonic obstacle, Panksepp and Jeff Burgdorf, his enterprising graduate student, recorded the lab animals with detectors that could listen to the squeaks of echolocating bats. They discovered that the tickle-induced giggles of rats proved to sound the very same as the giggles they giggled when they wrestled—their favorite kind of rough-and-tumble play.

Some very special—and fortunate—circumstances had to occur before Panksepp could discover that rats and humans shared a seventy-five-millionyear- old impulse to titter while at play. In the twentieth century, most experimental psychologists followed the radically narrow research agenda of John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and other behaviorists, who were interested in stimulus and response and prediction and control of learned behavior. (Famously, they ran rats through mazes and timed their learning curves.) Jaak Panksepp was more interested in the natural behaviors and social transactions that arose in animals as a result of the original equipment evolution had provided them—the instinctual and apparently emotional prompts to action that helped them survive generation after generation.

The behaviorists dominating the faculties of the better-known university psychology departments as a rule disallowed research into “experienced emotionality” and discounted “experience” in general. But at the freewheeling Bowling Green State University, where Panksepp held a professorship, no such behaviorist hegemony prevailed. Escaping what Panksepp called the “enforced silence” of behaviorist research left him free to investigate motivations and mental processes in animals with complex brains. He turned his investigation to the fundamental primary-process mechanisms (basic socioemotional talents and built-in capacities and ancient feeling states) that he termed in capital letters, SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF—and the deep positive emotion and ancient adaptive behavior, PLAY.

Panksepp believed that PLAY was the most complex of the positive emotions and the most recent of them as well—though this proximity was measured in scores of millions of years over the sweep of evolutionary history. Our loyalty to the human prospect counsels us to think that play is primarily about thinking—a conscious cognitive process. Thinking seems uniquely human, and after all, we need look no further than the elaborate rules and laws that referee our competitive games for proof. They are so cognitively complex, in fact, that referees sometimes must adjudicate them with the mechanical aid of instant replay. But Panksepp’s investigations of the behavior of decorticated rats revealed that play impulses emerge primarily not from the neocortex, the latest addition to our thinking human brain; instead, wild, joyful, and playful impulses actually originate from deep within the ancient brainstem.

This primordial impulse to play thrived and deepened with social evolution. Panksepp discovered, for example, how rats isolated for a time played with a special verve when rehoused in their rodent society. And he found that rats deprived of nurture and playful experience as infants grow up to become particularly unsuccessful adults unable to recognize threat (learned from play signaling) and awkward at or even incapable of mating. Both emotional deficits threaten their survival as well and, consequently, their ability to pass on their genes in the natural world.

We humans prize our separate status, our cognitive sophistication, and our ability to think; we invoke the self-congratulatory moniker Homo sapiens—wise men—and term modern humans by the even more complementary Homo sapiens sapiens to separate ourselves from other mammals who have not constructed skyscrapers, invented government, codified legal systems, or written best-selling novels. But in-group sentimentality turns arrogant when we discount our mammalian inheritance. Nearsightedness to our remote evolutionary past adds up to danger in the pressing present, Panksepp insisted. We put ourselves in social and emotional peril when we ignore the ancient impulse to play. Thus Panksepp, ever the visionary and ever the practical thinker, imagined playgrounds as play sanctuaries, antidotes against current trends toward playlessness. At length, Jaak Panksepp made positive states like playfulness, laughter, love, and joy the legitimate subjects of neuroscience research.

—Scott G. Eberle

Thomas Banchich is Professor and chair of the Classics Department at Canisius College. He has taught and lectured extensively on the history of Greek and Roman cultures and written more than fifty articles, reviews, and book chapters on the value of ancient languages, art, literature, and philosophy. His publications include The Lost History of Peter the Patrician and The History of Zonaras: From Alexander Severus to the Death of Theodosius the Great. An award-winning professor, Banchich has published his work in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography and the Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries series. He is also a cofounder of De Imperatoribus Romanis, an online encyclopedia of Roman rul-ers and their families.

Andrew Higl is Associate Professor at Winona State University where he also serves as the director of School of Graduate Studies in English. He specializes in medieval English literature, and his publications explore the textual history of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He is the author of Playing the Canterbury Tales: The Continuations and Additions and has written for numer-ous articles and book chapters that include the Journal of the Early Book Society; Essays in Medieval Studies; and Inhabited by Stories: Critical Essays on Tales Retold.

Stephen E. Kidd is Professor in the Classics Department at Brown University. His research investigates the comedic elements within Greek literature. He is the author of Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy, and his forthcoming book, Paidia: The Concept of Play in Ancient Greek Thought, will examine the relationship between play and aesthetics among Greek classics. Kidd is arecipient of several teaching awards, and his writings on Greek philosophy have appeared in such publications as Classical Philologus, Philological, Transactions of the American Philological Association, and Greek & Roman Games in the Computer Age.

Dion Sommer is Professor in the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus University in Denmark. His areas of interest include child development, child psychology, and the social constructions affecting the behaviors of children and families in late modernity. He has authored or coauthored Learning, Formation, and Development Qualifications for the Future of Day Care and School and Childhood Psychology: Young Children in Changing Times. His forty-some coauthored articles and book chapters have appeared in European Journal of Developmental Psychology; Intercultural Learning and Teaching in Early Years; the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology and many other publications. Maria Sommer is doctoral student at the Institute for Archeology and Ancient Culture at Stockholm University in Sweden. Her work examines the role of play and toys in ancient Greek culture. She and Dion Sommers are the coauthors of Care, Socialization, and Play in Ancient Attica: A Developmental Childhood Archeological Approach.