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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 10 March 2019

"The Ancient Olympics" by Nigel Spivey

This is a book about the Olympic games as they were enacted at Olympia in Greece every four years for nearly a thousand years from, according to legend, 776 BC. Spivey compares the legend to written documents and archaeological records. Despite being a scholarly overview, Spivey's narrative is readable. Indeed, there are moments when he offers very contemporary insights, such as when he describes Achilles as "Achilles - whom no warrior at Troy can match in his capacity for multiple homicide” and suggests that the prizes at the funerary games in the Iliad include ”several pretty girls who can sew, and some useful lumps of pig-iron.

In chapter one he borrows a phrase from George Orwell who said that sport was “war minus the shooting”. He suggests that Nietzsche characterised the classical Greek age as one with a Hegelian zeitgeist involving ‘agon’, contest. Spivey traces this Greek lover of competition to Hesiod in 700 BC, a contemporary of Homer. Hesiod compared good strife (eris agathos) with bad strife (kakochartos): “Good Strife, born of a coupling between Zeus and the Night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth; Bad Strife set up lusts for battle and bloodshed. Good Strife nurtured desires for wealth and fame; Bad Strife was a destroyer of lives and property. Good Strife encouraged creative industry, stirring the energies of emulation.” The word ‘athlete’ seems to come from the Greek aethla or athla meaning ‘contests’ or ‘prizes’.

In chapter two Spivey tackles the idea that the Greeks saw athletics as a way for boys to look beautiful, and that this ideal of beauty was derived from the idea that they should be fit for war. He explores the homoerotic potential of the gym, especially when, as for the Greeks, gymnasium involves nudity: “nuditorium is how it literally translates”. He suggests that gyms were places where older men ogled “tautly toned teenagers, out of puberty but not yet using a razor” and that "it was a normal practice ... for a wrestler to tie a string knot around his foreskin, probably to inhibit the sudden awkwardness of an erect phallus.” Nevertheless, “Beyond war, beyond sex, lay the peculiar but pervasive Classic Greek belief that beauty was invested with morality; that to look good was necessarily also to be good.”

In chapter 3 Spivey explores the events. He suggests that the legend of a Sacred Truce was ... legendary but describes how athletes had to arrive a month beforehand to a place that was so unbearably hot in mid-August that in Roman times bad slaves used to be forced to spectate as a punishment. Before Roman times the facilities were even worse: “Illustrious figures travelling to Olympia from all around the Mediterranean were expected to pitch camp or sleep rough in fields.”

Spivey goes on to describe the events in the order in which they were run:
  • Chariot racing (in which it was the team owner who won the wreath, including the famous Alcibiades, Philip II of Macedon, and several ladies) and “bareback riding and riding without stirrups
  • Foot races (the single stade of about 200m, the double stade, and longer races up to about 2400 m) and the pentathlon which included “running, jumping, discus-throw, javelin-throw, and wrestling."
  • Wrestling, boxing (“Since no padded gloves were worn for a bout, only tightly wrapped leather thongs, serious damage might be inflicted ... The bronze head of a boxer recovered from Olympia displays the troughs and corrugations of a face repeatedly hit hard.”) and pankration (no-holds-barred fighting)
  • Full armour race.
Legend says that naked running started 720 BC when Orsippos from Megara lost his loin cloth but went on to win the stade race at which point Akanthos from Sparta discarded his loin cloth to win the two stade race.

In chapter 4, Spivey considers the rewards of victory. “The victor’s reward was a crown (stephanos)". Some scholars propose “that the primal origins of athletic contest should be located in rites of kingship or succession to a throne.” There were also jars of olive oil to be won; the first prize was worth in today's terms £50k. Finally there was the fame which professional athletes could translate into appearance fees of 30,000 drachmas. Star athletes had poems (especially odes by Pindar) written for them and statues made of them. But others could be envious:
When Theagenes died, one of these enemies came each night to flog his honorific statue, as if inflicting posthumous revenge. But the statue of Theagenes eventually fell off its pedestal, killing the assailant. The statue was then prosecuted, convicted on a charge of homicide, and ‘drowned’ in the sea as punishment.

And losers were lampooned. The opponents of Apis, a boxer, “set up a statue to him ‘because he never hurt anyone’” It was said of one Marcus, a contestant in the full armour race, that he was so slow that he “was locked in the stadium because the groundsmen mistakes him for a statue.

Chapter 5 is about the politics of contest. Spivey suggests that Greekness was a real concept. When a Macedonian king wanted to compete the judges had to decide whether he was Greek (they did). To start with Olympia was dominated by Peloponnesian athletes, later from the rest of Greece and eventually from far-flung Greek colonies such as Alexandria. But Greekness was not an ethnic thing; rather it used the test of language. “Hellenistic strictly implies only that Greek was used as a language of convenience by non-Greek peoples

The Olympics were sponsored. In the late stages Nero was a munificent benefactor to Olympia and Greek athletics in general and Herod the Great “rescued the sanctuary from financial straits by personally subsidizing the festival.” Furthermore, “the Olympic ‘trademark’ was franchised abroad by the Eleans.

Then Theodosius I prohibited pagan sanctuaries

Chapter 6 deals with the origins of Olympia. A founding myth of Olympia is that Pelops sought the hand of the daughter of Oinomaos who challenged every such suitor to a chariot race and killed the losers. Pelops persuaded Pelops’ charioteer to replace a bronze axle pin with one made of wax so that when it melted during the race the wheel came off and Oinomaos (and the cheating charioteer?) was killed. Thus the founding myth of Olympia involves cheating! However, “The archaeological record suggests that in its earliest phase as a sanctuary (c1000 - 750 BC), Olympia was no more than an occasional meeting-place frequented by local inhabitants.

This is a great book packed with fascinating information and written in an accessible way. I loved it.

Some more great quotes:
  • Implausibility, or the begrudged suspension of disbelief, is a modern demon. Once there were pilgrims for whom the loose ends of this story were not troublesome. What mattered to them was the myth’s essential security: it's clinging impingement upon the world.
  • Myths relate to truth as rainbows relate to the sun ... wondrous as they may seem, myths are the phenomena of history's atmosphere. For the Greeks, myths might be written up, dramatized, recited, and parodied; but ultimately, and originally, myths happened.
  • Some knowledge of ancient athletics was preserved through the Middle Ages in Europe by medical experts, dependent as they were upon the writings of Galen, one-time emergency surgeon to gladiators at Pergamon in Asia Minor, subsequently doctor to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century.
  • It was not with Homer but a copy of Tom Brown's Schooldays at his elbow that Coubertin conceived his dream of an Olympic renaissance.
March 2019; 256 pages

This book was loaned to me by my good friend Fred, even before he had finished reading it. Fred's impeccable taste may be seen from the reviews of the other books he has lent to me:
The Fred Collection
A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
The Song of Achilles a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace: a true story of a world obsessed with tying feathers and the crime that this provoked
Amo, Amas, Amat ,,, and all that by Harry Mount: a book that tried but failed to encourage me to learn Latin 
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: a Booker Prize winning novel narrated by ghosts


Spivey has also written How Art Made the World and Enduring Creation.

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