The ancient Games revived, in print: Volume brings timeless myths to life

Most books are labors of love which combine the taking of great pains and the deriving of a peculiar sort of pleasure from the effort. A recent publication by Ephesos publishers, «Olympia and the Olympic Games of Antiquity,» is a rarer thing, a double love’s labor: one resulting from not just years but decades of research and involving two different generations of a family. Kleanthis Paleologos was a lifelong enthusiast of sport in Greece and a passionate believer in the values propagated by the ancient Games. These served, as his son Angelos Paleologos writes in the introduction, as «an inexhaustible source of inspiration and guidance» for his father. Over the years, he (Kleanthis) squirreled away vast tidbits of information with the aim of producing an all-encompassing volume on Olympia. But with true Greek irony, he died in August 1990, before he could realize his project and just as Greece’s ill-starred attempt to secure the centennial Games of 1996 for Athens was coming to a head. More than a decade on, his son Angelos picked up the literary torch, along with dusty boxes of notations and files, and wove it all together. The resulting compilation, «Olympia and the Olympic Games of Antiquity,» has just been published in time for the better-late-than-never 2004 Games. With a hefty price (91.52 euros) and bulk (timed for Christmas even if not sized for seasonal shopping trips on foot), it is part of an ambitious series by the publisher featuring large, expansive, lavishly illustrated, bilingual books on grand Greek themes. And it follows a companion volume published last year on the 1896-1906 Games in Athens (reviewed by this newspaper on November 22, 2002). Serious Games The work has a logical progression, opening with an overview of the Olympia region and the site itself, and progressing to the role of sport in antiquity, the various individual sports, and to special aspects of the Games like rules, prizes, and penalties. However, this is less a disciplined reference book than a spirited hodgepodge that cobbles together citations from ancient sources, descriptions, and gorgeous photographs. The result can be appreciated for its broad sweep, its fidelity to the original sources, and its enthusiasm for what the Games stood for, not just for the facts it conveys. The book emphasizes the mythological origins of the area and of the Games. The sacred element is essential: The gods were not just patrons of the Games but also, it was firmly believed, the first to compete in them. Occasionally, this can get confusing because of the sheer number of legends and because, as the author points out, they can be inconsistent and sometimes were created later, in post-hoc attempts to explain the otherwise misty origins of one sport or another, notably the five-sport pentathlon. Even names weren’t always consistent: the third century writer Hermippus was also known as Callimacheus, and also Peripatiticus. The author has scoured many of the original sources, such as Pausanias, which is normally all to the good. In doing so, however, he has also overlooked the many secondary works recently published that have fleshed the story out. For there remain many gaps in our knowledge of the Ancient Games: their duration and that of its famous truce, the order of events, even the precise way sports like the discus or long jump were performed – all are ripe for learned speculation. And to this volume’s credit, it acknowledges these and many other ambiguities, and stresses elements of continuity and the experimentation over time. Juice in the detail It is a rich source for those with a weakness for the anecdote and odd detail, whether describing Philip of Macedon getting jeered at by the crowds in Olympia, or Diagoras of Rhodes, an old champion, dying while being carried jubilantly around the stadium by his three sons (all Olympic victors), or Proteus of Paros committing self-immolation during a Games. Many of the events had Spartan origins, yet the Spartans refused to participate in one of the main events, the pancrateion (a combination of wrestling and boxing) because they preferred to die rather than admit defeat in such a martial-type competition. And while the Games may have revered honor and fair play, they were not child’s play. He quotes Philostratus on boxing: «The one with a tremendous hold from behind was trying to strangle his opponent. The other not only did not declare defeat but, standing, resisted and broke the hold together with his opponent’s finger, which now hanged far from the others; and he, mad from the pain from his broken finger, cut the other’s ear off with his teeth.» All this, the ancient writer adds wryly, «displeased the spectators.» Paleologos (correctly) stresses some lesser known aspects, for example that the Games did not really begin in 776 BC – the date we usually cite because the known victors’ list dates back to that point – and illustrates how the Olympic series likely began with the truce by King Iphetus of Elis dating probably to 884 BC; thus, he holds, there were probably 320 Games in total rather than the 293 usually thought. The unusual Other aspects are cited briefly but raise questions. For example, he states that women, who were otherwise forbidden to watch the Games, were allowed to watch the equestrian and chariot events; this claim needs more than the single sentence it gets. He holds that only Olympia and Sparta had women’s games, but it is now known that races for women were also held at Brauron in Attica, and elsewhere. His lengthy description of the (eventual) five-day festival offers a succession of events that many would take issue with (for example, equestrian events being held on the fourth day; others say the third). But again, it is his evocation of spirit that lends the work its special flavor. The book is very ably translated by Tania Kantzios, and editing slip-ups seem minimal. The author refers at one stage to runners taking «a lap around the stadium,» although there was no rounded track as we know it today (and he corrects this a few pages later). Near the end is a reference to the 192nd Olympiad in AD 45, but three lines down the 206th Olympiad is (correctly) dated to that same year. The very brief epilogue and lack of an index are slight demerits. But these are minor quibbles in a quality production whose photographic spread alone, ranging from bronze figures of Zeus to panoramas of Ancient Olympia, would for many justify the price and the coffee-table space. Father would no doubt take pride in son’s efforts.