Sport and festival from A to Z

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis has promised a «city of joy and partying» come August. Her anticipated celebration, however, differs slightly from the elaborate festivals that abounded in antiquity, encompassed sport and made it a central (and remarkably broad) component of Greek life. A new volume covering this theme, conceived in Australia and published last year by a small but dedicated Welsh publisher, has recently found its way into the Greek market – a suitably international route for a volume aimed at a «scholarly commemoration of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games» but which is an equally good primer for the Games of Athens. From its well-chosen title («Sport and Festival in the Ancient Greek World») to its thorough index, this highly informative, if relentlessly academic, edited work details numerous aspects of the ancient Games, not just their athletic side but the broader religious, political, and artistic contexts within which they flourished. For while ancient festivals did not always involve sport, sporting events always had broader festivals buttressing them. Each writer in this illustrated volume, published by the Classical Press of Wales, does his (and in three cases, her) best to pack information into self-contained chapters, each with separate notes and sources. It runs to over 400 dense pages. Yet there is material here that can appeal to the general reader looking for a challenge or merely checking for information. The editors, once a teacher-pupil duo of David Phillips and David Pritchard, now colleagues at Macquarie University, have tried hard to provide an overarching context; some of the chapters were solicited to fill out the template set out back in 2000, when the idea for this volume grew out of an historical conference before the Sydney Games. The Australian-Greek connection is underscored right off the bat, as the introduction seemingly veers off into a review of classical studies in Australia before linking it nicely to the cross-national nature of the Olympics. Even in this waving of the Aussie flag it is good to be reminded, not just of the 1/4 million Greek speakers down under but of other overlaps; Australia and Greece have each hosted two Olympic Games, and both have an unbroken string of participation that even the US can’t match. But their focus is antiquity, and some readers will find quite enough information in the introduction alone (with some 59 endnotes and six full pages of bibliography). Thoroughness is certainly not at issue here. The 15 chapters are divided into six parts: the first on Olympia and its Games, the next two on artistic elements of ancient festivals, the fourth and fifth concentrating on Athens and the athletic/intellectual link, and the last on the challenges of curating the ancient Games for modern audiences. The first part, «Olympia and the Olympics,» has three solid contributions on the premier Games of antiquity. Stephen Miller, an established authority and excavator of Nemea, kicks off with a description of a Games ca 300 BC, incorporating new research and his own re-creations of the Nemean Games in 1996. As always, Miller is insightful and thorough, yet willing to express doubt (as in the order of events). He describes the rituals as well, and notes one of the continuing ironies – that the Games celebrated «international» good will yet were very much based on representation by city-state (polis). Helmut Kyrieleis focuses on the (four) successive waves of German excavations at Olympia, most recently by himself. From the start these were contentious and it was not until the 1870s, a full century after Olympia was «rediscovered,» that Ernst Curtius could get his work under way, focusing on the temples of Zeus and Hera. A second thrust, after the Berlin 1936 Olympics, uncovered the stadium (with a wholly unexpected trove of buried bronze treasures) and buildings like Pheidias’ workshop, where the great statue of Zeus was crafted. Amid all this came «the dominant idea of Ancient Olympia was not peace but victory, both in sport and armed conflict.» The next, brief chapter by Nigel Crowther notes the role of Elis, which organized the Games, sometimes exploiting the festival for political reasons even if they ran it fairly well (or just fairly). He notes that the usually accepted starting date of 776 BC may not be accurate – a fascinating tidbit that needs more than a mention in an endnote. Sport as art Parts II and III focus more on the artistic side. Patrick O’Sullivan looks at the visual vs the «spoken» ways of celebrating victors, via statues and the song-poems of Pindar, the most famous Olympian poet. Apparently Pindar was a churlish opponent of statuary and set his celebratory poems as a «polemical conception of himself and his art.» Not only were Games themselves competitive or agonistic; so were their commemorations. The writer (as do others) provides careful translations. John Davidson next looks at the ways in which Olympia’s central myth, the chariot race by which Pelops won both his bride and a kingdom, was treated in antiquity. The cults of Pelops and of Zeus became intertwined, not just on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus but insofar as Olympia’s chariot races later reinforced the Pelopean fable. Ben Brown then looks at the Homer legend and funeral contests derived from «The Iliad,» providing a literary take on the origins of ancient festivals celebrating the dead. The theme may be abstract but the origins of Games clearly pre-date the eighth century BC and are embedded in deeper social custom and literary legend. Peter Wilson examines the «politics of dance,» specifically dithyrambic contests, the «ugly sister of the Dionysian family.» The focus on the lesser-known elements continues in Ian Storey’s look at the «curious matter of the Lenaia festival» with its comic and grotesque allusions. Tom Stevenson’s detailing of the Parthenon frieze and its relationship to the Panathenaic Festival brings the artistic discussion back to a more mainstream theme even if treated in rarefied detail. Not just Olympia The next two parts look mainly at Attica. Pritchard’s chapter on athletics and education in Athens first reviews the vigorous debate set off by a 1984 book on the myth of amateurism in antiquity by David Young – who later sparked similar revisionism with a strongly argued text on the modern revival – which rejected the «rise and fall» thesis of ancient athletics and argued, controversially, that lower-class athletes had competed along with aristocrats. Pritchard’s discussion is important not just for pointing out the obvious (that academics often differ, vigorously) but for showing how antiquity remains contentious, in which «a long-held and predominant interpretation… may have broken up, but no new consensus has emerged.» He argues that athletics remained a preserve of the wealthy, not just in training for competitions but via the education system, which (not unlike now) was weighted toward the better-off. Harald Tarrant writes on athletics as a key element of ancient education, drawing especially on Plato’s Dialogues. David Phillips offers a learned expose on Athenian political history via the Panathenaia, which was not just a quadrennial festival but also involved a «lesser» annual one as well, and associated ancient Athens with public cockfights and other unusual customs. The final section, on curating antiquity, is more interesting than it sounds. A timely loan of antiquities from Greece (54 objects in all) added to the Sydney Games’ luster, as Donnelly and Fewster show, while four writers describe the challenges of virtually reconstructing the Olympia model for museum use. Carol Scott’s piece on presenting antiquities could interest not just curators but anyone who has shuffled through an exhibit. The cumulative erudition in this volume can sometimes pall for the non-specialist, as can the scholarly apparatus and relentless detail. Gentler introductions (Phillips provides an excellent example) or wrap-ups would sometimes help. Yet the Greek focus, wealth of information, and painstaking editing (look in vain for typos) make this volume well worth looking at, especially for those weary of of 2004’s problems. Too much focus on the present comes at the expense of a very rich past, about which our knowledge continues to grow, and our assumptions challenged.

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