The Roman Olympics

Mary Beard has a lengthy piece in the Guardian about the ancient Olympic games and while the whole thing is, of course,  very interesting, I find the second half — all about what happened when the Romans took it over — something which doesn’t get mentioned much:

[…] So, if the ancient Olympics were a rough and sometimes brutal experience for the competitors (deaths in the boxing and wrestling contests were not uncommon), they were a decidedly uncomfortable one for the spectators too. The Games seem to have attracted crowds of visitors, but there were hardly any decent facilities for them: it was blisteringly hot, with little shade; there was no accommodation for the ordinary visitor (beyond a no doubt squalid and overcrowded campsite); and the sanitation must have been rudimentary, at best, given the inadequate water supply to the site, which could not even guarantee enough clean drinking water to go round.

But this is where the Romans come in. The likes of Coubertin lamented the Roman influence on the Games; they deplored the growth of a professional (and lower) class of competitor, as well as the malign influence of the Roman emperors themselves (who were occasionally known to take part in events and were supposed to have had the competition rigged so that they could win). For the spectators, though, it was the sponsorship of the Roman period – some of it devoted to “improving” the facilities for visitors – that made the Olympic Games a much more comfortable and congenial attraction to visit. True, as Lucian attests in his story of Peregrinus, the Romans did not solve the problems of traffic congestion, but they installed vastly improved bathing facilities, and one rich sponsor laid on, for the first time, a reasonable supply of drinking water. Herodes Atticus, a Roman senator who was Athenian by birth, built a whole new conduit to carry water from the nearby hills, leading into a large fountain in the middle of the site. Predictably, perhaps, some curmudgeons thought this was spoiling the Olympic spirit. According to Lucian, Peregrinus in some of the speeches he made on a previous visit to the Games, denounced Herodes Atticus. In a typically ancient misogynist vein, he accused Herodes of turning the visitors into women, when it would be better for them to face thirst (and the possible diseases that came with it) like men. For most visitors, though, an efficient Roman fountain must have been a blessed relief.

For much of the period of Roman rule, Roman grandees and their friends bankrolled the Olympic enterprise (which seems to have eaten money in the ancient world, too, even without any ridiculously expensive opening ceremonies or security operations). Nero, who has had a bad press for, among other things, shifting the date of the Games so that he could conveniently compete himself, subsidised new facilities for athletes, and King Herod (the infamous one) is known to have come to the financial rescue of the Olympics in 12BC. In some ways the character of the Games continued with little change. Roman princes safely entered the chariot-racing competitions, just as the princes of the Greek world had half a millennium earlier. Great athletes may well have outstripped the achievements of their predecessors. In AD69, for example, a man called Polites from modern Turkey won the prize for two sprint races and the long distance – a considerable achievement given the different musculature required. Apparently it was the first time it had been done in almost a millennium of Olympic competitions. And there was the same disdain for losers. One poem of the Roman period pillories a hopeless contestant in the race in which everyone ran dressed in armour. He was so slow that he was still going when night fell, and got locked in the stadium overnight – the joke was that caretaker had mistaken him for a statue.

But in other respects the Romans worked towards an Olympics that is much more like our own than the earlier “true Greek” version. Whatever his other faults, Nero tried to introduce some “cultural” contests into the Games. The Olympics had always been (unlike other Greek athletic festivals) resolutely brawny, with no music or poetry competitions. Nero didn’t succeed in injecting much culture for very long (it soon reverted to just athletics) but, knowingly or not, the 19th-century inventors of the modern Olympics took over his cultural aims. It’s easy to forget that in the first half of the 20th century, Olympic medals were offered for town planning, painting, sculpture, painting and so on (they have long since entered the ranks of “dead” Olympic sports, along with tug of war and running deer shooting). Coubertin himself, under a pseudonym, won the 1912 gold medal for poetry with his “Ode to Sport”. It was truly dreadful: “Sport thou art Boldness! / Sport thou art Honour! / Sport thou art Fertility!” …

The most lasting contribution of the Romans, though, was to make the Olympics, as we now think of them, truly international. That was, in a way, a byproduct of the Roman empire and the (more or less compulsory) internationalism that came with it. But if the classical Greek Olympics had been rigidly restricted to Greeks only, Roman power opened up the competition to most of the then known world. It is a nice symbol of this that the last named victor at Olympia in 385AD, the prizewinner in the boxing contest, was a Persian from Armenia called Varazdates.

But there is a sting in the tail of this Greek vs Roman story of the Olympic Games. For it was not only the hopelessly confused Baron de Coubertin who lionised the Greek achievement in the Olympic Games; nor was he the first to do so. At the same time as the Romans were ploughing money into the Olympics and making it effectively an international Roman celebration, authors of the Roman period were already inventing the romantic image of the great old Greek days of Olympic competition. Writing in the second century AD, Pausanias – a Greek born under the Roman empire – devoted two volumes of his 10-volume guide to the noteworthy sites of Greece to the monuments of Olympia. He sees the place almost entirely through classical Greek spectacles. He is the source of most of our stories about the notable Olympic achievements and heroes of centuries earlier. He doesn’t even mention Herodes Atticus’ splendid and useful Roman fountain, which he must have seen as he walked round the sanctuary. Even Peregrinus, when he was speechifying near Olympia in 165AD, about to throw himself on the pyre, was comparing himself to the great tragic heroes of “classical Greece”, centuries earlier. The Games have been a nostalgic show for longer than we can imagine. It has probably always seemed that they were better in the past.

Classical Words of the Day


For the grammar mavens:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem ix kalendas quinctilias

ante diem ix kalendas quinctilias

English: Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and Caesa...
English: Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and Caesar. From the Cleopatra exhibit, “Unravel the Mystery,” at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

47 B.C. — birth of Caesarion, a.k.a Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor (son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra)

79 A.D. — death of the emperor Vespasian

1986 — death of Moses Finley