New College of the Humanities

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics
Neil Faulkner
Yale University Press   263pp   £14.99

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What was it like to attend the Olympics in 388 BC? asks Neil Faulkner, and he delivers an answer with sustained eagerness and brio.

The occasion of 388 BC was not particularly memorable: it is a date chosen (presumably) because it marks 2,400 years before the festival of AD 2012, while to have picked 488 BC would have missed a rich seam of historical testimony through the ‘Classical’ fifth century. Yet Faulkner’s ‘guidebook’, pitched in the present tense, is intended as an introduction to the ancient Olympics generally. So the problem of describing the festival of 388 BC is obvious. Just as the London Olympics of 2012 will differ substantially from those staged by the same city in 1948 and 1908, so the ancient Olympics have their pattern of development. For example, facilities for athletes and spectators were much improved by the Romans (true to stereotype) – so repeated stress upon insanitary horrors at the site is misleading; an Olympics at the time of Nero would have been positively salubrious.

A less obvious problem is the lack of contemporary witness. As Faulkner admits, this vacuum obliges him to do some conjuring with our knowledge of ancient Greek society. Mostly he carries it off; but fantasy triumphs when he advises his imaginary visitor to beware of ‘scantily-clad’ courtesans ‘working spindles and looms as you amble around the Olympic village’ and contributing to make the occasion a ‘sex-fest’. Certain errata will concern only the cognoscenti (e.g. reporting that the epics of Homer were ‘first written down in the eighth century bc’). Other issues suffer merely from the wish to find clarity at all costs. Faulkner’s description of the athletes in 388 BC as ‘all full-time professionals’ is a case in point. It may be right to define Greek athletes broadly as aspiring to ‘aristocratic’ ideals of bodily appearance and individual excellence as proved by tests of strength, speed, courage, and skill. But this too is subject to nuances over time – and begs the question of what it could mean to be ‘professional’. Alcibiades, victor in the Olympic chariot-race of (probably) 416 BC, may well have been a good hand with horses: but he is unlikely to have driven his own chariot(s), and he surely made no living from equestrian pursuits.

The embroidery of anecdote around ancient Olympia is however a sufficiently rich distraction from lack of historical detail about aspects of the site we can only suppose were once highly important – its oracular function, for one. Some readers of Faulkner’s cheerful synthesis may wince at his idiomatic register – when, for instance, he summarises the followers of Pythagoras as ‘vegetarian sports nuts’ and otherwise peoples the fourth century with ‘blokes’, ‘celebs’, and ‘wannabes’. ‘But hey’ (as the author says): for all that Pierre de Coubertin sought to reinvent the Olympic occasion as chivalric, Christian, international and amateurish, the fact is that today’s commercialised, specialised and politicised Games have more in common with those of 388 BC than those of AD 1896. So we may as well embrace the fellowship.

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