London 2012 versus Athens 388 B.C.: Interview with Neil Faulkner

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics

It’s only a few months until the London 2012 Olympic Games kicks off this summer, but where did it all begin, and how has it changed since its origins in ancient Greece? Neil Faulkner’s A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics transports us to the games of 388 B.C., providing a guided tour of the ancient Olympics and bringing to life the sights, sounds and smells of the competition. Talking to Yale, Neil Faulkner discusses the differences between the ancient games, and their modern equivalents.

Yale University Press: How do you think the hopefuls for 2012 would fare if they were transported back 2,400 years ago?

Neil Faulkner: Modern athletes would face a host of challenges as a result of the change of climate, conditions and culture. The Olympics took place in the middle of the Greek summer, with its enervating heat and very little shade anywhere. Forget the luxury of the modern Olympic Village: instead, there was the squalor of a vast, sprawling, open-air campsite, without proper latrines or washing facilities. The flies were so bad that Zeus was prayed to at Olympia in his capacity as ‘fly-zapper’. Then there were numerous cultural differences, including radically different sexual expectations, given the norm of male bisexuality. Oh yes, and how many of our athletes today would be able to take naked performance in their stride?

I suspect, too, that many would find the sheer cost in blood and pain in the combat sports unacceptable. The pankration was effectively no-holds-barred, virtually the only exception being that you weren’t allowed to gouge your opponent’s eyes out. As for boxing, the ‘gloves’ were bindings of thick, hard leather designed to lacerate the face – with blows to the head the only ones allowed! Despite it all, many professional competitors – the Steve Redgraves of their day – had long careers. Milo of Kroton, the greatest wrestler of them all, won six or seven consecutive Olympic victories, and Theagenes of Thasos was unbeaten in the boxing for 22 years. What these battered veterans looked like by the time they retired goes unrecorded.

YUP: How different were the ancient and modern Olympics?

NF: Very – and in fact there are lots of myths about the link between the two. There was no marathon at the ancient games, but there were chariot races. There was no travelling Olympic flame, but there was a sacred fire. The whole festival was as much religious event as sporting, with equal time given to processions and sacrifices as to sporting events. The audience was from all over the Mediterranean, but was restricted to Greeks – no barbarians allowed – and was almost exclusively male. Respectable citizen women did not attend at all, and other women, not least the countless prostitutes plying their trade, were restricted to the Village. The only woman allowed into the Stadium was the Priestess of Demeter – for obscure religious reasons lost in the mists of time.

Unlike the Games today, there were no tickets, no ballots, and no corporate allocations of the choice spots to watch the most popular events. The rich took their chances with the general crowd. The ancient games were, in this sense, more egalitarian than ours. But the wealthy did enjoy luxury pavilions and retinues of servants, so there was a whiff of the VIP box about parts of the ancient Olympic Village.

YUP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the ancient Games in the course of your research?

NF: The most surprising thing is perhaps that the amateur tradition is a total myth. All top-level Greek sport was fully professional, which, in the context of the society, meant aristocratic – because only this class had the resources and leisure to train and compete at the necessary level. Very few Greek athletes – if any – were working farmers or small traders. In this sense, today’s Olympics are more democratic, because universal state education and the provision of public sports facilities and so on does mean that talented youngsters from modest backgrounds can often make a successful career in sport.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a lecturer, writer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster on a wide range of archaeological and historical subjects. Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, he is now a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a Lecturer for NADFAS, the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. He is the Editor of Military Times, and a regular contributor to Current Archaeology.

Neil co-directs the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (in Norfolk), the Great Arab Revolt Project (in Jordan), the Digging Dad’s Army Project (in London), and the Churchill’s Underground War Project (mainly at Coleshill and in Hampshire).

His TV work includes BBC2’s Timewatch, Channel 4’s Time Team and Channel 5’s Revealed. His previous books include The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain and Rome: Empire of the Eagles.

Neil is a regular contributor to this blog, writing a regular column commenting on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients.

An extract of his book is available to read here.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics is available now from Yale.

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