Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sport and History

Ancient Olympics

The Olympics have been pretty fantastic so far, from a British perspective, and I've been watching far more of it than I imagined I would.

However, sporting delight, or even fanaticism, is nothing new. The Olympics were originally held in Greece, of course, in honour of the gods (hence the name). They were held in the region of Elis, and were a bit more naked than the modern games, as the contests were done entirely nude. The exception to this rule was a foot race that was run by men in armour, which I quite like the sound of as it combines endurance and strength.

There were other games held in Greece, such as the Pythian Games, but the Olympics surpassed them all in prestige. They continued until being suppressed by the Byzantines, who were intent upon the dominance of Christianity.

As well as athletic exploits, there were artistic contests with poets, sculptors and so on vying for supremacy. This actually continued into the modern Olympics, initially, but events such as poetry have now been discarded. Many of the ancient events, sporting and artistic, have been dropped but a few remain, notably the discus and javelin. Foot races remain tremendously popular, although they're measured in metres (save the marathon) rather than stades.

The Games also saw a period of peace (or truce, at least), which allowed athletes from all over Greece to reach and participate in the Olympics in safety.


However, even the Olympics must pale in comparison to the spectacles that occurred in Rome once the city had a taste for gladiatorial games and before its star began to wane. The Romans were mad for spilt blood, and enjoyed a very wide array of contests.

Originally, it's believed, the games were just a pair of men fighting as part of funeral rites. Romans being Romans, this became a matter of prestige, and more and more men were enlisted to fight. This then took a further step and games held in honour of the dead, in arenas, began. The immense popularity of gladiators meant that their exploits were then used as campaigning tools by politicians and then as a means of placating the masses (panem et circenses - bread and circuses, a measure used greatly by Commodus).

Gladiators were in a strange position. They were often, but not always, slaves or convicted criminals and treated with contempt by polite society. They were also superstars, tremendously popular with the masses and frequently hired by ladies for a personal demonstration of their 'prowess'.

The Romans enjoyed a wide variety of bloodshed, and, whilst rare, lady gladiators (gladiatrices, or a gladiatrix) were known to have competed. Beast hunts were popular, and the Empire's reach meant it had no difficulty procuring elephants, lions, leopards and so on. However, though the Romans were bloodthirsty they were not entirely heartless. Pompey tried to secure popularity by having a number of domesticated elephants slaughtered, but the animals were so tame and terrified that the crowd booed him for the shamefulness of their killing.

Commodus, as popularised (well, sort of) by the excellent film Gladiator, really did love the games, both as a spectator and occasional competitor. He was reportedly very good, and most enjoyed using crescent-headed arrows to decapitate running ostriches.

Arguably the most extravagant games were held by Trajan, about whom we know less than we would like, to celebrate his victories in the East and over the newly conquered province of Dacia. They lasted for four months and involved more than 10,000 gladiators.

Chariot racing and the Nika Rebellion

Gladiatorial combat naturally commands our attention when looking at Rome because it was so vicious and would never happen today (well, not in the West, anyway). Chariot-racing seems a little tamer by comparison but was just as popular with the Romans, and remained so when gladiatorial games had faded.

The Circus Maximus in Rome could seat a staggering 150,000 spectators. Between races acrobats and other entertainers kept the crowd amused, which is why the word 'circus' means something different to us than the Romans.

Chariot-racers belonged to one of four factions: the Whites, Reds, Blues and Greens. From Ancient Rome to Byzantium the first two were absorbed by the latter two and people cheered for either the Blues or the Greens.

Sport and politics rather collided during the reign of the unreasonably named Justinian the Great in the 6th century AD. A pair of murderers, one Blue, one Green, was sentenced to life imprisonment. When the emperor refused to release them the fans erupted into rioting.

Narses, an intelligent if self-interested eunuch, wandered into the stadium where a rival was to be crowned. He reminded the Blues, with gold as well as words, that Justinian supported their side. The Blues then left the stadium and Byzantine soldiers entered it and ended the rebellion with bloody finality.

About half the city was destroyed by the rioters, and it's reckoned tens of thousands died.

Hopefully the London Olympics will end on a cheerier note.


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