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The Spring Equinox and the Olympic Games

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

Today is the Spring (or Vernal) equinox, the day on which the earth is poised in perfect balance between light and darkness.  For the ancient Greeks it was a day of great significance – and nowhere more so than at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games.

For, on this day (or so we hear from the 2nd Century ad traveller Pausanias), in the month known locally as the Month of the Deer, the so-called king-priests of Elis climbed the Kronion, the wooded Hill of Kronos which dominates the sanctuary at Olympia; and at its summit they made sacrifice.  It was a ritual which was possibly played out every year for well over a millennium, and had it not been for Pausanias we would know nothing of it.  Yet his description is tantalizing in the extreme.  Who were these king-priests?  What did they sacrifice?  Was the ritual carried out in daylight or at night-time?  What did they believe to be its purpose?  About all these it is silent.  Nonetheless, it does remind us how alien the word of antiquity was from our own.

It reminds us, too, of how important the solar and lunar calendars were for the ancient Greeks.  The date of the equinox is, of course, determined by the sun; but the moon played just as important a role at Olympia and in its Games.  The Month of the Deer, in which the ceremony on Mount Kronion took place, was sacred to the huntress-goddess Artemis, herself closely associated with the moon, and worshipped widely in the mountainous Peloponnese (the south of Greece).

Even more significantly, the Olympic Games were carefully timed so that their central day (which, like all Greek days began not at midnight but at sunset) coincided with the second (or sometimes third) full moon after the Summer solstice.  It was a day dominated by two religious ceremonies.

The first, performed after sunset involved the sacrifice of a ram to the ghost of the dead hero Pelops, one of the legendary founders of the Games.  Once the animal had been slaughtered, it was burned on a pyre made solely from white poplar wood.  Only the creature’s neck would be eaten – by the Priest of Zeus known as the Woodsman, whose responsibility it was ‘to provide timber for their sacrifices at a fixed price both to cities and to individuals’.

The second, and altogether grander, ceremony took place the next morning: the sacrifice to Zeus by the Olympic priests of a hundred oxen, whose legs were burned on a great ash altar and whose carcasses were then cooked to provide the basis for a magnificent banquet on the coming evening.  These were not the only oxen to be sacrificed.  For the remainder of the morning, smoke rose thick across the sanctuary as priests from all the Greek-speaking city states (spread across the Mediterranean and beyond) which were represented at the Games made their own sacrifices to Zeus.

In the afternoon, there were only three contests, all foot races, of which the ‘stade’ race over approx 175 metres was the most prestigious.  This had been the earliest of all the Olympic events.  Indeed, from 776 bc to 724 bc it had been the only event: for over 50 years the Olympic Games had been (singularly) the Olympic Game, and a game which was all over in under thirty seconds.

If the first Olympics were more of a religious festival than a sporting one, the balance gradually shifted with the introduction of more competitive events and the participation of more city states, until they became first the major communal festival of the Greek-speaking world and then the principal sporting fixture of the Roman Empire.  In their life span of over eleven hundred years they evolved and changed out of all recognition, but one ceremony seemed to stay constant: the sacrifice which preceded them by some five months, when the king-priests of Elis climbed the Hill of Kronos to make their offerings on the day of the Spring equinox.

David Stuttard is author of ‘Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics, published by the British Museum Press price £9.99.  In September he will be leading a tour to Olympia and Greece for The Traveller)

The Ides of March

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

Today’s date, March 15th, will forever be associated with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC, an event of undoubted historical significance made more heroic thanks, in part, to the pen of William Shakespeare.

Yet it was a squalid act: ill thought-out; messily executed; chaotically followed-through.  Ostensibly the assassins, Brutus, Cassius et al, wanted to prevent Caesar from taking on the title and the role of ‘rex’, king. But Caesar had already publicly refused to accept the symbolic crown which his fellow consul, Mark Antony, had offered him at the Lupercal Festival earlier in the year.

Admittedly, Caesar had shown himself to be impatient with the sluggishly slow Senate, which had seemed set to impede his long overdue reforms, including his overhaul of the calendar and his ambitious building programme. For a general used to his word being law, it must have been frustrating. For time-serving politicians used to the security of the status quo, it must have been all too unsettling.

No doubt many of those politicians put their shoulders to the rumour-mill which began to grind out scandalous stories of how, in the senate house, Caesar now sat on a golden throne, of how his statue stood in line beside those of the ancient kings, of how a ceremonial chariot and litter carried Caesar’s effigy in ceremonials around the hippodrome. It was as if he thought himself an eastern king; and it did not help that he was seen to be consorting with the Egyptian Cleopatra.

For in March 44BC, Cleopatra was in town, ensconced in one of Caesar’s leafy villas across the Tiber from Rome, and with her she had their young son Caesarion. But in a few days, Caesar was due to leave Italy to campaign against the Parthians, a notoriously dangerous enemy who had already vanquished Caesar’s erstwhile colleague Crassus. Speculation grew among the senators that one of their number was intending to use a conveniently discovered prophecy, that Parthia could be defeated only be a king, to hasten Caesar’s elevation. As the days slipped past, they found themselves faced with an appalling dilemma: to risk letting Caesar accrue even greater glory for himself in Parthia (where, on the other hand, he might equally well suffer ignominious defeat like the unfortunate Crassus) or take matters into their own hands and put a stop to him before he went. They chose the latter course.

In a meeting room attached to Pompey’s theatre-complex, they surrounded him and butchered him. As news rippled out across the city, a ghastly numbness shrouded Rome.  No-one knew who next would feel the edge of the assassins’ knives. For all that day and the next night, all who had been of Caesar’s circle hid behind locked, barricaded doors, listening for any sound which might suggest the footfall of approaching danger. It never came.

The assassins had not thought beyond the act itself. In the days which followed they allowed themselves time and again to be wrong-footed by the nimble Mark Antony, whose theatrical oration at Caesar’s funeral in the Forum, ignited the fury of the crowd. Gangs of men ran through the alleyways, making for the houses of those known to have been part of the conspiracy.  They found them empty.  Brutus, Cassius and the rest had seen the future and had fled.

In the end, the assassins had precipitated the very monarchy they had sought to avoid. In his will, Caesar had named his nephew Octavius as his heir, and in time, his enemies defeated, and taking as his title Augustus, he would become the first of a long line of emperors who would rule Rome for more than 400 years.
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The story of Caesar’s assassination is told in 31BC, Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt, to be published by The British Museum Press in May 2012