Dec 16, 2011
In anticipation of the release of our new title Power Games : Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics we spoke to author, playwright and classicist David Stuttard about Ancient Greece, London 2012 and which historical figure he most identifies with.
What did you find most exciting about embarking on Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics?
There have been lots of books written about the Ancient Olympics, but what I was really excited about doing was trying to capture what the atmosphere might have been like at one particular Games. To do this, I had to know not only exactly what was going on at the time I’d chosen (416 bc) but also precisely what the actual site at Olympia looked like in that year. I wanted to be able to take the reader on a journey through Olympia with all its temples and statues and administrative buildings, so I needed to be able to build my own 3-D map of the site (albeit in my head). That meant reading ancient accounts and getting to know as much as I possibly could about the physical geography – and revisiting the archaeological remains at Olympia, too, which (although I’d been several times before) came as something of a shock. I’d created a really vivid mental picture of the site as it existed in all its glory in 416 bc and today, of course, it’s in ruins.
The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776BC; can you tell us why you chose the events of 416BC as the focus for Power Games?
416 bc was a pivotal year for the ancient Olympics. For one thing, it came at the end of a few years of phoney peace in the middle of a war (the Peloponnesian War) which involved pretty much the entire Greek world, stretching from modern Turkey to Sicily, as well as the Aegean islands and the Greek mainland itself. For another, it involved big personalities, and the biggest of them all was Alkibiades. In the 416 bc Games he entered a staggering seven teams in the chariot race, so that he came first, second and (depending on who you believe) either third or fourth. He was, in fact, using the Games as a vehicle for propaganda – not only for himself but for his city, Athens. We know that other important politicians from all over the Greek world were at the Games, too, using the occasion as an opportunity to hold talks and broker deals, so, given the fact that the book explores not just the athletic side of the Festival but the political and religious aspects too, it really did seem that 416 was the ideal year to focus on. And it was. I didn’t once regret the choice.
Everyone’s talking about London 2012, but how similar are the current Olympic Games to the original incarnation of the competition?
In reality, there are more differences than similarities. Let’s look at just three. Firstly, at the ancient Olympics in any given event there was only one winner. If you came second or third, you were just as much a loser as if you came last; when you returned home, you knew your fellow citizens would mock you and (in the words of one classical author) that you’d have to ‘slink along the dark alley-ways, avoiding your enemies, gnawed by failure’. Secondly, of course, at the ancient Olympics only men or boys could compete – and they had to do so naked. In fact, in the years after 416 bc, even the trainers had to be naked, after a scandal in which it was revealed that the trainer whom one boy had brought along was, in fact, his mother. The reason for the ban on women was that the Games were part of a male religious ceremony, which brings us to the third difference: more time was probably spent observing religious ritual at the ancient Olympics than in the actual athletics. For example, the central morning of the Games was taken up first in the communal sacrifice of a hundred oxen at the towering ash altar of Zeus, and then in other sacrifices of more oxen by cities and individuals across the whole site. As far as I know, there’s no suggestion of re-introducing this into the 2012 Olympics!
Power Games reveals a number of strong personalities; is there a figure in the book, either God or mortal, that particularly resonates with you?
The book is positively bulging with strong personalities, athletes like the wrestler Milo (who is said to have invented a special diet which involved drinking 2 gallons of wine a day) or the boxer Euthymos (who, so we hear, fought with a demon to win the hand of a beautiful maiden) or Exainetos who won the foot race not just in 416 bc but in 412, as well, and who was escorted into his home city by 300 chariots drawn by snow-white horses. Then, there are politicians like Alkibiades, whom I’ve mentioned already; artists like Zeuxis, who appeared wearing a cloak on which he’d embroidered his name in letters of gold; philosophers like Chilon, to whom is attributed the advice ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’… All these people came to the Olympics at one time or another. But the person who most resonates must be Herodotus, the first real historian, who visited the Olympic Games in 436 bc and, standing in the west porch of the newly-completed Temple of Zeus, read out part of his Histories to the assembled crowd. Herodotus was a brilliant story-teller with a real feel for atmosphere and a wicked sense of humour. As a writer, he is what I would most aspire to be, even if I could never hope to come close!
You have previously worked as both a classics teacher and dramatist; how do you think that career has shaped your work as an author?
Teaching and drama sometimes both require you to do one crucial thing: tell a story clearly and in a way that will hold the attention. I hope that I manage to do this in my writing, too. After all, if you’re asking someone to buy a book on the Ancient Olympics and give up their time to read it, you really do need to be offering them not only something that they will find educative and informative, but something that they will enjoy, too, and will make them want to keep turning the pages. The story of Power Games is so dramatic and has such a dynamic of its own that it certainly gripped me when I was writing it. I hope readers will tell me if it had the same effect on them!
Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics will be available from the British Museum shop from 3rd January 2012