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.
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Look up the sky tonight and you should see the August full moon: a lunar event that has resonated throughout history. Next year this mysterious night will fall right in the middle of the London 2012 Olympic Games and we’ve asked David Stuttard, author of our forthcoming title Power Games, to explain why this is more than just coincidence.
For over a millennium, the August full moon marked the focal point of the four-yearly Festival which included the Olympic Games. To many Ancient Greeks the moon was a goddess, so the full moon had especial power. Like our Easter, the timing of the Olympic Festival was closely linked to the movement of the heavenly bodies – and, although we do not know exactly how the date was calculated, it seems to have coincided with the second or third full moon after the summer solstice, thus associating it with important dates in both the lunar and solar calendars.
The Greeks’ days began at sunset, and the central ‘day’ of the Olympics, when the moon was full, was spent in evening banqueting, morning sacrifices, and a few races in the afternoon. For the ancient Olympics were not just about athletics. They were part of ancient religious observations, where ritual was just as important as the sport – perhaps even more so. In 2012 the Olympic full moon is on 2nd August – but, although contestants in beach volley-ball, table-tennis or cycling events might take encouragement from the auspicious date, of all that day’s contestants, only the boxers can boast a truly ancient Olympic pedigree.
Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Olympic Games will be publishing on 7 November 2011. ‘Read the rest of this entry’ for an extract from Chapter Four - ‘the full moon chapter’
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With exactly one year to go until the London 2012 Olympics begin, advances of our forthcoming title The Ancient Olympic Games have arrived!
Written by Judith Swaddling, with a preface by HRH The Princess Royal, this vividly illustrated title takes the reader right back to the origins of the Games: to Olympia, where people from all over the classical world flocked to attend the sacred ceremonies, celebrations and sporting competitions that were a part of the Ancient Olympic Games.
While the book highlights many differences between the ancient Games and the modern day Olympics we’ve also found out some surprising similarities. For example, the ancient Greeks spent virtually all of the year before building up to the games, with site preparations to rival the Olympic village and rigorous training schedules for all the competitors.
This quote from Epictetus’ Discourses, written in the 1st century AD, will surely resonate with all the athletes preparing to compete this time next year:
“You say ‘I want to win at Olympia’. But wait. Look at what is involved… You will have to obey instructions, keep away from desserts, eat only at set hours; in both heat and cold you must not drink cold water, nor can you have a drink of wine whenever you want. You must hand yourself over to your coach exactly as you would to a doctor.” Discources, 15, 2-5
The Ancient Olympic Games will be available from the British Museum shop from 24 August, so why not prepare for the year ahead with a look back at the Olympics of the ancient past?