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A Compendium of Games,
This review is from: Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics (Paperback)
This accessible, well-illustrated and vividly written handbook is a historical and cultural survey of the ancient Olympic Games, celebrated quadrennially between 778 BC and 425 AD - an astonishing period of 1,200 years; it is a dramatic presentation of the standard events, contests and rituals as they would have unfolded over 5 allotted days; and, by taking the games of 416 BC as representative, it demonstrates through the person of Alcibiades, how the Games brought together major players in the city-states of the classical world to negotiate and scheme in private whilst advertising their power and status in public.
No sporting man myself, and no great enthusiast of Pindar or Bacchylides, I had never seriously looked at the ancient Olympic games, and I purchased this attractive looking book to correct the defect. I am glad that I did, because it immediately brought home to me how central to ancient Greek culture the ancient games were. If Homer's heroic vision was central to the development of Greek artistic culture, then the Games were the physical embodiment of the Homeric ideal. The form which they took was very close to the model proposed in Book XXIII of the Iliad, and for the thousands who visited Olympia, what was on offer was in some ways, the chance to participate in a timeless restatement of the heroic principle.
I was also interested in Mr.Stuttard's interesting demonstration of how, within that heroic ethos, the games could be used to make political capital. As the leading aristocrat in the leading Greek city state in 416 BC, the Athenian Alcibiades used the games as a showcase for the magnificence of his city, and to grow his own political capital. In his sporting triumph, personal splendour, and sumptuous feasting, the Greek world was given a brief vision of what Alcibiades imagined might be achieved under the hegemony of Athens. But for may of the older school, his triumphs were rendered hollow by the extravagant expenditure by which they were obtained, the vilgarity with which they were celebrated, and the insolence which they implied. When Athens and Alcibiades came to grief the following year, there were many who saw it as an entirely predicatble judgment on the presumption of the city and of the man who had sought to embody its imperial splendour.
With its maps, reconstructions and excellent site photographs, Mr.Stuttard's book would, apart from anything else, make a remarkably useful companion guide to the archaeology of ancient Olympia and its plentiful colour photographs of objects, artefacts and works of art introduce the reader of the wealth and variety of the more accessible collection at the British Museum - more secure, for the time being, than the one at Olympia. Conveniently pocketsized, the book is thoroughly indexed, annotated and cross-referenced and contains suggestions for further reading both in the less familar of ancient authors and in more detailed surveys by modern scholars.
Like the 'History of the World in 100 Objects' this British Museum Press publication is a tribute to the intelligent, scholarly and imaginative work done by Dr Neil MacGregor and the Trustees of the British Museum in setting the past in a context which illuminates the present and helps us recognise the provisional nature of our own social arrangements and the respect due to those which might otherwise strike us as entirely alien, but which underlie significant and largely unquestioned assumptions about the world in which we live.
I was fascinated to learn that Pheidias' chryselephantine statue of Zeus was consciously modelled on the portrait given by Homer (Iliad.1.528-530); how, in 390 AD the colossal statue was eventually moved form Olympia to the house of a private collector in Constantinople; how it was finally destroyed by fire in 462 AD; and how it is thought that some echo of it's ethos survives in the iconic portraiture of the Pantokrator: 'tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis' but nothing seems ever to come to an end.