Olympia lies in a quiet, though easily accessible, corner of Greece. The beauty of the site, a hollow between gentle, well-watered hills, impressed the ancients. Even more important than the landscape was the impression that in that quiet countryside time had stood still. The tourist of Roman times could observe that sacrifices at Olympia were still performed “in, the archaic manner”: the simple country offerings of honey cakes and wine took him straight back to the uncluttered origins of the human race.

Throughout its long history, Olympia remained a holy place. The temple of Zeus was its center—not the stadium. Its monuments were altars and votive statues—not athletic facilities. Zeus sat in this temple: his statue, made by Phidias, became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But centuries before the statue was installed—since 776 BC, to be precise—the games that took place at Olympia for five days every four years had been part of the worship of Zeus. This was the way in which Greeks worshipped—whether it was the worship of Zeus by games at Olympia, of Apollo, by the Pythian games at Delphi, or of Poseidon, by the Isthmian games at Corinth.

Without this connection with the worship of Zeus, an ancient Greek would have found the games themselves not merely shorn of colorful ceremonial trappings, but unintelligible. For this reason alone, the modern reader who approaches the subject hoping to find an equivalent in ancient Olympia to the modern events that go under the same name is bound for a great surprise: it would be as if a sports correspondent, setting out to cover the Montreal Olympics, should find that he had been sent, instead, to cover the Holy Week ceremonies at Seville.

Furthermore, the Greeks trooped to Olympia from all over the Mediterranean, and later from all over the Near East, in order to celebrate their own intractable oddity. Merely because we have imitated what we thought they did at the games, we should not be lulled into taking for granted the oddity of the fact that they had games at all. For to any non-Greek, the type of male competitiveness that went into the contests of which Greek games consisted was far too explosive to be handled in so light-hearted a way. The ancient Egyptians did not have games; the Jews of Palestine, when offered them, did not want them. This was not necessarily because these societies were stratified, cowed, or unwarlike. It was often the opposite: too high a value was placed upon male honor, and maintaining it involved too formidable a mechanism of retaliation for them to gamble with the affronts to which this honor might be exposed by the kind of athletic competition that the Greeks practiced. In most societies, images of male success and violence were either kept where they were directly useful, in warfare, or deflected, in hunting, safely away from touchy fellow humans on to the animal kingdom. It is not surprising that in the ancient Near East and in the Middle Ages, hunting, and not athletic achievement, was the activity that formed a doublet with war as summing up male success. The king was warrior and hunter. “At Chernigov,” wrote Vladimir Monomakh, Prince of Kiev, in the eleventh century AD,

I even bound wild horses with my bare hands or captured ten or twenty live horses with the lasso, and besides that, while riding along the Ros River, I caught those same wild horses barehanded. Two bisons tossed me and my horses on their horns, a stag once gored me, one elk stamped on me, while another gored me, a bear once tore my sword from my thigh…. But God preserved me unharmed.

It was all part of a successful life. A Persian gentleman wrote at the turn of this century:

I have heard it stated that hunting is a business for the idle; but those who really understand are aware that hundreds of secrets for the government of kingdoms are hidden in this art.

Wrestling, also, when it happened in the ancient Near East, took place only at carefully encapsulated “command performances”—where the wrestlers were more like actors on a stage, doing something different from what happened in the society around them—to amuse the Pharaoh or the god.

Not content with such normal forms of achievement, the Greeks appeared to outsiders to be acting out in their games a competitiveness of an exceptionally provocative kind. How could their society stand it? The speeches of non-Greek observers, invented for them, of course, by Greeks who gloried in their eccentricity, underlined this. How could such violence be re-enacted between two men, a wise Scythian was made to ask, without provoking the murderous consequences which, among normal men, would inevitably arise from “loss of face”?


They are treated like this not in something like privacy, but with all those spectators to watch the affronts they endure.

Yet “loss of face” was precisely what ancient Greeks courted, in dearly wishing to inflict it on their fellow-Greeks, when they took part in the games at Olympia. It was part of the reassuringly old-world atmosphere of the place. For the ethos of the games reached back for centuries behind the comparative reticence of the classical city-states to the days of the swaggering, loudmouthed warlords of archaic Greece. Pindar, though a Theban aristocrat and a little out of date even by the time he wrote, nevertheless struck the tone of the games, as they would continue up to the third century AD:

And now four times you came down with bodies beneath you
(You meant them harm),…

No glad homecoming like yours.
They, when they meet their mothers,
Have no sweet laughter around them moving delight.
In back streets out of their enemies’way
They cower; disaster has bitten them.

While in most Near Eastern and Mediterranean societies, the drive toward competitive male violence was left to flicker anxiously throughout society in the form of the vendetta, in Greece it came to be contained and canalized in a unique fashion. Seen against their wide, nonclassical backdrop, the Olympic games of ancient Greece were the fruit of a canny and dogged attempt to escape the gravitational pull of human nature.

Odd at the time, the ancient Olympics need to recover their intractable individuality for the modern reader also. And this is precisely what he is helped to do in the well-illustrated and careful little book of Moses Finley and H.W. Pleket. For the book is not so much a study of the mechanisms of the games—though this is well done—as an essay on the irreducibly alien quality of ancient sport. The authors are well paired for the aim that they set themselves. Pleket has already written exceptionally clear-eyed studies of the role of the athlete in ancient society. In the pages of this book he has brought many a tedious and anachronistic debate to a trenchant conclusion. We have a fresh appraisal of the social position of the athlete which leaves no room for the snobbery of many classical scholars, for whom an absolute contrast existed between the purity of the classical Olympics, where sport was aristocratic and so amateur, and the “lower class,” and consequently “professional” and debased, athletics of the Roman period.

Once again, the traditional textbook juxtaposition of a “higher” classical Greece and a “decadent” Roman aftermath breaks down. At all times, all athletes expected their achievements to be substantially rewarded; and throughout the Roman period, all classes—even the urban notables—continued to take an active part in athletics. Instead of modern moralizing, we find, once again, remarkable evidence for the tenacity of Greek styles of life and of Greek values. Those little towns of Asia Minor and Egypt, whose inscriptions and papyri provide us with so much of the evidence for the survival of the traditional games in the Roman period, were still basking in the long summer’s afternoon of Hellenism.

As for Moses Finley, he is in his element in just such a book. No modern writer on the ancient world is more aware of his duty to scrape away the patina which generations of sentimental classicism have deposited on classical society. He knows that to shift the image of the classical world among modern men is something more than an exercise in scholarly objectivity: it is to set modern men free from the grip of their own dangerous self-images. His strictures on those who have been tempted to use antiquity as a mirror for the modern world—or, rather, for their own partisan view of the modern world—have always been sharp and provocative. Whether he is writing on the world of Odysseus or on the economy of the Roman Empire, Finley sets the classical world free from modern expectations and presents it with a tingling sense of the alien.

A topic such as the Olympics is one on which the romantic classicism of the later nineteenth century came to run in a peculiarly ugly direction—from militaristic nationalism into Nazism. It arouses in Finley all his skill and his sense of the realities of ancient life. (Though one should add that it also makes him unduly impatient of attempts to present the cultural and religious elements in Greek games, as if to pay attention to these might once again open the door to sentiment and idealization.) Anyone who reads this book will emerge with a clear sense of the difference between the Olympic Games as they now happen and the Olympic games of ancient Greece. Once again, the ancient Greek father has refused to accept paternity for modern ideas and institutions.


Nowhere does this task of demythologizing emerge more plainly than in the way in which the authors characterize the ethos of ancient sport. We are reminded that the games began in a society where little or no distinction could be made between the outright violence of war and the controlled violence of athletics: both were ways of demonstrating male excellence. As in war, so in the games, there could be no middle distance between victory and defeat:

Victory alone brought glory: participation, games-playing for its own sake, was no virtue; defeat brought undying shame.

In such a situation each man was out for himself alone: “Always to be first and to surpass the others” meant, among other things, the impossibility of team games; for “glory could not be shared with partners.” Furthermore, just as warfare and the prestige that came from successful killing brought solid financial gains, so the Olympic victors expected to return laden with esteem and affluence. Like any warlord of the poems of Homer, the Olympic competitor was what W.P. Ker called his Viking successor, “a respectable, piratical gentleman.” To modern eyes he was in it for the money—for “wealth, which is that star conspicuous, that truest light of man.” (Though Finley knows his ancient world well enough to realize that “wealth” was a cumbersome affair, intertwined with social status, and so, “What was missing in antiquity, because of the nature of society and its economy, was commercial exploitation of and by athletes.”)

The quality of the boxing and wrestling events with which the Games ended brings home to the modern reader the murderous quality of Greek athletics. The Pankration, we are told, “was the favorite sport of all”:

The common English translation, “trial of strength,” is a polite fiction: the contestants punched, slapped, kicked, wrestled (much of the time on the ground) and even—though illegally—bit and gouged each other….

It was on such occasions that the trainer would join in with heartening shouts:

Then there was Arrachion’s trainer who, when his strangulated charge seemed ready to yield, cried out; “What a beautiful funeral not to give up at Olympia.”

Throughout ancient history, the line between competition and outright killing remained thin. We usually assume, for instance, that the gladiatorial games which took place under the Roman Empire were the pastime only of brutalized urban masses who had lost the original purity of the Greeks. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Greek world of the second century AD the same highly cultivated magnates who supported the traditional Greek games also hired these troupes of killers; and, as a grim and pathetic comment on the enduring power of the ancient images of male achievement, these thugs still flaunted the names of Homeric warriors. (As, indeed, did the young men who led the smugglers’ gangs in the passes of Savoy in the nineteenth century.)

Up to the end, the competitive violence of its original warrior-heroes gave a very sharp taste indeed, for modern palates, to all forms of male confrontation and demonstrations of male excellence in the ancient world. Christianity entered last but not least into this heady idiom. There is a shrillness of tone in the writings of the Early Church that can be traced back to this ancient imagery of success. Saint Paul expects the Christian to “fight for a crown”; Saint Perpetua dreamed that she was changed into a man and won a wrestling match against an enormous Egyptian with a single throw; Saint Simeon Stylites, perched on his column and carefully observed by a layman to touch his toes 1,244 times while praying, was acclaimed as the winner of an ascetic pentathlon.

The crown of the saints, first thought of as the crowns which they would wear in company, as the colleagues of Christ, just as the subkings of Persia wore their crowns at the solemn banquets of the King of Kings, rapidly becomes the athlete’s crown—the recognition of purely individual “star quality.” The shift represents a victory of the competitive individualism of the Mediterranean cities over the more majestic solidarities of the ancient Near East.

Clear and eminently level-headed, this book raises the problem of how far, and to what purpose, a modern scholar writing for the general public should proceed in rescuing the past from the misconceptions of the present. Finley and Pleket have not gone nearly far enough. Their book is an awkward compromise. For the authors make plain that the society that they are trying to present to the modern reader is palpably alien: and yet they insist on approaching the ancient Olympic games with a modern questionnaire in the back of their minds. Surprise follows surprise, as the ancient Greeks solemnly tick off all the wrong answers. The clarity and didactic skill of the book, therefore, is frittered away in leading so many modern roads to a dead end:

What facilities were provided for the athletes, one becomes impatient to discover, and the surprising answer is—hardly anything…not even a pale shadow of a modern Olympic village.

The tantalizing quality of this approach does not apply only to points of detail. A subtle anachronism appears to pervade the account, all the more irritating because it coexists with impeccable scholarly detachment. The ancient Olympics are proved to be totally unlike the modern Olympics. This is done by contrasting modern athletics with ancient athletics. Yet one is left with the awkward feeling that chalk is being persistently compared with cheese. On the one hand we have modern sporting events, on the other, the outlines of a complex of legal and religious behavior in which events to which we attach the convenient modern label of “sport” play a part.

Thus we are left viewing the ancient Olympics through a very narrow slit; and the slit is narrow because the authors have allowed its width to be determined by modern preoccupations. Finley and Pleket have successfully removed the ancient Olympics from the pedestal on which they had been placed by modern scholars and by modern cultural politicians who had appealed to their authority in order to justify a weird modern imitation of the genuine, irrepressible original. But they have not placed them back in the full context to which they belonged.

The loser is not the scholar, who will put down this book better informed than when he began, but the modern general reader who may have weightier problems on his mind than the relative “cleanness” of ancient and modern sport. Finley and Pleket will doubtless be quoted by the cynics, who will say that the book proves that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the ancient Olympics—once treated as a threatening paragon of purity—were as “dirty” as any modern event.

The more serious issues remain. These lay at the heart of Olympia—that is, nearer to the temple than to the stadium. The Greeks traveled to Olympia in order to experience themselves as Greeks. They did this by rallying around what they considered to be the most satisfying imagery that they knew of male excellence. It was an imagery that remained, from beginning to end, violent, abrasive, and fissile. Neighboring “barbarian” societies thought that such an imagery was not for them. What is truly amazing to a modern reader—who may have had his full share of modern images of competition and triumph, with their ugly ramifications—and what remains profoundly alien to modern society, in so many ways, is the sober discipline by which the Greeks, at Olympia, had managed to weave the threads of law and religious observance deep into a potentially destructive tangle of male aggression and vanity. If a modern reader still wishes to regret that he has lost something in not being an ancient Greek, then he must face a loss far bigger and sadder than that of a supposed Olympic “sportsmanship”: it is the cunning and unpretentious craftsmanship of human relations, as hammered out in small communities, by which traditional law and immemorial religious practices had come to enable “war” to grow, gropingly, into something a little more like “play,” at the feet of the seated Zeus.

This Issue

November 25, 1976