Book review: A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics by Neil Faulkner

Author: Neil Faulkner
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Paul Cartledge
Price (RRP): £14.99

Paul Cartledge savours a breezy history of the ancient Greek Olympics, presented in travel-guide style

Every four years, as surely as night follows day, a fresh crop of Olympics-themed volumes hits the bookshops, or as often nowadays enters the e-thereal zone. This year will be no exception, and Dr Neil Faulkner is well ahead of the game as well as the Games.

He is that rare bird, a freelance historian who is also professionally trained and equipped, able to handle both the archaeological material and the rather scanty and complex written sources. He writes too with great vim and panache, not least in his jolting account of the thrills and (too often) spills of ancient chariot-racing.

The idea of writing a guide for a prospective modern-day time-travelling visitor to the ancient Games is not original – I’ve done one myself, for this magazine indeed. But Faulkner’s Blue Guide is the real thing, the full works.

He is of course indebted to a mountain of previous writing on the subject, some of which is listed in the rather oddly selective bibliography of (mostly modern) ‘sources’. In spirit, Faulkner’s down-and-dirty approach is perhaps closest to that taken by the scholarly Australian journalist Tony Perrottet, in his aptly named The Naked Olympics (2004).

The first 100 pages or so are given over to the backstory, the mythology surrounding the Games’ origins and early development, and to the topography of the site of Olympia. The remaining 150 or so pages offer a version of the ‘history’ of the Games, or rather more especially of one particular quadrennial celebration, that of 388 BC.

This is an excellent choice. By then, the ancient Games in their classical form had reached their fullest development in terms of events for – strictly males-only – adults and children.

The site was densely populated with structures whose remains are often still discernible, and with choice craftsmanly artefacts, some of which can be viewed in the magnificent archaeological museum (refurbished in 2004). And the Hellenic world of 388 BC – 1,000 or so communities strung out from south-east Spain in the west to the far-eastern end of the Black Sea – was in a typically pullulating state of aggravated rivalry.

In fact, the endemic inter-city warfare was interrupted by the Olympic Truce only sufficiently to enable the Games to proceed.

Dr Faulkner gets pretty much everything right. The ancient Games, being literally a religious celebration in honour of Zeus of Mount Olympus, were nothing much like the modern ‘revived’ Games in either function or essence. There happened to be only symbolic prizes on offer at the Olympics (a sacred-olive wreath crown) and at a few of the many
other athletics festivals with which fourth-century Greece was richly endowed, but competitors were by no means amateurs.

Competition itself was very far removed from being gentlemanly, so far indeed that it is more aptly regarded as a form of paramilitary exercise.

Death became – or at least came to – not a few, especially of course in the ‘heavy’ events (boxing, wrestling, and a vicious combination of those two with judo, which was known as the ‘all-strength’ event). Conversely, the victor in the Games’ aboriginal event, the roughly 200-metre dash, became victor ludorum, a pan-hellenic hero, giving his name to the entire celebration – as we might say, the ‘Bolt Olympics’.

Into and around his descriptions of the Olympic events Faulkner contrives to weave very skilfully indeed a rich texture of social, economic, political – in a word, cultural – history.

Yale University Press have produced an attractively illustrated volume in a handy, pocketable format: just the thing to take with you to the beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade this July, perhaps.

Paul Cartledge is the author of Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (Oxford University Press, 2009)