I love David Studdard’s book “Power Games; Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics”. He explains the Ancient games by focusing on the “pivotal Games of 416 BC”, but pulls plenty of examples from other Olympics in explanation.
The Introduction starts at spring equinox 416 BC,
“when the world was balanced equally between light and darkness, the king-priest of Elis had climbed the wooded slopes above Olympia to make their offering to Kronos, one of the most primeval and terrifying of all their gods.”
Chapter 1 starts with ceremonies before the Zeus of Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
“When its sculptor, Phidias, had finished, he had prayed to the god to indicate somehow if he approved of the creation. Immediately a light bolt crashed how from Heaven shattering part of the temple’s marble paving.
To the modern earth that sound ominous, but in the ancient world it was a sign of sanctification. “for Pausanias (famous travel writer) nowhere comped to Olympia and nothing to the great statue of Zeus.” The sculptor of the statute had been inspired by three lines from the Iliad;
“Zeus, the son of Kronos, spoke and he inclined his head with its dark brows
And the mighty king’s hair, anointed with ambrosial oil,
Fell forward from his immortal head; and great Olympus trembled.”
Stuttard proceeds day by day with each ceremony, dinner and athletic event, illustrating along the way that to the winner “Olympic victory (brought) at home, the adulation of his city; throughout the Greek world praise envy and undying fame. “
Chapter Two mentions women at the Olympic Games. “from this cliff should be thrown any woman discovered at the Olympic Festival … Actually they say that no woman ever has been caught except only Pherenike.” Pherenike disguised as a man had coached her son to an Olympic victory. In her jubilation, she leapt too high and revealed her sex. She was forgiven and the incident overlooked but henceforth coaches must appear naked as the athletes had for a long time.
The Spartan princess Kynisca entered a chariot in the Olympic games. Though she did not attend. “She erected a victory statue engraved with an inscription which read;
My father and brothers were Spartan kings. I proclaim myself the only woman in the whole of Greece to have so won the crown.
In Chariot races of 416 Alcibiades of Athens had unfairly entered six teams to insure his city a victory. His tent and lifestyle were opulent in sharp contrast to the majority of the attendees and Spartan quarters of the soldiers of Helen’s homeland. And in a spectacular hubristic display of his wealth and power he hosted a dinner for the thousands in attendances. Athens under Alcibiades had a “new philosophy; if you were not for her you were against her. “This was bad news for smaller neighbors like Melos. His and his city’s behavior was the very picture of Hubris
“hubris…the moment when a tragic hero crosses the dividing line between what is acceptably within the bounds of human behavior and what is not… It means a failure to recognize man’s limitations. It means a blindness to accept wheat every sane person knows. “Alcibiades…like the goddess Strife…had introduced dissension where none should have been.”
Shortly thereafter the Peloponnesian War re-ignited. Eventually;
“A starving Athens surrounded to her Spartan enemy. She was in no position to make terms, Eleven years before an arrogant Athenian assembly had voted to put the male citizens of Melos to the sword and to drag the woman and children off to slavery. Now Athens could expect the same fate at the Spartans’ hands. But it did not come. Instead the Spartans dismantled the defenses and the long walls linking Athens to the sea, installed a government and spared them. In victory the fiercest fighting force in Greece had shown a tender clemency…
To say that the end of Athens has its beginning in the Olympic Festival of 416 BC is too simplistic. Yet it was here on the verge of the disastrously hubristic Sicilian campaign that Alcibiades, the city’s favorite son, behaved with such reckless abandon and with unrestrained extravagance. What should had been indeed what had been until then a festival which celebrated everything that united the Greek world, had been hijacked and used by one man Alcibiades to promote his ambitions. In many ways it was the end of one world and the beginning of another. “
Stuttard’s detailed description of the events of the 416 BC Olympics is followed by an epilogue. It is a brief history of the next 877 years of the Olympics and the events there that foreshadowed the effects of the Macedonian, Roman and Christian impacts on the world.
This is a well written, well researched and very readable book on a fascinating subject; the Olympic Games and a fascinating time in History.