The Ancient Olympics

Nigel Spivey

Oxford University Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
The Ancient Olympics covers more than just the quadrennial games which were held at Olympia from a putative beginning in 776 BCE through to around 400 CE. Spivey begins with a survey of athletic competitions in the ancient world, going back to Hesiod and Homer and touching on ideas from Lucian, Aristotle and Plato, exploring links to military prowess and the extent to which competitions were "war minus the shooting".

Next comes a look at the gymnasium, covering its architecture, its place in social and civic life, and its links to philosophy, "pederasty" and aesthetics.

"In the ideal Classical city, the paragon-citizen, whose voting rights originated from his availability for military service, kept himself in conspicuously good shape as a matter of political duty, not personal vanity. Yet the gymnasium ambiance was charged with the atmosphere of sexual selection. Even if the obligation to practise combat sports for imminent call-up faded — especially after the development of professional armies, pioneered by the Macedonians in the fourth century BC — the battlefield values of 'strength' (rhome) and 'endurance' (karteria) were maintained as essential factors of 'manliness' (andreia: see Xenophon, Symposium 8.6ff.). So Classical gymnasia became the sites of exercise for the sake of looking good in that time-honoured way. If erotic attention came about from attaining such looks, that was almost incidental. Beyond war, beyond sex, lay the peculiar but pervasive Classical Greek belief that beauty was invested with morality; that to look good was necessarily also to be good."

At Olympia Spivey describes the scrutiny, the taking of oaths and the drawing of lots, and the accommodation and facilities.

"The seasonal timing of the festival alone was enough to make it unpleasant for all concerned. ... an over-heated, land-locked valley, blighted by flies and dust"
He describes the events — chariot-racing, the pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, the pankration, running — and considers the participation or presence of women and the significance of nudity.

Crowning with olive leaves, victory parades and civic receptions were the immediate rewards of the victorious. The two methods that worked best for sustaining glory into posterity were the victory ode and the victory statue. Spivey presents a translation and analysis of Pindar's Eighth Olympian Ode and discusses — and illustrates with halftones — the creation, inscription and fate of statues.

The games began as a local affair, but extended first to the Peloponnese and then to encompass the entire Greek world. They were intensely political, with a role in conflicts between Elis and its neighbours, links with colonies, especially in the west, and in the fifth and early fourth centuries with the rhetoric of Panhellenism; an actual battle occurred at the Olympics in 364 BCE. Under the Macedonians and Romans the Games became an opening for civic vanity and for the presentation of honours to and by rulers.

Something of the origins of Olympia can be teased out of mythology, archaeology, and the invention of tradition.

"By the mid-eighth century BC, Olympia was a site already sacrosanct to local people over many decades — though without formal temple structures, nor any established facilities for regulated athletic contests. During the eighth century, there was a marked increase in numbers of worshippers at this site, generating interest, status, and revenues for the sanctuary. As part of the sanctuary's development, elementary challenges of speed and physical prowess were gradually incorporated into a periodic celebration of Zeus and other Olympian deities. However these athletic challenges came about, they soon gained a religious, social, and political significance far beyond Olympia itself. By the late sixth century BC, 'the Olympic Games' were institutionalized at Olympia, paradigmatic of honour to Zeus at large, and a meeting point for Greeks and Greek city-states across the Mediterranean. The origins of this extraordinary development were obscure even then. And so it was all mythologized."

Spivey concludes with a glance at the "afterlife" of the Games: the "discovery" of Olympia, its archaeological exploration, and the revival of the modern Olympics.

All these different approaches come together to place the Olympics in their broader context. Spivey works around both modern preconceptions and the rhetoric of ancient sources; he draws on ancient stories and anecdotes, but makes their limitations clear.

It won't appeal to those narrowly interested in "the Olympics", but anyone curious about the Classical world more generally should enjoy The Ancient Olympics. It is a lively account which doesn't assume a background in classical history, but which may draw readers into that. And it has plenty for those already familiar with the period.

February 2007

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%T The Ancient Olympics
%A Spivey, Nigel
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2004
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0192804332
%P 273pp