jump to navigation

Sport and Democracy in Classical Athens March 26, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Greek Culture Heritage, Olympic Games, Sports & Games.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
comments closed

University of Sydney historian explains why he thinks evidence suggests that sporting activity did not help promote peace in ancient Greece

26-03-08_ancient_olympia1.jpg  26-03-08_ancient_olympia2.jpg  Male dancers (above) form the Olympic circles with olive branches during a rehearsal for the lighting of the flame in Ancient Olympia, where the Olympics were born in 776 BC. Actress Maria Nafpliotou (right), in her role as the high priestess at the actual ceremony on Monday, holds up the Olympic Flame after it was lit using the sun’s rays.

Sport in ancient Athens has long been a paradox for ancient historians. The world’s first democracy may have opened up politics to everybody but it had no impact on sporting life. Athletics continued to be an exclusive pursuit of wealthy citizens.

In spite of this, the vast majority of the citizens, who as poor men were very critical of the aristocracy, actually lavished time and public money on sporting competitions and facilities, esteemed elite sports stars above all other public figures and handed international victors the metaphorical keys to the city.

Recent scholarship on sport and war helps us solve this baffling state of affairs. In the lead-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, we are constantly reminded of the cherished belief of the Olympic movement that international sport reconciles hostile countries and encourages world peace.

As noble as this may be, a generation of scholarship has shown this belief to be almost entirely false. Sport and war – we know now – often manifest the same values and practices, such as aggressiveness and cruelty, and tend to legitimize each other. As such, the military hyperactivity of the ancient Athenian democracy gives us a clue to understanding the paradox of its sporting life.

Panathenaia > The Athenians provided tens of thousands of liters of sacred olive oil and silver crowns as prizes for sportsmen at their local games of the Great Panathenaia. This was the large-scale version of the city’s annual festival in honor of its patron deity, Athena, which was staged every four years.

It included over a hundred contests or bouts, not just in athletics and the athletic team event of the torch race, but also in horsemanship, music and choral singing. The people of Athens also carefully administered and renovated the city’s athletics fields and witnessed a massive expansion in the number of wrestling schools.

They awarded free meals and front-row seating at their regular sporting and cultural events for life to those citizens who had won an athletic or equestrian event at one of the Panhellenic or international games, which were staged,every two or four years at Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi and, of course, Olympia.

Since these were the democracy’s highest honors, their granting to athletic victors points to an extraordinarily high estimation of these stars. Such a high regard of athletes also left its mark on the irreverent comedies of the 5th century BC, in which the city’s athletes were the only group in the public eye to escape the abuse and ridicule of the comic poets.

For the youths of classical Athens, training in athletics was given in the regular school classes of the athletics teacher. Isocrates explains how they instruct their pupils in “the moves devised for competition,” train them in athletics, accustom them to toil and compel them to combine each of the lessons they have learnt. According to this Athenian philosopher, all of this turns pupils into competent athletic competitors as long as they have some natural talent.

Sports and learning > Often athletics teachers are represented in Athenian art as giving classes in wrestling or in the other “heavy” events of boxing and the “no holds barred” pankration, which is an unsurprising state of affairs, as many of these teachers owned wrestling schools and some had been victors in such events in their youth. Nonetheless we also find athletics teachers training their charges in the standard “track and field” events of ancient Greek athletics.

Predictably the expense of buying and raising horses ensured that contestants in the chariot and horse races would always be those Aeschylus calls the “super-rich,” such as leading politicians, tyrants and Kings. More surprising is that athletics was out of reach to the vast majority of Athenians.

Since the Athenian state did not finance nor administer education, each family made its own decisions about how long their sons would attend school and whether they would pursue each of the three traditional disciplines: athletics, music and letters.

The Athenians understood very well that the number of educational disciplines a boy could pursue and the length of his schooling depended on the resources of his family. Money determined not only whether a family could pay the fees of the letter teacher, lyre [a musical instrument] teacher and athletics teacher but also whether they could give their sons the required leisure to pursue disciplines that were taught concurrently.

Most poor citizens needed their children and wives to help out with family farming or business concerns. As a result, poor Athenian families passed over music and athletics and sent their sons only to the lessons of the letter teacher, which they believed to be the most useful for moral and practical instruction.

Thus it was only wealthy boys who received instruction in each of the three disciplines of education. Without school-based training in athletics, which everyone recognized as necessary for effective competition, poor youths simply did not enter athletics contests. In the world’s first democracy, sport was only practiced by wealthy Athenians.

There were other activities in classical Athens, such as the drinking party, horsemanship, pederastic homosexuality and political leadership, which were also the exclusive preserves of the wealthy.

However these upper-class pursuits – in contrast to athletics – were ridiculed and heavily criticized in the debates and public conversations of the democracy. Poor Athenians may have hoped to enjoy, one day, the lifestyle of the rich, but they still had problems with their exclusive pursuits, frequently associating them with stereotypical misdeeds of this social class.

Into battle > Critically, classical Athenians thought of and described athletic contests and battle with a common set of concepts and words. Most importantly, both were considered an agon or a contest decided by mutually agreed rules.

Today, when even democracies sometimes wage war contrary to international law and break the Geneva Convention, it is hard to recognize that European warfare was once a highly regulated activity and viewed as an honorable way to settle disputes between states.

The battles of the ancient Greeks were no exception, being conducted according to a shared set of nomoi or customs. Thus a Greek city informed another of its intention to attack by sending a herald. By agreement, their phalanxes of heavy infantrymen met on an agricultural plain. After hours of hand-to-hand fighting, the decisive moment was the trope or turning, when the hoplites of one side broke up and ran for their lives.

The victors only pursued them for a short distance, as they had much left to do on the field of battle. There they collected the bodies of their dead comrades, stripped the bodies of the enemy, and used some of the weapons and armor so acquired to set up a trophaion or trophy. When the defeated had time to regroup, they sent a herald to those controlling the battlefield for a truce to collect their dead. Custom dictated that the victors could not honorably refuse this request.

The citizens of classical Athens also thought battle and athletics involved the same ideals and tribulations. Both activities were recognized as involving ponoi or painful toils bring honor and kindinoi or dangers, with athletes, especially in the “heavy” events, frequently being injured, maimed or killed.

They believed it was the arete or manly excellence of individual soldiers and athletes, inherited from ancestors, and the support of gods and demigods, which secured nike or victory. Victory brought fame to the city of athlete and soldier, while defeat or the refusal to compete, in either activity, was a sign of cowardice and a cause of personal shame.

Although Athenian warfare, before the democracy, was a predominantly upper-class activity, the democratic revolution of the late 6th century BC subjected warfare to a profound democratization practically and ideologically. With the creation of a city-based army of hoplites, the construction of a massive war fleet, in the late 480s, and the introduction of state pay for military service, soldiering – like politics – was opened to every class of Athenian.

Democracy > To fight and, if necessary, die for the city became the solemn duty of all citizens, which, in an unprecedented era of Athenian bellicosity, they did with disturbing regularity. Warfare was now the main public expenditure and business of the Athenian democracy and its martial achievements were glorified in public speech, drama and public art and architecture.

Critically the egalitarianism of the democracy resulted in the traditional values of war, such as arete and ponoi, which had once been the preserve of the heroes of Homer and the aristocrats of the pre-democratic era, being recognized in the military actions of rich and poor citizens alike, whether they served as heavily armed infantrymen or sailors.

This democratic ethos also saw every Athenian soldier given equal credit for the city’s military victories and – if killed in action – a sumptuous funeral and veneration as a demigod. Every Athenian soldier was now treated like Achilles or Hector.

This democratization of war had a profound impact on the standing of athletics. Poor Athenians came to believe that upper-class athletes exhibited the same moral qualities and experienced the same ordeals as they did when fighting battles.

This affinity of theirs with the values of sport ruled out serious criticism of sportsmen in public discourse and underwrote the exceptionally high estimation of athletics. In short, the democratic style of war in classical Athens legitimized and supported elite sport.

Dr David Pritchard is an ancient historian at the University of Sydney. He will be speaking at the Australian Archaeological Institute in Athens, 2 Promachou Street, Makriyianni, Athens, on April 1 at 7 p.m. This talk is free and open to the general public.

Copyright notice > Article by Dr David Pritchard for the Greek daily Kathimerini. All rights reserved.

On the occasion of Greece’s National Day on March 25 March 23, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Greece News, Greek Diaspora, Special Features.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
comments closed

Message of Deputy Foreign Minister of Greece, Theodoros P. Kassimis, to all Greeks residing abroad >

Dear Compatriots,

It is with great pleasure and emotion that I am communicating with you on this historical day [25 March 1821] of National rebirth that brings to our minds so many memories and which is full of meaningful messages to Greeks, all over the world.

187 years ago, our ancestors, deprived of any substantial material means and falling short in number, motivated by the dream of a free homeland, fought against not only a powerful enemy but also against the prevailing status quo, which was dominant in Europe of the 19th century. It was an unequal fight, and seemingly destined to fail; however they won. They won because they believed in what nobody could even conceive, sacrificing their lives in the battlegrounds, unwilling to compromise themselves with the idea of defeat, which would have resulted in the loss of the dream of freedom. They won giving to us a free Greece, which with many efforts, sacrifices and hard work has earned the respect and the appreciation of its partners amongst the Nations.

187 years after, the challenges that our country is facing are different but not less important, consisting in the preservation of its territorial integrity, the protection of its cultural legacy and the defense of its rights. The battles are fought on a daily basis, not on battlegrounds, but in various fora, and as Greeks we are expected to prove that we are worthy of the legacy that our ancestors left us. We should never forget that what they achieved was the result of unity and resolve in the final cause. Let us then proceed as of this day, guided by the very same elements, proving once more to the rest of the world that the greatness of nations is not computed and measured by digits, numbers and material means, but by the heart, the courage and the grit shown whenever circumstances are challenging and demanding. We owe this to our ancestors, and furthermore to our children and ourselves.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish you all health and prosperity, and I avail myself of this opportunity to extend to you my warmest patriotic greetings.

Theodoros P. Kassimis.

Sparta Journal > Discovering Ancient Spartan and Greek History March 23, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

Sparta Volume 3 No 2. Discovering Ancient Spartan and Greek History > The second issue of the Sparta Journal, magazine’s third volume, continues to be a unique journey to ancient Spartan history.

Markoulakis Publications have produced the second issue of the third volume (volume 3 no. 2) of the printed and online educational periodical entitled Sparta. The periodical is accessible for review purposes for all visitors to the following website > www.sparta.markoulakispublications.org.uk.

Read about the decision-making of Sparta and answer the question: what was the theory that propelled Sparta into war? Read the answer written by Nikolaos Markoulakis.

Did the Kings of Persia seek to win hearts and minds as they extended their empire? Cyrus, in 546BC, defeated Croesus, King of Lydia, and swiftly overran the Greek cities of Ionia. Four years of bitter fighting ensued (498-494 B.C.) before King Darius was finally
victorious. Travelling with Xerxes on his march to Greece was ex-king Demaratus of Sparta. Should that king be Leotychides, or the much more respected Leonidas? Was there any hope of stopping Xerxes? Read the answers written by Robert Montgomerie.

In the Odyssey, Telemachus, searching for news of his father’s return from the Trojan war, visits King Menelaus and Queen Helen at Sparta. Explore the King Menelaus’ palace complex with the assistance of Robert Montgomerie.

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as “Doric Philosophy”. The Doric Greeks of Crete and Laconia did practice philosophy and may be the founders of Greek philosophy. First, this article is about doing forensics; rediscovering Doric philosophy. It is about restoring some things that have been lost or obscured. Second, this is a “general overview” article. This article doesn’t go into detail but covers rapidly many points and ties them together into a coherent whole. This article is about generating interest and further research and speculation. By W. Lindsay Wheeler.

Focusing on an unusual 6th century monument discovered in Sparta, this article seeks to identify the two couples depicted on its broad sides and the function of the standing snakes on its flanks. The aim of the article is not only to resurrect discussion of this highly unusual monument after a period of neglect, but to bring to the readers’ attention, with both text and images, some aspects of Spartan visual culture in the 6th century with which they may not be familiar. Written and illustrated by Jane E. A. Anderson.

The periodical is available for subscribers in both print and electronic versions. To view the subscription rates and prices, visitors should go to the Sparta website and follow the Subscribe & Order link. This will direct them to the subscribers’ choices and prices. The website electronic payments use Paypal.

Sparta (ISSN 1751-0007) is an incorporated title with the Journal of Laconian Studies (ISSN: 1749 5814) and the former Sparta’s Journal (ISSN 1747-0005). The free electronic version of Sparta’s Journal is available on the Sparta website under the Volume’s Archive link. The website also offers a great number of free monthly articles, news and announcements that focus on Spartan and ancient Greek history.

Sparta also introduced a series of supplements, which will cover concisely important issues of the ancient Spartan society by original academic research material -more information at > http://www.sparta.markoulakispublications.org.uk/?s=supplement

For further information > www.markoulakispublications.org.uk

Ithaca was Homeric land of Odysseus March 15, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Culture History Mythology.
Tags: , , , , , ,
comments closed

Study refutes Cephalonia theory > Greeks yesterday hailed a new study showing the modern-day island of Ithaca is the same as that of Homer’s legendary hero Odysseus, rejecting a recent British theory that pointed to a nearby island.

British researchers last year claimed they had solved an intriguing classical puzzle, saying the Kingdom of Ithaca was located on another Ionian island, further west. «This new study shows how wrong and inaccurate the British theory is» Ithaca councilor and former island Mayor Spyros Arsenis told Reuters of the study conducted by Greek geology professors and other scientists over eight months. Arsenis also heads the island’s Friends of Homer Society.

The British study, which suggested that Homer’s Ithaca was actually part of what is modern-day Cephalonia, had enraged islanders who are fiercely proud of their renowned ancestor, the wiliest of the ancient Greek writer’s epic heroes.

The British team suggested that drilling showed the Paliki peninsula on Cephalonia may have once been an island and that it better matched Homer’s description of the homeland which Odysseus left behind to fight in the Trojan War. «The new Greek study shows… the geological formations could not have been formed in just 3,000 years and there is no evidence of any sea channel» Arsenis said.

The study will be officially presented next week. The island’s local council also welcomed the results. «This study rules out once and for all the theory that the Paliki peninsula was once a separate island. It is a slap in the face for the British researchers» it said in a statement.

Finding ancient Ithaca could rival the discoveries in the 1870s of ancient Troy on Turkey’s Aegean coast and the mask of Agamemnon, who led the Greek forces against the Trojans. No one knows for certain whether Odysseus or his city really existed.

The discovery of the ruins of Troy, where Odysseus, Achilles, Paris, Menelaus and other Greek heroes did battle, has led scholars to believe there is more to Homer’s tales than just legend.

In search of the ancient Minoans March 8, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Culture History Mythology, Hellenic Light Europe.
Tags: , , , , , ,
comments closed

Archaeologist Nikolaos E. Platon (1909-1992), a native of the island of Cephalonia, was an expert in Minoan civilization who undertook many excavations in Boeotia, Evia, Fthiotida, the Sporades and Crete.

It was he who discovered the fourth Minoan palace and surrounding settlement, bringing to light a large number of exhibits, many of which are now in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion in Crete.

In a lecture at the Hellenic Center, London, his son Lefteris, professor of prehistoric archaeology at Athens University, said he hoped that some of these could be transferred to the Siteia Museum. Lefteris Platon’s lecture for the Greek Archaeological Committee of Britain was held on February 20.

He described the work carried out by his father and the exploration that continues to this day, which he himself leads. Professor Platon presented a large number of slides showing Linear A inscriptions, gold and other objects, clay pots decorated with marine themes and stone objects.

Sex Gods February 4, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Gay Life, Sports & Games.
Tags: , , , , ,
comments closed

Sports stars have been erotic icons since the time of ancient Greece > The ancient Greeks thought that going to the gym regularly was a good way to prepare young men for war, and a necessary training for the body’s health. It was also the place to pick up boys.

Socrates, the philosopher, always had an eye for the cute young man, and he describes the scene at Taureas’ gym when the hunk of the day walked in. ‘The fellow looked absolutely amazing: his beauty, his size. Everyone seemed to me to fancy him – they were so dumb-struck and confused when he came in – with a great crowd of lovers following him.’ A friend adds: ‘If he took his kit off, you wouldn’t bother with his face …’

This was a familiar scene to Socrates’s audience. The classical Greeks were obsessed with beautiful bodies and spent a good deal of time talking about them, honing them, and looking at each other’s flesh. In the gym, men – and men only – took all their clothes off, poured oil over their bodies and then had it scraped off, and then they exercised naked, including wrestling together. In a culture that supported affectionate and erotic relations between males, it is no surprise that going to the gym was a pretty sexy affair.

04-02-08_runners.jpg  This was part of the good life. Every Greek city worth its name had a string of gymnasiums and many citizens went to the gym every day. One little poem celebrates the ideal vividly: ‘He’s a lucky guy, who’s in love, goes to the gym, comes home and sleeps with his beautiful boy all day.’ These words were written for performance by a man among his friends, drinking happily at a symposium – the evening parties at which men relaxed together. For the ancient Greek, sex and sport went together naturally.

The professional athlete on his way to the Olympic Games was sometimes advised not to have sex before the day to save his strength. But the man who won at the Olympic Games returned home in a procession as grand as any ticker-tape parade, and, like any modern celebrity, became a sex-bomb overnight. Even the cabbage-eared boxer, sweaty from the fray, had his passionate admirers.

Sport was where masculinity was on display – and masculinity was a turn-on for the Greek spectators. In a city such as Athens, the Greek man was surrounded by statues of beautiful heroes and warriors – naked bodies, impossibly developed, and perfectly formed. These statues are now seen as the masterpieces of classical art. But these wonderful bodies, like pictures of supermodels for women today, were a frightening ideal to live up to. The gym could also be an anxious experience.

Men should ‘glow with fabulous conditioning: neither lean nor skinny, nor excessive in weight, but etched with symmetry’. That’s Lucian, a Greek satirist from the Roman Empire, spelling out what to aim for: a six-pack, good legs, to be beautifully symmetrical but not too heavy with muscles …

Socrates was famous for wandering up to acquaintances in the street and warning them that they had got flabby and clearly weren’t working out hard enough. Looking at citizens’ bodies and being looked at critically was all part of the life of the gym. In the city, there was no place to hide. Your body was open to the public gaze – and revealed what sort of a man you were.

Athenians found it disgusting that in Sparta women also exercised. For them it was an all-male business. And they recognized that sport in the gym was very much like the grapplings of the bedroom. ‘Before wrestling under the rules of the Goddess of Love,’ wrote the novelist Achilles Tatius, ‘boys get to grapple on the wrestling mat, publicly locking bodies together in the gym – and no one says that these embraces are immodest.’ Wrestling is a training for when ‘bodies rub firmly against one another in the athletics of pleasure’.

Achilles Tatius is a sly and wicked writer, but he touches the heart of the issue. For ancient Greeks, going to the gym was never just about sport. It was always about sex, too.

Article by Simon Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at the University of Cambridge. © Copyright The Guardian

See a slide show of pictures from the Athens 2004 Olympic Games > click here

Alexander the Great > the Greek Macedonian King and Hero October 7, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

Greek Macedonian King and Military Commander, born July 20, 356 B.C., died June 10, 323 B.C.

alexander_the_great.jpg  “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”

At age 16, Alexander became a regent when his father, Philip, the King of Macedon, was commanding his army in war. Alexander inherited the throne of Macedon and Greece at age 20. Beginning with no money and a small army, he conquered much of the known world and accumulated one of the world’s largest treasuries. He captured the Persian Empire, which stretched across Asia Minor, the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Egypt and modern-day Iran. After pushing all the way to India, he finally turned back, his men tired and his Empire starting to weaken.

From an early age, Alexander showed great potential. He learned politics and warfare from his father; philosophy, ethics, politics and healing from Aristotle; and the importance of an ascetic lifestyle from Leonidis. Alexander became a brilliant ruler and formidable military leader beloved by his soldiers.

Alexander and Aristotle experienced a falling-out over the issue of foreigners. Like many other people at the time, Aristotle considered most foreigners barbarians. Alexander hoped to incorporate outsiders into his Empire. His progressive method of appointing foreigners to army posts and encouraging native troops to marry foreigners helped create stability in his Kingdom. Citizens welcomed Alexander as a liberator when he conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.

While Alexander married women and conceived children with them, he also had male sex partners, including a eunuch named Bagaos. Alexander and his closest friend Hephaestion spent considerable time together; scholars assume that their love was sexual. Although homosexuality was common in Greece, same-sex relationships occurred mostly between men and slaves or men and younger boys who were not yet citizens. Love between two males of similar age and social class was stigmatized, and may have jeopardized Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s status had its true nature been public.

After halting his conquests and returning from the Punjab to Babylon, Alexander died at age 32. He never lost a battle, created a colossal Empire, was revered by his army and controlled one of the world’s largest treasuries.