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Sport and Democracy in Classical Athens March 26, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Greek Culture Heritage, Olympic Games, Sports & Games.
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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.

Ithaca was Homeric land of Odysseus March 15, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Culture History Mythology.
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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.

Greek archaeologists discover ancient skull hat underwent brain surgery March 14, 2008

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Skull of patient from 3rd century found during dig in northern Greece

14-03-08_greek_brain.jpg  The patient, a young woman, is believed to have died during or shortly after the operation.

Archaeologists in northern Greece said yesterday that they had unearthed the skull of a young woman believed to have undergone head surgery nearly 1,800 years ago. The team of Greek scientists, who discovered the skeleton at an ancient cemetery in Veria, a town some 46 miles (75 kilometers) west of Thessaloníki, said the skull bore perforations that indicate emergency surgery had been performed.

Their examination of the skull concluded that it had belonged to a woman who had suffered a severe blow to the head and had died during or after the operation. Ancient writings contain frequent references to such operations but perforated skulls are rarely found in Greece, experts said.

“We think that there was a complex surgical intervention that only an experienced doctor could have performed,” said Ioannis Graikos, the head of the archaeological dig. “Medical treatment on the human body in the Roman Veria is part of a long tradition that began with Hippocrates up to Roman doctor Celsus and Galen,” he said, cited in the Ta Nea newspaper.

Hippocrates is believed to have lived in the fifth century BC, Celsus between 25 BC to 50 AD, and Galen from 131 to 201. The procedure believed to have been carried out was a trepanation, an ancient form of surgery to address head injuries or illnesses.

In 2003, Greek archaeologists discovered a man’s skull in a tomb on the Aegean island of Chios from the second century BC that had also undergone a trepanation. The patient was believed to have lived a number of years after the operation. Another trepanation was discovered in 2006 in Thrace on a young woman from the eighth century BC believed injured by a weapon.

Earlier on Monday, Greek archaeologists reported finding more than 1,000 graves, some filled with jewelery, coins and art while carrying out excavations in the metro line of Thessaloniki. Majority of the graves, which were 886 in number, were found just east of the center of Greece’s second largest city, at the site of a cemetery during Roman and Byzantine times.

In search of the ancient Minoans March 8, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Culture History Mythology, Hellenic Light Europe.
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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.

Recent finds at Greece’s Macedonian site of Pella March 4, 2008

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Recent finds at Greece’s Macedonian site of Pella reveal a city beneath the citycommunity > Prehistoric cemetery yields evidence of an Early Bronze Age

04-03-08_pella_site.jpg  The archaeological site of Pella. To the right of the asphalt road is the agora of the ancient city. Also visible are the old museum at the crossroads, the workshops and storerooms of the site.

04-03-08_pella_artifacts.jpg  Grave goods from among the artifacts found at the prehistoric burial ground.

Exciting new finds at the archaeological site of Pella have opened a new chapter in Macedonian history. Beneath the ruins of the ancient capital of the Macedonian Kingdom is a large prehistoric burial ground that has yielded the first evidence of organized life in Pella during the third millennium BC.

It was while they were engaged in conservation, repairs and other work to highlight the site that the excavation team from Aristotle University came across more than 100 Early Bronze Age burials in large jars, accompanied by marble works of art from the Cyclades, local ceramics and metalware.

The finds are so recent that experts at the Demokritos Center have not yet completed the analysis of bones that will yield precise dates. However, the initial evidence supplements what is already known about Pella in the Early Bronze Age (2100-2000 BC), when it was the most important city in Bottiaea, long before it was made capital of the Macedonian realm. What became known as “the greatest of Macedonian cities” was apparently built on top of the prehistoric graveyard when Archelaus moved his capital there from Aiges, excavation director Professor Ioannis Akamatis said.

It was on this site that one of the most important urban centers developed. It had what was at the time an innovative, Manhattan-style, rectangular town plan, with an extensive network of water and sewerage pipes, which helped make Macedonia’s largest city one of the most important political and cultural centers of the Hellenistic Era (4th to 1st centuries BC).

The precise boundaries of the prehistoric cemetery cannot be determined because a large part of it lies beneath the urban center of the ancient city, but the graves that have been located so far beneath the city roads provide enough information to form a picture of prehistoric Pella.

In accordance with burial customs in Pella’s prehistoric community, the dead were placed in jars, simple trenches or in stone structures. The bodies placed in jars were buried with their limbs folded and the head either close to the mouth or the bottom of the jar.

Many of the jars are between 150 and 160 centimeters tall. One of them will be exhibited in a new museum in Pella as it was found, with the remains of the body and the grave goods.

The position of the body depended on gender: Men were placed facing the right, women to the left. The arms were crossed over the chest and the hands drawn up to the face below the jaw. Some graves contained infants and children up to the age of 3, while several belong to individuals aged 14-16.

The bodies in the jars represent about 30 percent of the burials. “The Macedonian plain was fertile in antiquity too. They stored goods (agricultural products, wood and metal) in storage jars, and that practice also influenced burial customs,” said Akamatis.

The dead were accompanied by objects, many of which had long been in everyday use before they ended up in the grave. Most tombs contained at least one vessel. Some of the dead were buried with valuable jewelry such as silver rings, gold earrings, bracelets and necklaces, bronze clasps, needles and daggers. “The prosperity of Pella’s prehistoric community is apparent from the metal goods and jewelry,” commented Akamatis.

All the clay finds were vessels made by hand using techniques employed in the Early Bronze Age in Macedonia (3100-2200 BC). Expertly worked marble flasks bear traces of red paint (associated with perceptions of death and life after death), indicating that they were used in burial ceremonies.

Akamatis said that the marble vessel of Pella, which is very rare for Central Macedonia, is related to a Late Neolithic Age (4500-3100 BC) example from Alepotrypa Dirou in the Mani, Peloponnese, while a series of small Cycladic flasks date from the Early Cycladic I period.

“The flasks, made with marble probably from Paros, found their way to the coast of prehistoric Pella by sea from the Cyclades to the Gulf of Loudia. It is one of the earliest known examples of trade and economic ties between the Cyclades and Macedonia and the broader region.”

The settlement to which the burial ground belongs must have been fairly close by, Akamatis believes. The Bronze Age settlement may have been maintained into historical times, since a few distinctive Early Iron Age objects have been discovered at Pella.

New Acropolis Museum will open in September March 3, 2008

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A long-delayed new Museum in Athens where Greece hopes to reunite its ancient Acropolis masterpieces with the Parthenon Marbles [so-called Elgin Marbles, currently on display at the British Museum] will open in September, officials said Wednesday.

Culture Minister Michalis Liapis said finishing the glass and concrete building was a “national challenge” and would boost Greece’s campaign to wrest the 5th century B.C. sculptures from the British Museum. “We will inaugurate the new Museum in September,” he said. “This modern, functional and safe Museum will be a strong argument against those who oppose the Marbles’ return.”

The so-called Elgin Marbles – or Parthenon Sculptures – were stolen [illegally removed] from the Parthenon temple by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century, when Greece was still an unwilling part of the Ottoman empire. The museum in London has repeatedly rejected Greek calls for their return.

Liapis said a delicate operation to transfer hundreds of priceless statues and thousands of smaller pieces from the old museum on top of the Acropolis hill to the new building would be finished by the end of March.

02-03-08_acropolis_museum.jpg  The $190-million Museum was initially scheduled for completion in 2004 but was delayed by legal wrangling and archeological discoveries on the central Athens plot at the foot of the Acropolis.

Museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said the focal point of the exhibition, sculptures from the Parthenon that escaped removal to Britain and other European countries, would soon be placed in its final position in a glass hall at the top of the building. “In a few weeks we will complete the trial installation of copies. which will help us resolve all issues regarding the display, and will then replace them with the originals,” he said.

The Parthenon was built between 447-432 BC in honour of Athena, ancient Athens’ patron goddess, and was decorated with hundreds of sculpted figures of gods and participants in a religious procession. 

Designed by U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greece’s Michalis Photiadis, the new Acropolis Museum will contain more than 4,000 works, 10 times the number on display in the old museum.

Sex Gods February 4, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Gay Life, Sports & Games.
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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

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