by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Roman Museum, Rome
Marble mosaic of two-horse chariot race from Basilica of Junius Bassus, with Consul Bassus driving his chariot, 330s AD

Winning! The cult of victory

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 20 September 2003


When it came to sport, the two great players in the ancient world, the Greeks and the Romans, were at a considerable variance. The Romans hardly knew which way to look when confronted in the stadium by stark naked athletes of both sexes streaking past; and the Greeks, faced with men and women fighting to the death or being torn limb from limb by wild animals in the arena, could only wonder at what kind of culture would regard this as a suitable day out for the family. But, one way or another, the Greeks and Romans between them laid the basic foundations of competitive sports as they are now played around the globe.

'Nike: Games and Victory,' at the Colosseum until Jan. 7, in presenting through fine art and artifacts the contrasts and confluences in the sports of these two cultures, provides some nourishing food for thought.

The origins of the Greek games are traditionally given as 776 B.C. at Olympia. They were joined within a remarkably short time by three other major meets, at Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth and Nemea, whelping scores of similar competitions throughout the Hellenic world.

The impetus behind this sudden enthusiasm for public sporting manifestations is still a matter for scholarly debate. Around this time, the standard Greek fighting formation was becoming the phalanx of 'hoplites,' heavily armed infantrymen. This formidable human machine required a great deal of cooperation and coordination, and depended on the subordination of single combat heroics, of the kind celebrated in Homeric verse, to a more lethal common purpose.

In this context, the games can be seen as an outlet for individuals to continue to shine and win recognition on their own account, especially since competitors strove to win fame for themselves rather than their city-states. Meanwhile, although the games were generally meritocratic in nature, allowing participants of varying social strata to compete on equal terms, more aristocratic pursuits, such as horse- and chariot-racing, which required more money to finance, were included, continuing older elite traditions.

The gymnasium, where athletes prepared for the games, had its origins in the training grounds of the hoplite infantry, but in due course took on the role of a school-cum-sports center. That exercise there was rigorously undertaken naked is enshrined in the name, which could be roughly translated at a 'nudeum.' The gymnasium became one of the most stable and archetypal of Greek institutions, operating for centuries regardless of changes in political systems and regional particularities. At the gymnasium, education, naked sport and officially sanctioned homosexuality went hand-in-hand. This last aspect raised foreign eyebrows, but was regarded by the Greeks themselves, who developed a complex etiquette to regulate its practice and protect its participants, as one of the hallmarks of the superiority of their culture.

What partly lay behind this was the key Greek concept of 'nothing in excess.' Bisexuality was regarded not as a flaw, but as evidence of a balanced human being, neither exclusively interested in men nor obsessively and entirely enslaved by the sexual charms of women.

This link between homosexuality, or at least bisexuality, and sport never became part of the Roman ethos. But from the artistic point of view, Greek near-worship of the human body, which fired their matchless, naturalistic renderings of the male and female nude, was also never equaled in Rome.

The games in Greece became the perfect setting for displaying the beauty of well-formed bodies, physical strength and grace. In this respect, Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 'Olympia,' in the rapt attention it lavishes on sheer physique and its fascination with the athlete's body in motion, to some extent mirrored Greek attitudes although Riefenstahl was at the same time squandering her exceptional talents in the service of Nazi propaganda. In contrast, the ancient Greeks would probably have found Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, with his emphasis on good clean fun and fair play, more puzzling.

Fair play was a notion quite alien to the Greeks --what was important was to win. And the emphasis put by the exhibition's title on 'Nike,' the Greek goddess of Victory (Victoria, in Latin) is well placed. For to win was to gain not only the approbation of your fellow men and women, but also to be crowned with glory by the gods. Greek sporting victories were celebrated with all the pomp and religious circumstance of military triumphs, and famous athletes could expect to be immortalized by the best artists in stone and bronze - a level of adoration never matched in Rome.

Approving examples of Greek athletes gaining the upper hand by judicious cheating abound. One of the most amusing concerns the most celebrated female wrestler and runner in antiquity, Atalanta, challenged to a race by Hippomenes (both of them ran naked). He comes first not because he is faster, but by dropping golden apples along the way, which Atalanta pauses to pick up.

So Hippomenes wins the right to Atalanta's hand, escaping the sentence of death that her father reserves for suitors that do not make the grade. This marriage, between the two athletic star performers of the age was, in Greek eyes, certainly made in heaven.

Failure to win in Roman gladiatorial contests was often fatal, but there is at least one case of a Greek's being assassinated, by the tyrant Pisistratus's sons, after winning one race too many, thereby rendering himself so popular as to be a threat to their father's hold on power.

A number of Greek sports were imitated by the pre-imperial Romans. Pugilistic disciplines, such as boxing, tended to be favored over gentler pursuits, such as running, but horse and chariot races, with their elements of speed, danger and potential for violent mishaps, packed stadiums. Roman boxers, jockeys and other sportsmen, including gladiators, were memorialized in stone, mosaic and paint, but these productions never achieved the same status or indeed refinement of their Greek models.

The emperors made efforts to introduce the full range of events of the Greek games, but never wholly successfully. The cult of 'bread and circuses,' and the love of grand spectacle, preferably involving some spilling of blood, was too ingrained by then to be replaced by Greek ways.

It was, in fact, not until the modern revival of the Olympics that big-crowd, Roman-style, games-as-mega-spectacle came to be combined with versions of most of the Greek disciplines. And, as the kit gets skimpier and skimpier, and less and less is left to the imagination, even the Greek ideal of performing naked seems to be making a virtual comeback.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024