Modern sports carry the DNA of the games of ancient Greece and Rome. This genetic inheritance will be most apparent next summer, when London hosts the 30th Summer Olympic Games. But these genes are also expressed any time we visit a stadium or arena to watch athletes compete. The Greeks also called a competitor an athlētēs, a word derived from the root athlon, meaning “prize.” The stadion was the field of competition at Olympia, as well as the marquee event at the ancient games: a sprint of roughly 200 meters. Arena, meanwhile, was the Latin word for the sand that covered the floor of an amphitheater, ideal for absorbing the blood of slaughtered animals and executed criminals (but only infrequently, as we’ll learn, the blood of slain gladiators). And even when we visit the gym for our own workout, we are manifesting our genetic heritage. The Greeks also frequented the gymnasion for physical training. But as this was ancient Greece, the exercises at a gymnasion were performed gymnos—naked.
As David Potter points out in his survey of Greek and Roman games, The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 2011), there have been only two periods in human history when spectator sports have had a prominent place in society and culture: our own modern age, and the ancient and classical eras in the Mediterranean. The parallels between ancient and modern games are numerous. The athletes of millennia ago, whether Olympic competitors or Roman chariot racers, were celebrities of their day, lauded by the earliest sports columnists (Greek lyric poets) and fan bloggers (Roman graffiti scribblers). They were also well rewarded. Olympic victors were the objects of bidding wars among competing Greek cities, similar to today’s free agency and transfer windows, while the richest athlete of any age remains the Roman charioteer Diolces, whose wealth was surpassed only by the emperor’s.
There is also plenty that is surprising in Potter’s book—and hopefully our interview. The Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Latin and Greek at the University of Michigan, David has spent his career writing and teaching about the classical age. And as a former college wrestler and member of the university’s athletics advisory board, he has an inside knowledge of contemporary sports. He tells us of the links between ancient and modern athletics, the strange and gory details of past competitions, and the accuracy of films like Gladiator. Along the way, we learn about figures like Diocles, the six-time Olympic champion wrestler Milo of Croton, and the poet who was the Grantland Rice of ancient Greece. If you are a fan of the Olympics, or of Gladiator and Spartacus, you’ll enjoy this tour of the ancient world.