"Citius, Altius, Fortius"
The Olympic Games motto - ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’
This essay will explore the differences between the modern and ancient games and, through social, historical and political context, will briefly attempt to produce reasons for these changes and an opinion as to whether they were culturally understandable.
The first recorded celebration of the Games in Olympia was in 776BC, although this was certainly not the first time they were held. Records dictate only one event was competed in this early event, a sprint called the ‘stade’, and it is sure that many changes have occurred in the olympic games since its inception, Roman influence, reintroduction and of course its fully fledged status as it is today. Of course, certain traditions have remained the same. The olympic flame for instance has been a potent symbol of the games and although the flame parade is a 20th Century tradition, a torch has been lit for each Olympics, every four years, and burned throughout the games. The flame symbolized the death and rebirth of heroes. In 146 BC, the Romans gained control of Greece and, therefore, of the Olympic games, and although they began to decline during the latter part of the Roman empire, they were only abolished by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I in 336AD.
One of the major differences between the Ancient Olympics and its modern counterpart was the participation of women in the various events that took place. While, of course, modern day games have seen the inclusion of women and indeed, the events of both sexes given an equal berth, women were strictly not allowed to compete in the Roman Olympics. Originally, as a Greek festival designed to worship Zeus through the physical exertions of men, a one sex only policy was observed with contestants naked or near nude.
Of course, while this could be seen as sexist to modern audiences, it must be remembered that, in Ancient times amongst Roman and Greek citizens, females were generally seen solely in the domestic sphere. It is unsurprising therefore, when they were pretty much excluded from politics, philosophy and seen very much as the weaker sex, that they were also deemed not to play a part in the Olympics. There is no doubt that the society they lived in was strongly patriarchal, the ultimate god (both Jupiter and Zeus) was seen as a big, powerful strong man in his true form, and in terms of Roman society it was men who were expected to lead public lives, gaining plaudits and providing for their womenfolk. However, there was a separate festival in honour of Hera (the wife of Zeus known as Juno by the Romans) which included foot races for unmarried girls.
As well as this, another interesting characteristic of the ancient games was the absence of team sports, each competition requiring the skill, strength and stamina of the individual rather than a group of people. Winning an Olympic contest was regarded ‘more highly than winning a battle and was proof of an individual arête or personal excellence’ and for this reason it seems that team sports were not given the same credence. There was certainly no team eventing or relay involved! From chariot races to sprints to wrestling competitions, athletes battled man to man in an attempt to prove themselves as local heroes and bring themselves closer to the holy gods. Of course, modern Olympics are also very much still centred around the individual, the sense of ego was present in similarly high measures in both societies, but now team sports are all important as well, as the national team performance being tabled.
This lack of team activities was due, I believe, not only due to the Roman belief in ones personal journey to the path of the gods, in a society that was far more all believing in terms of god and the afterlife, but also in the sacred beginnings of the Olympics that were so prevalent in the Greek and Roman incarnations of the games. It was, very much like religion, an occasion that many subscribed to, but overall an opportunity for individual competitors to train rigorously not only for personal glory, but also to impress and please a god through demonstrating strength and agility.
Winning was not just for the sake of winning but as a self improvement to the gods. Team sports could not provide this direct divine route like solo activity could. Indeed, this may be an odd idea in our highly religiously apathetic society, where the glory of winning is paramount to most ahead of getting through to a religious deity, but in a largely religious culture it is perfectly understandable. No one would compromise their chance of getting through to heaven if they thought playing team sports may dilute such an idea, where getting to heaven is something that one could spend an entire life working for.
The final element of ancient Roman Olympics that may have been difficult for the modern observer to comprehend was the practice of taking part in the games naked! Of course, with society as it is today, such a practice is virtually incomprehensible, but in Roman (and Greek) thinking such an idea would no doubt have not even been questioned. Not only was the heat of Athens close to equatorial, athletes were proud to show off their ‘perfect’ bodies and spectators happy to revel in the beauty of the stark human form. Indeed, it is well known how fundamental nudity was to Greek and Roman culture. It really appealed to the exhibitionism and the vanity of these races and was a sign of coming into manhood.
So, in conclusion, I believe that although there were a fair few major differences between the ancient and modern games that may shock the contemporary observer, these on the whole, and especially the elements I’ve looked at, can be put down to social and cultural differences. The ancient Romans were a far different society from us, very religiously aware and saw the games as something more spiritual than the bundle of commercialism and money that it is today (although, they were certainly also involved in commercial provision too.) Nudity, lack of women and team sports were therefore, all viable in a games that was religiously based and an intrinsic part of Roman society structure for some time.
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