Michael C Scott is impressed with an account of the 416 BC games
It has become fashionable in this Olympic year to highlight not so much the similarities between the ancient and modern Olympic games, but rather the vast differences.
Stuttard’s book seeks also to underline those differences. Yet the approach he takes here is enjoyably different.
The book focuses on a single Olympics – 416 BC – and takes the reader on a vibrant re-creation of the lead-up to the games, followed by an account of the events, celebrations and banquets on each day of the festival. It finishes with a shorter look at the political situation in Greece in the remainder of the fifth century, as well as a chapter on the changing nature of the games through to the sanctuary’s destruction in the fifth century AD.
Stuttard’s writing is immensely readable and engaging. Empathetic descriptions of the – often rather unpleasant – conditions for spectators and competitors are interspersed with clear factual descriptions of the site and the events, as well as interludes of telescoped history from before and after 416 BC which help to contextualise and explain the events themselves.
However, Stuttard misses a trick not to describe in more detail the victory statues that were there, and seems to shy away from issues such as athletes tying up their penises – ‘infibulation’ – before races.
Running through this narrative is the key point that the Olympic Games, while centred around athletic competition, actually spent much time on other things (religious sacrifice and banqueting), as well as providing occasion for a whole host of trades and political manoeuvring.
The book comes also with a decent timeline, glossary, who’s who and maps. It is definitely worth a read as an introduction to the ancient games.
Michael C Scott, Darwin College, Cambridge