The Olympic Games

The stadium at Delphi.

The ancient history news cycle is predictable. Every year around Christmas, there’s another article on the Star of Bethlehem. Every year around Hanukah, archeologists find something related to the revolt of the Maccabees. Right before Easter, we get to hear what academia has to say about the historical Jesus. If it’s been a convenient number of years since some important historical event happened, there are always commemorative exhibits: two thousand years since the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, two thousand years since the death of Augustus. And every four years, journalists of course remind us that the Olympic games come from Greece. And this Greek origin is always perfect for a nice, fat article.

The rest of the year, antiquity is, apparently, the irrelevant hobby for nerdy intellectuals.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only who has an issue with this. For one thing, antiquity is important 365 days of the year: too important for it to be trotted out only when it fits the whims of the news cycle. The ancient world deserves serious attention in the media.

But, if we can’t do things the way we should, I suppose we must do them how we can. I must confess that I recently suggested to a Dutch newspaper that they might write something about ancient Greek sports festivals during the Olympic Games in Rio. I really hope that the journalists (assuming they find good information) discover that ancient history is far more interesting and intellectually stimulating than they first thought.

At the same time, I have to confess that at Ancient History Magazine (get a subscription) we were also looking for a way to take advantage of the recent Olympic Games. And to complete my confession: we’ve done just that in the most recent issue.

The Greek sport festivals are far more interesting than you might at first glance think, and we’ve tried to show that in this issue. To begin with, there were different festivals: besides the games in Olympia, there were the Pythian Games in Delphi, the Nemean Games in Nemea, the Isthmian Games in Corinth and a whole list of smaller, local games. Sport was only one part of these festivals, which also (and perhaps primarily) had a strong religious aspect. Additionally, the four great games - Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia - were the place to show what a good Greek you were.

In the fifth issue of Ancient History Magazine, we’ve really tried to look at the games from a different perspective. The Olympic games are mentioned, but most of the focus is on the three other big festivals, plus the local games in Rhodes and those in Antioch, which happened in late antiquity (the working title of this issue was actually “nolympics”). Besides the athletics (how did the armoured Greek footrace REALLY work), we also wanted to pay some attention to the religious aspects. That includes the origins of the Pythian Games, and the literature the ancient Greeks wrote about the event, such as the victory odes of Pinder.

Every issue of Ancient History Magazine also contains a non-theme component. Ovid, the Laocoön group, and stoic philosophers all fill out the contents of issue five. We also take a bit of a risk with two other articles: one concerns modern DNA research, and the other looks at the origins of the Indo-Europeans. This latter article was my personal favorite, since unique research angles help to show how interesting and important ancient history can be. Of course, just because the editor enjoys an article, it doesn’t mean that the readers will as well, so I’ve been very happy with the positive reactions I have received so far.

For the immediate future, Ancient History Magazine will be focusing on antiquity’s classical core. At the moment, I’m working on the sixth issue, which is focused on “Rome of the Twelve Tables”. The twelve tables form the basis for Roman legal tradition and help to answer the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. It’s hard to be much more classical than that. Besides the twelve tables, this is the period about which the Roman historian Titus Livius wrote his first four or five books, which is really enough to make things quite interesting.

The next two issues will take a look at Nineveh (the capital of Assyria) and ancient eating habits, respectively. In issue nine, we’ll be dealing with Athenian democracy, followed by the end of antiquity, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the role of Roman empresses, and the reign of Alexander the Great. As you can see, we’ve got plenty of ideas (which is perhaps not so odd, since antiquity is, now and every day, an interesting and important part of history).

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