Neil Faulkner attempts to make the modern reader get the feel of the ancient world at the time of the Olympics. He describes the crowds, excitement, sun and sanitation problems, food and shelter, and lack of sleep issues in terms that should have their parallels today. This makes A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics a bit more ambitious than a Frommer's or a "London on $50 a Day," but such modern guidebooks also include useful details, and so, should we be able to commandeer a time machine in order to return to 388 B.C., we might find Faulkner's 262-page volume just as handy a reference.
The format, as a guide book, means it is not intended to be a reference for scholars. Faulkner elaborates the liberties he takes with the available historical data. He says he applies general information on Greece to the specifics of the games, he transfers practices from one part of Greece to Olympia, where the games were held, he ignores controversies or uncertainties in the body of knowledge, preferring to pick a position without listing pros and cons, and he uses historical imagination. Because of this approach, 'A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics' should appeal to a broad set of readers.
Faulkner writes as though he is just a member of the crowds, no one special, but male, and Greek. Since he is male [see Were There Women at the Ancient Olympics?], he can attend the games, but he is unlikely to have been able to compete, although technically he would have been eligible. He would not have had the time and funding to have spent the previous ten months on site as was required for training. One of the threads of the Guidebook is a look at the class politics of the ancient Greeks. Those who were already wealthy could afford to spend the time away from their farms or crafts, and they were overwhelmingly the ones who competed and won prizes. They may not have directly earned money from the events they won, but there were indirect methods.
No holds barred violence is not something 21st century Olympic visitors expect, but in the ancient world, such sports were especially popular. Death was part and parcel of such sports. The games were connected with funeral games, especially the games Achilles put on for Patroclus, according to the author of The Iliad.
More than violence, which we still observe often enough in various contact sports that this facet of the ancient games is uncomfortably familiar (even if the rules are different in the modern Olympics), we would be surprised by the religious component of the games. The games are held to honor Zeus. The game starts 36 miles northwest of the stadium in Elis where a procession sets out two days before the games' scheduled start. En route are sacrifices and purifications. Then at the start of the games, those involved make a sacred oath to Zeus that all the rules will be followed, and more sacrifices are made. The gods decide the order of the contenders in the set events because it is the gods who make the lots fall as they do. The final day, too, is composed of rituals and processions.
A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics is broken up in a way that makes sense for understanding the ancient Olympics, but not really much like a guidebook. Following the preface and a note on the orthography, there are seven sections: (1) The Basics, (2) Finding Your Way Around (the most guidebook like of the sections), (3) Myths, (4) History, (5) Management, (6)The Athletes, and (7) The Programme. Throughout the text are a reasonable number of notes, listed in a reference section at the back. There is also a decent bibliography for your further reading pleasure.A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics
Yale University Press: 2012. 978-0-300-15907-3
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