Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Olympic Games in the Antiochene version

In ancient times, the original Olympic Games at Olympia in Greece had faded into relative insignificance. Somewhat akin to our days, the rich and famous vied to get their hands on the event for their own political ends. Thus Antioch became famous for hundreds of years for its version of the Olympic Games into which the resources of the city's wealthy (with some Imperial subsidies) were channeled.

The Antioch games had their origins in the days of Augustus and Claudius and lasted until their abolition in 520 AD.

The mechanism by which these Games were organised are fairly well covered in the writings of Libanius because near relatives of his were sponsors of the Games on various occasions during his lifetime so he was up close and personal with the machinations involved.While the curiales of Antioch spent a good deal of time attempting to avoid the expenses and responsibilities of their status when it came to organising the Games most seemed to undertake the task with enthusiasm despite the logistical issues involved and the considerable expense.

It is not clear what events these games used to encompass. In some ways the Games at Antioch were "something for everyone" with a liberal dose of arts and intellectual stimulation thrown into the athletic mix. The Games were held at the specially constructed stadium at Daphne (written of by Poccardi and Leblanc) but also within the city of Antioch itself at sites such as the plethron (subject of one of Libanius' Orations, the number X), the amphitheatre and the hippodrome. Some of the events involved "wild beasts" which does not gel with the current view of what ancient Olympics constituted. The class of athletes seems to be rather ragtag also with messengers being sent out across the Empire to "hire" athletes to come and appear.

By the times of Libanius the old culture of the gymnasium had fallen into a zone of lower status and unlike earlier days when the upper classes had participated as athletes in what was essentially a tribute to Zeus, it can be divined from Libanius that a mere three of his 180 known students were "athletes" in some capacity. The intellectual and the sporting had clearly parted company over the centuries.

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