Victor's Crown, by David Potter
Sunday 27 February 2011
What earthly relevance can ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium have to today's sports fan?
David Potter's answer is that now and then are the only two periods in human history when sports have mattered so much to so many people, and this rich, absorbing account of those times throws up many similarities between the two eras.
The fabled charioteer Diocles, for instance, earned over one million sesterces a year when a family of four in Rome could live on 1,000 sesterces a year; the comparison with today's Formula One drivers is irresistible. The ability of competitors in the original Olympic Games to switch allegiance from city to city in return for payment rings resounding modern bells, as does the need for a range of penalties for cheating.
Marshalling his abundant source material expertly and seemingly effortlessly, Potter corrects a number of misconceptions: gladiators were rarely required to fight to the death, possibly because many of them were not slaves but free men, occasionally even senators or women; and the ancient Olympics were not ended by Christian decree; lack of finance, changing tastes and Arab conquest were what finally did for them.
The 30-page bibliography and 50 pages of notes indicate this book's academic credentials, but don't let that put you off. It's written in lively style, packed with detail bringing the era to pungent life – we learn that diehard charioteering fans used to sniff the manure of competing teams before a race, claiming to be able to divine which horses were healthiest.
It's not common practice at today's racecourses but Potter is surely right in concluding: "The fundamental desire to see other humans contend with each other, on an equal playing field, to see who is best, still binds us to the people of Greece and Rome."
Published in hardback by Quercus, £25
Arts & Ents blogs
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
No EU referendum under Labour: Ed Miliband to reveal that vote on membership is ‘unlikely’ in next Parliament if party wins power
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
- 1 Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
- 2 Hells of residence: Inside Macedonia's horrifying student accommodation - where the walls are green and the food is black
- 3 Boy George: Bad karma
- 4 First Kiss video: Filmmaker gets 20 strangers to make out on YouTube with awkward results
- 5 Rampaging elephant smashes up house but then 'saves crying baby trapped under debris'