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."
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