How the Romans hijacked the Games

'Oscar Wilde put his finger on the essential difference between Greece and Rome and the superiority of the former to the latter'
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The Independent Online

The discovery that the award medals that have been struck by the officials hosting the Sydney Olympic Games for the winners of the competitions will bear an image of the Roman Colosseum did not do much for the reputation of classical scholarship down under. Australia is a long way from the ancient world, in every sense, but you would still expect the officials to know the difference between Greece and Rome, between the Parthenon and the Colosseum.

The discovery that the award medals that have been struck by the officials hosting the Sydney Olympic Games for the winners of the competitions will bear an image of the Roman Colosseum did not do much for the reputation of classical scholarship down under. Australia is a long way from the ancient world, in every sense, but you would still expect the officials to know the difference between Greece and Rome, between the Parthenon and the Colosseum.

That they should confuse the Olympian ideals of ancient Greece with the blood and gore of gladiatorial combat in the decadent age of Rome shows a lamentable ignorance of ancient history. Yet it's a telling slip.

Every age picks up on a different facet of the classical world. What we are drawn toward tells us a lot about ourselves and our own tastes and inclinations. In every great period of history, when people sought to reach beyond themselves and the limitations of their time and place, they reached, as if by instinct, to classical Greece. The Romans themselves did it, as did the great humanists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The Olympic Games, begun in 1896, self-consciously took the Greek games as their model. At their height, when officials were dispatched to the ends of the earth to rule the empire, the teaching of Greek was central to the British public school system. But it was not just the élites that had that instinct. In my own country, Ireland, "hedgeschools" flourished in the countryside in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because of the ban imposed by the British administration on the teaching of Catholics. In the hedgeschools, Greek, Latin and maths formed the core of the curriculum. In his diaries of his travels through Ireland in the 1830s, Thackeray recalls hearing Greek "rising from the ditches".

In our time, however, it is not the sublime achievements of Periclean Athens that captivate us, but the sordid bloodfest of the gladiators. We have become the first generations in centuries for whom classical Greece means very little. We toy with the idea of packing off the Elgin Marbles back to modern Athens, as if all that sculpture were more of an embarrassment to us than a great treasure, while we flock to see the special effects of Gladiator, which recreates for us the bloody spectacle of the Roman games.

Both Greek and Latin are hardly taught at all now, but Greek has declined much more precipitously. That is a great shame because, almost unique among languages, it develops the elasticity and free range of the mind, combining an extraordinary precision of meaning with a beauty and flexibility of expression. Try putting that argument to any of our modern pedagogues. "How is that relevant to the kids?" might be the response.

Why are we drawn to Rome and not to Greece, and why to Rome at its worst? Oscar Wilde put his finger on the essential difference between Greece and Rome, and the superiority of the former to the latter. Despite their great cultural achievements, the Romans, he suggested, were too literal, their imaginations too bound up with what they saw before their eyes. They were great copyists, of the Greeks and of the world around them, but in general they lacked that power of imagination which could take them beyond the immediate, into a higher, spiritual realm. The Greeks, on the other hand, were distinguished precisely by their imaginative power. They could invest the most perfect form in sculpture with a human spirit because they understood the human spirit to be more than the sum of its parts. It was the imaginative humanism of the Greeks that marked their spiritual greatness.

The difference between the original Olympic Games and the gladiatorial combats of the Colosseum illustrates that disparity at its most extreme. The games epitomised the humanistic spirit of Greece. They were contests between equals, men strong in mind and body, contests that must have conveyed to the spectators a sense of the power, grace and beauty of the human form. Gladiatorial combat, by contrast, was, almost invariably, combat between unequals. It was a degrading spectacle put on to satisfy pure bloodlust. At their most decadent, the Romans had to confirm with their eyes the workings of the literal imagination.

As with any human faculty, the more readily the imagination is satisfied, the weaker it becomes. Greek literature is full of the most terrible bloodletting. You need only think of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia so that his fleet could sail to Troy. Yet, ghastly though it is, there is nothing gratuitous about the episode: on the contrary, it heightens our sense of how terrible it is to be human.

It is the imaginative power of Greek humanism that we find so alien today, just as we are drawn toward the bloody literalism of Rome in its decadence. We are almost like a parody of Rome. The Romans had the real spectacle of combat; we get the virtual spectacle. Gladiator, with its special effects, offered us a vision of what the combat must have been like, just as more and more new movies compensate for their lack of substance with batteries of technical wizardry, all aimed at giving us the feeling that we are really there, in the middle of it all.

Any cultural venue nowadays that does not offer us the total or ultimate experience will be derided as inaccessible, irrelevant and snobbish. That phrase much loved by pornographers, "leaves nothing to the imagination", should be adopted as the slogan of our own cultural élite as it bustles around the country turning museums into theme parks where we can see exactly what it must have been like to live at any given period in history. Instead of the visitor being left alone with objects in the raw to form his own ideas and shape his own imagination, it is all provided for us. Go to the Museum of London to see such tacky literalism at its worst.

The effect of literalism is always to lower the standard to whatever it is that satisfies the appetite. If the punters are happy and stimulated, then it doesn't matter about the quality of the spectacle - it worked. There is no higher criterion. Truth and meaning do not enter into the calculations.

The Olympics are undergoing a curious transition from a classical Greek to a later Roman model. They are becoming more about the spectacle and less about the games proper. Take the example of the opening ceremony. The old ceremony was a simple affair - carrying the Olympic flame into the stadium and lighting the lamp. Since the Los Angeles games, in 1984, things have started to get out of hand. What began in Los Angeles as a demonstration of US superiority in the Cold War has turned into a spectacle war, as each host nation vies with its predecessor to create a bigger and better bash. The Atlanta show of 1996 will be difficult to better, a show so excessive that it reduced President Clinton to tears.

The Sydney police plan to have a round-the-clock, heavily armed presence at the games and at the Olympic village. That will add yet another bit of martial razzmatazz to the occasion. In their hi-tech battle gear, the Sydney police will look more like the élite of the gladiator corps that was once the terror of the Roman arena.

Just as the Romans got their kicks from the spectacle of the Colosseum, so our cultural efforts are reduced more and more to the simple question: what will make the punters happy? Something of that thinking must have gone through the minds of the Olympic officials. Games - gladiators - Colosseum - popular. Never mind about accuracy; have fun.

mark.ryan@easynet.co.uk

The writer is director of the Academy of Ideas

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