Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.15

David Gilman Romano, The Ancient Olympics: Athletes, Games, and Heroes: A Video Lecture. Institute of Mediterranean Studies Video Lecture Series, Volume II, 1997. $21.95 (VHS-American Format). $27.95 (VHS-European Format).

Reviewed by Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr., Foreign Languages and Literatures, Prescott 222, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5306,

The subject of Greek athletics and sport has increasingly found its way into today's college and high school classrooms. On many campuses the subject merits its own course, while on others, and in many high schools, it forms a significant segment of such courses as Greek Archaeology, Greek Civilization, or Western Civilization. Teachers, most of whom are not experts in this field, have long known that illustrations are central to the task of teaching this intrinsically interesting subject. Neither the beauty of a Pindaric ode nor a description lifted from the pages of Pausanias or an ancient lexicographer has the same immediate impact on a student as that of a vase painting depicting a given event. Many instructors make ample use of slides taken from textbooks. But not all teachers are aware of these resources and no one book contains all the images a good course may require. Moreover, the study of Greek athletics also implies a study of the venues and structures where these competitions occurred. Slides of such ruins are a bit harder to find in books and, in point of fact, slides are inferior to the moving image when it comes to showing the scope and sweep of a site or its natural location.

It was thus with no small excitement that the video-tape presentation entitled The Ancient Olympics: Athletes, Games and Heroes was previewed. The film is the second in a series of video lectures offered by the Institute for Mediterranean Studies and may be ordered from them at 7086 East Aracoma Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45327. The prices are as given above with shipping and handling an additional $3 for US orders, $4.50 for Canadian orders, and $6 for overseas.

Unfortunately, upon careful viewing, it must be stated that this film does more to highlight the need for such a tape than to fill it. While the tape has an admirable goal and does do some things rather well, it falls far short of attaining the overall goal of serving as a useful in-class teaching instrument. The greatest disappointment lies in the general area of production values.

It should be stated at the outset that the tape advertises itself as a lecture. In this regard, it has much of value, for the script of the tape is its strongest suit. The text was written by Dr. David Gilman Romano, Keeper of the Collections of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Dr. Romano is a well known expert in this field and has contributed to its increasing status in our curricula. He also serves as the main narrator for the film. The basic format of the film is to move from Dr. Romano as a narrator at a desk to various shots of artifacts, buildings, maps, etc. while the narration continues. We will return to these other shots below.

Let us first trace the structure of the presentation, with the approximate length of each section indicated in minutes and seconds in parentheses. An introduction (3:40) discusses the relevance of athletics in both today's and the ancient world, stresses the etymology of "athlete" with Greek words indicating "prize" and informs us that this lecture will focus on the games at Olympia.

The next section is entitled "The Games: Rituals and Rules" (18:00). First, through the use of maps, the locations of Olympia and of the other circuit games are made clear as is the geographical expanse from which competitors came. The general ambiance of the games is treated and their timing in mid-summer is discussed at some length. The Temple of Zeus and its famous statue by Pheidias are given a fair amount of footage before we move on to the two main stories about the origin of the games, viz. their founding by Herakles and their connection with the story of Pelops and Hippodamia. The gradual growth of the games is outlined, specifying which events were added and at what time. The rules and regulations, training regimens, the subject of nudity, the growth of the site, and the use of buildings and structures follow in turn.

The next section of the film is entitled "The Five Day Ancient Olympiad" (15:50) and neatly traces the event on a day by day basis, clearly discussing what happened on each day. As each event is introduced, it is described and depicted, often juxtaposed with shots of modern, collegiate, track and field events.

The final piece of the lecture is entitled "Athletes and Heroes: Rewards, Scandals, and Politics" (18:10). In several respects this section contains the most interesting material as it discusses the hotly debated issue of amateurism, the interference of tyrants in the games, and the jockeying of cities to obtain better athletes. The role of women in formal athletic competitions is discussed as are cheating and its penalties. A series of interesting stories about such athletes as Milo of Croton, Kleoxonos, and Arachion are related, each designed to show some aspect of the glory that awaited a successful competitor. The film ends by discussing the ending of the games under Theodosius, the inundation of the site, its eventual discovery and the resurrection of the modern games in 1896. A brief, but basic bibliography scrolls by at the end of the film, and although the copyright on the film is 1996, the most recent item is dated 1991.1 The absence of Sweet's Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece is noteworthy.2

The script, then, is what it claims to be, a thorough and learned lecture on many aspects of the ancient Olympics. Very few of the facts as presented seem eccentric or beyond normal interpretations. As inevitably happens in such an instrument, some things are presented as factual when, in fact, more than a little uncertainty surrounds them. But one does not necessarily expect in depth discussions in a one hour video tape. Still, one wonders about the wisdom of stating, as if it were a fact, that stadion means "the standing place."3 Likewise, the bland statement that the Alpheios River served as a source of travel for "most" coming to Olympia would be more credible with a citation or reference. Some infelicities could easily have been avoided . Discussing how it came to happen that the athletes competed nude, the old story is told of how a competitor's "shorts" fell off. Those experienced in antiquity will readily translate "shorts" to "loincloth" but students may easily take away an incorrect impression of actual Greek attire. Also, this reviewer found himself wishing for a few items that were not included. One would wish for some footage from some of the other pan-hellenic sites such as the recent finds at Nemea and some mention of the elaborate starting devices that have been postulated for the running competitions would have been welcome. But none of this detracts from the inherent soundness and solid design of the script.

What makes the tape very problematical for classroom use is its stunningly shoddy production values. The narrator, throughout the entire tape, assumes only two positions, seated behind a desk for the first 37 minutes and, for the remaining 20 minutes, seated on that same desk. Likewise, only two camera angles are used, a medium shot which includes the desk and Dr. Romano's folded hands and a close up shot from mid-chest up. The transitions between these two shots are choppy and sudden. Behind the narrator is a backdrop consisting of very poor quality pictures of books on shelves, clearly so false that it eventually becomes distracting.

As stated above, the presentation cuts back and forth from the narrator to the sites and artifacts themselves, but when it moves from the studio, the quality of the images drops. On several occasions we are shown what appears to old 16mm footage of Olympia. The quality of the images is grainy and marred with light streaks, dark spots, and imperfections. The image shakes as if no tripod were used. The colors are washed out, almost approaching a sepia tone effect and the overall impression is that of what we have come to think of as "home movies." On many other occasions the camera is trained on still photographs and the attempt to simulate motion by panning in and out is very unconvincing. When the same approach is applied to works of art a wide diversity of quality results. This is a shame, for a wide variety of ancient representations have been sought out to be included in the film.

Moreover, many images and ground plans are shown out of focus. Some works of art are taken from printed versions whose color quality was dubious to start with. Frequently the material used to mask the surrounding text in the book are very obvious and poorly positioned. A reconstruction of Olympia, itself grainy and washed out, is subjected to a close up which makes the images (statues of victors) unrecognizable blobs of grey.

There are further curiosities. For example, in an early segment, the German ground plan of Olympia is used. This is itself odd as the presumed audience is students whose first language is English. Then, later, an English plan is used. Such infelicities distract even the casual viewer, for they were mentioned by two others who viewed the film -- a graduate student and a high school English teacher who teaches a bit of Greek civilization. Although the script uses a large number of specialized terms, very few are displayed on the screen when they are used. On one of the few times when such terms are shown, they are in Greek and the Greek, amazingly, is handwritten. A card containing certain terms is included with the video, presumably in a belated attempt to correct this situation, but it is a case of too little too late. Many, if not most, of the names of athletes mentioned in the tape are not on the card and certain terms are also missing (e.g. keroma). The appearance on the card of Pausanias, but not of Pindar, is odd and the presence of "Phedias" [sic] is troublesome. The card could be reproduced (it would have to be enlarged) and handed to the students, but this is a poor solution. The names belong on the screen, an easy thing to do with today's technology.

One thus begins to get the impression, be it justified or not, that the budget for this production was rather tight and that any and all steps were taken to reduce costs. The overall effect, of course, is to diminish the whole. For example, whereas it is an excellent idea to offer clips of contemporary versions of the events, the manner in which this is done often hinders rather than helps. When we are being shown close ups of horses' feet during a narration of the chariot event, it becomes extremely obvious that there is no chariot behind the horse. The viewer's attention thus wanders from the narration and begins to pay attention rather to the camera's attempts to keep any hint of a chariot out of the frame. Likewise, when we see modern bridles, bits, and shoes on the horses, the effect is most distracting. Other footage of college athletic competitions, presumably chosen in lieu of more expensive Olympic footage, was deemed very shoddy by the graduate student who viewed the film. This reviewer was put off less by the content than by the grainy quality of some of the footage. Finally, near the end of the film, certain of the images used early in the production begin to reappear. This too is distracting, though it would not be fatal in an otherwise aesthetically pleasing production.

To its credit, the musical score, apparently created just for the film, is engaging and helps spur interest. Some of the readings of texts, e.g. a Pindaric Ode or the chariot race from Sophocles' Electra are performed with verve and vitality.

In the end, to what use may this video be put? To answer this we must first ask for what purpose it was made. Educational videos are produced almost exclusively to teach. They may aid a teacher in the classroom or they can teach outside the classroom walls, on television or in public educational series for the community. But on the whole, this reviewer must state that this product is of exceedingly limited use in either venue. Consider, for example, the overall length of the film, 55 minutes and 27 seconds. By cuing up the film ahead of time, and by stopping it before the credits roll, the teacher can reduce this length to about 53 minutes. Yet even this is longer than the average class period at either the high school or college level. Its producer (oddly, no director is noted) would have been well served to enlist the services of experienced classroom teachers who would use such a film. If such consultation had been undertaken, matters such as length, pace, and the use of the on-screen printing of difficult terms would surely have been solved.

In any case, the consistently poor quality of the production values renders the film of questionable use either in or out of the classroom. Today's students may be less well read than those of a previous generation, but they are vastly more sophisticated with respect to video images. They simply "tune out" a bad production, whatever its other merits. Likewise, the viewing public at large is equally sophisticated and will, as a matter of course, compare the images they see in an educational vehicle with those that routinely enter their living rooms. If the medium is not, in fact, the message, it is the vehicle for that message and it does seem to control the viewer's receptivity.

To answer the question posed above, I believe the film could be of limited use in the classroom if it were shown in very short segments and if accompanied by a running worksheet compiled by the teacher. But as an independent teaching device it is quite flawed. Thus, until a proper vehicle is found for this, or an equally good script, and until the proper financial backing is found to enable a professional producer and director to shoot new footage, and until those planning such a product bring in classroom teachers as advisors, a gap still remains in the tools available with which to teach about ancient sport and athletics.

The teacher who wishes to add images to his or her classroom treatment of ancient Greek sport will be better served by using existing productions. The Ancient Games was produced in 1972 by ABC Sports and presents modern decathlon champions Bill Toomey and Rafer Johnson as they discuss and reenact ancient Greek games in the stadium at Delphi. The dialogue may be a bit contrived at times, but it is informative to see modern athletes attempt, for example, to recreate the use of halteres. Games and Festivals: Greece is a survey of the sites (Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea) of the four major Panhellenic Games and various literary and artistic evidence for the festivals. Greek and Roman Sports is a very entertaining and informative survey of sports in both cultures, especially good at pointing out the parallels between the ancient cultures and our own with respect to sports. Its musical score is unusually good and teachers' notes are included with identifications of all the images used. The filmstrip version consists of two filmstrips and two tapes (synchronized) at a cost of $110, but both programs ("Sports of Ancient Greece" and "Sports of Ancient Rome") have been transferred onto a VHS cassette which costs $130. Nemea and the Hysplex is a recent video by Stephen G. Miller, director of the excavations at Nemea. In it Dr. Miller explains a reconstruction of an ancient starting device for footraces, the hysplex, and then tests the device with local athletes on the site of ancient Nemea. Of great interest also is an attempt to bring this pedagogy into the electronic era with HyperSport: Athletics in Ancient Greece and Rome an interactive multimedia software product which provides the user with maps, site plans, animated sequences of events, and voiced pronunciations of names and terms in a HyperText format. The program was created by Randall Stewart of the University of Utah.


1. This is the 1991 version of S.G. Miller, Arete, Ancient Writers, Papyri and Inscriptions on the History and Ideals of Greek Athletics and Games, second and expanded edition, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993).

2. W.E. Sweet, Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece. A Sourcebook with Translations, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

3. For the arguments see David Gilman Romano, Athletics and Mathematics in Archaic Corinth: The Origins of the Greek Stadion (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1993) 14-16.