This volume is derived from a conference that took place in Pyrgos near Olympia in 2005. It includes an introduction in Greek and English and 36 articles in five languages: 13 are written in English, nine in Greek, six in Italian, five in French and three in German; some, but not all authors offer summaries in English. Variety is a defining feature of the volume, not only concerning languages but also topics: historians, archaeologists and philologists treat a wide range of issues, stretching from the political significance of the sanctuaries’ founding myths to the interpretation of single monuments or texts, to the meaning of the torch in the history of the Olympics and Clausewitz’ paradigms of war. Given the amount and variety of the contributions, this review is not intended to give an overview on the whole volume; instead some of the thematic priorities shall be presented.
Some decades ago, Manfred Lämmer debunked the myth of an Olympic peace:1 During the Olympic Games arms were not laid down in the Greek world; ekecheiria was merely a temporary truce guaranteeing a safe trip for athletes, coaches and spectators to the games and back home. While the general public and the IOC still stick to the idea of an ancient Olympic peace festival, in scholarly debates the revisionist position of Lämmer has found wide acceptance. This is clearly demonstrated by the present volume, in which much more space is dedicated to the relationship between the Panhellenic Games and warfare than to the peace-producing potential of the games. Several authors even go beyond Lämmer and demonstrate the bellicose nature of the sanctuary of Olympia and the agonistic festivals. Annalisa Paradiso (583-604) demonstrates convincingly that even the ekecheiria served as a political tool, for example in 428 BC, when the secession of Mytilene was planned during the Olympic Games. It is well known that Olympia was a place where Greeks from all regions met and exchanged ideas and celebrated their common Greekness (Isocr. 4, 43), but Bjorn Forsén (269-277) argues that the exchange was not always directed to peace. In his view, for a long period Arcadians used to come to the Olympics to be hired as mercenaries. In this case, mercenaries made use of the ekecheiria when they were looking for employment. James Roy (461-473) is very sceptical that the ancient Olympics had any ideals besides the generally accepted norms and values of Greek society: Neither had the games ever initiated peace negotiations, nor had Elis ever sought to extend the ekecheiria in order to rein in warfare in Greece. According to Cinzia Bearzot (279-298), the Olympic crisis of 420 BC, when Elis came into conflict with Sparta and excluded the latter from the Olympic Games, was a major turning point in Greek politics. While in the spring a peaceful agreement between Argos and Sparta seemed tangible, things changed after the Eleans had the Spartan Lichas flogged during the games. According to Bearzot, this event intensified the tensions, and as a result Argos joined the anti-Spartan alliance, which inevitably led to a war over the hegemony in the Peloponnese. In this view, the sanctuary and the games of Olympia did not mollify political tensions, but exacerbated them.
Several contributions address the political role of the Panhellenic Games in the Hellenistic period. Klaus Freitag’s article (131-148) starts from the fact that the four most important festivals came under control of koina, and explores the consequences of this development. His study shows that the effect was minor: the koina were not able to exploit the festivals for their agendas. The Achaean league did not make an attempt to convert the Olympic or Isthmian Games into an “Achaean” event; they tried to transform the Nemean Games, but failed: After Agis had led unsuccessfully his army against the tyrant Aristippos of Agis in 235 BC, he organized Nemean Games at Cleonae challenging the “regular” Neman Games that took place at Argos. Agis even captured athletes heading to Argos and sold them as prisoners of war. But in the end, he had to acknowledge that the Greek world accepted only Argos as organizer of the festival. Ioanna Kralli (149-168) investigates when and why Hellenistic kings took part in the Panhellenic Games. In her view, it was the Realpolitik that mattered; she explains the massive hippic engagement of the Ptolemies at Olympia, Corinth and Nemea with their geostrategic interests in the Peloponnese.
Some iconographic studies demonstrate how symbols of war were transferred to the agonistic context: Athena Iakobidou (55-74) treats the representation of Nike on coins minted in Elis. In her interpretation, Nike was in this case not a sign of military victory, but of agonistic success, given the status of Elis as organizer of the most important festival and the neutrality of this polis. When the Eleans abandoned their neutrality at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War they also abandoned Nike as a motif on their coins. Thomas Scanlon (489-507) examines the presence of Ares at Olympia. Only here, so Scanlon, the competitive character of the god was transferred from war to sport; the main reason for this peculiar role is seen in the fact that Ares, as the father of Oenomaus, was part of the founding myth of the Olympics.
To sum up: Readers who expect a consistent volume will be disappointed—variety is the motto of the editors. They earn credit for having compiled a collection of interesting contributions, which reflect the vivid international research in this field. For anyone who is interested in ancient sports and/or issues of war and peace, this volume is a treasure trove.
1. Manfred Lämmer, Der sogenannte Olympische Friede in der griechischen Antike, Stadion 8/9, 1982/83, p. 47-83.