The Olympic Victors' Return -- some ancient lessons
The ancient Olympic Games were considerably more modest than our own -- and no synchronised diving, thank heavens. But the Greek cities made even more of a fuss than we do about their victorious, medal winning (or rather olive-wreath winning) athletes.
The classic ceremony was to have the victor enter his home town in a four-horse chariot through a hole in the city wall specially demolished for the occasion. Who needs walls, after all, when you’ve got splendid young men like this victor?.
The follow-up rewards included a state pension (in the form of free meals for life), front row seats at the theatre, and maybe a poem in celebration of the success. In some cases this was the most lasting honour. In fact, some of the most extraordinary (and difficult) poems to survive from the Greek world are Pindar’s Odes written to celebrate victories not only in the Olympic Games, but also in the rival Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean Games. (Click here if you want a taster of Pindar’s first Olympian Ode – and see just how dense and allusive it is. Even professional classicists find it hard.)
Maybe Andrew Motion is at this minute preparing an official ode for our own returning heroes. But whatever his manifold virtues, I doubt that much of Motion’s laureate verse is likely to survive and be studied in 2500 years time.
In fact, by and large, we tend to leave the free pensions to the lucrative Nike contract – and tend to follow Roman fashions in welcoming our boys (and girls) back home.
OK, occasionally the Romans did take the Greek option. The emperor Nero celebrated his own Olympic victories by entering Rome like a Greek athlete. But, by and large, our own sporting celebrations tend to take their inspiration from the Roman celebration of military victory – the Triumph.
So, when she gets home to Macclesfield, our double golden medal winner Rebecca Adlington is going to be met in a golden Rolls-Royce (rather like the golden triumphal chariot of the successful Roman general). She will then be presented by the mayor with a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes – not, so far as I know, ever part of the Roman ceremony, though there was a good deal of dressing up in expensive clothes. But her final circuit of the town in an open topped bus is more than a little reminiscent of the triumphant general parading around the city of Rome to rapturous applause (rapturous applause in the official version at least).
And there is fair bet that whatever celebratory parade Boris Johnson launches in London in October, the Roman triumph wont be too far from his mind. And as a keen classicist, he can be expected to include some of the more arcane details.
What about that slave, for example, that was supposed to accompany the general in his chariot, whispering in his ear, that he was ‘only a man’ – ie warning him not to get above himself. Can we hope for similar warnings whispered in the ears of our gold medallists….remember that you will get old and past it?