How Roman are the Olympics?
I've been suffering from a nasty case of pedantry. The Olympic Games may be one of the institutions given to the world by the ancient Greeks, but almost everywhere you look they are being dressed up in decidedly Roman colours.
Henry Porter had an article urging the return of the Elgin Marbles in yesterday's Observer (not a hugely well informed one, it must be said). It started with the Olympics and the Vestal Virgins who were supposedly in charge of the Olympic flame. Sorry, not only is the flame thing in its current form a 20th century invention, but the Vestals were Roman -- guarding the sacred flame in the Roman forum. And Vesta is a Roman goddess, Hestia is the Greek equivalent.
And then there are the commemorative gold coins (designs above) decorated by the Royal Mint with Roman gods (Vulcan, Mars, Juno etc) down to the last damn sovereign.
It's given us classicists (me included, I confess) hours of pleasure, tut tutting about each new apparent error.
But maybe we shouldn't be quite so quick to carp.
For a start there's nothing new about this. We've mostly forgotten the furore at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when it was discovered that the medal design featureed the Colosseum not a Greek temple. But there was plenty of Greek indignation and Australian bluster then (it's not THE Colosseum they said, but a generic one... which hardly made it better).
But more to the point, overall the ancient Olympics were "Roman" almost as long as they were "Greek" (second century BC to the end of the fourth century AD), and the chances are -- as so often -- that the Romans institutionalised and canonised what we think of as "Greek". The truth is that an awful lot of "Greek" antiquities are actually "Roman Greek". Take Eleusis, for example, a hoary old Greek sanctuary to be sure, but most of what you see there was actually built by the Romans (partly because they had a lot of cash to throw around).
It must have been with all this somewhere in the back of my mind that I decided a few months ago that I would give my talk at the Roman Society's AGM in June on "The Roman Olympics". But I've got rather more work to do on the subject yet....to make it stick.