ON the eve of the 2020 Olympics in Japan, a prestigious exhibition at the WA Museum sheds light on the importance of sport in ancient Greek culture.
Featuring one of the largest collection of Greek artefacts ever loaned by the British Museum, Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes is a fascinating look at the competitive spirit that helped shape one of the world’s most influential nations.
Dr Peter Higgs, exhibition curator from the British Museum, says the ancient Greeks were fanatical about sport and even in times of war, battle would stop to allow sporting competitions to be held.
“Sport and athletics and training the body were considered as important as training the mind in the education of Greek male citizens,” he says.
“The perfect citizen was virtuous in mind and in body; training was a civic duty, rather than a lifestyle choice. Philosophers write widely on the subject.”
Yet for some reason, Greek competitors never fancied the water much.
“One particularly peculiar omission from any of the Greek games are swimming events – or sailing events – this is even more surprising when you consider that they were sea-faring peoples, from regions with a large coastline, island cultures and tradition of exploring by sea,” Dr Higgs says.
The inaugral Games held at Olympia in 776 BC in honour of Zeus were the blueprint for the modern Olympics, attracting Greek athletes and patrons from all over the Mediterranean basin and settlements in the region.
However, Dr Higgs says most of the evidence of ancient Greek sport originates from Athens.
“The games in Athens, the Panathenaic were for Athenian citizens from the city and suburbs and were not international ‘all Greek’ Games,” he says.
“Yet much of our visual evidence for ancient Greek sport comes from the painted scenes on Athenian manufactured pottery.
“There is more literary and visual evidence for the city of Athens than any other from the Greek world – not just for sport but for other competitions also, such as performing arts etc.
“Our view of the ancient Greek world is very biased towards Athens because of the relatively large amount of material and literary evidence, but also because many of the ancient writers were pro-Athenian.”
The exhibition contains 178 fascinating artefacts from the sixth to first centuries BCE, including a statue of the Diadoumenos, the winner of an athletic event at a Games, still nude after the contest and lifting his arms to fix a diadem around his head.
The statue was discovered in the ruins of a Roman theatre in Vaison, France, but the head was nowhere to be found.
“According to hearsay, a local farmer took the statue’s finder to a nearby farm and showed him what appeared like a weathered boulder serving as a guard stone to stop horse and carts hitting the gate posts,” Dr Higgs says.
“When examined it was discovered to be the head of the Diadoumenos statue, squared off to prevent it from rolling.”
The first international exhibition to be held at the WA Museum, Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes is on until November 7.
By STEPHEN POLLOCK