Training, cheating, winning, praising: athletes and shows in papyri from Roman Egypt
By Lubomira Gadjourov, on 29 June 2012
In keeping with the Olympic spirit, on Wednesday 20 June, UCL in collaboration with the British Academy held three short lectures on the public games held in Roman Egypt, as revealed to us by recently restored papyri.
Chaired by Professor Dominic Rathbone (Kings College London, Ancient History), the featured talks were held at the Academy’s headquarters and led by Professor Christopher Carey (Head of UCL Greek & Latin), Emeritus Professor William J. Slater (McMaster University, Canada), and Margaret Mountford (Corporate lawyer, holding a PhD in papyrology from UCL).
An excavation made between 1896 and 1897 at Behnesa, the Roman Oxyrhynchus, unearthed the largest collection of Greek papyri from the Roman period found to date.
Still in the process of being restored, some nine volumes, equating to approximately 3,000 pages, have been published and the lectures focused on different aspects of what they reveal to us about competitive sport in ancient Rome.
The lectures were extremely engaging, with Professor Chris Carey opening the discussion. The explosion of athletics in the 6th century BCE generated in the space of one century, a new trade – celebrating victory.
In the 5th century BCE, the lyric poet Pindar produced no fewer than four books on victory songs, which have gone on to shape European celebratory songs, as we know them today.
He went on to talk about several other lyric poets and the playwrights whose work was discovered, and the recurrence of a so-called “Heroic code”. The general attitude of the time, we can see from the papyri was that “death is better than shame”, which is taking competition slightly further than we do today, it seems.
Next, William Slater spoke about “unions, austerities and pensions”, something that we have probably heard too much about already, but this time in the context of the 3rd century BCE.
We were told that the remuneration that winning athletes received was quite generous, and although they were guaranteed a pension for their victory, the mass of paperwork and stipulations for receiving such a reward was so great that many athletes, ultimately, came away with very little.
Unions were set up to protect athletes from losing their winnings and this in itself caused additional problems. It was clearly not as simple as winning and collecting your prize.
Lastly, Dr Margaret Mountford focused her discussion on the circus and sports events programmes published and distributed around the 5th century BCE. These reveal much about the ways in which the acts and events audiences enjoyed changed over time.
People went from celebrating the spectacle of gladiators fighting one another, Christians being devoured by lions and the parading of wild beasts, to enjoying more sporting events, such as chariot races, wrestling, boxing and footraces (amongst many others).
It was incredible to see just how far back the Olympic tradition stretches, and it really hit home that this summer, London will become part of something monumental, rooted very deeply in history.