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Brain Anatomy and the Ancient Olympics

news editor4 July 2012

Annette Mitchell,  PhD student (UCL Greek & Latin)

Linking neuroscience and the ancient Olympics appears curious at first sight, but after hearing Professor Semir Zeki (UCL Neuroesthetics) express how neuroscience can illuminate ideological elements of the ancient Olympics these differing subjects proved to be a stimulating pairing.

The setting was a discussion on 28 June between Professor Zeki and Professor Chris Carey (UCL Greek and Latin) entitled The pursuit of Olympic ideals – physical, neural and aesthetic. Professor Zeki asked Professor Carey about aspects related to the ancient Olympics and concluded by providing neuro-anatomical explanations for them.

The Original Olympics
Professor Carey began by introducing the ancient Olympics, which is commonly believed to have first occurred in 776 BC. The Games were likely instituted so that the various ancient Greek city-states, which were often at war, could peacefully compete. The Olympic Games were, essentially, sublimated aggressive impulses.

Olympic competitors were, indeed, ruthless. In the pancrateon – a wrestling competition – any move, however harmful, was tolerated, provided it did not kill an opponent, which was “frowned upon”.

Athletics undergirded by aggression became part of the fabric of Greek culture. Indeed, everywhere the Greeks subsequently founded cites there were always wrestling arenas and gymnasiums (sporting grounds).

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Training, cheating, winning, praising: athletes and shows in papyri from Roman Egypt

Lubomira Gadjourov29 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.

PapyrusChaired 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.

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The Ancient Olympics

news editor25 June 2012

  Annette Mitchell, UCL Greek & Latin PhD student

The first Olympic Games are thought to have occurred in 776 BCE. It was held at Olympia in honour of Zeus and was the first in a series of four Panhellenic games.

These Panhellenic games, held in honour of other Gods, also consisted of the Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian Games, and were attended by delegates from the various Greek city-states. The last Olympics occurred in 394 CE in order to supress paganism in favour of Christianity.

The ancient roots of this now modernised global event are often forgotten and Professor Chris Carey of the UCL Greek and Latin Department has organised a series of events – listed on the Roman Society website – in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics to jog our ‘memory’.

These events focus on various aspects relating to the ancient Greek roots of the games. These include ancient ideas regarding anatomical ideals and the ideology of victory, and modern aspects such as the revival of the games in Athens in 1896.

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