Olympians & Gentlemen – Freedom, Liberty, Honour & Celebrity

Remains of ancient columns against a glorious Greek sunset

For the ancient Greeks liberty was all about a belief in freedom, which was sustained by a deep respect for personal honour, and nurtured by a love for action.

‘Each single one of our citizens in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his person, and do this moreover, with exceptional grace and versatility.’

It was the Greek poet Pindar who noted that the ‘superman’ of Greek mythology Herakles laid out Olympia, as an act of homage to the Olympian Gods.

This was in celebration of the success of the twelve labours they had set him. He cleared the site, situated in a fertile, grassy plain.

Ruins at ancient Olympia

It was pleasantly shaded with plane and olive trees, white poplars and palm trees, with vines and flowering shrubs beneath them. This sacred space seems rather remote today.

However in ancient times it was accessed via the river Alpheios, as well as by land. Princes and tyrants from Sicily and Southern Italy sailed up the river in splendid barges.

Ambassadors came from various towns, vying with each other in both dress and paraphernalia. The rich came on horseback and in chariots. The poor arrived on donkeys, in carts and on foot.

Food sellers came loaded down with supplies for there was not a town near Olympia that could offer refreshments. Merchants flocked in with their wares and artisans came to make figurines for pilgrims to offer to their Gods. Today all  that remains is wind stirred flowers to evoke the multitudes of the people who attended.

Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Diadoumenos, a youth tying a fillet around his head after being victorious in an athletic contest, by Polykleitos ca. 430 BC courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Epictetus was a Greek slave in Rome who was eventually freed.

He taught philosophy just as the Greek philosopher, mathematician and student of Socrates Plato had done in the Academy at Athens.

Epictetus was banished from Rome, along with other philosophers, in 90 ACE by the last of the Flavian emperors Titus Flavius Domitianus, (51-96), whose autocratic manner and severity alienated the Roman upper classes and led to his downfall.

Epictetus’ pupil, Arrian the historian, collated his master’s sayings into a manual entitled the Enchiridion, as well as eight volumes of Discourses written between the 1st and the 2nd centuries, four of which survive to this day.

Epictetus left a vivid description of the modern day Olympics of his day for us to ponder in his Dissertations,

There are enough irksome and troublesome things in life;
Aren’t things just as bad at the Olympic festival?
Aren’t you scorched there by the fierce heat?
Aren’t you crushed in the crowd?
Isn’t it difficult to freshen yourself up?
Doesn’t the rain soak you to the skin?
Don’t the noise, the din and other nuisances bother you?
It seems to me that you are well able to bear, and indeed gladly endure all this, when you think of the gripping spectacles that you will see.

Bronze Sculpture of Zeus National Archaeological Museum at Athens

At the very heart of the Olympic games was the central reason for its existence, to honour Zeus, the most powerful of the Gods in Greek mythology.

A visit to Olympia was also a pilgrimage to his most sacred place, the grove known as the Altis.

Not to have seen the Olympian Zeus for any Greek was considered a misfortune. Entry to temples at this time was more than often only restricted to priests but at Olympia it was different.

A spiral staircase led to the upper floor to enable visitors to take a closer look at the image of their deity. The lifespan of this colossal figure was about 900 years. In 40 AD there was an abortive attempt by the Emperor Caligula to remove it to Rome. However it was looted and taken to the palace of the Chamberlain Lausus in Constantinople, or modern day Istanbul, where it remained until destroyed by fire in 475 AD.

This great statue of Olympian Zeus, some scholars believe, lasted just long enough for artists to be inspired to create the great image of Christ Pantocrator, which appears in many Byzantine Christian churches. By then Christianity was the main religion of the Roman Empire with Constantinople, or, Istanbul as its capital.

So it would appear Pheidias’ masterful image of the great pagan god Zeus may also live on in one of the most important symbols of Christianity.

The ancient Greeks believed athletes received their prowess in part from the gods, and therefore it was to the gods they prayed for victory, offering sacrifice to Zeus in order to both curry favour and in gratitude.

Ancient Greek wrestlers (Pankratiasts)

Today there is no real contemporary comparison to Olympia. You would have to combine a sports complex with a centre for religious devotion, something like Wembley Stadium in England combined with Westminster Abbey.

The complete (compleat) man in ancient times was one who was equally active as an athlete, philosopher, judge, poet, or at any other worthy pursuit.

In the early years of the games athletes were all citizens, or men of status. At this time only wealthy landowners could become citizens, but that gradually changed. The ‘good men’ in every polis were men of leisure, active in sports and outdoor pursuits, if only as part of their military training.

They subscribed to a strict code of conduct, one that had been thrashed out over the centuries.

It required them to be truthful, trustworthy, courteous (even to their enemies), courageous, respectful of the rights of others, generous with their possessions (as far as their means would permit), immune to the temptation to cheat, and finally, to be proud of the code itself.

American Grand Tourist Joseph Allen Smith overlooking the Arno, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Pomp and circumstance have always proclaimed the splendour of kings, princes, and potentates and to a lesser extent, some commoners, as well as the power of the sacred.

In Aristotle’s Ethics various doctrines deal with behavioural attitudes for human beings.

Decorum is the doctrine that laid down special conditions under which such a display was, and still is to our minds, admissible.

Few civilizations deny that inner worth should be acknowledged by an appropriate display of outward show. Aristotle described magnificence as a virtue, saying that it is a form of moderation, lying somewhere between extravagance and shabbiness.


Alfred Coundt D’Orsay by Sir George Hayter

Plato (429 – 347BC), the teacher of Aristotle, who in turn taught Alexander the Great, believed that guardians should rule in the interests of the majority.

He despised materialism. He developed theories of forms and ideas for an ideal society, one in which the association between man and nature is a very powerful one.

Gentlemen from the eighteenth century onward in England, Europe and America sought their own Arcadia or, Arcady as it became more widely known, a special ‘idyllic’ place that aped a pastoral district of the Peloponnesus Mountains on the Greek mainland.

This is where they learned from their tutors that everyone had lived together in harmony during ancient times.

Arcadia was named for the God Arcas a Son of Zeus.

Pantheon at Rome and its Grand Tourists

The idea of a gentleman, although complex in its ethos, developed first in Ancient Greece.

It was played out in spectacles such as the Olympic Games and although it suffered during the middle ages in Europe by the 15th and 16th century in Europe it had once again achieved finely balanced attitudes.

This was due to the discovery of and translation of many of the ancient texts.

By the middle of the 18th century in England any man of substance believed the classical heritage was, to all intents and purposes, civilisation.

A young Grand Tourist travelling abroad wanted to see the landscapes of antiquity, view the ruins and statuary and immerse himself in the fount of all wisdom at Rome.

Whatever it did for their morals, or for the family bank balance, it was generally acknowledged that ‘polished manners, enlarged their interests and educated their taste’.

A Gentleman, c 1809, painter unknown

“Taste” in all matters relating to the arts, is in many ways an unsatisfactory word. However it does remain perhaps the only single word, which expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception.

For a gentleman in the 18th century in England and Europe that his house was arranged in what constituted ‘correct taste’ was most important. He needed to secure the approval of his peers, establishing by direct descent, his family as people of quality and taste.

These men of influence arrived at a point where the journey of development and refinement of art forms from the discovery of the classical era of antiquity until their own time, had reached a stage where it seemed very difficult, or close to impossible, at least to them, to improve any further.

In England from the reign of the Hanoverians, George 1 to George IV (Georgian era 1714 – 1830) aristocratic gentlemen bought about what is regarded as a ‘Rule of Taste’.

During the eighteenth century the pattern of a gentleman’s development, particularly in England was tied inexorably to the land, as a landed income was the basic criterion for a title.

Having an income was extremely important, one did not have to be the richest man in the land, but one really needed to have an adequate income to provide for all the other trappings required for others to measure his worth and success.

By the middle of the 20th century at least he evolved a distinct code of fashionable attire suitable for different occasions. And, it was most important that a code of behaviour and display of correct ‘taste’ was understood, addressed and adhered to at all times.

I am an Englishman, and naked I stand here,
Musing in my mind what raiment I shall wear,
For now I will wear this, and now I will wear that;
Now I will wear I cannot tell what.
All new fashions be pleasant to me;
I will have them, whether I thrive or thee

Sartorial splendour became one way to distinguish a true gentleman. King Edward VII early in the 20th century took the lead.

“A gentleman should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them’.

English ‘chic’ became an international style during the 20th century. It was much more relaxed and comfortable than its predecessors.

Several generations of people considered that American film star Fred Astaire, whose graceful nonchalance was not at odds with his Saville Row London tailored suits, not only epitomized elegance but also provided a role model for how a modern gentleman should look and behave.

For centuries people had looked to English gentleman to take the lead and his American counterpart symbolized the epitome of a certain distinguished taste in such fields as architecture, the fine and decorative arts, fashionable attire, sporting life and country living.

Most of all he was admired for displaying an impeccable, if somewhat eccentric code of honour.

Baron de Coubertin, Father of the modern Olympic movement

The Games were abolished at Olympia by the 390’s ACE and between the fifth and eight centuries successive waves of invaders, Visigoths, Avars, Vandals and Slavs laid waste to the Altis, which in time was also totally devastated by earthquakes, floods and landslides.

It was French nobleman and gentleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. who was a firm believer in the parallel development of the mind and body that brought them back.

At Athens in 1896 although the facilities were reported to be poor and many of the athlete’s untrained, nothing would stop the spirit from being rekindled. His vision involved not only the promotion of sport, but also a marriage of athletics and art.

2nd Century Greek Satirist and rhetorician writer Lucian lived at a time, much like our own, when the old faiths, the old philosophy, the old literature, and the old code of honour was rapidly dissolving said

‘If the Olympic Games were being held now…and you were seated among the spectators, feasting your eyes on the prowess and stamina of the athletes, the beauty and power of their bodies, their incredible dexterity and skill, their invincible strength, courage, ambition, endurance and tenacity you would never stop…applauding them’.

Australian Olympic Team 2012

The success of an INDIVIDUAL at the Olympic Games in ancient times meant that when he returned home from the games victorious he would often be allowed to dine for life at public expense.

He could also be given great sums of money, be granted civic honours and have his statue erected in the Altis, provided of course he could afford it or, otherwise have it paid for by friends, relations or, the state.

The onus was on the victor to be a role model for others in his own polis, or City State, one that young men could aspire to.

Central to Greek life and its customs was that understanding of moral and social responsibility and the importance of keeping one’s word.

One of the most important and influential figures in the history of western thought, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that it was

our task to become good men, or achieve the highest human good. What is the Good for man? It must be the ultimate end or object of human life; something that is in itself completely satisfying. But is that enough? How do we attain goodness without a sense of purpose of belief there must be something more?

London 2012 Olympic Games ambassador David Beckham carries the Olympic torch after its arrival at the Culdrose airbase. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The whole romantic ideal of ancient Greece as a centre for youth and energy, toleration and intellectual freedom where beauty and nature come together as a perfect entity ignores all the other uncomfortable facts of life at that time.

As it is with our own memories of those who have passed on, in time it is only their goodness that we remember.

Today we have placed many of our young sports people on a ‘celebrity’ pedestal where they can easily topple and fall.

For all intents and purposes it seems now there is no set of rules for them to follow, no real guidelines of how to behave or, as their counterparts from Olympia had, any basis in faith or moral beliefs to build upon.

With the great costs involved for cities hosting the Olympic Games world wide, the incredible risks taken by security personnel to secure the scene as at the Sochi winter games in 2014, plus the struggle involved for all of us in recognizing our own social and moral mores, we pose the question?

Have the Olympic Games, Olympians and indeed gentlemen, become an endangered species?

If they are, will we rise to the challenge to ensure that all is not lost. That the freedom, liberty and honour that our cultural celebrities involved all strive for are offered the respect they deserve?

Will we as a global community be emboldened to stand firm and tall, re-affirming and acknowledging a golden standard of ‘classic’ excellence everyone can strive for?

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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