Olympic Games London – Success in the Ancient & Modern World

And just as at the Olympic games the wreaths of victory are not bestowed upon the handsomest and strongest persons present, but on men who enter for the competitions . . . so it is those who act rightly who carry off the prizes and good things of life*

This is a monumental year for the English with The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and the Olympic Games at London. The British Museum, like so many other of its institutions, is marking the event with special exhibitions and events. From June 1 to 9th September 2012 it will be staging a victory trail around their Greek and Roman collection consisting of twelve star objects united by the theme of ‘Winning at the ancient Games’. Highlights will include the iconic Discobolus, possibly the most famous, and indeed beautiful sculpture from antiquity. The original was sculpted by Myron c450 BC and the first century Roman Satirist Petronius in his Satyricon, a satire on the sterility and corruption of Roman society, said of Myron that he…almost captured the souls of men and animals in his bronzes. This statue known as the Townley Discobolus, represents the discovery by Myron of the possibilities of demonstrating in marble ‘the dynamic harmony of the human body in a single plane’. It appeared on the 1948 London Olympic Poster, the only other time that august city hosted the games.

Winning at the Olympic Games was as every bit as potent to the athletes of ancient times as it is today. In the modern world winning at the Olympic Games is still seen by sportsmen and women as the penultimate place to achieve success. 776 BCE is a year in Greek chronological history put forward as marking the transition from the realm of myth and legend into that of real history, with the first record of ‘games’ being held at Olympia in Elis. There is still much discussion and debate over fixing exact dates to ancient events, one of the reasons being the variety of different calendars the Greek city-states, observed. What we do know however is that in our modern way of reckoning, and about that time, one Hippias of Elis recorded for posterity that Koroibos, a cook from Elis, had won the Stadion, or footrace, the only event held at Olympia that year. Its equivalent today would be the 100 metres sprint, the premier event of both the ancient, and our modern Games, revealing the fastest man on earth.

Also on display will be The Motya Charioteer yet another very rare surviving example of an original Greek victor’s statue. It is thought by many to be one of the finest surviving examples of a classical sculpture anywhere in the world. Greek statues were created in three main materials, bronze, marble and chryselephantine (gold and ivory on a wooden base). When they were produced originally they looked very different to the natural state of the stone we see them in today. Their sculptors sought to imitate what they saw before them and coloured their flesh, hair and clothing as it would have been.

Charioteering could be described as being the equivalent of today’s Formula One car racing with owners and sponsors – the race complete with laps, safety rails, etc. Ancient Greek poet and writer Homer’s Iliad includes an account of a chariot race, as part of funeral games held in honour of Patroclos, the Greek hero Achilles beloved comrade and brother at arms, before the walls of Troy.

Modern Lost Wax Model of an Apple

The Greeks were a civilization for whom nudity, in particular male nudity, was accepted and expected when exercising or participating in public games, such as the Olympics.

In our own society however, it is very different. While some people are able to cope with it and are unfazed by it, for the majority nudity still remains a taboo. The only acceptable arena for it seemingly remains the world of art, and most especially sculpture in particular.

Bronze sculpture was produced by what is known as the ‘lost wax’ method. A hard clay model of the figure in all its detail was produced first and then covered all over with a thin layer of wax. This wax was then covered all over with a rough outer coat of clay which hardened to produce a mould. Into this tubes and vents were fixed at certain points and pins were employed to keep the outer coat in place.

Heat was then applied so that the wax would melt and flow out through the tubes leaving an empty space between the inner and outer shell. Then stops were applied to the tubes and the hot bronze was poured into the empty space. Once cooled and hard the outer mould was removed to reveal the bronze formed in the exact shape of the clay statue it was covering. Sheer genius really.

Six centuries before the Christ event (BC) marble began to be used and it emerged as a superior material for creating sculptures. It is a dense material and so made ‘movement’ a challenge for the artist and a real feat to achieve. It was quarried in the Cycladic islands, at Naxos and Paros. Naxos was also a great source for emery in the ancient world, which was one of the most durable stones used for polishing hard surfaces, including weaponry.

Bronze Charioteer from Delphi

The other source was Pentelikon mountain nearby to Athens, where quarrying commenced c570 BC. Its marble was used to construct the Acropolis and many other ancient buildings of the city. Its marble was renowned for being flawless, white with a uniform, faint yellow tin which ensured it glinted golden in the sun.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Greek sculpture was the first, the only ancient art to break free from ‘conceptual’ conventions for representing men and animals, and to explore consciously how art might imitate nature or even improve upon it.

There was no conscious striving toward realism until it was understood as a possible and desirable goal and this began to happen during the sixth century BC.

By the beginning of the fifth century before Christ the Greek pantheon of Gods were complete and the great myths about them had acquired a definitive form.

Religious life revolved primarily around the cults of the ‘Olympian Gods Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Apollo, Hestia, Hermes, Ares and Hephaestus, and their place of abode was Mount Olympus in Northern Greece.

The Olympian Gods were honoured with offerings of various forms, from animal sacrifice to splendid festivals lasting two or three days. The God of wine Dionysus in particular, who may have seemed a shade marginal, was part of a concept or religion if you like far more concerned with ritual than dogma.

For over 1000 years, between 776 BCE and 395 ACE, citizens from all over the classical world flocked every four years to Olympia. Spectators came from as far away as Spain and Africa; long distances when travel was mostly on foot. There was a public banquet for victors, and various private celebrations where the wine flowed and songs, revelry and victory hymns, celebrated the occasion.

And the whole company raised a great cheer, while the lovely light of the fair faced moon lit up the evening*


Athletes competed as individuals, although victory brought great honour to their home city. Prime rewards of victory at the ancient Olympic Games, much as today, were fame and celebrity.

Prize Panathenaic Amphora Made in Attica Excavated Kamiros, made 520 BC acquired 1863: Charioteer wearing a long white chiton with black girdle courtesy The British Museum

Victors were granted the privilege of having a statue made to be set up at Olympia, the oldest sanctuary of Zeus, which became a sort of athletic ‘hall of fame’. However, unlike in the modern Games where participating is considered a conquest in itself, in antiquity winning was the only objective. Coming second or third did not come into it at all.

The British Museum trail will begin with the sculpture that has become a symbol of the modern Olympics although it is a Roman copy of a now lost Greek original. What it does do is capture the Greek ideas of proportion, harmony, rhythm and balance, elements which were sought after in both nature and art.

Visitors will follow the trail to the Parthenon gallery, where the victorious Charioteer will stand awaiting their arrival. He is being exhibited for the first time in England and is only very rarely loaned from Mozia (Motya) in Sicily where he is a national treasure.

Another of the stops of the trail is a magnificent amphora (a type of vase-shaped, usually ceramic container), which was given as a prize at the Panathenic Games in Athens. The pottery industry was a key factor in the strength of the Greek economy and Greek terracotta vases and storage vessels for wine, olive oil and luxury products like perfume and salves were exported all over the then known world. It is mind boggling when you know that creating the scenes on these vessels was made with a glossy slip, which was the same colour as its base. It only emerged as being black after the vase had finished being fired in the kiln.

The scene on the amphora depicts a disheveled winning charioteer, clothed in traditional white robes, triumphantly clearing the finishing post. The sense of movement that the artist has captured is truly exciting, and shows why this spectacular event remained so popular throughout antiquity.

Because of its thrills and dangers, chariot-racing was hugely popular and it was also the only Olympic sport in which women were allowed to take part, although only as owners of the teams of horses.

The Museum’s twelve stops also include a range of impressive objects near each location. By following the free trail around the Museum there is the opportunity for visitors to discover all these rare and wonderful cultural objects, whose stories will tell you more about ancient Games in Greece and Rome. In turn they will also demonstrate how the same passion and aspirations remain unchanged right up until the modern Games taking place at London in 2012.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Winged Victory (Nike) catching a winning wreath

Winning at the Ancient Games

The British Museum
1 June – 9 September 2012
Various galleries
A free trail
Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays. The trail will run 1 June – 9 September 2012

For public information www.britishmuseum.org

Objects on the trail:

1. Discus Thrower: The Townley Discobolus
2. Victorious Athlete: The Vaison Daidoumenos
3. Model of ancient Olympia
4. The Motya Charioteer
5. Prize amphora showing a chariot race
6. A competitor in the long jump
7. Stele of Lucius
8. Sprinter on a vase and a bronze running girl
9. Hercules mosaic
10. The victory of the cheating pankratiast
11. The goddess Nike crowning an athlete
12. Gold medal from the 2012 Olympics

NB: The Charioteer is on special loan for this trail, courtesy of the Regione Siciliana Assessorato dei Beni Culturali a dell’Identità Siciliana, with thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute in London.
With the Museum’s “Townley” Discobolus on display in the Great Court this is a unique opportunity to consider them both within the broader context of the history of sculpture.

*Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1099a 1

Charles Townley and his Friends in the Townley Gallery, 33 Park Street, Westminster (1781-83) painted by Johann Zoffany

Additional Information: The Townley Discobolus
Very few original classical sculptures found their way to Britain during the eighteenth century, so most enthusiasts of this art form had to make do with taking home excellent cast.

Taking home a cast or a copy of an original was not shameful. It was the only way to share with friends and family what the years away had meant and how much you had learned about the heritage of Greece and Rome.

However if you were after a really outstanding piece of classical sculpture, or an original High Renaissance master such as Titian or Raphael while they were extremely difficult to find, they were not impossible if you had the right connections.

Country Gentleman Charles Towneley (1733 – 1805)  formed a formidable collection of antiquities, which the British Museum purchased from the family in 1805. It was housed in his purpose built town house in the west of London in his lifetime so he and his friends could discuss the merits of each piece.

What is significant is that many of them appear in a conversation piece painted by artist Johann Zoffany, himself a luminary of the day.  In August 1781 Townley wrote to his dealer in Rome “Mr Zoffany is painting… a room in my house, wherein he introduces what Subjects he chuses in my collection. It will be a picture of extraordinary effect & truth…

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