1st June 2002
Those who normally enjoy games often feel nothing but distaste for monstrous international foulathons such as Formula One racing and the impending World Cup. Many ancients felt the same about the Olympic Games.
The theory of the Games was noble: the poet Pindar (5th century bc) painted winners as people who epitomised the connection between physical prowess, moral virtue and success (but then he was under commission). Anti-Games sentiment is surprisingly early.
The Olympic Games were founded in 776 bc, and by 630 bc the Spartan war-poet Tyrtaeus was already arguing that a man was worth remembering only for valour in war, not in games. A century later Xenophanes claimed that ‘a noble boxer will never order the city better or fill her granaries’. Aristotle (4th century bc) commented, ‘The athlete’s physical condition is useless for civic life in general, and does not encourage ordinary health or the procreation of children.’ The satirist Lucian (2nd century ad) imagines a dialogue between the Greek philosopher Solon and the non-Greek Anacharsis, in which Solon extols the athletes’ ‘courage and beauty, marvellous condition, skill, strength and enterprise’, and suggests that such men would become ‘good guardians of our country and bulwarks of our freedom’. Anacharsis wittily replies that if someone were to wave a knife at them, they would (as it were) run a mile.
The debate going on here is the question of the value to society of the success of the individual on the athletics field. It was easy to view the Games in the first place as a sort of training for war, but that fiction could not be maintained for long. It was easy to see in a brilliant individual performance an ideal that all should strive for, but the desire to come out on top at all costs (Greeks were highly competitive) was of limited value when it applied only to something as trivial as the games field, and could become downright destructive if turned into a principle on which society itself should be constructed. For example, athletes had to train at Olympia for a month before the Games. During that time they assessed the opposition and, if they knew they could not win, withdrew. Examples survive of those — particularly in contact sports — who won the Olympic crown akoniti, ‘without dust’, i.e., without a single fight; their opponents had taken one look and quietly sloped off. What sort of model was that?
An excellent one, come to think of it. Let the mockery and vilification of these foul professionals begin.
The world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis believes that women weaken a boxer, and therefore avoids sex for three weeks before a big fight. The theory is a hoary one.
It was based in the ancient world on the idea that semen was a vital factor in keeping a man strong. The doctor Aretaeus (1st century ad) says, ‘If any man is in possession of semen, he is fierce, courageous and physically mighty, like beasts. Evidence for this is to be found in athletes who practise abstinence.’
Even involuntary nocturnal emissions were thought to be enfeebling, threatening one’s endurance and breathing. The thinker Philostratus (3rd century ad) says in his Gumnastikos that those who have had one ‘should take exercise carefully and build up their strength more than usual, since they now have a deficit in their system ...their workouts should be easy to do but spread out over a longer period of time, so that their lungs may be exercised’.
Prevention, however, is better than cure, and the doctor Galen (2nd century ad) recommends that athletes take precautions against them: ‘A flattened lead plate is an object to be placed under the muscles of the loins of an athlete in training, chilling them whenever they might have nocturnal emissions of semen.’ But if sex before exercise was regarded as potentially deleterious to health, exercise before sex was strongly recommended, especially foot-races and horse-riding.
Many stories are told of heroic feats of abstinence from athletes bent only on sporting glory. The notoriously irresistible hetaira Lais is said to have fallen madly in love with one Aristotle from Cyrene (not the Aristotle). He was having none of it, but promised to take her back with him to Cyrene if he enjoyed any success at the games. After he swept the board, he kept his promise — by having a realistic statue made of her and sending that back.
Some athletes refused to tolerate even the mention of sex in their presence, walking out of the room when the conversation turned that way. The pancratiast Cleitomachus is said to have averted his gaze when he saw two dogs mating. Even so, in the homo-erotic atmosphere of the gymnasium, the naked athletes were aware of the temptations. Infibulation, tying up the foreskin, seems to have been practised in an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of overexcitement in the heat of the moment.
Lennox may have his problems with Mike Tyson this week, but one cannot quite believe that this will be one of them.
In contradiction to the linear theory of time — i.e., that the universe started with a Big Bang about 15 million years ago — two leading cosmologists have proposed that the cosmos in fact undergoes cycles of expansion and contraction, so that it endlessly dies and rises from the ashes. It is good to know that modern science has finally caught up with the ancient atomists.
The belief that matter consisted basically of indivisible ‘atoms’ below the level of perception, whose combination in various forms produced the world we see about us, was developed in Athens in the 5th century bc by Democritus and Leucippus. The crucial point they established (to their own satisfaction) was that the universe must consist of an infinite number of atoms in an endless extent of emptiness (‘the void’). Under those circumstances, they argued, the idea of a single world-system — our world — was an absurdity. There must be an innumerable, possibly even infinite, number of them.
An account of their beliefs on this matter survives. It reads:
There are innumerable cosmoses differing in size. In some there is no sun or moon, in others they are larger than with us, in others more numerous. The intervals between the cosmoses are unequal; in some places there are more, in others fewer; some are growing, others are fully grown, others again are dying; somewhere worlds are coming into being, elsewhere fading. And they are destroyed when they collide with each other. Some cosmoses have no living creatures or plants, and no water at all.
Modern science in fact acknowledges ancient theories by taking over the Stoic term ‘ekpyrotic’ to describe this sort of universe, in which successive cosmoses are generated one after the other on the same pattern, each one culminating in an ekpurôsis (‘burn-out’) which lays the foundation for the next. Stoics looked for physical signs that this process was about to reach its climax. One such they observed was global warming, as evinced by, e.g., the drying up of swamps and wetlands. The Latin poet Lucretius (1st century bc) thought that the increasing infertility of the earth also pointed in the same direction, showing that ‘everything is gradually decaying and on course for shipwreck, worn out by the long years of its old age’.
But if theories come and go, rather like the ekpyrotic universe, the questions stay the same: e.g. (as the ancients wondered), is change of this sort mechanistic, or is there a Grand Design?
The mathematician Stephen Hawking wants engraved on his tombstone not an epitaph but a formula relating to his work on black holes. He is not the first to have thought in this way.
The epitaph is the origin of the literary genre that we know as the epigram (Greek epi-gramma, ‘something written on [some material e.g. stone]’; Latin inscriptio). The earliest epitaphs convey essential information in usually no more than four lines, but by the 6th century bc more ambitious attempts are being made to elicit the sympathy of the reader (‘You who go on your way with your mind on other things,/Stop and feel sorrow beside Thrason’s memorial here’). By the 5th century considerable artistic skill is being shown, most famously in the epitaph to those who died at Thermopylae (‘Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here/ We lie, obeying their instructions’). In the 4th century these epitaphs and dedications were collected and assigned to authors (with little justification, since such inscriptions were in principle anonymous), and this opened the way for the composition of purely literary epigrams, on any topic.
To Hawking, then. The Syracusan Archimedes (287–211 bc), the greatest mathematician of antiquity, was killed by a Roman soldier during the sack of the city; he was drawing in the sand, working on a problem involving circles, and had told the soldier not to disturb him. But he had already asked for his tomb to be set with a cylinder circumscribing a sphere, to celebrate his discovery that a sphere contained within a cylinder will always have an area two-thirds that of the cylinder.
When Cicero was serving on the Roman governor’s staff in Sicily in 75 bc, he decided to try to find Archimedes’ grave. Cicero says that he had remembered some verses written on the tomb claiming that it was decorated with a sphere + cylinder on top, and recounts how he set out to look for it. It was not easy, since the graveyard was large and overgrown, but eventually he spotted in the distance a column with the monument on top, and sent slaves with sickles to clear the path to it. ‘When a passage had been cleared, we approached the pedestal in front of us. The epigram could be traced, though only about half the lines were legible, the latter portion being worn away.’
Cicero tells this charming story while contrasting the misery of the tyrant’s life with the pleasures available to those engaged in research — Professor Hawking’s sentiments precisely, no doubt.
It has been claimed that beards are now back in fashion. Pogonic fashion certainly changed in the ancient world.
For the most part, beards were de rigueur; the difficulty of shaving saw to that. No one shaved himself — the iron instruments were far too crude — and only water (not soap or oil) was used. So it required care and time to ensure a safe, clean shave. The Roman emperor Augustus took work to the barber’s. The satirist Martial claimed that the barber Eutrapelus was so slow that a second beard had grown by the time he had cut the first. Some people preferred depilation to shaving. We hear of men rubbing their faces with various sorts of pastes and resins, including ass’s fat, bat’s blood and powdered viper. Cutting the first beard was a rite of passage, signalling the change from youth to maturity. Nero deposited his first beard in a golden casket and offered it to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.
Alexander the Great (died 323 bc) was the first great trendsetter. He went clean-shaven, and Greeks promptly followed suit. About 200 bc Romans did the same, probably to differentiate themselves from other ‘barbarians’ and show how ‘Greek’ and therefore how cultured and civilised they were. Pliny the Elder says that Scipio Africanus (236–183 bc) was the first Roman to shave clean. The thick beard now became the mark of Greek philosophers and other ‘rebels’ — to impress on the common people how different and superior they were.
The razor swung back, however, with the Roman emperor Hadrian (ruled ad 117–138). He returned the beard to fashion, perhaps to hide an ugly scar, or because he thought it made him look more attractive, or perhaps just to avoid the daily agony of shaving. But the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine (died ad 337), reverted to the clean-shaven look, and beards went out of fashion again. Julian, the last pagan Roman emperor (died ad 363), was having none of that, however, and the good, honest pagan philosopher’s beard made its comeback.
Mere fashion, however, will not keep beardies ahead of the game. The Greek doctor Galen (2nd century ad) holds the key. He argued that beards were good for you, helping to drain off the ill-effects of the exhalations from ‘humours’ that built up inside males (males being very hot, unlike females). If it could also be shown that beards were ‘green’ and had a beneficial effect on the environment by, e.g., plugging holes in the ozone layer, the case would be unanswerable.