1st March 2003
The debate grinds on about whether to bid for the Olympic Games to be staged in London. It is time to apply a little ancient wisdom.
The youthful Alcibiades, darling of the Bright Young Things in fifth-century BC Athens, was very proud of his achievements in the prestigious chariot race at the Olympic Games (he entered seven teams, finishing first, second and fourth). He argued that, since his performance generated tremendous regard for Athens' power, it could hardly be regarded as a 'folly', as some had said.
But Alcibiades was talking not about staging but winning the Games, something Brits rarely do. And even winning was pooh-poohed by the poet and thinker Xenophanes, who pointed out that, however much the victor at the Games was honoured, 'the city would not thereby be better governed, nor its granaries filled'. Aristotle thought 'the athlete's style of bodily fitness does nothing for the general purposes of civic life, nor does it encourage ordinary health or the procreation of children. Some exercise is essential, but it must be neither violent nor specialised, as is the case with athletes.' Cicero was even more contemptuous: when Milo, a famous wrestler grown old, saw young men practising and lamented that his own arms were now dead, Cicero said 'No, you fool, you are dead, since your nobility came not from yourself but from your arms and legs'.
The Greek doctor Galen, who practised in Rome, raised another issue. 'Perhaps it is because they make such huge sums of money, much more than anyone else, that athletes put on airs. And yet you can see for yourself that they are all in debt, not only when they are playing but when they retire.'
The Roman emperor Augustus' confidante Maecenas lamented the expense of it all: 'the cities should not waste their resources on number and variety of games, in case they exhaust themselves in futile exertions and quarrel over unreasonable desire for glory. They should not ruin the public treasury and private estates thereby.'
Which is exactly what happens today, as cities compete to stage the Games. The ancient Greeks knew better: the original Olympic Games were held every four years in exactly the same place, a sanctuary of Olympian Zeus in a backwater of the western Peloponnese.
Unproductive, unhealthy, ignoble, pauperising: just about sums up the whole Olympic Games manifesto.
The EU has recently proclaimed that, for the purposes of its statistical analyses, Britain is not an island. That poses an interesting question: when did it become an island? It has recently been argued that it became one, in Roman eyes at any rate, on July 21st 54 BC, at 9.21pm.
The historical and archaeological record shows that, in the first century BC, Britain enjoyed very close commercial and political ties with Europe. This, indeed, is probably what attracted Julius Caesar to it in the first of his expeditions here in 55BC, for which he was officially thanked by the Senate in Rome. But it did not work out at all well. As he admits in his Gallic Wars, he was caught out by fierce storms and high tides caused by the full moon, which damaged his transports that were at anchor and the warships which had been beached. The date was August 31st, high tide at 3.36am.
Caesar had a second go at Britain in 54 BC, crossing from Gaul in July, using the currents to land near Deal or Sandwich and then setting out on a night march to Canterbury. Consultation of nautical tables tells us that the date of the landing was July 20th. But then, Caesar tells us, dispatch riders brought news of a great storm on the night of July 21st which again caused havoc with the fleet. Caesar immediately returned to camp, had the boats repaired, won a few victories and sailed back to Gaul. Interestingly, however, Caesar fails to admit to a significant event: that there was a full moon on the evening of July 21st, at 9.21pm. In other words, he tried to cover up the fact that he had forgotten the lesson of the previous year.
It was this second disaster, it is argued, that was the turning point in Rome's perception of Britain. Nearly a hundred years were to pass before they tried again, and still the soldiers were very reluctant to make the crossing. Caligula's refused outright in AD 40, and in AD 43 Claudius' army baulked to start with, 'believing that they were sailing beyond the limits of the inhabited world', before they were finally persuaded and did indeed take the island. Even so, in AD 61 Boudicca could still argue to the troops she was stirring to revolt against the Romans that the Britons 'possess a world of our own, so separated from the rest of mankind that we have been believed to dwell on a different earth and under a different sky, and that some of the outside world, even their wisest men, have not known for certain even by what name we are called'. That's the spirit.
In his already classic sociological study of the Hoorah Henry in last week's Spectator, Professor Oborne did not have space to explore in full the ancient precedents for this style of behaviour. Herewith, then, a humble footnote to his marr-sterful overview, together with a forward-looking proposal.
The Professor was right to mention the importance of the drunken riot, kômos. This took place in the context of a symposion, symposium or drink-in, in which vast quantities of wine (up to c. 18% alcohol content) diluted with water, were hoovered up. The comic poet Euboulos describes the stages through which the occasion went. After the first three mixing-bowls, when the wise man was recommended to leave, 'the fourth leads to violence, the fifth to uproar, the sixth to riots (kômos), the seventh to black eyes, the eighth to summonses, the ninth to vomiting and the tenth to madness and throwing things about.'
All very St Edmund's, Oxford. But that is the point. The symposium was a private occasion, on which aristocrats linked by status, age, wealth and common interests drank, talked, plotted, recited poetry and shagged the night away within their own four walls. But it regularly reached its climax in the kômos, when the plastered young komasts spilled out onto the streets in a display of exhibitionist public behaviour designed to show how unconventional they were, demonstrate their power and lawlessness and generally thumb the nose at ordinary citizens. It was on such an occasion, as the Professor remarks, that Alcibiades and his gang rampaged through Athens damaging the herms (statues of the protector Hermes) that stood at every front door, a typical piece of aristocratic vandalism.
Military Sparta offered a different model. As Plato's uncle Critias said, Spartans at their tables 'drink only enough to lead the spirits of all to joyous hope and the tongue to friendliness and moderate mirth'. To judge by the number of occasions on which his heroes eat and drink together, Homer too knew that commensality could foster a life-saving sense of fellowship and personal loyalty among soldiers. Influenced, perhaps, by all this, Plato specifically recommends in his last work, Laws, that training in sensible drinking be a part of the school curriculum.
Time for St Edmunds to found a Hoorah Henry Chaise Longue in Komastic Studies with entry restricted to private school pupils with Ds at A- level and Professor Oborne as its first incumbent.
George Bush wishes to see democracy - he means, of course, elective oligarchy - imposed all over the middle east, whether middle easterners want it or not. Alexander the Great had the same sort of idea, but his way of doing it was not quite what Mr Bush has in mind.
Alexander set out from Macedon in 334 BC, he said, to take revenge against the Persians for attacking Greece in 490-479 BC (the 'Persian Wars'). His formidable army drove the Persians out of Asia Minor (Turkey) and marched into Iraq; and on October 1 331, Alexander defeated the Persian king Darius at the climactic battle of Gaugamela. When he took Babylon (Baghdad), Susa and then Persepolis with their fabulous riches (he never needed to raise another penny), the job was effectively done. But the prospect of further conquest was irresistible, and he marched relentlessly on through Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush and then down into the Punjab (325). Here his men finally called 'Enough'. He turned back for Babylon, where on June 10 323 he died, evidently planning further conquests of the Persian Gulf, Arabia and the Mediterranean as far as Carthage and southern Italy.
Alexander saw himself as the sole monarch of the vast regions he conquered. All the way to India he planted cities, controlled by possibly reluctant Greek elites thousand of miles from home, and supported off the land by equally reluctant locals - beacons of civilised Greek language and culture to some, oppressive imperial outposts to others. But he was not afraid to elevate locals to positions of power, introducing Persians even into his elite 'Companion' cavalry. Loyalty to Alexander was the key to success. He adopted Persian dress and customs appropriate for an eastern monarch, and encouraged inter- marriage between Macedonians and locals, setting an example himself by marrying Roxane, daughter of a noble from Bactria (north of the Hindu Kush) in 327. There was talk of a complete fusion of power between Persians and Macedonians - under the one monarch.
Men will judge Alexander a fanatic or a visionary, a civiliser of the benighted or power-mad fantasist. But in his will, he seems to have envisaged a new order in which 'cities should be merged and slaves and manpower exchanged between Asia and Europe, Europe and Asia, in order to bring the two greatest continents to common concord and family friendship by mixed marriages and ties of kith and kin'. Not quite Bush's vision, perhaps, but his daughters could set an example.