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Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games
New scholarship on the ancient Olympics reminds Christians why Emperor Theodosius outlawed the event so many centuries ago.
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It begins with an austere mask shattering into pieces, revealing the true focus of this magical night—the human body. Minutes later, a centaur (half human, half horse) launches into the darkness a "javelin," a shaft of light arching through the air. Then the Greek god Eros descends over scantily clad lovers sensually clutching and releasing each other as they frolic in the water. Finally the procession of Greek history begins, with float after float parading the progress of Greek sport, science, mathematics, warfare, theatre, and—culminating in the persona of the goddess Athena and a replica of the Parthenon—religion. Over all this, Eros hovers, as though the god of love is guiding the course of human history.
Christianity was not entirely absent from this spectacular opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. When 96 percent of your country's population identifies itself as Greek Orthodox, you had better represent the church in your rehearsal of national history. But the Christian faith got only a cameo in the sacred story spanning millennia. In a spectacle celebrating the human body and what it can do, why fete the religious prudes responsible for outlawing the Games more than 1,600 years ago?
Read the papers, listen to the media networks, check out the history bits on the Olympic website, and usually all you'll find about this little-known episode of Christian censorship is a cryptic remark that in a.d. 393, Roman emperor Theodosius banned the Games, along with other festivals, for being "too pagan." Under the emperor's direction, fanatical Christians closed and later tore down ancient wonders of the world, most notably the Temple of Zeus built in Olympia and the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. Search a bit more, and you might discover Theodosius's successor, Theodosius II, ordered his Roman army in 426 to demolish the impressive stadium of Olympia, which could accommodate more than 40,000 spectators at its peak. The world would have to wait until the modern era before the marvels of the human body and the brilliance of the civilization that dreamed up the Olympics could once again go on display.
But is that really all there is to the story? Is it really fair to caricature Christians as anti-sport, anti-body? After all, didn't Christians have a part in birthing the Olympics we know today?
More than this, new historical research suggests Emperor Theodosius may have had some very good reasons for outlawing the Games—ancient Olympia sponsored a few events the International Olympic Committee might just look askance at today. Not to mention what went on outside the arena.
In the August 9, 2004 issue of U.S. News & World Report, journalist Betsy Carpenter offered some penetrating insights (via respected historians) into the ancient Olympics we thought we knew so well. She writes, "Almost every dewy-eyed notion about the ancient games is shriveling in the light of the revisionist scholarship." The idea that the Olympics gave amateurs a chance at glory is assuredly a romantic one. First of all, Carpenter notes, the original Olympians were professionals—in the sense that they trained and competed virtually full time. Top athletes shuttled around other prestigious sporting events, much as they do today. And victors profited royally from their wins, snatching front-row seats at the Games, huge cash prizes, pensions, and even slaves.
But at least the Greeks prized the noble virtues of "agility, speed, and coordination," right? Certainly some of the events—particularly the races—suggest this. But one of the most popular events at the ancient games was the four-horse chariot race, Carpenter writes, which often ended in gory pileups. The racetrack, which sent its athletes spinning around turn posts, made for multiple spills and accidents. Sophocles tells the story of one young driver flung out of his chariot head-over-heels. "When his companions caught the runaway team and freed the blood-stained corpse from his rig, he was disfigured and marred past the recognition of his best friend."
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