Drawing all eyes willing or not, like a reeling beggar on a subway platform, the Olympics have become such a familiar spectacle that we rarely stop to think about their oddness. But our Olympics are, in fact, a bizarre piece of Victorian historical reenactment, a recreation, after 1,500 years of desuetude, of a solemn festival of Zeus, at which members of the ancient Hellenic aristocracy performed feats of speed and strength in honor of the god.

The succession from antique to modern was made easy because, quite by accident, we and the Greeks are two of the few historical societies to devote great attention and resources to athletics. And by another helpful accident, our own athletic culture is very past-minded: Collecting statistics and reciting past glories seem to be the best ways we have to talk about sports, an activity that has proved strangely impervious to the puzzled poking of social science, of sociology and psychology.

We enjoy sports (except those of us who enjoy disliking them more), and we spend our wealth on sports, but we have very little idea why. The Greeks found their own sports just as hard to understand, for they never knew exactly why sports (at the outset, in Homer) did honor to fallen heroes or why, in later times, games became a form of worshipping the gods. Rather than think too hard about it, the Greeks did just what we do in the face of similar perplexity: trace the origins not of the phenomenon in general, but of specific athletic festivals, like the Olympics, through history and myth.

Passing into the realm of the specific, however, the apparent familiarity of Greek sports quickly collapses. And in this enjoyable and witty book, David Potter impishly argues that it is Roman sports—gladiators, beast-fighters, chariot-racing—that best mirror our own, not the games of the Greeks.

Ancient Greek athletics, he reminds us, were always irredeemably yachty. Training—ideally done one-on-one—was expensive, and although many Greek cities had public gymnasia, they were for those who did not need to work for a living: In some towns, men who sold goods in the market (to say nothing of slaves and freedmen) were absolutely excluded. Greek athletes could make fortunes, especially under the early Roman Empire, but wealth was required for entry into their club to begin with. Not surprisingly, athletic dynasties developed, sometimes with retired athletes training their sons. And a successful Greek athlete bargained with his city, or other cities if his own proved recalcitrant, for just the privileges—free meals for life, exemption from taxation, freedom from helping in civic administration—that members of the aristocracy prized; privileges that later, during the height of the Roman Empire, might encourage a rich young man with different talents to pursue a career as a professor of rhetoric.

In addition to their social exclusivity, Greek athletics were inextricably linked to Greek admiration for the naked male body, and to the facets of Greek sexuality—particularly sexual relationships between older men and teenagers—that we find so alarming we try not to think too much about them. (Unless we happen to be one of those academics who prefers to think about them all the time.) Although at the origins of Greek athletics participants were clothed, nakedness became the activity’s defining quality, extending even to sports (such as boy jockeys riding bareback) where one imagines that nudity will have been somewhat uncomfortable. The gymnasium was “the naked place.” One’s trainer, the gymnastes, was essentially “Mr. Naked.” The verb for exercise was “to strip.” And always, there was acute anxiety to keep the older gymnasium-visitors away from the boys. The repetition of such rules over the centuries speaks for itself.

If the strangeness of Greek sports has to be pointed out to us, that of the Roman games is patent. Indeed, we all seem to be brought up to think of gladiatorial combat as the practice that makes the Romans irreducibly different from us (as well as more interestingly cruel). But, as Potter points out, Romans appreciated gladiators not for the killing and the gore, but for their brave display of strength and technique in the face of death. The best modern parallel, it seems to me, is Spanish bullfighting, in which the death of the bull is almost an afterthought. What is admired by the fans—the reason why people go to bullfights—is the ballet of bull and toreador, the grace and dignity of the one mastering the bestial spirit of the other. (The parallel between Rome’s bloody games and bullfighting is made stronger by the beastfighters who often shared the bill with gladiators.)

Gladiators did die—probably more died from sepsis from nonfatal cuts than from being killed outright on the sand—but most matches were fought to the surrender of the less-skilled competitor, and both gladiators went on to fight another day. Like bullfighters, gladiators were highly skilled professionals, the product of years of intense training. They were showmen more than slaughterers.

In the immense extent of Roman history, moreover, gladiatorial combat flowered for a term, and then wilted naturally away. Tastes changed, and gladiators could not, in the long run, compete with the Romans’ first love: chariot-racing. The Romans believed that chariot-racing was nearly coeval with their city; when a new Rome, gathered of human scraps and scrapings, lacked for women, Romulus, Rome’s mythical founder, invited the neighboring Sabine folk to chariot races and seized theirs. In fact, Roman chariot-racing was borrowed early from Greece, where tyrants and men of wealth grazed horses and hired drivers to race their teams at Olympia.

But the Romans made chariot-racing corporate. A rich Roman wishing to sponsor games did not breed horses himself, but contracted for steeds and drivers from the four established teams: the Greens, Blues, Reds, and Whites. Under the empire, these circus factions took on nearly all the administration of the racing, and (in a very modern touch) the weaker Reds and the Whites became wholly owned subsidiaries of the Blues and the Greens. Top drivers operated as free agents of nearly modern cynicism, leaping from faction to faction in search of better horses and higher money, and, like top professional athletes today, they could accumulate enormous fortunes.

Roman sports, however, had none of the social splendor of the Greek. Poor-boy-made-good was part of the mystique of chariot-racing; and as for gladiators, the historian Thomas Wiedemann maintained that the moral uplift of gladiatorial combat for the audience lay exactly in watching the most socially abject of creatures bootstrap themselves to wealth and fame by practicing virtus, or physical courage—the quality that Romans liked to think most perfectly encompassed their national character.

But there we go again, trying to conjure all of Roman culture from the blood on the sand, trying to make gladiatorial combat into the single special activity that defined the differentness of Rome. And that, Potter reminds us, would be as odd as trying to reduce the culture of the Greeks to their eager pursuit of gloios, the mixture of sand, oil, and sweat that a Greek athlete scraped off his body after exercise, and which was prized for its medical and magical properties.

We must not be ashamed of enjoying sports for sports’ sake, and oddness for oddness’s sake—as the reader of The Victor’s Crown is invited to do again and again—content that, in history, the eye-catchingly strange is not necessarily important, but also that what is important is not necessarily all that strange.

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.

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