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The Earliest Days of Greek Athletics
In the two passages from Homer which are presented here a picture emerges of what we may call Homeric athletics. The question is, however, whether that picture is one of his own day or a valid, if somewhat blurred, reflection of the athletic practices of the Mycenaean era. Comparison with archaeological discoveries from that era finds relatively little in common with the Homeric picture, while comparison with the development of the Olympic program (Appendix) suggests that the Homeric picture would have been valid only as of the early 7th century B.C. If so, the informality of the Homeric games might have been the case as well for the early days of the Olympics.
1 Homer, Iliad 23.256–24.6 ca. 750 B.C.
Patroklos, the childhood and lifelong friend of Achilles, has fought in Achilles' place and been killed by Hektor outside the walls of Troy. The corpse of Patroklos has been cremated and the crowd at the funeral begins to disperse:
But Achilles held the people there and sat them in a broad assembly, and brought prizes for games out of his ships, cauldrons and tripods and horses and mules and high-headed powerful cattle and beautifully girdled women and gray iron. First he set forth the glorious prizes for equine feet: a woman faultless in her work to be led away and a tripod with ears holding twenty-two measures for the first prize. Then for the second he set forth a six-year-old unbroken mare carrying an unborn mule foal. Then for the third prize he set forth a beautiful unfired cauldron holding four measures, still new and shiny. For the fourth he set forth two gold talents, and for the fifth a two-handled unfired bowl. Then he stood up and spoke out to the Argives:
"These prizes are placed in competition awaiting the horsemen. If we Achaians were not competing for the sake of some other hero, I myself would take the first prizes away to my tent. You know by how much my horses surpass all others in their arete, for they are immortal, a gift of Poseidon to my father Peleus who handed them in turn to me. But I and my solid-hoofed horses stay aside; such is the fame of the charioteer whom they have lost, the gentle one, who so many times rubbed soft oil into their manes after he had washed them with shining water. Therefore they both stand here grieving him with manes trailing on the ground, both hearts grieving as one. But the rest of you take your places in the field, whoever has confidence in his horses and compact chariot."
So spoke the son of Peleus, and the swift riders gathered. By far the first to rise was Eumelos, son of Admetos, who surpassed all in horsemanship. After him rose Diomedes, strong son of Tydeus, and yoked the Trojan horses which he had taken by force from Aeneas. Next rose fair-haired Menelaos, son of Atreus, and yoked his swift horses. Fourth to prepare his flowing-maned horses was Antilochos, glorious son of high-hearted king Nestor. He stood nearby and gave well-intentioned advice to his son:
"Antilochos, Zeus and Poseidon have loved you, though you are young, and have taught you all aspects of good horsemanship. Therefore, I have no need to instruct you, for you know well how to double the terma. But I think that your horses are the slowest, and that your work will be harder. The horses of these men are faster, but they do not know better than you how to plan. Remember then, my dear boy, always to have your plan in mind so that the prizes will not elude you. The woodcutter is far better with skill than with brute force; it is with skill that the pilot holds his swift ship on course though buffeted by winds on the wine-colored sea. Thus too by skill one charioteer passes another. But whoever puts his trust in his horses and chariot and recklessly turns wide coming and going, his horses drift out of the course and he cannot hold them. But the man who takes advantage is he who, though driving the slower horses, always watches the terma and turns it tightly, nor forgets how much oxhide rein to give and take, but holds his horses well and studies the man in front. I shall give you a marker, and you cannot miss it. There is a dry stump about six feet high above the ground, either oak or pine, but not rotted by rain water, with two white stones against it on either side, and there the course is smooth around it; it may be the marker of some man long dead and buried, or the nyssa set up by earlier men, but now Achilles has made it the terma. Having approached this, you must drive your horses and chariot near it, and you in your wellwoven chariot box lean toward the left; then call out to your right horse and goad him on, and give him full rein.Your left horse must be driven up close to the nyssa so that the hub of the wheel seems to touch, but do not let it graze the stone lest you harm your horses and break your chariot. That would be a thing of joy for the others and a source of shame for you. My dear boy, keep your wits about you and be careful, for if at the nyssa you drive hard and slip ahead, there is no one who by sprinting can catch you, let alone pass you."
So spoke Nestor, son of Neleus, and sat back down in his place, having told his son the way to win.
The fifth to prepare his flowing-maned horses was Meriones.
Then they mounted their chariots and tossed in their lots. Achilles shook them, and the first to fall out was that of Antilochos, son of Nestor, and after him strong Eumelos drew the next place, and next was Menelaos, son of Atreus. Meriones drew the next lane to drive, and last of all the best of them all, Diomedes, drew the lane to drive his horses. Standing in line, Achilles showed them the terma, far away on the level plain. Next to the goal he set godlike Phoinix, squire of his father, to remember the running and certify it.
Then all held their whips high above their horses, and together flicked with their reins, and bellowed out for speed. Quickly they spread out over the plain and left the ships behind. The swirling dust clung beneath the chests of the horses like clouds of a whirlwind; their manes streamed out in the wind's current; the chariots plunged down to the ground and, again, shot up like meteors. The drivers rocked in their chariots, and the heart of each beat high with the hope of victory; they shouted to their horses, and they flew over the plain in a cloud of dust.
But when the fleet horses turned back toward the shore, then the arete of each began to show, and at once the field of horses was stretched out. Quickly the swift-footed horses of Eumelos went in front, and after them the stallions of Diomedes, not far behind and seemingly always about to climb into the chariot of Eumelos with their breath hot on his back and broad shoulders. And Diomedes might have passed, or at least drawn even had not Apollo been angry with him, and dashed the whip from his hands. The tears of rage started from his eyes which watched the mares of Eumelos running even better while his own horses slackened without the goad. But Apollo's cheating of Diomedes did not escape Athena; quickly she swept to him and returned his whip, and inspired his horses with strength. Then she descended in wrath upon Eumelos and broke the yoke of his horses. They ran off the road, the pole dragging on the ground, and he was catapulted out of the chariot over the wheel, ripping his elbows and mouth and skin, and smashing his forehead so that the tears flowed but his voice would not. Then Diomedes rushed past him, and led the field by far, for Athena had inspired strength in his horses and glory in him.
After him came fair-haired Menelaos, but Antilochos cried out to his father's horses:
"Step it up, you two! Pull as fast as you can! I'm not telling you to catch those horses of Diomedes—Athena has now inspired strength in them and glory in him—but beat the horses of Menelaos! Don't be left behind! Faster! For shame to let his mares beat you stallions! Why are you falling behind, my brave boys? Do you know what's going to happen? You'll get no more care from Nestor; he'll cut you up for dog food, if we carry off the lesser prize because you didn't try. Get going! As fast as you can! I know what I'll do, I'll slip past him where the road gets narrow. He won't get away from me!"
So he spoke, and they were terrified by their master's shouts and ran harder for a little while, and then Antilochos saw the narrow spot in the road. There was a gully where the winter rain had run from the road creating a large pothole, and into this he forced Menelaos who shrank from a collision, but Antilochos turned his horses off the road and drove along for a bit on the shoulder. Menelaos was frightened and called out to Antilochos:
"Antilochos, that is reckless driving! Hold your horses! The road is too narrow here, but it will soon be wide enough for passing. Don't crash up your chariot and wreck the both of us!"
So he spoke, but Antilochos drove all the harder and lashed his horses for greater speed, as if he had not heard him.They ran even for about the length of a boy's diskos throw, but then the mares of Menelaos fell back, for he let up lest the horses crash, the chariots overturn, and they in their struggle for victory end up in the dust. But fair-haired Menelaos called out in anger:
"Antilochos, you are the most wretched of men! Damn you! We Achaians were wrong to say you had good sense! But you won't get the prize without swearing that you played fair!"
So he spoke, and then shouted out to his horses:
"Don't slacken up, don't stop, even though your hearts are heavy! Their feet and knees will tire before yours! Their youth is gone."
So he spoke, and they were terrified by their master's shouts and ran harder and soon caught up with the others.
Meanwhile, the Argives sitting in their assembly were watching for the horses which flew through the dust of the plain. Idomeneus, lord of the Cretans, was first to make out the horses, for he sat apart from the others, and higher up where he had a panoramic view. He heard and recognized the shouting of Diomedes, and made out his conspicuous horse, leading the others, all red except for a white mark like a full moon on his forehead. Idomeneus stood up and called to the Argives:
"Friends, am I the only one who sees the horses, or do you see them too? It seems to me that other horses are leading, another charioteer ahead. The mares of Eumelos must have come to grief on the plain, for I saw them running in front around the terma, but now they are nowhere to be seen and I have looked over the whole Trojan plain. Perhaps the reins slipped away from the charioteer and he could not hold them around the terma, and did not make the turn. I think that he must have been thrown out there and his chariot wrecked, and his mares bolted away wildly. But do get up and see for yourselves, for I cannot make it out clearly. I think that strong Diomedes is in the lead."
And swift Ajax, son of Oileus, spoke shamefully to him:
"Idomeneus, can't you hold your wind? The horses are still far out on the plain. You are not the youngest of us, and your eyes are no better than ours, but you must always blow on and on. There is no need for your wind since there are others here better than you. Those are the same mares in front as before, and the same Eumelos who holds the reins behind them."
Then the lord of the Cretans angrily answered him to his face:
"Ajax, although you are the best in abuse and stupidity, you are the worst of the Argives with that donkey's brain of yours. Now put your money where your mouth is and bet me a tripod-cauldron. We'll have Agamemnon, son of Atreus, hold the bet so that you will pay up when you find out which horses are in front."
So he spoke, and swift Ajax jumped up again in anger to retort, and the quarrel would have gone on had Achilles not risen and said to them:
"Ajax and Idomeneus, be quiet. This is not becoming, and if others were acting like you, you yourselves would be angry with them. Sit down with the others and watch for the horses. They are into the stretch and will be here soon, and then you can see for yourselves which are first and which are second."
While he spoke, Diomedes had come driving hard upon them lashing his horses. They still ran with feet high and light, and dust still splashed at the charioteer, and the chariot plated in tin and gold still rolled hard behind the flying feet of the horses. So quickly they flew that the wheels scarcely left a trace in the soft dust. Diomedes stopped them in the middle of the crowd with the sweat dripping densely to the ground from their necks and chests. He vaulted from his shining chariot to the ground, leaned his whip against the yoke, and did not delay to take his prize, the woman and the tripod with ears which he gave to his comrades to take away, and unyoked his horses.
Next in was Antilochos who had passed Menelaos by trick rather than by speed. But even so Menelaos held his swift horses near behind and would have won clearly had the course been longer. Then came Meriones, noble squire of Idomeneus, a full spear cast behind Menelaos. His horses were beautiful but slow, and he the least talented at chariot racing. Last and behind all the others came Eumelos, dragging his lovely chariot and driving his horses before him. Seeing him, Achilles took pity and stood up among the Argives and spoke out:
"The best man has come in last, but let's give him a prize as he deserves: the second prize. The first should go to Diomedes."
So he spoke, and all agreed, and he would have given the horse to Eumelos had not Antilochos stood up to argue:
"Achilles, I shall be very angry with you if you do as you suggest. You mean to take my prize away from me, thinking that, even though he is a wretched driver he is a good man. Well, he ought to have prayed to the gods, and then he would not have been last. If he is so dear to you and such a good friend, then there is plenty of gold in your tent, and bronze and sheep, and women and horses. From those give him a prize, even better than mine, and the Achaians will applaud you, but I will not give up the mare, and if anyone wants her he will have to fight me to get her."
So he spoke, but Achilles was delighted with his good friend and smiled and answered him:
"Antilochos, if you would have me bring out something special to give to Eumelos, then I will do so for your sake. I will give him a bronze corselet with a tin overlay. It will be worth something to him."
He spoke and told Automedon, his beloved companion, to bring it out of his tent. This was done, and he placed it in Eumelos' hands, and he accepted it joyfully. But then Menelaos, with heart full of bitterness and anger against Antilochos, stood up, and the herald put the staff in his hands and called for silence among the Argives, and he proceeded to speak:
"Antilochos, you used to play fair, but what have you done now? You have besmirched my arete, you fouled my horses by throwing your own in front of them, even though yours are far inferior. Come now, Argives, leaders and rulers of men, judge between us, with no prejudice, so that no man can say: 'Menelaos used lies and force against Antilochos and went off with the mare Antilochos had won, for Menelaos' horses were inferior, but he has greater power and prestige.' Or rather I will judge myself, and no man will question the decision, for it will be fair. Come here, Zeus-nurtured Antilochos, and do what is right. Stand in front of your horses and chariot, take in your hand the whip with which you drove them before, take hold of your horses and swear by Poseidon the Earthholder and Earthshaker that you did not foul up my chariot with a dirty trick."
Then Antilochos, once more the sportsman, answered him:
"Enough now. I am much younger than you, lord Menelaos, and you are my elder and better. You know how greedy transgressions sprout up in a young man, for his mind races on, but his judgement is lightweight. Please be patient with me. I will give you the mare which I won. If you demand something of my own besides, I would give it to you, Zeus-nurtured, rather than have fallen for all time from your favor and be wrong in the eyes of heaven."
He spoke, and led up the mare and gave her to Menelaos whose anger softened. He said:
"Antilochos, although I was angry I will now give way to you, since you were not flighty or lightheaded before now. Your youth got the better of your brain. You will not play tricks on your betters another time. Another man might not have won me over, but you have suffered much and worked hard for my sake, as have your noble father and your brother. Therefore, I shall be swayed by your supplication, and I will even give you the mare, although she is mine, so that all may see and know that my heart is never arrogant and stubborn."
He spoke, and gave the mare to a comrade of Antilochos to lead away, and took for himself the glittering cauldron. Fourth, in the order he had driven, Meriones took the two talents of gold. But the fifth prize, the two-handled bowl, was left over. Achilles carried it through the assembly, gave it to Nestor, and stood by him and said:
"Let this now be yours, venerable sir, to keep in memory of the burial of Patroklos, since never again will you see him among the Argives. I simply want to give you this prize, since never again will you fight with your fists, nor wrestle, nor compete in the javelin, nor the footraces, for already the difficulties of old age are upon you."
Excerpted from Arete by Stephen G. Miller. Copyright © 2012 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted October 26, 2013