Saturday, July 24, 2010

Olympic Youth

Today I wanted to draw your attention to something that many might not know about. In an e-mail newsletter I received from
the International Olympic Committee (IOC) I received a link to a video of the lighting of the Olympic Flame for the inaugural
Youth Olympic Games, a new initiative intended to get youth interested in sport and the Olympic spirit.

I love the Olympics and how it brings the world together like no other event (sorry World Cup fans!). The historian in me loves the tradition of the Olympics, the sacredness that, though today is somewhat dulled by marketing, for thousands of years was adhered to. It was something that blanketed the ancient world in peace for a time. The Olympic Games were, of course the most sacred of the four major games in ancient Greece, the other three being the Nemean Games, the Isthmian Games, and the Pythian Games.

Ancient Olympia was, and to my mind is, a most sacred place, a place of peace. I have been there a few times and, despite the hordes of tourists and idling buses outside the ancient sanctuary, I am always awed with the sense of peace that falls over my person when I set foot among the temples, columns and remnants of ancient arcades. The visitors seem to disappear and all I hear is the thrumming of cicadas in the light of Apollo’s sun. Yes, I do get carried away, but you can’t help that in a place like Olympia. When you walk the gravel pathways between the ruins, along the fallen column drums of the once-great Temple of Zeus (whose statue was a wonder of the ancient world) or walk down the barrel-vaulted tunnel to the stadium, the ghosts of past Olympians walk beside you. It is as though they are welcoming you to join them on their eternal stroll through the sanctuary, whispering to you to pass on the wisdom of the Olympic spirit, warning you to respect that most sacred of places.

If you have not been to Ancient Olympia, go. It is truly a wonder and a feeling to be tapped into. And if you do go, push the bustling, noisome tourists from your mind (because not everyone gets it), find a quiet corner beneath the shade of an olive tree and listen for voices of the past, the roar of the crowds that rang out for millennia. It is truly special.

The IOC has posted the flame lighting ceremony on their website for the Youth Olympic Games and if you have a bit of time it is definitely worth watching.
This will give you a taste of an ancient ceremony, undertaken with the sincerity that it deserves. The Olympic flame begins its journey here every time, lit by the priestesses of Olympia by the light of the sun that shines on this place.

It is very exciting that the Flame has been kindled in Olympia to herald the dawn of a new tradition. Good luck to the youth of the world and may Nike (Victory) be with you.

(Photo credit: Associated Press)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living History

Summer is now upon us and that means a plethora of outdoor events at historical sites around Europe and North America. The Ermine Street Guard and Antonine Guard in the UK as well as other Roman re-enactment groups will be out in force to dazzle spectators with precise military formations, cavalry tactics, firing of ballista bolts and replicas of everyday items Romans would have used. Members of The Society for Creative Anachronism will be touring the Renaissance Fair circuit entertaining fair goers, trading goods and washing down greasy turkey legs with pints of frothy ale. English and American civil groups will be re-enacting famous battles etc. etc. Every period of history has its own fans and enthusiasts who go that extra league to immerse themselves in an era for which they likely feel they are better suited than our current one.

These events and displays are usually a great time and in some cases highly educational. Re-enactments can stimulate interest in a particular period, further research and even help academics figure out the use of a newly-discovered artefact. Other times, its all about folks dressing up and having a great time.

For writers like myself, living history re-enactors and re-creations are an invaluable source because of the thorough research that has been done before hand and on an ongoing basis. In the case of Roman re-enactment groups, some authors have trained with them to get a better understanding of the feel, the mechanics of a certain weapon, pieces of armour and even a Roman cavalry saddle which, of course, did not have stirrups but rather four horns for bracing the thighs against. The latter is actually much more comfortable and utilitarian than one would expect.

A good friend of mine has been a member of the Antonine Guard in Scotland for several years ( - the group does regular talks at schools, documentaries and also trained the actors and extras for the new film CENTURION). When writing Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, I was able to read over a copy of the group’s field manual which details troop drills and all the Latin commands that were used in the Imperial Roman Army. What a great source to add detail and accuracy to a historical tale. Teachers, if you are listening, rather than having your students slug their way through the usual, dry history book, invite a period re-enactment group to your school and see what a difference it makes to knowledge retention and learning enjoyment. And while you are at it, assign your students a good historical novel!

So, next time you are out touring and you see a sign for a historical demonstration, don’t be so quick to dismiss it as a gathering of oddball history freaks. Drop in and see what it is all about. Yes, you may be confronted by a band of greasy, chicken&chips-eating yobs sporting a mish-mash of period costumes and bad accents but, on the other hand, you may also be in for a real treat, a chance to learn some fascinating facts about life in a by-gone era from people who truly value the past and accuracy in their portrayal of it.