A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics Neil Faulkner

Publication date:
20 Mar 2012
272 pages: 229 x 152 x 20mm
40 black & white illustrations + 8-pages of colour images

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What was it like to attend the Olympics in 388 B.C.? Would the experience resemble Olympic festivals as we celebrate them today? This remarkable book transports us back to the heyday of the city-state and classical Greek civilization. It invites us to enter this distant, alien, but still familiar culture and discover what the Greeks did and didn't do during five thrilling days in August 2,400 years ago.

In the Olympic Stadium there were no stands, no shade - and no women allowed. Visitors sat on a grassy bank in the searing heat of midsummer to watch naked athletes compete in footraces, the pentathlon, horse and chariot races, and three combat sports - wrestling, boxing, and pankration, everyone's favourite competition, with virtually no rules and considerable blood and pain. This colourfully illustrated volume offers a complete tour of the Olympic site exactly as athletes and spectators found it. The book evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of the crowded encampment; introduces the various attendees (from champions and charlatans to aristocrats and prostitutes); and, explains the numerous exotic religious rituals. Uniquely detailed and precise, this guide offers readers an unparalleled opportunity to travel in time, back to the excitement of ancient Olympia.


Here, in this exclusive recording, Neil Faulkner reads from the section of his book that covers the programme of events at the Ancient Olympics. Looking at the afternoon of the fourth day of the games, Faulkner reads out a passage on boxing, providing a vivid description of the ‘bloodiest, cruellest and most violent of the Greek sports’. Read the extract in full on Yale's blog.

More about this title

In Neil Faulkner's regular Yale blog, he comments on the London 2012 Olympics in the light of the wisdom (or lack of it) of the ancients. Click here for all articles by Neil Faulkner.

Neil Faulkner is research fellow at the University of Bristol, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and codirector of several field projects. A freelance archaeologist and historian, his previous books include Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome and Rome: Empire of the Eagles. He lives in Herts, UK.

"An entertaining and informative read."—Hertfordshire Life

"The book has a true pagan tang and is completely fascinating."—Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express

"[Faulkner writes] with great vim and panache... Into and around his descriptions of the Olympic events Faulkner contrives to weave very skilfully indeed a rich texture of social, economic, political – in a word, cultural – history. Yale University Press have produced an attractively illustrated volume in a handy, pocketable format: just the thing to take with you to the beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade this July, perhaps."—Paul Cartledge, BBC History Magazine

"A neat idea, stylishly executed."—Independent i

"Written in the style of a chatty tourist guide, it offers a beguiling glimpse into a largely alien world, vibrant but chaotic."--Good Book Guide

"After reading this, you’ll feel grateful that we have the Olympics we do. Good grief, at least they are all wearing clothes."--Marcus Berkmann, Daily Mail

Listen to the podcast

Watch the related video

In this interview for Blackwells, Faulkner provides an introduction to the games, vividly
describing the spectacle as experienced by a visitor in ancient times. Along the way Faulkner
reveals some unusual details. For instance, did you know that the spectators at the games
made offerings to Zeus to rid them of flies? Faulkner also offers an explanation for the
popularity of the games, as a physical and mental preparation for war...