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November a Month of Games

Published December 19, 2007        by Nicole

For many of us, November is the month of football-either piling on warm clothes, opening your coffee gift basket and making some hot coffee, and joining the throng on the bleachers or collapsing in a chair in front of the TV. What else is there to watch over Thanksgiving? For the Romans, November was an equally frenetic sports month in which athletes paraded their finely honed skills before crowds of cheering, avid fans shouting on their favorite team or champion. One difference is that the ancient Roman athletes performed before the gods and goddesses. Sports were a component of the religious ritual - the Ludi dedicated in November to Jupiter.

An ancient author, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, leaves us a colorful description of the parade and the athletic games. Young men, most likely of leading Roman families, led the procession, riding horseback or driving two- or four-horse chariots. Then came the competing athletes attired only in loincloths. Groups of dancers with flute and lyre players passed by next in the procession. These dancers wore red tunics with bronze belts, crested helmets, and swords and carried short spears. Behind them came other men dressed in goatskins playing the role of satyr and mimicking the warrior dancers. More groups of musicians and dancers followed, together with individuals carrying burning incense and sacred gold or silver ritual urns.

Images of the gods were then carried in procession, including the twelve Olympians as well as Saturn, Ops, Themis, the Muses, the Graces, and the semi-divine Hercules, Aesculapius, and others. Finally came the sacrificial animals. The Roman magistrates, serving as priests, officiated over the sacrifice of oxen; then the games would begin.

The events in the Circus Maximus, which could hold 150,000 people, were well attended and began with four-, three-, and two-horse chariot races. In one race, the driver had a companion riding in the chariot; as it crossed the finish line, the companion would leap from the chariot and run the track himself, competing against the other runners to win the whole race. The chariots raced for seven laps around the Circus Maximus, which is equivalent to about five miles and less than fifteen minutes. Then came boxing and wrestling matches, with the winners receiving crowns.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, athletic skill was a gift of the gods and athletic competition was a form of worship that was taken very seriously-sport and religion were united. Athletes at the Olympic Games in
Greece traditionally offered sacrifice and prayer to Zeus/Jupiter before the events, swearing an oath against cheating, which was on par with blasphemy. It was the priest who gave the signal to start the race, while the victor officiated at the sacrifice to the god. When athletes trained hard and performed well at the games, they were hailed as heroes endowed with a divine blessing-a strong, fit body. The gods and goddesses attended the games and enjoyed a good rivalry and athletic competition; their images were carried in a parade through Rome just behind the athletes. Who could ask for better fan support?

Athletic skill is a wonderful and unique gift. In classical thought, it was as important to develop the body as the mind, so that there was a balance between the two. Our bodies are indeed expressions of the divine. Sacred games and sports under the auspices of the gods and goddesses were the ultimate tribute to the sanctity of the body. The combination of physical dexterity, strength, determination, and drive with hard work and hours of training shows itself in the moments of competition, whatever the sport. Those moments when the runner crosses the finish line, the charioteer pulls ahead of the rest, the wide receiver catches the touchdown pass, the striker puts the soccer ball in the net-those glorious few moments of achievement are moments of euphoria and awe. For the Greeks and Romans, these were sacred moments when the gods gave approving nods.

We honor the spirits in November by turning our attention to the passing of time and in doing so acknowledge the essential human spirit with all its frailties. Yes, we grow old, and in November we accept the process of aging. We revel in the peak moments of human achievements in art and sport, for the mind and the body. We lay back and observe the passing of the month and the end of the year. It is all good. And, most important, it will come again, with subsequent years, new playwrights, and new athletes striving to surpass the current records.

So this year as you are celebrating the accomplishments of your favorite athlete or star quarterback, be sure to ponder those Roman athletes (as you chug your beer and enjoy some gourmet nuts of course).