Museum researcher digs up ancient Olympic facts

David Gilman Romano, with Attic Black Figure Amphora, ca. 510-490 B.C.

David Gilman Romano, with Attic Black Figure Amphora, ca. 510-490 B.C., says that boycotts, military conflict and nationalism were all part of the ancient Olympic Games.

When David Gilman Romano Gr’81 attends this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens, he’ll watch the track and field events with particular interest. A track coach and runner who competed at the University of Oregon with legend Steve Prefontane, Romano is also a leading expert on ancient athletics and the Olympic Games.

From his office in the Penn Museum, which fittingly looks out on Franklin Field, the Senior Research Scientist in the Museum’s Mediterranean Section explains that there are many connections between the ancient games and its modern counterpart. Boycotts, nationalist pride and strife were all a part of the ancient games. “We think, this is terrible, how could the Olympic Games be used for such a thing?” whereas, in fact, says Romano, there were many instances in ancient Greece where some type of military intervention occurred during the Games. “It’s not exactly terrorism, but on the other hand, the effect would have been the same.” One notable example occurred in 364 B.C., when the territory of Elis had lost control of the Games to Pisa and decided to attack—right in the middle of the wrestling competition in the sanctuary.

Because of the war in Iraq and the rise in terrorism around the globe, many worry that this year’s Games will be a stage for an attack. Romano notes that the great attention on Athens—and increased security in Greece—may actually discourage terrorists from attacking because it would lack the element of surprise.

On his web site (www.museum.upenn.edu/new/olympics/olympicintro.shtml), Romano outlines other striking similarities and differences between the ancient Games and those of today. Women, he notes, could only participate if they were unmarried, and then only in a separate competition. Winners were honored not with gold, silver and bronze trophies, but with symbolic prizes of laurel wreathes or, in 5th-century B.C. Athens, a fortune of 500 drachmai and free meals for life. Poems were also written to commemorate victory. The Olympic flame and the Olympic torch race, two traditional symbols of the Games, didn’t start until 1928 and 1936, respectively.

Romano, who is also an adjunct professor of Classical Studies, looks forward to attending his first Olympics and digging even further into the history of ancient athletics. Beginning in June, Romano and a team of researchers from Penn and the University of Arizona will excavate at the Sanctuary of Zeus of Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, just 17 miles from Olympia. Known as the birthplace of Zeus, Mt. Lykaion was an important site for athletic festivals. “The excavation promises to be very exciting,” says Romano. “It’s [the site of] the last of the great Pan-Hellenic festivals.”

Originally published on June 10, 2004