British Museum presents Winning at the ancient Games

The British Museum presents Winning at the ancient Games a victory trail around the collection consisting of twelve star objects through 9 September 2012.

The stops on the trail will include iconic sculptures that have become synonymous with the Games of ancient Greece and Rome, including a stunning statue of a winning charioteer on special loan from Sicily, a mosaic showing Hercules, legendary founder of the Games, never previously exhibited, and of course, the 2012 Olympic Medals.

Discus-thrower (discobolus). Roman copy of a bronze original of the 5th century BC. From Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Lazio, Italy

Every fourth year for a thousand years, from 776 BC to AD 395, the ancient Olympic Games were held to honour the god Zeus, attracting thousands of citizens from all over the Greek world. Athletes competed as individuals, but a victory would also bring great honour to their home city. Prime rewards of victory at the ancient Games, much as today, were fame and celebrity, and over the long history of the ancient Games, huge numbers of athletes were immortalized by statues and songs written in their honour. Indeed, victors were granted the privilege of having a statue made of themselves which would be set up at Olympia, the oldest sanctuary of Zeus, which became a sort of athletic ‘hall of fame’. However, unlike in the modern Games, where participating is considered a conquest in itself, in antiquity, winning was the only objective. Coming second or third did not factor.

At the first thirteen Olympics the only event was the foot race. Later, more events were added including the pentathlon, combat sports and chariot racing. The Museum trail begins with the Discus Thrower, the sculpture that has become a symbol of the modern Olympics and which featured in the London Olympic Games poster of 1948. A Roman copy of a now lost Greek original, this iconic statue captured Greek ideas of proportion, harmony, rhythm and balance, elements which were sought after in both nature and art.

The trail will take visitors to the Parthenon gallery, where a magnificent statue is on display; rarely loaned from Mozia (Motya) in Sicily, it is thought to represent a victorious Charioteer (and considered by many to be one of the finest examples of classical Greek marble sculpture to survive). This beautiful piece, exhibited in this country for the first time, is likely to be a statue set up to commemorate a win at one of the major Games by a victor from a Greek city in Sicily, either commissioned by himself as a matter of pride or by his homeland as a mark of honour.

Another of the stops of the trail is a magnificent prize amphora that was given at the Panathenic Games in Athens. Because of its thrills and dangers, chariot-racing was hugely popular. It was also the only Olympic sport in which women could take part, as owners of the teams of horses. The scene on the amphora depicts a disheveled winning charioteer, clothed in traditional white robes, triumphantly clearing the finishing post. The sense of movement that the artist has captured is truly exciting, and shows why this spectacular event remained so popular throughout antiquity.

The Museum’s twelve stops also include a range of impressive objects near each location. One of the marble figures, an impressive sculpture recently restored at the British Museum from fragments, is on loan from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

By following this free trail around the Museum there is the opportunity to discover objects whose stories will tell you more about ancient Games in Greece and Rome, and in turn demonstrate how the same passion and aspirations remain unchanged in the modern Games. –

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