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Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece:  Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens

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Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens
By Panos Valavanis. Translated by Dr. David Hardy. Forward by Sir John Boardman. (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 2004 Kapon Editions. Pg. 448. 609 color and 40 black-and-white illustrations. 10 Maps. 3 Foldouts) ISBN: 0-89236-762-8.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 20, 2004

Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece is a gloriously illustrated coffee-table sized book that details the history of the games in Ancient Greece that eventually developed into the modern day Olympics. Published to coincided with the opening of the Olympics in Athens, Greece on August 13, 2004, this book is a phenomenal resource for anyone interested in the Ancient games and their modern equivalents. This is a massive book. It measures about 9 x 12 inches and weighs about seven pounds. In addition it is lavishly illustrated with more than 650 illustrations and maps. This book also features three foldout sections that provide four page panoramic view of various artifacts and sites. While the illustrations alone make this a 'must have' book, the real treasure in this book is the text.

Written by Panos Valavanis, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Athens, this book provides a comprehensive and fascinating history of the athletic games that were so important to the religious life of the Ancient Greeks. Valavanis provides details about the religious significance of the games, how they were played, who participated in the games, and how the games changed over time. In particular, he concentrates on the four major Panhellenic games: Valavanis also covers the Panathenaic Games, which are considered to be the 'best' of the non-Panhellenic games. The Panathenaic Games were held during the Festival of Panathenaia in Athens, and they were held in honor of Athenea.

In this history of the games, Valavanis explores the prehistory of the athletic games, the original reasons that gave rise to the formal competitions, the role that religion played in the games, and the purpose of the festivals that accompanied the games. Based upon current archeological evidence, Valavanis provides a detailed, chronological overview of each of the five main sites at which games were held. These overviews commence with the beginning of the games at each site and they take the reader on a journey that only ends when each site was abandoned - in many instances this did not occur until the Roman period. These overviews include details about the archeological efforts, history, and the myths and legends associated with each site. He also describes the rules of the games, the role women played in the games, and he describes what types of games where played at various minor festivals throughout the region.

Valavanis' commentary is enhanced by the inclusion of illustrations of the artifacts related to each topic discussed, including statuary, funerary art, reliefs, pottery, drawings, inscriptions, and other material remains. Also included are plans of the archaeological sites, illustrations of the excavations, and maps.

The Olympic Games, which began in the 8th Century B.C., are the oldest of the Ancient Greek games, and although they included many of the same competitions that are held at the modern Olympics such as wrestling, boxing, discus, javelin, jumping, and running, there is little similarity between the modern and the ancient games. In Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece Valavanis clearly explains how and why the modern games differ from their ancient counterpart. He also shows how the Greek games were copied and 'played' throughout the ancient world.

Although a rigorous scholarly work, Valavanis' narrative is informative and eminently readable, and it will fascinate readers from all walks of life. In addition, the lavish illustrations in this book are enthralling in their own right, yet when combined with the text serves to provide a comprehensive and unforgettable survey of the Ancient Greek games and the sanctuaries at which they were held!

Related Reviews:

Great Moments in Greek Archaeology, by Vasileios Petrakos, et al.
This groundbreaking book is lavishly illustrated with 658 Color illustrations, and includes 25 essays that provide a detailed overview of the discovery and excavations of some of the greatest monuments, shipwrecks, and sculptures from Ancient Greece.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, By Sean Sheehan.
There are over 250 entries in this one volume encyclopedia, which cover a range of topics associated with Ancient Greece, including Greek mythology, art, culture, history, and everyday life in Ancient Greece.

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