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Grecian urns, Olympic ideals

The antiquities at Tampa's Museum of Art portray the strength, beauty and virtues that inspired the original Olympics and transport visitors to Athens - without the hassles of travel.

Published August 15, 2004

TAMPA - You are not in Athens, at the Olympics. Neither am I.

Television, newspapers and magazines will do all they can to provide that you-are-there feeling. But at some point, you should abandon technology and go for a breath of real Attic air.

Consider a visit to the Tampa Museum of Art.

Its Greek ceramics, considered some of the finest in the United States, are survivors of a time when humans could believe without irony or angst that their lives were watched over and molded by heavenly forces, and that sacrifice in service to those forces was ennobling and often necessary.

Some of the vases, bowls and other objects transport us to the early Olympics, those that began officially in 776 B.C. in Olympia and continued uninterrupted for more than 1,000 years, until the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I abolished them in 393 A.D. (They were, after all, homages to the Greek god Zeus, which must have annoyed a Christian ruler who didn't have to deal with political correctness or religious diversity.)

Herakles - today better known by his Roman name Hercules - is believed by many to be the founder of the Olympics. (Several versions tell of how they began, and all are probably apocryphal.) The story goes that on the fifth of his 12 heroic tasks, Herakles was asked to clean a king's vast stables, and he did so by diverting two rivers, which washed everything out efficiently. When the king reneged on a promised gift, Herakles waged war on him and, of course, won. He started the games in nearby Olympia to thank his dad - Zeus - for the victory.

And there he is, noble and beautiful, on a black-figure amphora created around 510 B.C. with his patroness, the goddess Athena, and the winged messenger god Hermes. (By the way, that Hermes is no relation to the luxe leather goods and apparel company, though, like Nike, who was also winged and the goddess of victory, he has been appropriated for modern commercial purposes.)

On this vase, Herakles embodies the athletic ideal - well-contoured upper body tapering to narrow waist and muscular thighes.

"Big thighs and big legs were important," said Aaron J. Paul, Richard E. Perry curator of Greek and Roman Art at the museum. "They took you into battle, and, if necessary, they could take you out of it very quickly."

Revered by ancient Greeks not just for his physical prowess, Herakles represented the nexus between the temporal and the spiritual worlds.

"His mother was mortal," said Paul. "He was the only Greek born human who became divine through his labors. His life was filled with human failure and divine victory. That's a theme in all Olympics. Herakles was a role model for ancient athletes, someone they aspired to be. The idea of striving for perfection is woven into their lives, excellence in physical, spiritual and civic endeavors."

Here, Herakles is caught in a static moment, this warrior who was rarely still, as he is about to join the Olympian gods in heaven, where he will sit forever, usually reclining with a goblet of wine.

Another vase in the collection, created in the same century but with a white background, shows boxers in action.

"Boxing and wrestling were important, too," says Paul. "Most combat was hand-to-hand."

The pugilists are naked, as they usually were then, in contrast to today's young Olympians, whose sartorial statements are leveraged heavily by another kind of competition among athletic-wear manufacturers.

The figures on the vase also remind us that Olympics of old were not bucolic events.

"It might sound far-flung to talk about combat and religion in the same breath," said Paul, "but those were the motivations for the Olympics. Not only were they homages to their gods, they were training grounds for military service."

That probably explains the profusion of competitive games in various parts of Greece, including Athens, which were modeled on the oldest and most prestigious ones in Olympia.

Chariot races, a later addition to the contests, are pictured on a three-handled water vase, called a kalpis, in the collection. Unlike the other events - foot races, which for years were the only sport, joined later by boxing and wrestling and open to any freeborn Greek male - chariot races were an aristocratic venture. Only the wealthy could afford to keep stables of horses and equip a chariot.

Painted in black are two chariots racing toward an unseen finish line, and in the tense posture of the drivers and the straining of their horses, we see the danger inherent in the ancients' thirst for victory, which could turn games into blood sport.

What we see in all these images is the timeless, universal theme of human endeavor.

A fourth vase worth studying reminds us that these are not just pictures on old pottery; they represented people with lives as complicated as ours.

The red-figured scene is a domestic one, in which a wife watches over her younger son, still too small for games or war, while the husband and father stands by, carrying a bag of money to indicate he is the family breadwinner. Behind him, the older son looks as if he has come to say goodbye. Near him are the accoutrements of an athlete, a strigil, a curved metal tool used to scrape off sweat and dirt after strenuous exertions, and a sponge.

The time would come when he would have been called for military service - the Greek city-states being a contentious bunch, not to mention those feisty Romans. It was probably little comfort to his parents that he would be in better shape for war than most of his counterparts today, thanks to the importance of physical education in Greek culture.

And like all fathers and mothers of their time, they sent their sons to compete for honor on playing fields that could be just as deadly as battlefields.

"For me, the theme of antiquity is one we keep replaying," said Paul. "We think the Olympic boycott in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was president was unique. And the horrible events in Munich in 1972 (when Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists). The old Olympic games were not without controversy. One year, for example, a group of Greeks from a particular area took over the Olympic field, causing great conflict. History repeats itself."

If you go

The permanent collection of antiquities is on display at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Adults $7, seniors $6, students $3, children 6 and younger admitted free. (813) 274-8130.

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