Thursday, 6 December 2012

Ancient Greek six-packs

I am learning a whole new series of skills as Connie and I take The Boy with Two Heads to schools and libraries as part of our constant market research and promotional activities. And I thought writing just involved writing!

artist's impression by Sian Frances
But we have been enjoying meeting my readers, and this week we met some Year 6 students at Egremont Library who impressed us a lot. Their teacher had already taken them through the first four chapters of the book, so we read a passage to them from further on which features Phidias' gold and ivory statue of Zeus. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the statue survived 800 years but was taken to Constantinople and destroyed in a great fire there. 

The students had also prepared some questions to ask me. I tried to answer these truthfully, but questions like 'where do you get your inspiration?' always stump me. I've thought about this since, and just want to say that I write because I enjoy it. I like going where it takes me in my head, getting to know my characters, and finding out what happens to them. It's a bit like reading, except that it takes longer, and I control the final outcome. 

One unusual question we got this time was, 'Why did all the men have six-packs?' (This after looking at pictures of vase paintings and statues of naked men, as you do if you are discussing Ancient Greek athletes.) My answer was that the man's body was their best weapon in war, and they were always at war. They went into the army at 18 and were always eligible to be called up if necessary, which was just about every summer! So they spent a lot of time keeping fit. 
the Dioscouros
Roman copy of a Greek original

For many of them the Marathon would have been a short run. Professional messengers were expected to run at least 100 kilometres in 24 hours. There's a modern race called the Spartathlon which covers 246 kilometres (153 miles) in less than 36 hours, as reportedly run by Pheidippides in 490 BC. I refer to it in my posting on March 8th.

And as Connie noted, another factor was their diet - lots of unprocessed cereals, fruit, vegetables, cheese and olives, with the occasional fish, duck or hare, and beef only on feast days. 

the quintessential six-pack:
Apollo from the Temple of Zeus 
at Ancient Olympia
modern statue of
King Leonidas of Sparta
However, it is probably true that the statues were idealised. So maybe not all Ancient Greek men had six-packs. They must have been pretty common, though, because the body-armour seems to have allowed for them, as you can see on this modern statue in Sparta.

Lastly, I would like to correct something else that came up. Connie mentioned that the word for a publisher's logo is colophon (her company's colophon is a trefoil, or clover leaf). My suggestion was that colophon derives from the Greek words kollos for bottom (which is in fact modern slang), and phoni, meaning voice (as in telephone). This led to a certain amount of hilarity ... and is of course nonsense! 
According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon and Wikipedia, kolophon is an Ancient Greek word (though still in use) which means ‘the summit, peak, or finishing touch’. Comparatively boring, but true, nonetheless. My apologies to anyone I may have misled.

And my thanks to our audience at Egremont. You had done a lot of preparation for our meeting, and that made it extra special.

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