Olympia: The Story of the Ancient Olympic Games
Robin Waterfield
Head of Zeus
214pp, 34 colour, seven black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £18.99

British Classical scholar, Robin Waterfield is a translator (23 volumes, from Aristotle to Xenophon), editor and writer of children's fiction. In other words, he is a great communicator with a wealth of knowledge about the ancient world at his disposal – all of which is evident in his latest book, Olympia.

Despite our reverence for the ideals and achievements of the ancient Olympic Games, some of the practices they involved would alarm any modern athlete or audience. First of all, athletes were purified by water and pig's blood, contestants mainly competed naked, a false start in a running race was a floggable offence, and half way through the Games 100 oxen were sacrificed.

So, attending the Olympics, by our standards, would not have been for the faint-hearted. But we would still have appreciated their ethos of the pursuit of excellence. As now, huge human and other resources were devoted to the organisation of such a popular and successful event. From their traditional starting date of 776 BC, the programme and allure of the Games expanded until they attracted visitors from all over the Greek world – no mean feat at the time.

For many, the various legends concerning the genesis of the Games and their structure are familiar territory, but Robin Waterfield's wonderfully entertaining and enlightening book is replete with colourful details that enable us to recognise what an extraordinary phenomenon they became and what a unique, awe-inspiring form Olympia assumed. Here, intense athletic competition, religious fervour and sublime architecture and art all collalesced and, with a new Olympiad beginning every fifth year, the festival also gave the Greeks their system of reckoning time.

Like Ancient Greek drama festivals, the Olympic Games were a religious festival. Glorious temples arose in the Altis, the sacred precinct, chief among them the great Temple of Zeus in whose honour the games were held and which, from the late 5th century BC, housed Pheidias' immense statue of the father of the gods – one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Statues commemorating victories in athletics and war were everywhere, and Waterfield notes that Olympia was largely responsible for bringing the European tradition of portraiture into being, with the sculpting of a likeness of a living man for the first time.

The throng of visitors would have slept under the stars, and scores of sacrificial animals would have been present. With Waterfield's expert guidance we can well imagine the melee; the shouts of food-sellers, the roar of the spectators, the cries of sacrificial beasts, not to mention the various aromas that would have filled the air.

The Games were celebrations of aristocratic class solidarity and rivalry. Except for the horse riders and charioteers, who were slaves or hired hands, competing was generally the preserve of the elite, who could afford to participate. Waterfield introduces us to the many other classes involved – from those charged with organising the Games, from the nearby city of Elis, which hosted them, to the busy purple-robed judges, and to the trumpet-blowers and heralds who had their own competition on the first day.

Winning meant all, and not just for the athletes, as professional trainers also became celebrities. There were no team events, and while married women could not attend, unmarried females (probably girls aged up to 15) could watch the naked competitors. But from the end of the 2nd century AD the Games began to decline and, in AD 393, Emperor Theodosius put an end to them.

Waterfield debunks the traditional story of the origins of the Marathon, of the victory run by Pheidippides from the scene of the battle to Athens. But in 1896, when the Games were revived by the visionary Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Marathon was won by a Greek farmer who was greeted with a frenzy of joy by his compatriots. It makes for an uplifting ending to an intriguing book, which takes us deep into the world of the Ancient Greeks.

Diana Bentley