Somehow the sports gene passed me by. It’s not that I don’t like exercise — I have to run at least every other day or I feel even more crabby and irritable than usual. It’s just that, for some reason due either to nature or nurture, I’ve never been able to understand the pleasures that many people derive from following sports teams and idols. Not that I begrudge it. It must be nice to feel part of a tribe and to be able to talk in the first person plural about team strategies and to sing songs and wear special clothes. I’d like to fly flags too. And have stickers. Though, to be honest, on second thoughts, I’d rather steer clear of the clothes.
As the World Cup hands on the the Olympics, and with every Wimbledon, every football season I find myself in a constant state of vague incomprehension. It’s not as bad as it once was. Now we stream our television so I’m unlikely to hear this, as I settle down for some weekly TV appointment:

“This week’s episode of [the science fiction series you currently love] is cancelled due to the exciting developments here at [some place that sport happens]. And now back to the action. Look! He’s [thrown a ball or hit it with a stick or something]!”

I recently found myself in Anfield where I saw the outside of the football stadium (so famous, even I’ve heard of it.. albeit vaguely). It looked beautiful and modern and gleaming — floating there with its back turned to street after street of boarded up houses and shuttered businesses. It reminded me that there’s a similar parallel to be made between sport today and the way the ancients went about things.

Think about superstar sportsmen, for example, and the massive fees they command – their incredible celebrity. It feels like a modern phenomenon. Pundits talk about footballers in the early Twentieth Century who earned little more than a good basic wage for their talents. But in the Second Century, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a charioteer from humble origins earned the equivalent of £9.6 billion in prize money.

And the excitement of the fans was at least as intense then as now, according to Peter Struck at Laphams Quarterly:

For the races, spectators arrived the evening before to stake out good seats. They ate and drank to excess, and fights were common under the influence of furor circensis, the Romans’ name for the mass hysteria the spectacles induced. Ovid recommended the reserve seating as a good place to pick up aristocratic women, and he advised letting your hand linger as you fluff her seat cushion.

We complain that although supporters love their teams, players transfer in and out according to the whims of managers and the spending power of owners. The charioteers of the second century were organised into teams too: the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues. Factionalism was no less strong then than now. Here’s Pliny the Younger quoted by Barbara McManus at vroma.org

I am the more astonished that so many thousands of grown men should be possessed again and again with a childish passion to look at galloping horses, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, they were attracted by the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men, one could account for this enthusiasm. But in fact it is a bit of cloth they favour, a bit of cloth that captivates them. And if during the running the racers were to exchange colours, their partisans would change sides, and instantly forsake the very drivers and horses whom they were just before recognizing from afar, and clamorously saluting by name. (translated by William Melmoth, H. A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972], 220-21)

The fans’ love of their teams and hatred of their opponents’ teams, often reached obsessive heights. Here, also quoted by Barbara McManus, is a curse tablet

Help me in the Circus on 8 November. Bind every limb, every sinew, the shoulders, the ankles and the elbows of Olympus, Olympianus, Scortius and Juvencus, the charioteers of the Red. Torment their minds, their intelligence and their senses so that they may not know what they are doing, and knock out their eyes so that they may not see where they are going—neither they nor the horses they are going to drive. (translated by H. A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome, 235-36)

Four centuries later in Byzantium, chariot racing remained an obsession, though only the Blues and Greens survived. Rather like the supporters of the contemporary football teams, Celtic and Rangers, supporters of the Blues and Greens were associated with entrenched social, religious and political stances. In 532 a riot actually threatened the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The rebellion was finally and bloodily put down within the walls of the Hippodrome itself. Here is Mike Dash at the Smithsonian Magazine.

Shamed, Justinian determined to stay and fight. Both Belisarius and Narses were with him in the palace, and the two generals planned a counterstrike. The Blues and the Greens, still assembled in the Hippodrome, were to be locked into the arena. After that, loyal troops, most of them Thracians and Goths with no allegiance to either of the circus factions, could be sent in to cut them down.

Imagine a force of heavily armed troops advancing on the crowds in the MetLife Stadium or Wembley and you’ll have some idea of how things developed in the Hippodrome, a stadium with a capacity of about 150,000 that held tens of thousands of partisans of the Greens and Blues. While Belisarius’ Goths hacked away with swords and spears, Narses and the men of the Imperial Bodyguard blocked the exits and prevented any of the panicking rioters from escaping. “Within a few minutes,” John Julius Norwich writes in his history of Byzantium, “the angry shouts of the great amphitheater had given place to the cries and groans of wounded and dying men; soon these too grew quiet, until silence spread over the entire arena, its sand now sodden with the blood of the victims.”

Drawing parallels between the past and present is tempting and perilous. But from country to country, and era to era, we reinvent the same modes and succumb to the same obsessions. I bet the Romans cancelled science fiction plays too when the chariot races overran.

photo credit: Lausanne – Euro 2016 – Le Portugal Champion d’Europe via photopin (license)