Policing at London 2012

It sounds as though east London is crawling with police and security guards. Terrorists and ticket touts seem to be the main targets: at least 30 of the latter have now been arrested. Before that there was obviously also a big security presence around the Olympic torch relay, most of which went smoothly, but with occasional incidents of almost comical heavy-handedness (although probably not comical for the spectators in question: here an innocent bystander is wrestled to the ground for trying to jog beside the torch ; and similar treatment here for a boy on a bike).

Discipline at the ancient games

Ancient Olympia too had officials for keeping discipline. The difference is that much of their attention was directed to misbehaving competitors, although spectators could be a target too. Then, as now, their main role must have been as a deterrent. But in some cases the punishments they inflicted seem to have been more violent than anything we are familiar with (even by the standards of the two videos linked above), mainly involving whipping and beating.

(The best source for all of that is Nigel Crowther’s article on flogging as punishment in the ancient games, from the journal Nikephoros 1998, reprinted in his volume of selected essays, Athletika).

The right to flog lay with a festival’s chief officials–in Olympia’s case the hellanodikai. They could also appoint other officials, at a lower level, to keep order. The commonest word for these subordinate security officials was mastigophoroi (‘whip-carriers’), although in Olympia they seem to have been referred to as alytai. Some carried whips, others sticks and shields. There is evidence from some festivals that they might have a distinctive uniform.

Flogging could be used as punishment for a false start or other forms of cheating–especially during the combat events (boxing, wrestling, pankration).

Some of these punishments may have been relatively gentle reminders to stick to the rules–like the interventions of a boxing umpire in the middle of a bout–and this kind of thing is depicted regularly on vase paintings (it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the man with the stick–in this case the figure on the right–is a trainer or an umpire):

But in other cases flogging was clearly a more high-profile punishment, inflicted outside the contest itself. For example, it could be used against athletes who refused to pay fines which had been imposed for earlier misdemeanours. Famously we even hear about the wealthy Athenian Alcibiades being flogged at the Olympics for hybristic comments after a victory. No-one was above the law, it seems…

Crowd control in ancient Oenoanda

The whips could also be used for crowd control.

Here’s an extract from a festival inscription from the small city in Oenoanda in what is now southern Turkey.

(See Mitchell in Journal of Roman Studies 1990 for full English translation. It’s a very famous inscription, but it doesn’t get into Miller, Arete and some of the other sourcebooks on ancient sport, which is my excuse for including it here. It’s more than 100 lines long in all, with detailed instruction for the contests, processions and sacrifices–this is just a tiny snippet).

It explains that ‘in the same way 20 mastigophoroi should be chosen by the agonothete (i.e. festival organiser) to lead the way in the procession, wearing white clothing without undergarments and carrying shields and whips, and they will be responsible for good order in the theatre as they have been instructed by the agonothete’.

Why they don’t have any underwear on isn’t clear to me.

But it’s a good example of the way in which public order was an official concern for ancient festival organisers just as it is now.

Whether we would want to see our Olympic torch relay officials entrusted with whips is another question (passing cyclists beware)…

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