Monthly Archives: March 2013

Battle of the Ultra-Athletes: Tarahumara vs. Spartans

The Tarahumara is a tribe of indigenous people in Central America, more specifically in the Copper Canyons of Mexico; they are known for running incredible distances. I think we all know who the Spartans are at this point since that historically inaccurate movie came out.  Ultra-athletes are people who compete in insane endurance competitions which can take place over a variety of disciplines.  I discovered the Tarahumara and Ultra endurance competitions just recently when I began reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is a great book (so far) and I will venture to say from what I have read, it should be on every must read list whether you are a runner or not.

Early on in the book McDougall makes a claim that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors. This, of course, quickly got me scouring my knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and wondering if that was a fair comparison. First I should note that there are plenty of other tribes in the world which have shown excellence in endurance activities such as the Bajau people of Indonesia who are incredible apneists (great greek root there), holding their breath for long periods of time and showing great free diving ability.  So it is probably not the case that there have not been better athletes since the Spartan warriors, but the comparison still intrigues me.

The Spartan warriors are famous in modern times because of the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae who are legends for their military prowess. Most scholars agree that it was not just 300 Spartans at this battle, but I will leave it at that as to not burst the bubble of myth lovers. That being said there is a lot of evidence of the amazing athletic ability of Spartans. Those selected to be warriors were put into training at the age of seven. The Tarahumara start running as soon as they can although it is not exactly regimented training as was the case in Sparta. The Tarahumara are not an attacking people. They choose to retreat into the hills and use the terrain to stay hidden from enemies. Many will jump and say that is the main difference between the Spartans and the Tarahumara, but I want to remind you of Herodutos’ account of Thermopylae (book 7 around 222).  He talks about the retreat into the hills and ensuing battle in a narrow pass advantageous to the Spartans.  At the same time the poet Tyrtaeus claims that men in Sparta were trained neither to run away nor surrender.  Born to Run says that the Tarahumara have people who are very old running alongside people who are very young without notice of a difference in step. The Spartans were enlisted until age 60 and had to maintain fitness up through the age of 65 because they could be called upon up to 65 in war times.

Both groups wore a sandal-like footwear while doing their athletics for those of you on the barefoot running train.

As for comparing the actual athletic ability of the two it is a very difficult thing to do. The Spartan warriors are in fact warriors and are known for their athletics in terms of war. When we talk about distances they can march or run those numbers must be considered differently than marathon runners since they are weighed down by armor and equipment.  I have looked all over the texts I have for anything referencing a numerical value that I could use to compare the speed of the Spartans to that of the Tarahumara and I can’t. Pure athleticism will have to be left debatable, however the comparisons above should give an idea in terms of lifestyle about how the two measure up.

NOTE: The Athenians are actually granted credit for the term Marathon as they sent a messenger, Pheidippides, back to Athens from the battle of Marathon, a reported distance of 26 miles. The messenger collapsed dead upon completion, obviously not an ultra-athlete (Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens).  It is said that the last two tenths of a mile were added to accommodate a viewing box for the Queen of England many years later. I have no source for this information; I know it only as a legend passed around some running circles.

SECOND NOTE: I have not included any of Thucydides comments on the Spartans, but he provides a very different view, in fact he calls them weak a lot. The reason for this is most likely his historical bias, but I should note that his opinion on the Spartans is out there and can be found.

For more on the Bajau people see

Born to Run


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Worcestershire Sauce and Ancient Roman Garum

I love to cook and this week I was making a great venison recipe which called for Worcestershire Sauce. After about 15 minutes of debating the proper pronunciation (Lea & Perrins website lists multiple pronunciations), I went in search of the sauce and found that I had none.  Stupidly I thought maybe I could find a way to substitute the sauce and realized that I actually had no idea what Worcestershire sauce was made of or honestly tasted like on its own. Upon further research (ie Wikipedia) I learned that it is a fermented sauce. My first thought was of Ancient Rome and garum, which was apparently wiki’s thought too as I scrolled down and found out they started the history of Worcestershire Sauce with the Ancient Greeks. Wiki got something right!

Fermented sauces go back far into history. The most important of them was probably garum. Garum is a fermented fish sauce, some say it is probably similar to Indian fish sauces. It was used by both the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans and was an important part of trade in the Ancient Mediterranean. Amphorae have been tested through some awesome processes and found to contain garum dating back as far as the 5th century BCE. The production and export of garum gave towns around the Roman Empire a certain level of prestige, especially those that produced the best garum; one of these towns was Pompeii.

The reason garum was a such a popular condiment for Roman nobility, besides its tradition of prestige and its Greek roots, was that it retained a high protein content. However there is something intriguing about the literature surrounding garum. Many authors write about how terrible and disgusting garum is.  Pliny the Elder called it, “that secretion of putrefying matter.” Plato called it, “putrid garum.” And Martial praised a man for still loving a woman who had eaten many helpings of garum. Although it was criticized so much in literature it was in fact used heavily and transported all around the Mediterranean. While most of the popular mentions of Worcestershire sauce are to the pronunciation of its name, it is still interesting that this sauce shows up in pop culture like garum did. Take this clip as a great example of the humor  They are definitely from the same family, although I’ve had garum and I will stick with the evolved Worcester version.

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Happy Birthday Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Greek Tragedy

As Google animated so perfectly, today is Douglas Adams birthday. When I think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I can only think one thing: DON’T PANIC! I remember my excellent Greek professor using this reference whenever he introduced a new grammar rule. “There are exceptions to the rule, but as The Guide says, ‘Don’t Panic.’” In Ancient Greek if you panic you are screwed. The whole system is based on exceptions. There is only one entirely regular verb and I say that hesitantly. The words “Don’t Panic” kept me going through many late nights with a Greek textbook, but enough of my nostalgia. The reason I am writing about Douglas Adams and this great work is because of the way he composed this work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide from here on) was composed in a way which an Ancient Greek playwright would probably relish. At first Hitchhiker’s Guide was a series of six episodes for the radio. Later a second and third series were released. The work was rewritten many times from many view points and focal points. It was slowly adapted for several different media. This is the part that I find interesting. There are novels, movies, radio series, TV series, LPs. The whole story takes on so many forms and so many different episodes.  This reminds me of Ancient Greek plays. In most Greek plays the audience is given only a small episode in a very large story. The larger story is written episode by episode by different playwrights with different focuses.

Aeschylus was one of the earliest playwrights whose works survive. He wrote an Oedipus play of which very little survives, but Euripides and Sophocles also wrote Oedipus plays, the most famous being that of Sophocles. Euripides’ Oedipus is also a fragmented work, but it is known that there are some major differences like Oedipus being blinded before the truth is revealed that Laius is his father.

Another play covered by all three of these writers is Philoctetes. This compares perfectly to the way Hitchhiker’s Guide was written because Douglas Adams discovered that the central point of his series was the book while writing the first series. The hitchhikers guide comes out of a small plot point made in his original series about an alien looking for a special book. This very minute point was then expanded to become a huge work of its own. The same happened with Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a character mentioned in passing in Homer’s Iliad. Each of these playwrights expanded on the passing mention made by Homer to create a new story, and certainly borrowed from those who had written the plays before them.  It is also important to note that since the plays were performed at a yearly competition they were sometimes rewritten and performed again in order to gain better favor in the contest.

For commentary on the 3 Philoctetes plays see the writings Dio Chrysostom. Aeschylus and Euripides plays are in fragments and most of what is known about them comes from this source.

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The Walking Dead, Gladiator Games, and Roman Empire Politics

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read further if you have not seen at least to the mid-season break of the current Walking Dead season!

I have been dying to find a link between The Walking Dead and the classical world for some time now and this season the creators of the show decided to just lob in a softball for me. In this season with the addition of The Governor of Woodbury, there have been some awesome twists and a couple of potential references to the Classics, but none more obvious than the arena fighting. Depending on the way things turn out I may come back to this season to discuss some similarities to Roman Empire politics, but that will have to wait. For now let’s jump into The Walking Dead’s version of the Colosseum. First some Colosseum facts, this is not Coliseum the punk rock band (I don’t know of them, but MS Word tells me this is the correct spelling, I say it is the rock spelling not the amphitheater spelling, and Colosseum gets an underline even though I know it’s correct, bizarre).  The COLOSSEUM was built in 72AD under the emperor Vespasian and was finished in 80AD. Some scholars say, and I believe it is commonly accepted now, that it was built by four different “architecture firms” and that is why parts are deteriorating at different rates. It is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater in case the whole Colosseum and Coliseum debate bothers you.

The important part of the Colosseum, for this posts purposes, is that gladiatorial games took place there as well as in many smaller amphitheaters throughout Italy. In the most recent season of The Walking Dead, The Governor decided that similar bloodshed was a great way to entertain the people of Woodbury. In Rome the gladiators were often slaves, criminals, or (as seen in the famous Russel Crowe movie) prisoners of war. The Governor makes a similar decision when he places Daryl and Merle in the ring against each other. I think we can call Daryl a prisoner of war now that a true war has broken out between the prison and Woodbury.

The parallels between Woodbury and Ancient Rome after the fall of the republic are quite striking. The people are living in a time of great fear and panic in both situations. A “great” ruler leads them into a peaceful time and earns the respect of the people he governs. Both hold over his people the power of life and death (we’ve seen this a handful of times with the governor). The governor like some emperors of Rome decided the best way to please the people was to hold these bloodbaths. He does add an interesting component by placing the walkers (zombies) in the arena although since the walkers are often seen as animalistic and not human I would say this compares to putting lions and other animals in the Colosseum.  After the scene of the arena style fighting in The Walking Dead it is revealed that the winner of fights was often predetermined. This was known to occur in Ancient Rome as well.  The arena fighting in this show was clearly meant to evoke the gladiatorial games.

During the decline of the Roman Empire Juvenal wrote that the Roman people only wanted two things, “Panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” He actually says, “The common people-rather than caring about their freedom-are only interested in bread and circuses” (Satire 10.81). This is also true of the people of Woodbury. They will follow their leader as long as he provides them with the comforts of home, food and entertainment. It is incredible that we continue to show the same scenes of what happens in times of great instability, but in most cases people are put in power who take advantage of that situation. We shall see how The Walking Dead turns out, but I think The Governor is just a serial killer, psychopath who had enough charm and guns to make people follow him. Charm and an Army got Julius Caesar pretty far, and even put his (adopted) son in power for years after his assassination.

Juvenal Book IV Satire X ll 78-81:

nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses

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