Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Funeral Games Grand Prix

Whilst the first Grand Prix motor race was held at Le Mans in 1906, the first de facto Grand Prix was actually the chariot race at the Funeral Games, held in honour of Patroclus, ca. 580 BC. Surprisingly, therefore, the first Grand Prix journalist was Homer, who published his race report in the Illiad 23.

Although the games were organised by Achilles (a chariot dealer from South Athens who had made good), the entry list for the first Grand Prix was disappointingly small, consisting of only five charioteers: Eumelus, Diomedes, Antilochus, Menelaus, and Meriones.

As the race approached its pivotal point. Eumelus was leading from Diomedes, but Diomedes was gaining ground, and making full use of what appeared to be an ancient Greek version of KERS. "Diomedes' stallions...seemed ever like to mount upon Eumelus' car, and with their breath his back waxed warm and his broad shoulders, for right over him did they lean their heads as they flew along."

Then, just as Diomedes was about to duck out of the slipstream and take the lead, he committed an error of concentration, lost his whip, and dropped behind as his horsepower plummeted. Eumelus now looked to be heading for a certain victory, but in chariot racing anything can happen, and usually does.

Without warning Eumelus' chariot suffered an axle failure, with disastrous consequences: "The mares swerved to this side and that of the course, and the pole was swung to the earth; and Eumelus himself was hurled from out the car beside the wheel, and from his elbows and his mouth and nose the skin was stripped, and his forehead above his brows was bruised; and both his eyes were filled with tears and the flow of his voice was checked."

As Eumelus licked his wounds, Diomedes raced to victory, and the crowd's attention switched to the battle for second. Menelaus was leading Antilochus, but the latter refused to accept defeat:

"Then quickly did Antilochus, staunch in fight, espy a narrow place in the hollow road. A rift there was in the ground, where the water, swollen by winter rains, had broken away a part of the road and had hollowed all the place. There drave Menelaus in hope that none other might drive abreast of him. But Antilochus turned aside his single-hooved horses, and drave on outside the track, and followed after him, a little at one side...the mares of [Menelaus] gave back, for of his own will he forbare to urge them, lest haply the single-hooved horses should clash together in the track, and overturn the well-plaited cars, and themselves be hurled in the dust in their eager haste for victory. Then fair-haired Menelaus chid Antilochus, and said: 'Antilochus, than thou is none other of mortals more malicious. Go, and perdition take thee, since falsely did we Achaeans deem thee wise. Howbeit even so shalt thou not bear off the prize without an oath'."

As the chariots crossed the finishing line, Diomedes was first, Antilochus second and Menelaus third. The result was then cast into doubt, however, when Menelaus lodged a protest with the organisers over Antilochus' driving. Summoned by the stewards, Antilochus was asked to demonstrate his innocence by swearing an oath to Zeus. Fearful of being on the receiving end of a thunderbolt which would prohibit his further participation in chariot racing, Antilochus accepted responsibility, but was permitted to retain his second place finish. Diomedes, for his part, was almost forgotten in the controversy, but as the winner he duly received a slave woman and a cauldron as his prize.

So, whilst the cauldrons are now made of Waterford crystal, it seems that little else has changed.

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