Sports, Games, Gambling, Entertainment and Pets in Ancient Greece

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boxing children at the the
Minoan site of Akrotiri
The Greeks loved competition. Musicians and poets, as well as athletes, were pitted against one another in contests, and even dramatic plays were staged as tournaments with the winner being selected by a jury. There were also competitions for drinking, singing and male beauty. Socrates believed that arts and sports were the most important factors in man's development. There were also associations with the gods. Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus, were the gods of boxing, wrestling and equestrian sports.

Athletics had been around before original Olympics. Homer describes chariot races, wrestling, weigh throwing and running events sponsored by Achilles to honor a Patroclcus. Mesopotamians and Egyptian didn't have organized sport. While the Greeks had the Olympics, the Romans had gladiator contests.

For the Greeks there was an aesthetic, even sexuality, to sports. “Each age has its beauty,” Aristotle wrote. “In youth, it lies in the possession of a body capable of enduring all kinds of contest...while the young man is himself a pleasant delight to behold.”

Cockfighting predates Christ by at least 500 years. Believed to have originated in China or India, it was practiced by the ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans, who identified it with Eros, the God of Love and passed it on to medieval Europe.

Sometimes music and poetry contests were staged in conjunction with Olympic-style athletic competitions. Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “There was anciently a contest held at Delphi, of players on the cithara, who executed a paean in honor of the god. It was instituted by the Delphians. But after the Crisaean war the amphictyons, in the time of Eurylochus, established contests for horses and gymnastic sports, in which the victor was crowned. These were called Pythian games, in addition to the musical contests.” [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Books “Ancient Greek Athletics” by Stephen G. Miller (Yale University Press, 2004). Exhibitions: Games of the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; The Games in Ancient Athens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Purpose of Sport in Ancient Greece

Nike crowning an athlete
Winning was everything in ancient Greek sports. The Greeks were primarily into individual sports in which there was only one winner. Contestants did not bother to enter events in which they thought they were going to lose. Winners received a crown of wild olives branches and prestige — that was sometimes worth a lot of money. Losers did not shake the hands of the victor and they returned to their hometowns "by back ways...sore smitten by misfortune." The sportsmanship sometimes manifested in the modern Olympics is something that mainly comes from upperclass Englishmen. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Sport was seen as more than just sport. In his book “ Ancient Greek Athletics” Stephen G. Miller wrote: “Athletics was not simply about competition; it concerned winning a prize. Sport for sport’s sake was not an ancient concept...There was an acceptance at both popular and philosophical levels, of prime imaginative and imitative purpose in play, an understanding, essentially that, all games were war games.”

In addition to sport there was athletics for exercise. This was carried out at gymnasiums and the primary purpose was prepare and train and keep them in shape afterwards (every citizen under 60 could be called up for military service). Physical fitness was only viewed as something one did for himself; it was a civic duty integral to preservation of the state. At the gymnasiums, older men taught boys about their duties to the community, proper behavior and how to carry oneself as a man.

Sacrifices and Greek Sport

Sacrifice of a boar
Sacrifices were held to mark the beginning of special events and to commemorate the birthdays of the important gods and goddesses. Wine, barley and blood of the sacrificed cattle, pigs and sheep were offered on the altars of the gods and then consumed by the people attending the sacrifice to symbolize the union between mortals and gods. Sports competition were sometimes seen contests for divine favor.

The Olympic games began with the sacrifices of a pig to honor Zeus and a black ram to honor Pelops. During the games a three-month truce was declared and all the athletes attending the games were guaranteed safe passage. At the games themselves spectators and contestants were required to leave their weapons outside the stadium before they entered.◂

Ancient Greek Poetry Competitions

A large annual dramatic and lyrical festival and competition honoring Dionysus was held in the city Dionysia in Athens. It began with a religious procession, culminating in songs, choral dances and sacrifices. The main events featured choral songs called dithyrambs. Dithyrambs were performed by a "circular chorus" of 50 men and boys who sang and danced around an altar in the orchestra area of a theater.

Tribal choruses competed against one another in festivals sponsored by wealthy citizens. The first prize was a bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus, second prize was an amphora of wine, and third prize was a goat. At this point in time music, poetry and drama were essentially the same thing and the subjects of the poem-songs were the Greek myths and episodes from the “ Iliad” and “ Odyssey. Fertility festivals started dying out around this time because the harvests and rains they promised to deliver failed to arrive. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Each of the ten Athenian tribes sponsored two dithyramb choruses: one made up of men and other of boys. A wealthy patron paid for the costuming and training for the chorus members and a poet — who composed a poem for the events and choreographed the dances — and a trainer and flutist. It is thought the chorus members circled an altar in the theater and did some dance steps as they did. The chorus also sang and danced during interludes between the dramatic plays.

The contest are said to go back a long time. There is one story of Homer facing off against his younger rival Hesoid, with Hesoid taking first prize because his book “Work and Days” , a long poem about farming, was deemed more “useful” than the “Iliad”.

Ancient Greek Sports

Ancient Greek football player
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played ball games but ball games were dismissed as children’s games and not held in the Olympics. The Greeks played ball game called “phainmuda “ that is similar to netball. “ Episkyros “ was team game that required dodging and marking in a relatively small space. Hockey is one of the oldest stick and ball games. Early forms of hockey were played in ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia.

John Fox wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Ball games and team sports “have become so integral to our very notion of sport that it would be unthinkable to host the” Olympics Games without them. “But the elevation of ball play to Olympic status is an entirely modern phenomenon. It would have been equally unthinkable in Classical times for an object as fun and frivolous as the ball to have been allowed entry to the hallowed sanctuary of Olympia. [Source: John Fox, Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2012. Fox is the author of “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game”.]

"It's not that the Greeks didn't love to play ball. When Odysseus was shipwrecked on the shore of Phaeacia, he encountered the beautiful princess Nausicaa playing an ancient version of dodgeball with her maids. While oxen were being sacrificed and athletes rubbed down with olive oil to compete for Zeus' honor at Olympia, ordinary Greeks were playing a silly game called ephedrismos, in which players mounted on the shoulders of teammates threw a ball at a target or to another pair of players. Scenes of women and men playing variations of this strange game of people polo appear repeatedly on painted jars and statues of the Classical period, and in much earlier scenes from ancient Egypt — suggesting it was more than just a passing fad.

"More reminiscent of today's competitive team sports was episkyros, a rugby-like game played by two teams of a dozen or so players with a feather-stuffed leather ball. The 4th century playwright Antiphanes vividly described a game in progress, handing down possibly history's first play-by-play sports commentary: "He caught the ball and laughed as he passed it to one player at the same time as he dodged another ... and all the while there were screams and shouts: Out of bounds! Too far! Past him! Over his head!"

The ancient Chinese, Greeks, Indians and Persians also practiced forms of tumbling and acrobatics to prepare for battle. The word gymnastics is derived from the Greek word for "naked" (“gymnos” ). The sport was revived in the 1700s in Germany as an activity for schoolchildren.

Entertainment in Ancient Greece

Traveling puppets provided entertainment in ancient Greece and Rome. Magic as a form of entertainment was known to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks were one of the first people to use advertising. Announcers shouted announcements during the lulls of cattle actions and handbills made of papyrus were tacked up at community bulletin boards. Prostitutes at Ephesus advertised their services outside the doorway of the brothel with an inscription of a foot and a woman with a mohawk haircut.◂

“Kottoabis” is one of the world first known drinking games, A fixture of all-night parties and reportedly even played by Socrates, the game involved flinging the dregs left over from a cup of wine at a target. Usually the participants sat in a circle and tossed their dregs at the basin in the center.

Ancient Greek Parties and Symposia

Banquet scene
A “ symposium “ was a dinner party with family, friends or associates. It generally began with a bout of drinking, followed by a big meal. There were often rules to ensure equality. Conversation topics included philosophy, politics, gossip. For a short period Greeks used birthday cakes.

The word symposia was used to describe the party and the place were it was held and is the source of the modern word symposium. The parties were usually lead by a feast master. Sometimes the guests wore garlands. Some people drank heavily; others held back.

There are vivid description of party entertainment in Xenophon’s dialogue “Symposium” (380 B.C.). The host pays a man from Syracuse to bring traveling performers (probably slaves), a girl flutists, acrobats, a dancing girl and a boy who dances and plays the “kithara”, a kind of lyre. The group played music and did performances involving music, dance, acrobatics and mine. The girl juggled hoops, performed acrobatic stunts over a hoop rimmed with knives, and acted out mythical love scenes with the boy. Socrates, one of the guests, was quite taken with the boy.

The citizens of Sybaris in present-day southern Italy were such big partiers they reportedly banned roosters so the populous would not be woken to early in the morning. They also supposedly had wine piped directly from the vineyards to the city.

See Separate Article on Symposia

Games and Toys in Ancient Greece

Toy horse from the 10th century BC
Excavated toys and include push carts, terra cotta tops, marbles, knucklebones, ivory counters, ivory dolls, dancing dolls with movable arms and castanets. Archaeologists have also found dice with the same number configurations as modern dice and a baby feeder inscribed with words "drink, don't drop." Monkeys and dogs were kept as pets, and a few lucky children even got to have pet cheetahs. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Among the toys at the "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from The Classical Past” exhibit were baby dolls and baby rattles in the shape of pigs. Kids seem to have been particularly fond of knuckbones made from the ankles of sheep and goats, They threw them like dice and carried them around in little pouch, John Oakley, a classics professor at the College of William and Mary told U.S. News and World Report, “they’re all over the place.” Girls were encouraged to juggle to improve their motor skills.

The word "marble" comes from the Greek “marmaros” , which means polished white agate. Marbles made from polished jasper and agate, dated at 1435 B.C., have been found in Crete. Yo yos are also believed to have been used in ancient Greece where they were made from wood, metal and terra cotta.

Children in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome made hoops from dried and stripped grapevines and rolled them down the street with a rod. Rattles made with dried gourds filled with clay balls or pebbles were discovered in children's tombs dated at 1360 B.C. They were shaped like birds, pigs and bears. Rattles were also used in ancient rituals to scare off evil spirits. The earliest dolls were images and idols of gods. Playing with idols was considered sacrilegious so the first true dolls were model or ordinary people played with by children. Early females dolls had breasts and male dolls had penises.

Greeks and Romans had dolls with human hair and movable limbs that joined to hip, shoulder and knee sockets with pins. Most Greek dolls were females. The few male Roman dolls that have been found were mostly male soldiers fashioned from wax and clay. By the Christian era infant dolls were popular and children dressed painted dolls in miniature clothes and placed them in doll houses.

Gambling in Ancient Greece

Ajax and Achilles playing a game

According to Sophocles the Greeks invented dice during the siege of Troy. Plato claimed that God invented dice and gave specific credit to the Egyptian deity Theuth. Herodotus attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who he said introduced them during a time of famine so the masses could keep themselves entertained on days they were not allowed to eat. Another story attributes the game to the Greek hero Palamedes to keep his soldiers from getting bored during the Trojan war. Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C.

Dice were usually made of ivory or bone. Like modern dice the numbers were positioned so that the ones on opposite side always added up to seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5 and 3 and 4.

Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. Almost all the ancient civilizations used dice, which developed from astragali — six sided bones, with four flat sides, that came from the ankle bones of hoofed animals. Astragali were used in board games by Egyptians, possibly as early as 3500 B.C. The bones from sheep were most commonly used. Those from antelope were particularly prized.

The Romans loved games of chance and were particularly fond of dice and liked to throw pairs of them from a cup. Dice have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some scholars even said the dice were loaded (dice that weighted on one side so that a certain number is more likely to appear) but offered little evidence to back up the claim. The Romans believed dice were invented by the goddess Fortuna.

The Roman emperors Augustus, Domitian, Commodus, Caligula and Claudius were all big fans of dice. Claudius even wrote a treatise on how to be a top player and is said to have wagered 400,000 sesterces on a single roll of the dice ( the annual salary of a soldier was around 1,200 sesterces). He also reportedly had a special board built into his chariot that allowed him to play dice and other games even on the bumpiest of roads. The politician Seneca said that his gambling was such a vice that deserved to rot in a hell where he would eternally pick up dice and place them in a cup that has no bottom.

Ancient Greek Pets

5th century BC monkey figurine
The ancient Greeks and Romans possessed hounds that hunted using scent. The Greeks used mastiff-like dogs to track lions in Africa. In 350 B.C., Aristotle described three kinds of dogs, including swift Laconians used to chase and kill rabbits and deer.

Dogs in ancient Greece were not fed. They were expected to catch their meals. The Romans fed their dogs. A burial site in Athens has revealed a dog buried with a leather collar.

Homer wrote about dogs: “As they were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy....As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master [and] Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after 20 years.” [Odyssey, Book 17]

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “Evidence for love of dogs in the ancient world is abundant, from Homer's account of Argos waiting for his master to return from the Trojan War to the careful burials of cherished pets all over the world. And, as many owners also know, dogs live for treats. Even in the afterlife, their owners liked to spoil them. Behind the Stoa of Attalos, the main public building of the ancient Athenian market, a fourth-century grave was found containing the skeleton of a dog with a large beef bone near his head.” [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

Greyhounds in Ancient Greece

A greyhound reportedly saved Alexander the Great from a charging elephant. The name greyhound is believed to derived from the word “ Grauis” , meaning Grecian. The first accurate description of a grey hound is attributed to Ovid (63 B.C. to A.D. 17)

Greyhounds are regarded as the world's oldest breed of dog along with the dingo, New Guinea singing dog, and African basenji. They were pictured in mural from a settlement in Turkey dating to 4000 B.C. By some reckonings the oldest dog breed, the saluki, is thought to have emerged in 329 B.C.

Greyhounds were raised and bred by Egyptians and were pictured in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. The oldest reference to a greyhound is a carving of the Tomb of Amten in the Nile Valley, dated between 2900 and 2751 B.C. It shows three images greyhound or greyhound-type dogs. Two are attacking deer and one is attacking an animal that looks like a wild goat.

Extremely fast and maneuverable, greyhounds were used for hunting animals such as gazelles and wolves and coursing hares. Over the centuries they have been used to pursue all kinds of animals including deer and foxes. Their natural prey is hares.

Greyhounds were linked with royalty, who treated their dogs so well that ordinary people resented them because they were treated better than people. The dogs of some pharaohs had 2,000 attendants.

Dog Sacrifices in Ancient Greece

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “ Sacrificing dogs to appease supernatural forces was part of religious traditions in ancient Greece, where the Spartans slaughtered dogs to ensure victory in battle. Homer wrote: “Patroclus had owned nine dogs who ate beside his table. Slitting the throats of two of them, Achilles tossed them on the pyre.” (Homer, Iliad, Book 23) [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

Some dog sacrifices are on a more massive scale. In 1937, archaeologists excavating in the Agora, the main marketplace of ancient Athens, made a stunning discovery — a well containing bones from hundreds of people, including approximately 450 newborns, and from more than 100 dogs. According to Lynn M. Snyder, who is re-examining the animal bones from the well, the infants likely died of natural causes. But she believes the dogs were "most likely sacrificed as part of a purification ritual after a birth, whether successful or not." Several ancient Greek sources identify dogs as the victims of choice to cleanse the pollution caused by both death and childbirth.

But dogs weren't just sacrificed in antiquity. In Hungary, a team excavating a site in the medieval town of Kaná just outside Budapest, discovered more than 1,000 dog bones, about 12 percent of all the mammal bones at the site. From these, Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eoetvoes Loránd University in Budapest identified five puppies, buried in pots, that were sacrificed and placed into the construction trenches of several buildings. Daróczi-Szabó believes that the puppies and several other dog burials at the site were intended to ward off evil, a custom that survived in Hungary into the 20th century. Although similar sacrifices have been found at other Hungarian excavations, especially of religious sites, Daróczi-Szabó was surprised by the pots from the domestic contexts at Kaná. "From these kinds of sacrificial pots, dog remains are very rare," she says. "More often eggs or chicken bones are found. So I was very excited by these finds." Daróczi-Szabó believes they suggest the practice of dog sacrifice was quite common during the Middle Ages in Hungary. "Despite the formal institution of Catholicism by the first Hungarian king, István I (1000-1038), who banned pagan rituals, it shows that part of the population still maintained these rituals in spite of the ideological dominance of Christianity."

Then there is the question dogs being guardians of the soul. Many ancient people assumed they would encounter dogs in the afterworld, from readers of the Rig Veda, the Vedic Sanskrit hymns composed in India in the second millennium B.C., to Greeks and Romans reared on tales of Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the entrance to Hades.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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