Ancient Greek Olympics: Their History, Atmosphere and Purpose

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Panathenaic amphora Kleophrades
The ancient Olympics first took place in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece. According to the Canadian Museum of History: Olympia was “a sacred site dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods. (Located in the Alpheus river valley in southern Greece, Olympia should not be confused with Mount Olympus, located in northern Greece and legendary home of the major Greek gods.) Olympia was not only the original site of the Olympics; it was the permanent venue for 293 successive Olympics.... Because it was a pagan festival it conflicted with the growth and spread of Christianity and Roman emperors, who were Christian, banned the Olympics around 400 AD. [Source: Canadian Museum of History ]

The ancient Olympic games were held every four years for over 1150 years — from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393., quite a remarkable feat when one considers the modern Olympics have been around for slightly over a century and the Mediterranean region experienced great changes and upheavals during the time the ancient Olympics were conducted.

The ancient Olympics games lasted for five days — three days of major competition, and a day each for an opening and closing ceremony. Running and field events were held the first day. Horse and chariot races were on the second day and the wrestling and boxing events were held on the forth day. The number of contestants varied from year to year in each event and it was not unusual to have over 40 racers flying around the narrow track in the chariot races.

There were usually about 300 athletes competing in 15 to 18 events. Athletic and running competitions were held in the stadium and horse and chariot races were held in the hippodrome. Since athletic contests began as part of a religious ceremony no admission was charged. Money for the construction of buildings and temples was supplied by donations from rich patrons and from booty claimed in wars with neighboring city states. Women were not allowed to attend men's competitions and any woman caught at the games ran the risk of being thrown off a cliff. [Source: Lionel Casson, Smithsonian, February 1990]

What is known about the ancient Olympics comes from ancient texts and excavations at Olympia and other sites. There are many depictions of athletes and sporting events on vases and sculptures. Many of the texts were written by people who did not witness the events themselves and sometimes wrote them centuries after they happened.

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: “The Ancient Olympics” by Nigel Spivey (Oxford University Press, 2004); “The Olympics: Myth, Fraud and Barbarism” by Kyriakos Simopouls; “The Naked Olympics” . By Tom Perrottet (Random House 2004); “A Brief History of the Olympics” by David Young, a classics professor at the University of Florida (Blackwell Press, 2004).

Early History of the Olympics in Ancient Greece

Ancient Olympic starting line
According to the Canadian Museum of History “For the first dozen or so Olympic games there was only one athletic event and that was the stadion or 200 meter (210 yard) race. The distance corresponded to the length of the stadium track. Later, other events were added. In the beginning the athletic contest lasted only one day but that was later increased with the addition of other competitions. The athletes, all male, competed naked. Since there were no stopwatches, there are no records of the winning times but the names of the winners and the various events they won over the years were carefully documented. Records show that in 724 B.C. a 400 meter (420 yd.) race was added and then, in succeeding years, other events (wrestling, boxing, chariot races, pentathlon, and longer distance races) were also included, increasing the success and popularity of the games. | [Source: Canadian Museum of History ]

Some say that ancient Greek history began with the first Olympiad in 776 B.C. Pythagoras said life is "like the great and crowded assembly at the Olympics Games." They were so important that yearly time was marked in four year units between Olympics. Year one was the year first quarter of the 195th Olympiad.

Informal games had been held for several centuries before the Olympics began. The Olympics themselves grew out of funerary games held in honor of the Greek god Zeus. A cult to worship Zeus formed sometime the 10th century B.C. There are several myths describing how the Olympics came into existence. In one, Kronos and Zeus fought for possession of the Earth at Olympia, and the games became a commemoration of Zeus's victory. Another says the Olympics were instituted by a warrior named Pelops to celebrate his marriage to Hippodamia. Pelops had won his bride by killing her father in a chariot race in which the warrior bribed a charioteer to pull a pin out of the axle on the father's chariot.◂

Origin of the Olympics

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “Traditionally it has always been said that the Games started at Olympia in 776 B.C. about the time that Homer was born. But for several centuries before that date Olympia had been a cult site for the worship of Zeus, a numinous location away from human dwellings, overlooked by a hill, with the sacred River Alph flowing through it. [Source:Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011. Instone is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He has written widely on Pindar and ancient Greek athletics, and was an advisor to the BBC TWO programme 'First Olympians'.|::|]

“What was it that caused people to change from honouring Zeus solely with dedicatory offerings, to honouring him through athletics? Several factors seem to have been involved. One is the rise of the Greek polis, or city-state. As city-states in different locations grew, each wanted a means of asserting its supremacy, so would send representatives to Olympia to become supreme in physical competition. |::|

“Connected with this is the development of military training. The Games were an attractive means of getting men fit. Another factor is the traditional Greek view that the gods championed a winner, so by establishing a competition aimed at producing supreme winners, they were thereby asserting the power and influence on humans of the supreme god, Zeus.” |::|

Later History of the Olympics in Ancient Greece

The golden age of the Olympics was the late 6th century to the early 5th century B.C. with the peak was perhaps in 476 and B.C. After that the games were marred by refusal of the city states to accept Olympia’s authority over the games, divisions within Greece and war. The games went through a period of ups and downs after the Romans took over Greece in 146 B.C., with a low reached when Nero was emperor (See Below).

Contrary to myth wars were not called off during the Olympics but there appeared to have been times when truces were called during fighting to accommodate the Olympics. For a brief period in the 5th century an Olympics appeals board settled disputes involving the city states that participated in the Olympics.

Many of the political problems that have tarnished the modern Olympics were present in the ancient Greek games. In 424 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were banned. Once during a wrestling match, spectators had to run for cover when a military force from Elis chose that moment to launch an attack. Fighting went into the night in the middle of some of Olympia’s most sacred temples with spectators cheering the combatants. But no matter how bad things got the Olympics were never canceled, not even as the Persians prepared to invade and Athens and Sparta fought in the Peloponnesian War.


Olympia (10 kms from Pirgos in western Peloponnese) held its first competitions over 3000 years ago. The early events included wrestling, chariot racing and horse racing as well artistic and literary competitions. The prize given to the winners was a crown of olive branches that was always cut from the same tree. A common practice for the winners in his home town was to knock down the city walls.

Olympia is beautifully situated on a fertile plain, surrounded by mountains and forests with pines, oaks and olive trees ten miles from the sea. The Cladeus river used wind through Olympia but it changed course covering the valley with silt. A proper town was not really built until after the arrival of the Olympics. As the popularity of the Olympics grew so to did the town. The stadium was moved slightly from its original position and both the track and and spectator facilities were improved. A new temple of Zeus was built between the games in 476 B.C. and 456 B.C.

When you visit the archeological site of Olympia the first place you come to is the Prytaneion where the winners ceremonies took place. To the south is the Doric temple dedicated to the Hera, goddess of the Seasons. Special running races were held here that only virgins from Eleia were allowed to participate in. Nearby is a Temple dedicated to Zeus that used to house an ivory and gold statue of the god.

Another set of ruins located a short distance away includes the wrestling school, gymnasium and baths. At the foot of a small mountain small edifices were raised by each city-state to house jars which contained the blood of sacrificed animals. Next to this is a semicircular marble tank that held Olympia's water supply and near hear is the stadium where the events where held. It is possible to walk through the same tunnel used by the naked athletes as entered the stadium with up to 40,000 spectators cheering.

According to UNESCO: “The site of Olympia, in a valley in the Peloponnesus, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the 10th century B.C., Olympia became a centre for the worship of Zeus. The Altis – the sanctuary to the gods – has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces from the ancient Greek world. In addition to temples, there are the remains of all the sports structures erected for the Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia every four years beginning in 776 B.C. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

Zeus Temple in Olympia

“The sanctuary of Olympia, in the North West of the Peloponnese, in the Regional Unit of Eleia (Elis), has been established in the valley created by the confluence of the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers in a natural setting of beauty and serenity. The Pan-Hellenic sanctuary has been established in the history of culture, as the most important religious, political and sports centre, with a history that dates back to the end of the Neolithic times (4th millennium B.C.). The famous sanctuary became the centre of worship of Zeus, the father of the twelve Olympian gods. For the Altis, the sacred grove and the centre of the sanctuary, some of the most remarkable works of art and technique have been created, constituting a milestone in the history of art. Great artists, such as Pheidias, have put their personal stamp of inspiration and creativity, offering unique artistic creations to the world. In this universal place, the Olympic Idea was born, making Olympia a unique universal symbol of peace and competition at the service of virtue. Here, too, prominence was given to the ideals of physical and mental harmony, of noble contest, of how to compete well, of the Sacred Truce; values, which remain unchanged in perpetuity. =

The sanctuary of the Altis contained one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces of the ancient Mediterranean world. Many have been lost, such as the Olympia Zeus, a gold-and-ivory cult statue which was probably destroyed by Pheidias between 438 and 430 B.C. and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Other masterpieces have survived: large votive archaic bronzes, pedimental sculptures and metopes from the temple of Zeus, and the famous complex of Hermes by Praxiteles. These are all major works of sculpture and key references in the history of art. =

Olympia’s Importance

According to UNESCO:“The influence of the monuments of Olympia has been considerable: the temple of Zeus, built in 470-457 B.C. is a model of the great Doric temples constructed in the Peloponnese, as well as in southern Italy and in Sicily during the 5th century B.C. ; the Nike by Paionios, sculptured circa 420 B.C. so lastingly influenced iconographic allegories of victory that neoclassic art of the 19th century is still much indebted to it; the Olympian Palaestra with reference to the Roman period, a square and an open space for athletes’ training as well as a place for their mental and physical preparation before the Games, is undoubtedly the typological reference made by Vitruvius in “De Architectura”. Its value as a standard in architecture is in any case indisputable. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

Olympia bears exceptional testimony to the ancient civilizations of Peloponnese, both in terms of duration and quality. The first human settlements date back to prehistoric times when the valley was occupied from 4000 to 1100 B.C. . Settlements and necropolises from the Bronze Age have been unearthed along the banks of the Alpheios river. The Middle Helladic and Mycenaean periods are represented at the site. Consecrated to Zeus, the Altis is a major sanctuary from the 10th century B.C. to the 4th century AD, corresponding to the zenith of Olympia, marked more specifically by celebration of the Olympic Games from 776 B.C. to 393 AD. A Christian settlement survived for a time at the site of the ruins of the great Pan-Hellenic sanctuary: discovery of the workshop of Pheidias under the remains of a Byzantine church is an outstanding indication of continuous human settlement, which was interrupted only in the 7th century AD, as a result of natural disasters. =

“Olympia is an outstanding example of a great Pan-Hellenic sanctuary of antiquity, with its multiple functions: religious, political and social. Ancient sanctuaries, such as the Pelopion and a row of Treasuries to the north at the foot of Kronion Hill, are present within the peribolus of the Altis, consecrated to the gods, alongside the principal temples of Zeus and Hera. All around the divine precinct are the structures used by the priests (Theokoleon) and the administration (Bouleuterion), as well as common buildings (Prytaneion), accommodation (Leonidaion and Roman hostel), residences for distinguished guests (Nero’s House), and all the sports structures used for the preparation and celebration of the Olympic Games: the stadium and the hippodrome to the east, and the thermal baths, the Palaestra and the Gymnasium to the south and west. =

relief of the pentathlon

“Olympia is directly and tangibly associated with an event of universal significance. The Olympic Games were celebrated regularly beginning in 776 B.C. . The Olympiad –the four-year period between two successive celebrations falling every fifth year- became a chronological measurement and system of dating used in the Greek world. However, the significance of the Olympic Games, where athletes benefitting from a three-month Sacred Truce came together from all the Greek cities of the Mediterranean world to compete, demonstrates above all the lofty ideals of Hellenic humanism: peaceful and loyal competition between free and equal men, who are prepared to surpass their physical strength in a supreme effort, with their only ambition being the symbolic reward of an olive wreath. The revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 through the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin illustrates the lasting nature of the ideal of peace, justice and progress, which is no doubt the most precious but also the most fragile feature of the world’s heritage. =

Religion in the Ancient Olympics

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “Religion pervaded the ancient Olympics. Zeus was thought to look down on the competitors, favouring some and denying victory to others. 'You could spur on a man with natural talent to strive towards great glory with the help of the gods', says Pindar in a victory-ode. If an athlete was fined for cheating or bribery (human nature stays much the same over a few millennia), the money exacted was used to make a cult statue of Zeus. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“A grand sacrifice of 100 oxen was made to Zeus during the Games, and Zeus the apomuios, or 'averter of flies', was invoked to keep the sacrificial meat fly-free. Olympia was home to one of Greece's great oracles, an oracle to Zeus, with an altar to him consisting of the bonfire-heap created by burnt sacrificial offerings. As the offerings were burnt, they were examined by a priest, who pronounced an oracle - an enigmatic and often ambiguous prediction of the future - according to his interpretation of what he saw. Athletes consulted the oracle to learn what their chances in the Games were. |::|

Politics in the Ancient Olympics

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “The Greeks tried to keep some aspects of politics out of the Olympics, but their efforts met then, as such efforts do now, with limited success. The Olympic truce was meant to lead to a cessation of hostilities throughout Greece, to allow competitors to travel and participate safely, but it was not always observed. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“The great historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, tells how in 420 B.C. the Spartans violated the truce by attacking a fort and dispatching hoplites, and they were therefore banned from the Games. But Lichas, a prominent Spartan, thought of a way round the ban - he entered the chariot race as a Boeotian. When his true nationality was discovered, however, he was given a public flogging at Olympia. |::|

“A victorious athlete brought great honour to his home city. The sixth-century Athenian statesman Solon promoted athletics by rewarding Athenian victors at the Games financially - an Olympic victor would receive 500 drachmae (for comparison, a sheep was worth one drachma). Thucydides represents the maverick Athenian leader Alcibiades as trying to drum up political support in 415 B.C. by boasting of his earlier successes in the Olympic Games. |::|

“And it is clear from the victory odes of Pindar and Bacchylides that the Sicilian tyrants in the fifth century aimed to strengthen their grip on affairs by competing in the equestrian events at the Games, and by commissioning famous poets to compose and publicly perform odes celebrating their victories.”|::|

Ancient Greek Olympic Spectacle

Olympia stadium entrance
The ancient Olympics were more than just a sporting competition: they were a sporting spectacle combined with Carnival-like partying and religious rituals, with some events such as the pentathlon performed to accompaniment of flutes. In addition to more traditional athletic contests there ere also beauty pageants, eating competitions, poetry-reading contests, side shows with magicians and sword swallowers, numerologists, processions, rites, dozens of altars, public banquet halls, snacks such as roasted sow womb and feasts where 100 oxen were slaughtered. The writer Tom Perrottet described them as “the Woodstock of antiquity.”

In the Opening Ceremonies the athletes walked in one by one — naked except for perfumed oils. Each athlete was introduced by name and the name of his father and home city-state by a sacred herald. And this took place a stone’s throw from the 40-foot-high statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Winders of the World. There was no torch ceremony (that was added to the modern games at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin).

Drunks stumbled around after drinking parties called “symposia” . Young boys in make up performed erotic dances. Prostitutes often made as much in the five days of the Olympics as the would make the rest of the year. Vendors selling love potions made with horse sweat and chopped lizard did equally well. A great deal of flirting appears to have gone on even without females in attendance at the events. A messages inscribed in the stadium at Nemea reads: “Look up Mischos in Philippi — he’s cute.”

Olympic Experience in Ancient Greece

Around 40,000 spectators showed up for the Olympics. Admission was free. Spectators spent much of their time on their feet. There were no seats. If one sat down on the embankments that served as stands it was difficult to see. The Greek word “ stadion” literally means “a place to stand.”

At the ancient Olympics there were no hotels. restaurants or public transport — Olympia was essentially empty except for a few caretakers and priests when the Olympics was not going on. There was only one inn and that was reserved for ambassadors and dignitaries. The rich spectators slept in elaborate tents while most everyone else slept underneath the stars or improvised shacks. Many speculate Olympia at the time of the Olympics resembled a shanty town. Nigel Spivey described being there as “persistence inconvenience and unpleasantness in human experience — overcrowded, underequipped, made bearable only by the quality of the spectacle.” Even Aristotle slept with snoring strangers in a shack.

Vendors sold wine, cheese, olives, wine and bread and the water supply system, which consisted of a few wells and cisterns was often over taxed. In mid summer the rivers were often dry. Much of the water was brought in by mule. Sanitation was a big problem. No one bathed. The smell of sweat must have hung heavy in the air. Supplying water and sanitation for such a large crowds was such a problem that people sometimes ied of dehydration and fever. It wasn't until the second century A.D., nearly 900 years after the Olympics had been going on that an aqueduct and a proper waste system was built by Herodes Atticus of Athens, the richest man in Greece at that time.

Cooking fires created a cloud of smoke. Crowds were kept in line by whip-wielding local officials. Biting flies were a big problem and many offerings were left of the altar of Zeus to keep them away. “But of course,” the Athenian philosopher and sports enthusiast Epictetus wrote, “you put up with it tall because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”

Olympia was located in a remote area and getting there no easy task. Many made the entire 340 kilometers journey from Athens by foot. Many died in ship wrecks sailing from places as far away as Spain and the Black Sea. But for Greeks the Olympics were almost the equivalent to Mecca and every able body citizen was expect to attend at least once in their lifetime.

Olympic Spectators

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Among the ancient Greeks, a pilgrimage to Olympia to see the athletic events and to participate in the sacrifices to Zeus and other festivities was something of great importance and many people attended several times. “Those headed off to the Olympics were making a religious pilgrimage and anyone who interfered with their passage was deemed to have committed a sacrilege against Zeus himself- something no Greek would do lightly. Wars were suspended, personal feuds were put on hold, and bandits and mercenaries took a holiday so that the travelers could make their way to and from the Olympic site without fear for their safety. Depending on the distance and the weather, it could be a daunting trip. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“Despite the difficulties a remarkable number of Greeks, including Socrates, made the trip and made it more than once. Socrates offered the following advice to a timid prospective spectator: “What are you afraid of? Don't you walk around all day in Athens? Don't you walk home to have lunch? And again for dinner? And again to sleep? Don't you see that if you string together all the walking that you do in five or six days anyway you can easily cover the distance from Athens to Olympia? |

Thucydides wrote in “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” (c. 404 B.C.): “It was at this time, after the purification, that the Athenians first celebrated the quinquennial festival of the Delian games. There had been, however, even in very early times, a great assembly of the Ionians and the neighboring islanders held at Delos; for they used to come to the feast with their wives and children, as the Ionians now do to the Ephesian festivals, and gymnastic and musical contests were held, and the different cities took up bands of dancers. [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

Pindar’s Olympian Odes

Pindar hailing Olympic champions

Pindar: Olympian Odes (c. 470 B.C.); No. 9: “Fit speech may I find for my journey in the Muses' car; and let me therewith have daring and powers of ample scope. To back the prowess of a friend I came, when Lampromachos won his Isthmian crown, when on the same day both he and his brother overcame. And afterwards at the gates of Corinth two triumphs again befell Epharmostos and more in the valleys of Nemea. At Argos he triumphed over men, as over boys at Athens. And I might tell how at Marathon he stole from among the beardless and confronted the full-grown for the prize of silver vessels, how without a fall he threw his men with swift and coming shock, and how loud the shouting pealed when round the ring he ran, in the beauty of his youth and fair form and fresh from fairest deeds.” [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

No. 10: “Ample is the glory stored for Olympian winners; thereof my shepherd tongue is fain to keep some part in fold. But only by the help of Zeus is wisdom kept ever blooming in the soul. Son of Archestratos, Agesidamos, know certainly that for your boxing I will lay a glory of sweet strains upon your crown of golden olive and will have in remembrance the race of the Locrians in the west.”

No. 11: “Who then won to their lot the new-appointed crown by hands or feet or chariot, setting before them the prize of glory in the games, and winning it by their act? In the foot-race down the straight course of the stadion was Likymnios' son Oionos first, from Nodea had he led his host: in the wrestling was Tegea glorified by Echemos: Doryklos won the prize of boxing, a dweller in the city of Tiryns, and with the four-horse chariot, Samos of Mantinea, Halirrhotios' son: with the javelin Phrastor hit the mark: in distance Enikeus beyond all others hurled the stone with a circling sweep, and all the warrior company thundered a great applause. Then on the evening the lovely shining of the fair-faced moon beamed forth, and all the precinct sounded with songs of festal glee, after the manner which is to this day for triumph.”

No. 13: “Also two parsley-wreaths shadowed his head before the people at the games of Isthmus, nor does Nemea tell a different tale. And of his father Thessalos' lightning feet is recorded by the streams of Alpheos, and at Pytho he has renown for the single and for the double stadion gained both in a single day, and in the same month at rocky Pan-Athenaios a day of swiftness crowned his hair for three illustrious deeds, and the Hellotia seven times, and at the games of Poseidon between seas longer hymns followed his father Ptoiodoros with Terpsias and Eritimos. And how often you were first at Delphi or in the Pastures of the Lion, though with full many do I match your crowd of honors, yet can I no more surely tell than the tale of pebbles on the sea-shore.”

Death and the Dark Side of the Olympics

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Times magazine: “Everything about the ancient Olympics was darker, rougher, more brutal than its modern counterpart... Ancient Games had their origins as somber celebrations of death. The earliest reference in Western literature to funeral games is Homer's description, in the 23rd book of the ''Iliad,'' of the games that Achilles ordered to commemorate the death of his companion, Patroclus; all four of the great Greek athletic competitions that constituted what was called the ''circuit'' — the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian Games, some held every four years, some every two — had their cultic origins either in commemorations of the deaths of mythic mortals or monsters. One anthropological explanation for the close association of ancient Games with funerals is a primitive practice according to which, when someone was killed, a fight to the death would be held between the suspected killer and another man; with the irrefutable logic of superstition, the loser was then judged to have been the guilty party. [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Times magazine, August 8, 2004 ]

“Death was, indeed, by no means a stranger at the Greek Games, particularly in the ''heavy'' events like boxing or pankration, a kind of all-out boxing cum wrestling that was considered the acme of combat sports. But what strikes us now is not even how often athletes died, but how willing to die they were. During a pankration match in the Olympics of 564 B.C., as a competitor lurched around the ring half-dead, his trainer suggested that ''full dead'' was the hero's option: ''What a noble epitaph,'' he is said to have shouted, ''not to have conceded at Olympia!''” Also, “There's a funerary inscription at Olympia that reports, of an Alexandrian fighter nicknamed the Camel, that ''he died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for victory or death.''

“This seems extreme but is entirely in keeping with the Greek ethos. Part of the reason the ancient Games were so uncompromising and often violent has to do with what was at stake. The Greeks, for the most part, had no heaven; with some notable exceptions, good and bad all went to the same gray, characterless, drizzly underworld after death, and that was that. In the absence of a post-mortem reward for moral goodness, the one thing you could strive for was immortal fame — doing something so glorious that men would talk of you in years, centuries, millenniums to come. As anyone who suffered through ''Troy'' knows, this was the all-powerful motivation for the heroes of Homer's ''Iliad,'' but it was also often the motivation for ordinary, real-life inhabitants of the Greek city-states, for whom there was no conceivable earthly achievement higher than an Olympic victory. (Athenian families, at the birth of a baby boy, would place an olive wreath on the front door, signaling their hope that the infant might one day be a victor at the Olympics.)

“And so, whereas today's Olympic committee prefers to ''celebrate humanity'' (an official slogan of contemporary Olympiads), the Greek athlete wanted only to be celebrated himself; it was his one ticket to immortality.” To come in second was perceived as defeat. Pindar described losing athletes returning home in shame: They "shrink down alleyways, bitten by failure."

“It is difficult for us today to conceive of the extent to which a ferocious competitiveness fueled so much of Greek culture, virtually no aspect of which was not somehow organized into a competition; for the inhabitants of a city-state like Athens, civic life was an endless stream of athletic contests, poetry contests, drama contests, beauty contests. For the Greeks, whatever was worth doing was worth competing for — and winning at. It's no accident that three out of the four Games on the ancient circuit were established early in the sixth century B.C. — precisely the historical moment that a new kind of warfare, which required an extraordinary degree of cooperation among infantrymen, was beginning to predominate in Greece, replacing old-style battle with its displays of individual heroism. It's as if, lacking a military outlet for their competitive energies, the Greeks inevitably poured them into these new athletic events. But the desperate rawness of the battlefield — and its stark, all-or-nothing logic — was never very far beneath the surface.

“Victory or death. This, in the end, is the grimly pure ethos of the contest, where there is (however much we like to pretend otherwise) only one winner; you wonder whether this is why the poet Pindar referred to Olympia as the ''mistress of truth.'' Death was the origin of the ancient athletic contests, and the all-or-nothing logic of death hovered over the ancient Games, where there were no illusions about what victory meant, or could often cost. But the kinds of truth about which the pagan Greeks — who lived in intimate, unsentimental and regular contact with death, violence and warfare — had no illusions are precisely those that we like to play down or bury under sentimental and infantilizing trappings: adorable bears, cutesy eagles, rag-doll gods and goddesses. Every four years we all like to indulge in the sentimental fantasy that we're communing with the pure and noble spirit of the classical Greek past. But purity comes at a price, and that price is the truth: what is victory, and what is defeat? “

Critics and Supporters of the Ancient Olympic

pankration foul

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “Not all Greeks admired athletes. 'It isn't right to judge strength as better than good wisdom', Xenophanes wrote sixth to fifth century B.C.. Just because someone has won an Olympic victory, he says, they won't improve the city. The tragedian Euripides expressed similar sentiments in his play Autolycus, now only surviving in fragments. In it he describes how athletes are slaves to their stomachs, but they can't look after themselves, and although they glisten like statues when in their prime, become like tattered old carpets in old age. Galen, physician and polymath of the first century AD, also attacked athletics as unnatural and excessive. He thought that athletes eat too much, sleep too much and put their bodies through too much. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

Xenophon wrote in “Hellenica (c. 370 B.C.): “If one should win a victory thanks to the swiftness of his feet or when competing in the pentathlon there in the sanctuary of Zeus by the streams of Pisa at Olympia, or if one should gain the prize in wrestling or painful boxing, or in that fearful contest people call all-in-fighting, to his fellow citizens he would be thought more glorious to look on than ever, and he would gain from his polis the right to meals at public expense and a gift which would be his personal treasure. And if his victory were won with horses, he would also gain all these things, even though he is not as worthy as I. For our wisdom is better than the strength of men or horses. For even if there were a good boxer among the citizens or one skilled in the pentathlon or wrestling, or, indeed, even if there were a great sprinter, which holds the front rank among the athletic achievements of men, the polis would still not be better governed because of this. A polis would gain little joy if someone should win in competition by the banks of the Pisa, for that victory would not fill its storehouses. [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

Instone wrote for the BBC: “But in the end the detractors of athletics lost out to the sympathisers. The person who most idealised the Olympics was Pindar, from Thebes, midway between Delphi and Athens. Pindar composed odes for victors at the Olympic and other Games in the fifth century B.C. comparing their achievements to those of the great heroes of the past - such as Heracles or Achilles - thus raising them to an almost divine level. He thought that, though mortals, their superhuman feats of strength had temporarily elevated them to another realm and given them a taste of incomparable bliss. 'For the rest of his life the victor enjoys a honey-sweet calm' he writes. |::|

“For Pindar, the Olympics stood out among the Games “'Water is best; gold like fire that is burning during the night is conspicuous outshining great wealth; but if, my heart, you desire song to celebrate the Games, look no further than the sun for another radiant star hotter in the empty day-time sky, nor let us proclaim a contest better than Olympia.'

Other Olympic-Style Gatherings in Ancient Greece

In addition to the Olympics, there were similar sporting competitions held all over Greece and Asia Minor. These included the Nemean Games, Delphi Games, Isthmia Games held near Corinth and the Panathenaea at Athens. They were all founded in the 6th century B.C. Founded in 573 B.C., the Nemean games took place every year and were most similar to the Olympics. The Pythian games were held every four years at Delphi to honor Apollo, and the Nemean games and Ishmian games were held every two years. All these games were scheduled so that there were at least one or two events every year and together they were known as the circuit. Athletes came from as far away as France and Syria to compete and traveled a circuit not unlike the golf or tennis tours of today.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “According to tradition, the most important athletic competitions were inaugurated in 776 B.C. at Olympia in the Peloponnesos. By the sixth century B.C., other Panhellenic (pan=all, hellenikos=Greek) games involving Greek-speaking city-states were being held at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. Many local games, such as the Panathenaic games at Athens, were modeled on these four periodoi, or circuit games. The Pythian games at Delphi honored Apollo and included singing and drama contests; at Nemea, games were held in honor of Zeus; at Isthmia, they were celebrated for Poseidon; and at Olympia, they were dedicated to Zeus, although separate games in which young, unmarried women competed were celebrated for Hera. The victors at all these games brought honor to themselves, their families, and their hometowns. Public honors were bestowed on them, statues were dedicated to them, and victory poems were written to commemorate their feats. Numerous vases are decorated with scenes of competitions and the odes of Pindar celebrate a number of athletic victories. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, \^/]

The victors at all these games brought honor to themselves, their families, and their hometowns and were awarded different plants. . Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” (c. A.D. 175): “A crown of wild olive was given to the victor at Olympia, and laurel at Delphi. And at the Isthmian Games pine leaves, at the Nemean Games parsley, as we know from the cases of Palaemon and Archemorus. But most games have a crown of palm as the prize, and everywhere the palm is put into the right hand of the victor.” [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

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]

The American archaeologist named Stephen Miller, resurrected the Nemea Games in the ancient stadium in Nemea. Nemea is 80 miles south of Athens in the Peloponnesus. Athletes competed almost as they would have in ancient times: they competed barefoot but not in the nude and women were allowed to compete. Some from 500 runners from 28 countries competed in events like the “stadion” dash (89 meters) and the 7.5-kilometer Footsteps of Herakeles race. The winner was crowned with a ring of wild celery taken from a stream near the stadium.

End of the Ancient Greek Olympics

Opening Ceremon of the first modern Olympics in 1896

In the 291st and last ancient Olympiad in 388 A.D. and Armenian prince won the boxing event. Six years later, in A.D. 393, the Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I halted the Olympics as part of an effort to crack down on paganism.

Ancient Olympia was rediscovered in 1766. The revival of the games was first suggest by a Greek poet named Panagiotis Soutsos in 1835. Much of the mythology about amateurism and sportsmanship that lies at the foundation of the modern Olympics is rooted more in Victorian England than ancient Greece.

The Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896 due to the efforts of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin who felt his country needed to shape up after their defeat by the Prussians in 1870. Thirteen countries competed in mostly track and field events. Greece was without a winner until the marathon. The first modern Olympics almost didn't come off at all for financial reasons, but Greek merchant George Averoff came through with $184,000 at the last moment to save the day.◂

The modern games now feature more than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competing in more than 300 events. The Olympic motto is ““citius, altius, fortius” — (swifter, higher, stronger”).

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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