Ancient Olympic Games

Ancient Olympic Games

The Olympic Games (Ancient Greek: τὰ Ὀλύμπιαta Olympia; Modern Greek: Ὀλυμπιακοὶ Ἀγῶνες (Katharevousa), Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες (Dimotiki)Olympiakoi Agones) were a series of athletic competitions held for representatives of various city-states of Ancient Greece held in honor of Zeus. The exact origins of the Games are shrouded in myth and legend but records indicate that they began in 776 BC in Olympia in Greece. They were celebrated until 393 AD when they were suppressed by Theodosius I as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The Games were usually held every four years, or olympiad, as the unit of time came to be known. During a celebration of the Games, an Olympic Truce was enacted so that athletes could travel from their countries to the Games in safety. The prizes for the victors were wreaths of laurel leaves. The Games became a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals. Politicians would announce political alliances at the Games, and in times of war, priests would offer sacrifices to the gods for victory. The Games were also used to help spread Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Olympics also featured religious celebrations and artistic competitions. A great statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world was erected in Olympia to preside over the Games, and no longer stands in Olympia. Sculptors and poets would congregate each olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons.

The ancient Olympics were rather different from the modern Games. There were fewer events, and only free men who spoke Greek could compete (although a woman Bilistiche is also mentioned as a winner). As long as they met the entrance criteria, athletes from any country or city-state were allowed to participate. The Games were always held at Olympia rather than alternating to different locations as is the tradition with the modern Olympic Games.[1] There is one major commonality between the ancient and modern Games, the victorious athletes are honored, feted, and praised. Their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.



An artist's impression of ancient Olympia

To the Greeks it was important to root the Olympic Games in mythology.[2] During the time of the ancient Games their origins were attributed to the gods, and competing legends persisted as to who actually was responsible for the Games' genesis.[3] These origin of traditions have become nearly impossible to untangle, yet a chronology and patterns have arisen that help people understand the story behind the Games.[4] The earliest myths regarding the origin of the Games are recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias. According to the story, the dactyl Herakles (not to be confused with the son of Zeus) and two of his brothers raced at Olympia. He crowned the victor with a laureel wreath, which explains the traditional prize given to Olympic champions.[5][6] The other Olympian gods (so named because they lived permanently on Mount Olympus), would also engage in wrestling, jumping and running contests.[7] Another myth, this one occurring after the aforementioned myth, is attributed to Pindar. He claims the festival at Olympia involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of the Peloponnesus, and Herakles, the son of Zeus. The story goes that after completing his labors, Herakles established an athletic festival to honor his father. Pelops, using trickery, and the help of Poseidon, won a chariot race against a local king and claimed the king's daughter, Hippodamia as his prize.[8] A final myth, also attributed to Pausanias is dated by the historian at 776 BC.[9] For some reason the Games of previous millennia were discontinued and then revived by Lycurgus of Sparta, Iphitos of Elis, and Cleoisthenes of Pisa at the behest of the Oracle of Delphi who claimed that the people had strayed from the gods, which had caused a plague and constant war. Restoration of the Games would end the plague, usher in a time of peace, and signal a return to a more traditional lifestyle.[10] The patterns that emerge from these myths are that the Greeks believed the Games had their roots in religion, that athletic competition was tied to worship of the gods, and the revival of the ancient Games was intended to bring peace, harmony and a return to the origins of Greek life.[11] Since these myths were documented by historians like Pausanias, who lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the 160s AD, it is likely that these stories are more fable than fact.[12]


The games were held to be one of the two central rituals in Ancient Greece, the other being the much older religious festival, the Eleusinian Mysteries.[13]

The games started in Olympia, Greece, in a sanctuary site for the Greek deities near the towns of Elis and Pisa (both in Elis on the peninsula of Peloponnesos). The first Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of the priestess for the goddess, Hera[14] and a second race was instituted for a consort for the priestess who would participate in the religious traditions at the temple.[15]

The Heraea Games, the first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium, were held as early as the sixth century BC. It originally consisted of foot races only, as did the competition for males. Some texts, including Pausanias's Description of Greece, c. AD 175, state that Hippodameia gathered a group known as the "Sixteen Women" and made them administrators of the Heraea Games, out of gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. Other texts related to the Elis and Pisa conflict indicate that the "Sixteen Women" were peacemakers from Pisa and Elis and, because of their political competence, became administrators of the Heraea. Being the consort of Hera in Classical Greek mythology, Zeus was the father of the deities in the pantheon of that era. The Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia housed a 13-metre-high (43 ft) statue in ivory and gold of Zeus that had been sculpted by Phidias circa 445 BC. This statue was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. By the time of the Classical Greek culture, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants.

The historian Ephorus, who lived in the fourth century BC, is believed to have established the use of Olympiads to count years. The Olympic Games were held at four-year intervals, and later, the Greek method of counting the years even referred to these Games, using the term Olympiad for the period between two Games. Previously, every Greek state used its own dating system, something that continued for local events, which led to confusion when trying to determine dates. For example, Diodorus states that there was a solar eclipse in the third year of the 113th Olympiad, which must be the eclipse of 316 BC. This gives a date of (mid-summer) 765 BC for the first year of the first Olympiad.[16] Nevertheless, there is disagreement among scholars as to when the Games began.[17]

The "Exedra" reserved for the judges at Olympia on the north embankment of the stadium

The only competition held then was, according to the later Greek traveller Pausanias who wrote in 175 A.D., the stadion race, a race over about 190 metres (620 ft), measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this foot race.

The Greek tradition of athletic nudity was introduced in 720 BC, either by the Spartans or by the Megarian Orsippus, and this was adopted early in the Olympics as well.

Several groups fought over control of the sanctuary at Olympia, and hence the Games, for prestige and political advantage. Pausanias later writes that in 668 BC, Pheidon of Argos was commissioned by the town of Pisa to capture the sanctuary from the town of Elis, which he did and then personally controlled the Games for that year. The next year, Elis regained control.

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals, but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were more important and more prestigious than the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

Finally, the Olympic Games were suppressed, either by Theodosius I in AD 393 or his grandson Theodosius II in AD 435,[18] as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The site of Olympia remained until an earthquake destroyed it in the 6th century AD.


The "Discobolus" is a copy of a Greek statue c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus thrower

The ancient Olympics were as much a religious festival as an athletic event. The Games were held in honor of the Greek god Zeus, and on the middle day of the Games, 100 oxen would be sacrificed to him.[1] Over time Olympia, site of the Games, became a central spot for the worship of the head of the Greek pantheon and a temple, built by the Greek architect Libon was erected on the mountaintop. The temple was one of the largest Doric temples in Greece.[1] The sculptor Pheidias created a statue of the god made of gold and ivory. It stood 42 feet (13 m) tall. It was placed on a throne in the temple. The statue became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.[1] As the historian Strabo put it,

"... the glory of the temple persisted ... on account both of the festal assembly and of the Olympian Games, in which the prize was a crown and which were regarded as sacred, the greatest games in the world. The temple was adorned by its numerous offerings, which were dedicated there from all parts of Greece."[1]

Artistic expression was a major part of the Games. Sculptors, poets and other artisans would come to the Games to display their works in what became an artistic competition. Sculptors created works like Myron's Diskobolos or Discus Thrower. Their aim was to highlight natural human movement and the shape of muscles and the body. Poets would be commissioned to write prose in honor of the Olympic victors. These poems, known as Epinicians, were passed on from generation to generation and many of them have lasted far longer than any other honor made for the same purpose.[1] Baron Pierre de Coubertin, one of the founders of the modern Olympic Games, wanted to fully imitate the ancient Olympics in every way. Included in his vision was to feature an artistic competition modeled on the ancient Olympics and held every four years, during the celebration of the Olympic Games.[19] His desire came to fruition at the Olympics held in London in 1908.[20]


The Parthenon in Athens, one of the leading city-states of the ancient world

Power in ancient Greece became centered around the city-state in the 8th century BC.[21] The city-state was a population center that became organized into a self-contained political entity.[22] These city-states often lived in close proximity to each other, which created competition for limited resources. Though conflict between the city-states was ubiquitous, it was also in their self-interest to engage in trade, military alliances and cultural interaction.[23] The city-states had a dichotomous relationship with each other, on one hand they relied on their neighbors for political and military alliances, on the other they competed fiercely with those same neighbors for the resources necessary to sustain life.[24] The Olympic Games were established in this political context. Representatives of the city-states would compete against each other at the Games.[25]

In the first 200 years of the Games' existence Olympia had only regional religious importance. Greeks beyond the area immediately around the mountain did not compete in these early Games. This is evidenced by the dominance of Peloponnesian athletes in the victors' rolls.[26] The spread of Greek colonies in the 5th and 6th century BC is repeatedly linked to successful Olympic athletes. For example, Pausanias recounts that Cyrene was founded c. 630 BC by settlers from Thera with Spartan support. The support Sparta gave was primarily the loan of three-time Olympic champion Chionis. The draw of settling with an Olympic champion helped to populate the colonies and maintain cultural and political ties with the city-states in proximity to Olympia. Thus Hellenistic culture and the Games spread while the primacy of Olympia persisted.[27]

The Games faced a serious challenge during the Peloponnesian War, which primarily pitted Athens against Sparta, but in reality touched nearly every Hellenistic city-state.[28] The Olympics were used during this time to announce alliances and offer sacrifices to the gods for victory.[1][29]

During the Olympic Games, a truce, or ekecheiria was observed. Three runners, known as spondophoroi were sent from Elis to the participant cities at each set of games to announce the beginning of the truce.[30] During this period, armies were forbidden from entering Olympia, wars were suspended, and legal disputes and the use of the death penalty were forbidden. The truce was primarily designed to allow athletes and visitors to travel safely to the Games and was, for the most part, observed.[30] Thucydides wrote of a situation when the Spartans were forbidden from attending the Games, and the violators of the truce were fined 2,000 minae for assaulting the city of Lepreum during the period of the ekecheiria. The Spartans disputed the fine and claimed that the truce had not yet taken hold.[29][31]

While a martial truce was observed by all participating city-states, no such reprieve from conflict existed in the political arena. The Olympic Games evolved the most influential athletic and cultural stage in ancient Greece, and arguably in the ancient world.[32] As such the Games became a vehicle for city-states to promote themselves. The result was political intrigue and controversy. For example, Pausanias, a Greek historian, explains the situation of the athlete Sotades,

"Sotades at the ninety-ninth Festival was victorious in the long race and proclaimed a Cretan, as in fact he was. But at the next Festival he made himself an Ephesian, being bribed to do so by the Ephesian people. For this act he was banished by the Cretans."[1]

This situation repeated itself at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In what is becoming a growing trend, many athletes are switching citizenships in order to compete at the Games. There are an equal number of countries willing to grant citizenship and monetary considerations to these athletes in exchange for their representation and the honor that comes with potential Olympic success. In this the Olympics have changed very little from their roots in antiquity.[33]


Athletes running the hoplitodromos

Only free men who spoke Greek were allowed to participate in the Ancient Games of classical times. They were to some extent "international", in the sense that they included athletes from the various Greek city-states. Additionally, participants eventually came from Greek colonies as well, extending the range of the games to far shores of the Mediterranean and of the Black Sea.

To be in the Games, the athletes had to qualify and have their names written in the lists. It seems that only young people were allowed to participate, as the Greek writer Plutarch relates that one young man was rejected for seeming overmature, and only after his lover, who presumably vouched for his youth, interceded with the King of Sparta, was he permitted to participate. Before being able to participate, every participant had to take an oath in front of the statue of Zeus, saying that he had been in training for ten months.

At first, the Olympic Games lasted only one day, but eventually grew to five days. The Olympic Games originally contained one event: the stadion (or "stade") race, a short sprint measuring between 180 and 240 metres (590 and 790 ft), or the length of the stadium. The length of the race is uncertain, since tracks found at archeological sites, as well as literary evidence, provide conflicting measurements. Runners had to pass five stakes that divided the lanes: one stake at the start, another at the finish, and three stakes in between.

A section of the stone starting line at Olympia, which has a groove for each foot

The diaulos, or two-stade race, was introduced in 724 BC, during the 14th Olympic games. The race was a single lap of the stadium, approximately 400 metres (1,300 ft), and scholars debate whether or not the runners had individual "turning" posts for the return leg of the race, or whether all the runners approached a common post, turned, and then raced back to the starting line.

A third foot race, the dolichos, was introduced in 720 BC. Accounts of the race present conflicting evidence as to the length of the dolichos; however, the length of the race was 18–24 laps, or about three miles (5 km). The event was run similarly to modern marathons—the runners would begin and end their event in the stadium proper, but the race course would wind its way through the Olympic grounds. The course often would flank important shrines and statues in the sanctuary, passing by the Nike statue by the temple of Zeus before returning to the stadium.

The last running event added to the Olympic program was the hoplitodromos, or "Hoplite race", introduced in 520 BC and traditionally run as the last race of the Olympic Games. The runners would run either a single or double diaulos (approximately 400 or 800 yards) in full or partial armour, carrying a shield and additionally equipped either with greaves or a helmet.[34][35] As the armour weighed between 50 and 60 lb (27 kg), the hoplitodromos emulated the speed and stamina needed for warfare. Due to the weight of the armour, it was easy for runners to drop their shields or trip over fallen competitors. In a vase painting depicting the event, some runners are shown leaping over fallen shields. The course they used for these runs were made out of clay, with sand over the clay.

Over the years, more events were added: boxing (pygme/pygmachia), wrestling (pale), a very bloody pankration. Due to the popularity of modern Mixed Martial arts culture, there is the misconception that the two would be similar but unfortunately greco-roman martial arts would have had no similarity to modern striking and grappling methods of fighting. Boxing was an umbrella term for a variety of striking arts used by the British (examples: Thai boxing, Chinese boxing, French boxing, Burmese boxing). Archeology has shown little or no similarities between Ancient Greco-roman "pale" and any modern form of grappling including modern Greco-roman wrestling.[36] Other events include chariot racing, and several other running events (the diaulos, hippios, dolichos, and hoplitodromos), as well as a pentathlon, consisting of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw (the latter three were not separate events).

Boxing became increasingly brutal over the centuries. Initially, soft leather covered their fingers, but eventually, hard leather weighted with metal sometimes was used.[37] The fights had no rest periods and no rules against hitting a man while he was down. Bouts continued until one man either surrendered or died- however, killing an opponent wasn't a good thing, as the dead boxer was automatically declared the winner.

In 484 or 480 BC, Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium, won the mule biga event, and this tetradrachm was struck in commemoration.[38]

In the chariot racing event, it was not the rider, but the owner of the chariot and team who was considered to be the competitor, so one owner could win more than one of the top spots. The addition of events meant the festival grew from one day to five days, three of which were used for competition. The other two days were dedicated to religious rituals. On the final day, there was a banquet for all the participants, consisting of 100 oxen that had been sacrificed to Zeus on the first day.

The winner of an Olympic event was awarded an olive branch and often was received with much honour throughout Greece, especially in his home town, where he was often granted large sums of money (in Athens, 500 drachma, a small fortune) and prizes including vats of olive oil. (See Milo of Croton.) Sculptors would create statues of Olympic victors[39], and poets would sing odes in their praise for money.

Archaeologists believe that wars between the city-states of Greece were halted so that the athletes as well as the spectators of the Olympics could get there safely. However, some archaeologists argue that the wars were not halted, but that the athletes who were in the armies were allowed to leave and participate in the Olympics.

Participation in the classical games was limited to male athletes except for women who were allowed to take part by entering horses in the equestrian events. In 396 BC, and again in 392 BC, the horses of a Spartan princess named Cynisca won her the four-horse race. It is thought that single women (not betrothed or married) were allowed to watch the races. Also priestesses in the temple of Zeus who lit the oil lamps were permitted.

The athletes usually competed nude, not only as the weather was appropriate, but also as the festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was used by the competitors, not only as a substitute for soap for washing, bathing, and cleaning, but also as a natural cosmetic, to keep skin smooth, and provide an appealing look for the participants.

Famous athletes

Bases of Zanes, paid for by fines from those who cheated at the Games
  • from Athens:
    • Aurelios Zopyros (junior boxing)
  • from Sparta:
    • Acanthus of Sparta (running: diaulos)
    • Chionis of Sparta (running: stadion, diaulos, long and triple jump)
    • Cynisca of Sparta (first woman to be listed as an Olympic victor)
  • from Rhodes:
  • from Croton:
  • from other cities:
    • Koroibos of Elis (stadion, the very first Olympic champion)
    • Orsippus of Megara (running: diaulos)
    • Theagenes of Thasos (pankration)
  • non-Greek:
    • Tiberius (steerer of a four-horse chariot)[40]
    • Nero (steerer of a ten-horse chariot)
    • Varastades, Prince and future King of Armenia, last known Ancient Olympic victor (boxing) during the 291st Olympic Games in the 4th century[41]

Festivals in other places

Athletic festivals under the name of "Olympic games", named in imitation of the original festival at Olympia, were established over time in various places all over the Greek world. Some of these are only known to us by inscriptions and coins; but others, as the Olympic festival at Antioch, obtained great celebrity. After these Olympic festivals had been established in several places, the great Olympic festival itself was sometimes designated in inscriptions by the addition of Pisa.[42]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Ancient Olympics". The Perseus Project. Tufts University. Retrieved 2010-02-12. 
  2. ^ Kyle, 1999, p.101
  3. ^ Kyle, 1999, pp.101–102
  4. ^ Kyle, 1999, p.102
  5. ^ Spivey, 2005, pp.225–226
  6. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.7.7
  7. ^ Spivey, 2005, p.226
  8. ^ Spivey, 2005, p.210
  9. ^ Spivey, 2005, pp.229–232
  10. ^ Kyle, 1999, pp.102–103
  11. ^ Kyle, 1999, p.102–104
  12. ^ Spivey, 2005, pp.231–232
  13. ^ "The Ancient Olympic Games". HickokSports. 2005-02-04. Retrieved 2007-05-13. 
  14. ^ Pausanias: v. 16. 2
  15. ^ Pindar: Pythian Odes ix
  16. ^ "The Athletics of the Ancient Olympics: A Summary and Research Tool" by Kotynski, p.3 (Quote used with permission). For the calculation of the date, see Kotynski footnote 6.
  17. ^ See, for example, Alfred Mallwitz's article "Cult and Competition Locations at Olympia" p.101 in which he argues that the games may not have started until about 704 BC. Hugh Lee, on the other hand, in his article "The 'First' Olympic Games of 776 B.C." p.112, follows an ancient source that claims that there were twenty-seven Olympiads before the first one was recorded in 776. There are no records of Olympic victors extant from earlier than the fifth century BC.
  18. ^ Kotynski, p.3. For more information about the question of this date, see Kotynski.
  19. ^ Stanton, 2000, pp.3–4
  20. ^ Stanton, 2000, p. 17
  21. ^ Hansen, 2006, p. 9
  22. ^ Hansen, 2006, pp.9–10
  23. ^ Hansen, 2006, p.10
  24. ^ Hansen, 2006, p.114
  25. ^ Raschke, 1988, p. 23
  26. ^ Spivey, 2005, p.172
  27. ^ Spivey, 2005, pp.182–183
  28. ^ Lendering, Jona. "Peloponnesian War". Livius, Articles on Ancient History. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  29. ^ a b Thucydides (431 BC). The History of the Peloponnesian War [Richard Crawley]. 5. The Internet Classics Archive. ISBN 0525260358. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  30. ^ a b Swaddling, 1999, p.11
  31. ^ Strassler & Hanson, 1996, pp.332–333
  32. ^ Kyle, 2007, p. 8
  33. ^ Larmer, Brook (2008-08-19). "The Year of the Mercenary Athlete". Time (Time Inc.). 
  34. ^ Gilman, David (1993). Athletics and Mathematics in Archaic Corinth: The Origins of the Greek Stadion. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0871692066. 
  35. ^ Perrottet, Tony. "Let the Games Begin". Smithsonian Magazine. 
  36. ^
  37. ^ "Boxing gets Brutal". Encarta. 2006-03-23. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. .
  38. ^ "Brutium," in Barclay Vincent Head, Historia Numorum.
  39. ^ Ageladas
  40. ^ Tiberius, AD 1 or earlier – cf. Ehrenberg & Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford 1955] p. 73 (n.78)
  41. ^ 369 according to Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece by Nigel Wilson, 2006, Routledge (UK) or 385 according to Classical Weekly by Classical Association of the Atlantic States
  42. ^ William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875


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