Ancient Greek Olympics
(As Rio approaches, the following questions were submitted to me by Charlie Reed of UNO Media Relations. I decided to post my replies here, as well, for other interested parties.)
1) What are the origins of the Olympics in Greece and why were they created?
Greek athletic competitions began as “Funeral Games” for early kings and other nobles, such as Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad. It was a way to honor the dead by offering one’s “best” (aretē). Gradually, these “games” became associated with particular sanctuaries instead of funerals, and occurred more regularly.
Unlike the modern Games, which are secular, ancient Games were always a religious event dedicated to a particular god and his/her associates. For instance, at the Olympics, Zeus was chiefly honored, but so was his wife, Hera. Like us, they had opening and closing ceremonies, but theirs were parades and sacrifices honoring the god to whom that particular set of Games was dedicated, not showboat entertainment extravaganzas. Yet the mood was festive rather than somber, and although only men and boys competed (and only men and boys were allowed in the stadium), whole families traveled to enjoy the fair-like atmosphere. One could find showmen, singers, gymnasts, actors, drink- and food-sellers, pastry- and fish-cooks, prostitutes, and thieves.
The modern term “Game” is misleading, suggesting a diversion, amusement, or pastime. That certainly described the overall festival, but not the athletics themselves. The word for these festivals in Greek—agonēs—means contests. There was nothing recreational about them. The Greeks were extremely competitive and athletes at the Panhellenic festivals were professionals.
The Olympic Agonēs themselves began as a local festival at the Sanctuary for Zeus at Olympia in the NW Peloponnesian city-state (polis) of Elis. The first contest in 776 BCE had only one event on one day as part of the larger festival: the stadē race, or running one length of the stadium: about 600 feet. (Ancient Greek footrace tracks were straight; oval racetracks were for horses.) This was the sole event for the first 13 Olympics. By the 14th, a second event—wrestling—was added.
More and more events (Pentathalon, Race in Armor, the Pankration, etc.) joined until the final form of the program was reached in 520 BCE, held across five days. All were single-competitor events. No team sports. While the Greeks did play ball games, including something like field hockey and another remarkably close to rugby, the Agonēs were about individual fame and glory (timē). One winner, and only one. What about a tie? The two had to compete again until a single winner was named.
Long before 520, however, the festival had become “Panhellenic” (all-the-Greeks). There were, in fact, four big Panhellenic athletic competitions, called “the Circuit,” of which the Olympics was the most prestigious. Second to the Olympics came the Pythian Games held at Delphi, sacred to Apollo. Then the Nemean and Isthmian Games, sacred to Zeus/Herakles and Poseidon, respectively. The Olympian and Pythian Agonēs were held every four years, the other two, every two years. They were staggered, not concurrent, so athletes typically competed in all of them in rotation.
In addition, other regions and city-states had their own Agonēs. Athens held the Pananthenaia, which included Games that honored Athena. “Minor” competitions occurred yearly, but special Pananthenaic Games occurred every fourth year. Macedonia (in north Greece where modern Thessaloniki is located) also held Olympic Games at Dion, another city sacred to Zeus. The Macedonian Olympics were on a different schedule from the Peloponnesian Olympics. Serious athletes tried to hit all these various Agonēs.
2) At what point did other countries become involved, and why?
All competitors had to be Greek (and free, no slaves except for jockeys), yet ancient Greece, unlike modern Greece, was a geographical region united by language, religion, and culture. Within that, city-states had their own governments, laws, traditions, and coinage—so Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Elis, Argos, Eretria, etc., were independent (and sometimes warring) nations. Some of these city-states governed areas no bigger than Douglas County, Nebraska (metropolitan Omaha), although others were larger—relatively. Attika, where Athens was located, was among the largest, yet only about the size of Rhode Island.
These city-states would send athletes who competed to honor their cities, and themselves. As Greeks moved out of the mainland to colonize the coastal areas of Asia Minor, the Black Sea, south Italy, Sicily, and northern Africa, Greeks from these colony cities also came to compete.
By the late 300s BCE after Alexander the Great, they began admitting Macedonian competitors, although earlier, only Macedonian kings were allowed to compete, as regular Macedonians weren’t considered Greek. Later yet, Romans were also admitted, yet all competitors were still required to be free.
3) Why did the original Olympic Games get eliminated and what was the reason for them coming back?
The ancient Olympics were celebrated regularly down to AD 261. They came to an end during a period of Roman Imperial history called the “Barracks Emperors,” which involved a lot of civil war and unrest. After that, they were celebrated more sporadically until terminated in AD 393 by the Emperor Theodosius because they were “pagan.” He was a Christian, and in that year, he banned all pagan cult, not just the Olympics.
They were restarted in 1896, in Athens, as diplomacy via sport, although the first modern Olympics had only 14 countries and 241 athletes. All modern Olympic parades are led by the Greek delegation, as a matter of respect. The modern Olympic flame is kept in Olympia, and sets out from the ruins of the ancient Temple of Zeus.
While sacred fire was certainly a part of the ancient Olympics as it was a religious event and fire was crucial to sacrifice, there was no comparable relay of a torch around Greece. The Olympic Flame never left Olympia.
1896 trivia: the Marathon—never an ancient event—was run along the course of the first supposed “marathon,” from the beach of Marathon in Attika into the brand new Olympic Stadium in the heart of Athens, near the ancient akropolis. It was won by a Greek: Spiridon Louise; another Greek, Kharilaos Vasilakos, took second place. The Greeks were overjoyed.
The irony? No Greek athlete has won a medal in that event since. In addition, the original “marathon” was a legend of the First Persian War; it didn’t actually happen.
4) How are the modern Olympics different from the original games? How are they similar?
As noted above, the original Agonēs were religious in nature. A second major difference, also noted above, was recognizing only one winner: second and third place didn’t count.
Third, it wasn’t just athletics. Although the ancient Olympics had only athletic events, other Agonēs such as the second-most prestigious, the Pythian Games at Delphi, included competitions in music, poetry, dancing, and even painting. If done to honor Apollo (patron of both arts and athletics), it was also because, to the Greeks, all of life was agonίa—an arena for competition. So they competed in a wide variety of ways.
Ancient athletes at the Big Four were all men. Likewise, the spectators were men; women (especially married women) were not only barred from competing, but even from entering the stadium. If they did, they might be executed. At Olympia, only one woman was allowed: the Chief Priestess of Hera, as Hera was Zeus’s wife, and her priestess was her representative.
Ancient athletes competed naked. The Greeks believed the human body was a work of art and should be honored. Nakedness was normal for all exercise, not just the Games. This nakedness was another reason women were not admitted as spectators. In 396, when a Rhodian athlete’s mother, Kallipateiras, snuck into the stadium dressed as his trainer in order to see him compete, it resulted in a change of rules so that both athletes and trainers had to appear naked henceforth.
Women, however, did attend the Agonēs festivals, if not the stadium events. In fact, a little before the Olympics themselves, Games were held at Olympia for women and girls, dedicated to Hera. Somewhat predictably, Sparta dominated, although Sparta did not dominate the men’s events the same way. The reason? Only ancient Sparta encouraged girls and women to exercise and train. “Feminism” wasn’t the reason; exercise was key to making Spartan women superior baby-making machines.
Much like modern athletes, ancient athletes hired specialty trainers and dieticians, and began training at a young age. Most Games had both boys’ and men’s events. Then as now, trainers who produced winners were in high demand and charged accordingly. Whole families might dominate a sport. The mother of the boxer mentioned above was the daughter and niece of winning boxers, her brothers won, her nephews won, as well as her son. These connections were why her “impiety” at violating the all-male rule was overlooked and she wasn’t executed. In fact, we know about the story because Pausanias (an ancient travel writer) described their statues (including hers) in the main city on the island of Rhodes.
Ancient athletes were not amateurs; that’s a myth. They competed in all four main (Panhellenic) Games, as well as other Games (such as the Pananthenaia). It was their job, and if the Big Four—called stephanitic or “crown” games—offered only a ribbon and crown, made of various types of branches (olive for the Olympics, laurel for the Pythian), other Agonēs did offer prizes, including expensive bronze objects or fancy painted pottery filled with fine olive oil or wine.
Plus ancient athletes who won were honored extensively by their hometowns with perks such as free theatre seats, lifetime dinners at state expense, or even freedom from taxes. Victors might have their trainers paid for by the state (ancient “corporate sponsorship”), and were highly sought as models for sculptors. Those beautiful Greek statues are often of a real person, even if we don’t know who. Famous poets such as Pindar wrote victory songs for the banquet on the night of their victory—the ancient version of standing on the platform to hear a national anthem. Sometimes cities, especially in Thessaly, helped fund horses for chariot and jockey races in order to showcase their superior horse-breeding.
Money was all over the ancient Games, just like the modern.
Then as now, ancient victors also commanded huge fan followings—a point ancient intellectuals complained about, even intellectuals who were athletes themselves, such as Plato, a wrestler. The names of ancient athletes might be better known than generals and statesmen.
For instance, today we call athletes “jocks,” but in ancient Greece, they were a “Milo” after a famous pankratist [wrestler] who won 32 titles across various Agonēs. “Meat-eater” was also a name for an athlete, as regularly eating meat (aside from fish) was sporadic. (It was expensive.) Athletes, however, often had diets high in meat. In fact, that same Milo was famous for entering the stadium carrying his “dinner” on his shoulders—a small calf!
The most famous athlete, however, wasn’t Milo, but Theoganes of Thasos, an ancient Jim Thorpe. Active in the early 400s, around the time of the Persian Wars, he won all the Big Four, competing in multiple events of both strength (wrestling) and speed (racing), and was said to have amassed 1300 crowns total (across all Games, not just the Big Four). A local legend in Thasos named Herakles (Hercules) as his real father, and a bronze statue of him in the main city on the island was said to have healing powers.
5) Anything else about the Olympics you wanted to add?
Ancient Greeks used the Olympic schedule to mark “common” time, as otherwise, there was no calendar shared by all the different city-states. For instance, the year we call 344 BCE was the year of the 109th Olympiad, 343 was the second year of the 109th Olympiad, 342 was the third year, and 341 was the fourth. Then 340 became the year of the 110th Olympiad. And so forth.