The Olympics: An Ancient Celebration, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series on the ancient Olympics.

TWH – For 12 centuries the ancient Greeks produced the ancient Olympic Games in the rural town of Olympia. A four-year gap, called the Olympiad, separated each game. These games were so important to the Greeks that their historians used the Olympiads to date specific events.

The first recorded game took place in 776 BCE. No consensus exists among historians as to whether the games began earlier. The Penn Museum reported that they may have started as early as the 9th or 10th century BCE. The last recorded game occurred at the end of the fourth century.

Archaeological site of ancient Olympia – Image credit: George E. Koronaios – CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95683215

The city, Olympia, is located in the northwestern peninsula of the Peloponnese. Despite similar names, Olympia and Mount Olympus are not close. Today, someone would have to travel more than 500 kilometers (310.7 miles) to get from Olympia to Mount Olympus.

The Greek period

Three other panhellenic competitions developed in ancient Greece. The Ancient Olympics website reported on these other Panhellenic competitions: the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean Games. The Ancient Olympic Games were also known as the Olympic Games.

Theoi.com distinguishes between Apollo, a Roman and Greco-Roman god and Apollo, a Greek god.

Part of the cult of Apollo, the Pythian or Delphian games began in 586 BCE. The musical competitions were the most important part of the program. On the first day of the games, the priests would perform a ritual over Apollo slaying the Python. They did it at the sacred site of Apollo at Delphi where this murder took place.

One day of the games was reserved for sports competitions, another for horse racing and another for musical competitions. Women could participate in these games. The Isthmian games, part of the cult of Poseidon, began in 582 BC. The Nemean Games, part of the cult of Zeus, began in 573 BC. These games included sporting and musical contests, as well as horse racing. From the first century AD, women could participate in the Isthmian and Nemean games.

For the first 13 Olympics, running may have been the only event. In which case the ritual aspects of the games would have dominated the events. As the games added more events, the religious emphasis may have been diluted.

Athletes as gods

The Metropolitan Museum noted that athletes sometimes tied themselves to the gods. The wrestler, Milo of Croton, wore a lion skin in honor of Heracles. The boxer, Diagoras of Rhodes, had the nickname “Son of Hermes”.

The Greeks had a complex relationship to violence. For them, the virtue of excellence could include violent brutality. However, it could also include something resembling non-violence.

Entrance to the Athletes’ Arch in the Olympic Stadium -Image Credit: Johnckarnes – CC BY-SA 4.0

One event, the pankration, rewarded violent brutality. He combined wrestling and boxing. This event had few rules except for no biting and no gouging. Sostratos of Sikyon had the nickname “Fingertips”. He would start a match by breaking his opponent’s fingers. His talent lay in brutality.

In contrast, boxer Melankomas de Caria had an almost non-violent technique. Rather than hitting his opponent, he would exhaust his opponent. He would raise his arms in defense, endure the blows and let his opponent spend all his energy. His endurance demonstrated his excellence and skill.

The public or the congregation

The Olympics attracted people from all over the Greek world. Besides athletes and priests, people came to be part of the event. As these games had a religious character, it may be useful to think of them as a contemporary congregation, pilgrimage, Hajj or pagan festival.

Tufts University Classics Department’s Perseus Project reported that most “spectators” of early games slept outside. Wealthy spectators and official delegations would have elaborate tents and pavilions. Food vendors and artisans sold their wares. In addition to the games, the priests made sacrifices. The philosophers gave lectures. The poets would declaim. The winners would celebrate. People would also engage in an old fashioned version of spotting “celebrities”.

Olympia was a rural site. The official website of the modern Olympics reported that at the height of the Olympic games around 100-200 CE, these games would attract around 40,000 people.

The Roman period

In 146 BCE, Rome had conquered Greece. The Romans now controlled the Olympic Games. Their values ​​differed from those of the Greeks.

The Romans had an ambivalent attitude towards Greece. They adopted, co-opted and appropriated much of Greek culture. However much Rome admired Greek culture, Rome had subordinated the Greeks.

Aerial view of Olympia – Image credit: Panosgti34 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Ancient Olympics website reported that the Romans viewed athletic competition as performance. It was for entertainment. The slaves played. Aristocrats don’t. According to Roman ideology, a free Roman man should not play for others. Competing naked would have exponentially increased the shame.

The Greeks developed the games for the glory of competitors, gods and priests. The Romans developed games to entertain the public.

The Romans and Greeks differed in the games they enjoyed. The Greeks preferred athletic events as well as wrestling and boxing. The Romans preferred to watch gladiator fights and chariot races.

This conflict of values ​​will play out over the remaining five centuries of the Olympic Games.

Roman emperors varied in their attitudes toward Greek culture. Emperors like Augustus, Nero, and Domitian, among others, had pro-Greek attitudes. They tended to favor Greek culture. Some Roman emperors, however, had an ego problem.

In 67 CE, Emperor Nero entered the chariot race at the games. He fell from his chariot in the middle of the race. Still, he won. More likely, the judges felt it would be risky to say he lost.

Nero violated both the Roman standard against public execution and the Greek standard for excellence in skill. Incidents like this may have corrupted the public perception of the games.

Controversies over the end of the Olympics

Knowledge of history progresses through revisionist challenges to consensus historical truth. Some historians have disputed the claim that Christian persecution ended the Olympics. This challenge seems unresolved.

The Ancient Olympic website reports this challenge. Historians agree that Christian Roman emperors issued edicts prohibiting pagan practices. They dispute whether these bans had an impact on any of the Panhellenic games.

This revisionist approach argues that over time the Olympics have become more secular. Greco-Roman paganism had also changed over the 12 centuries. He now placed less value on personal displays of prowess.

The Roman Empire suffered something like a depression at the end of the fourth century AD. Cities that paid for these games could no longer afford to do so. The buildings in Olympia needed repairs for which funds were not available.

After migrating German tribes began attacking the Empire, more damage occurred and less money was available. Earthquakes hit. Repairs could no longer take place. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Olympics.