What Were the Ancient Olympics Like?

Sport, religion and politics converged in ancient Olympia

Beginning in 776 B.C. as a simple foot race, the quadrennial Olympic Games grew—during a span of 1,200 years—into the most prestigious athletic/religious festival of the Greek-speaking world. The feats of Olympic champions were recorded by historians and poets, and victorious competitors were thought to be the favorites of Zeus, chief god of the Greek pantheon. Below, learn what the ancient Olympics were like in David Gilman Romano’s article “When the Games Began” from the July/August 2004 issue of Archaeology Odyssey.—Ed.


 

When the Games Began

Sport, religion and politics converged in ancient Olympia

By David Gilman Romano

 

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Nestled in a valley bordered by the Alpheus and Kladeus rivers, the ancient sanctuary of Olympia hosted the earliest, and most prestigious, Greek athletic-religious festival. Starting in 776 B.C. as a simple foot race dedicated to Zeus, the quadrennial Olympic games expanded into a five-day festival—during which 100 bulls were sacrificed to Zeus, and athletic events were contested—that attracted tens of thousands of people to Olympia from all over the Greek-speaking world. Photo: From Ancient Greece.

It’s one of history’s curiosities. A rural sanctuary of Zeus in a relatively obscure part of Greece—far from the bustle and brilliance of Athens—became the site of the most famous athletic-religious festival of the entire ancient world, the direct precursor of the modern Olympic Games.

As in antiquity, we call these celebrations Olympiads, and we number them sequentially. Athletes from around the world participate in events also contested in long-ago Olympia: the javelin, the long jump, footraces, wrestling and boxing. Even the words we use to refer to these events are often the same (“discus,” “pentathlon”), as are the names of places for competition and training (“gymnasium,” “stadium” and “hippodrome”).a

According to the fifth-century B.C. Greek poet Pindar,

If you wish to celebrate great games
look no further for another star
shining through the sky
brighter than the sun
or for contests greater than the Olympic Games.1

Every four years, athletes, dignitaries, emissaries and tourists traveled to Olympia for an athletic-religious festival in honor of Zeus. The festival began with the second full moon following the summer solstice—that is, the end of July or the beginning of August. At first, in the eighth century B.C., the festival was small and the athletes came from the nearby cities and towns of the western and southern Peloponnesus. By the fifth century B.C., however, athletes were flocking to Olympia from all over the Greek-speaking world for the five-day celebration, and 100 bulls were sacrificed to Zeus at Olympia’s sanctuary.

Olympia is actually located far from the mountain that gives the site its name. Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in Greece (9,570 feet) and the mythological home of the Greek pantheon, sits hundreds of miles to the north. Olympia lies at the juncture of the Alpheus and the Kladeus rivers, in a wide, fertile river valley only 7 miles from the Ionian Sea.

The Olympic Games were the oldest and the most prestigious of the four great panhellenic festivals (or national festivals, as opposed to the numerous local festivals celebrated all over the Greek world), each of which was dedicated to a god. The games at Olympia (Zeus) were supposedly inaugurated in 776 B.C.; the games at Delphi (Apollo) in 582 B.C.; the games at Isthmia (Poseidon) also in 582 B.C.; and the games at Nemea (Zeus) in 573 B.C. (See Stephen G. Miller’s “The Other Games: When Greeks Flocked to Nemea.”)
 


 
Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.
 


 
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Once filled with the richest olive oil, this sixth-century B.C. vase, now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, was presented to a champion athlete at a local festival in Athens. Whereas winners’ prizes at the four ancient panhellenic games (held at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia) were simply wreaths symbolizing victory, athletes at local festivals often received prizes of material value. Photo: Erich Lessing.

The victors in all of the panhellenic events received symbolic awards, in the form of wreaths. Those who won events at local festivals, however, generally received prizes of some material value; victors in the games at Argos won a shield, for example, while those who won in Athens received amphoras filled with olive oil. The panhellenic victors, too, often received a little something in addition to honor; they were routinely rewarded with cash and privileges upon returning home.b A fifth-century B.C. inscription recounts that Athenian citizens who won competitions at panhellenic festivals got a free meal every day for the rest of their lives in the prytaneion (town hall), along with other civic honors.2

Two Greek myths account for the origins of the ancient Olympic Games. According to Pindar, Heracles created the site of Olympia for the festival:

[Heracles] measured out a sacred precinct for his father most mighty; he fenced in the altisc and set it apart in the open, and he made the surrounding plain a resting place for banqueting.3

The second-century A.D. writer Pausanias relates that Heracles won victories at Olympia in wrestling and pancratium.4

In another story, a young man named Pelops travels to the western Peloponnesus to compete for the hand of Hippodameia, the daughter of the wealthy king Oenomaus. According to Pindar, Pelops and Oenomaus compete in a chariot race, during which the king is killed. Pelops wins the race, marries Hippodameia and establishes the Olympic Games.5 The region of Greece where Olympia is found is thus named the Peloponnesus, or “Pelops Island.” At Olympia, the ancients erected a shrine to Pelops, called the Pelopeion.

Both myths are depicted in the sculptural program of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The pedimental sculpture from the east facade depicts the moment before the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, and the metopes—or relief carvings—inside the front and rear porches include depictions of Heracles’s 12 labors (one was to clean the Augean Stables, which Heracles accomplished by diverting one of the two rivers that meet at Olympia, the Alpheus).

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A Doric colonnade encloses Olympia’s third-century B.C. palaestra, a large square courtyard where ancient athletes trained for the games. A series of rooms and halls opened off the colonnade, including three chambers that functioned as a library, and a room that served as a dining room. Photo: The Art Archive/Dagli Orti.


The exact origins of the Olympic festival, however, are lost in the shadowy dark ages of Greek history. The 776 B.C. date is based on the Olympic Register, a listing of Olympic victors compiled by Hippias of Elis in the fifth century B.C. and then worked on by others throughout antiquity. But there is evidence that the religious cult, and possibly even the athletic contests, may be even older. Pottery found in recent German excavations at Olympia suggests that cult activity in the area of the altis (the enclosed heart of the sanctuary) dates to the late 11th century B.C.6 Bronze dedications from the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. have also been discovered at Olympia, including tripods and miniature charioteers—which may indicate that equestrian games were held at this early date.

The sanctuary of Zeus lay just south of Cronus Hill (named after Zeus’s father). The principal part of the sanctuary was the altis, a walled enclosure that included the ash altar of Zeus, the altar of Hera (Zeus’s wife), the Pelopeion, the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Rhea (Zeus’s mother). Statues were set up in and around the altis to honor victorious athletes and to commemorate military victories and political alliances.

The ash altar to Zeus was probably the earliest structure at the sanctuary. At the beginning of each Olympic festival, participants would march into the sanctuary and sacrifice 100 bulls to Zeus at this altar. In the second century A.D., according to Pausanias, the altar consisted of a stone platform, where animals were sacrificed; piled on this base was a tower of ash, where the thighs of the sacrificed animals were burned. Pausanias observes that the ash altar reached 22 feet into the air. Following the sacrifice of the bulls, the crowd consumed the meat at a great public banquet.7

The massive Temple of Zeus, built between 471 and 457 B.C., was 210 feet long and 90 feet wide—only 16 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than the Parthenon in Athens (which was completed some 20 years later). The temple’s Doric colonnade consisted of six columns at each end and 13 columns along the sides, and the roof supported tiles made of Pentelic marble (from Mount Pentelicus, near Athens, which also supplied the marble for the Parthenon). The temple’s pediments, 40 feet above the ground, were adorned with sculptures depicting scenes from Greek myth—Lapiths battling Centaurs on the west end, and Pelops, Oenomaus and their entourages on the east end (where visitors entered).

Inside the temple, completely filling its west end, was a 40-foot-high bronze statue of Zeus sitting on a throne—which became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The statue was made by the Athenian sculptor Phidias (c. 490-425 B.C.) in a common Greek style called chryselephantine, meaning that it was covered with gold and ivory (like the statue of Athena in the Parthenon, which was also made by Phidias).

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Zeus (the headless central figure) oversees preparations for a chariot race between the hero Pelops (to the left of Zeus) and King Oenomaus (to the right of Zeus), who ruled the area around Olympia. Now in Olympia’s museum, these statues originally adorned the east pediment of the fifth-century B.C. Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

In Greek myth, Oenomaus promises his daughter, Hippodameia (left of Pelops), to any man who can beat him in a chariot race. Pelops bribes Oenomaus’s charioteer, Myrtilus (shown kneeling next to Oenomaus’s wife, who stands to the right of her husband), to loosen the linchpins of his master’s chariot. After Pelops wins the race, he celebrates by establishing the religious/athletic festival at Olympia. In honor of Pelops, the region of Greece where Olympia is located is called the Peloponnesus (“Pelops Island”).Photo: Vanni Archive/CORBIS.

To the west of the Temple of Zeus was a modest fifth-century B.C. facility where the Olympian athletes bathed. The building had a series of tubs, in which the athletes reclined and had water poured over their heads. A 5-foot-deep swimming pool, measuring 79 feet by 52 feet, lay adjacent to the baths; this pool also dates to the fifth century B.C.

In the third century B.C. a palaestra was added just north of the bath building. This was a large open-air courtyard enclosed on all four sides by a colonnade, which was surrounded by rooms. The Greek word “palaestra” means “the place of wrestling,” so wrestling and other events were probably practiced in the courtyard.

In the second century B.C. a large gymnasium was constructed to the north of the bath facility. This structure included a roofed racecourse, 600 feet long, allowing runners to train under cover. The gymnasium also included a large open-air courtyard for practicing the discus, javelin and long jump.
 


 
Tracing the enigmatic, mystical genesis of the Greek Olympiad, The Olympic Games: How They All Began takes you on a journey to ancient Greece with some of the finest scholars of the ancient world. Ranging from the original religious significance of the games to the brutal athletic competitions, this free eBook paints a picture of the ancient sports world and its devoted fans.
 


 
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Only naked athletes and the judges who officiated at the games were permitted to pass through this entranceway, described by the second-century A.D. writer Pausanias as “the secret entrance.” The arched gate, newly constructed at the time of Pausanias’s visit, opened into a vaulted tunnel that led to Olympia’s stadium, which was built in the fourth century B.C. on the site of a running track (dromos) dating centuries earlier. Photo: The Art Archive/Dagli Orti.

A vaulted entrance led from the altis to the stadium, and this was the route that athletes and judges would follow during the games.

The Olympic stadium evolved considerably over the years. It began as a simple rectangular running track, or dromos, on which the athletes competed. Gradually spectator facilities were added around the sides of the race track. Archaeologists have found starting lines carved in stone at both ends of the dromos, 600 feet apart (the length of a stadion). Spectators used the northern slope of the Cronus Hill to view the contests. By the mid-fifth century B.C., the dromos was surrounded on four sides by artificial earth embankments on which 45,000 spectators could watch the contests.

Spectators at Olympia stood while watching the games. The word stadion, in fact, may have originally meant “the standing place”—only later coming to mean the length of the stadium (and, for us, the stadium itself). The judges, however, had a small seating section reserved for them on the southern embankment of the stadium. There were also simple seats for dignitaries and diplomats.

The hippodrome—for equestrian events—was located south of the stadium, in the broad, flat plain north of the Alpheus River. Although the hippodrome has not been excavated, Pausanias gives us a description of the structure with particular attention to the mechanical starting gates, designed by one Kleoetas, which provided a fair start for as many as 40 chariots at one time. The starting line had the triangular shape of the prow of a ship, with each of the two sides more than 400 feet long. A mudbrick altar at the tip of the “prow” held a bronze eagle with outstretched wings. The contestants lined up along the wings of the prow, behind ropes held by officials. They then moved slowly forward; when they came even with the altar, the ropes were released and the race began. The hippodrome track was probably about 2,000 feet long and 650 feet wide. One lap of the hippodrome would have been about three-quarters of a mile long.8

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An athlete balances on one foot while his trainer helps him stretch, on this sixth-century B.C. red-figure krater painted by Euphronius. The athletic/religious festival at Olympia was dedicated to Zeus, the chief god of the Greek pantheon, and victorious athletes were thought to be the favorites of Zeus—largely because they combined prodigious athletic prowess with moderation and modesty. Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY.

Athletes at ancient Olympia competed to please Zeus. An Olympic champion was the man most pleasing to the god, and the qualities that made him attractive to the god were aidos (modesty and self-respect), sophrosune (moderation) and arête (excellence).

Pausanias tells us that the athletes who competed at Olympia had to swear an oath in the bouleuterion (the archives building), before a statue of Zeus Horkios (Zeus holding a thunderbolt in each hand) and upon slices of boar’s flesh—that they would do nothing to dishonor the Olympic Games.9 The athletes also had to swear that they had followed the regulations for training during the ten preceding months. The athletes trained at Elis, another town in the western Peloponnesus, for the month directly before the festival at Olympia.

From the Olympic Register, we have the names of more than 794 ancient Olympic champions,10 who won a total of 1,029 events.11 The first recorded victor was Koroibos of Elis, who won the stadion race in 776 B.C. The last champion we know about was Zopyrus, a late-fourth-century A.D. boxer from Athens.12

Unfortunately, the Olympic Register is incomplete, nor does it include athletes who competed but did not win. In the 293 Olympiads from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., 4,760 events were contested; our known 1,029 victories constitute less than 22 percent of the total number. If the ratio between victors and victories recorded in the Olympic Register (794:1,029) is representative of what actually happened over the entire history of the games, we would expect to have 3,672 ancient victors—meaning that we know nothing at all about 2,878 Olympic champions. Possibly future scholars will discover the names and deeds of at least some of these unknown heroes.

Is it possible to determine the greatest Olympic champion? We know of seven athletes who won three times in a single day, the so-called triastes. The only known athlete to accomplish this feat on more than one occasion was Leonidas of Rhodes, who achieved triastes status at four different festivals between 164 B.C. and 152 B.C. He was a swift, powerful runner, winning the stadion (a sprint of 600 feet, or one length of the stadium), the diaulos (a sprint of 1,200 feet, or two lengths of the stadium) and the hoplitodromos (a race with armor). Leonidas’s 12 gold medals (or, rather, olive wreaths) may well make him the greatest Olympic athlete of antiquity, perhaps even of all time.

The ancient Olympic festival, based so completely on the cult of Zeus, came to a close because of competition from another religion: Christianity. Following Constantine (274-337 A.D.), most Roman emperors embraced Christianity as the state religion and, as such, sought to end pagan cults and festivals, like the cult of Zeus at Olympia. The most conspicuous competition for the Christian church came in the form of the festive, intense and wildly popular Olympic Games. In 393 A.D. the Roman emperor Theodosius I closed all pagan temples and called for the end of pagan festivals.
 


 

Sidebar: The Other Olympiad

Photo: HIP/Scala/Art Resource, NY.

In his Description of Greece, the second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias tells of a second festival held at Olympia, called the Heraia.

Every four years a committee of 16 married women, one from each of the cities of the region, wove a sacred robe called a peplos for Hera (the wife of Zeus) and held games—footraces for unmarried girls—in three age groups. The three races were held in the stadium at Olympia, though the race was only 5/6 the length of the dromos (the running track in the stadium) for boys and men.

Pausanias vividly describes the girls running their races: their hair hangs down their back, their chiton reaches to just above the knees, and they bare their right shoulder as far as the breast (as can be seen in the early-fifth-century B.C. bronze figurine, probably from Sparta). Each victor received an olive wreath, a portion of the cow that was sacrificed to Hera, and the right to make an offering to Hera.

The Temple of Hera, the earliest temple at Olympia, was built around 600 B.C. It was a Doric structure originally with wooden columns, though these were gradually replaced with stone columns. Some scholars believe that in the beginning this temple was used to house both the cult of Zeus and the cult of Hera, since the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was not built for almost 150 years.
 


 
“When the Games Began” by David Gilman Romano was originally published in the July/August 2004 issue of Archaeology Odyssey.
 


 
David Gilman Romano is the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Professor of Greek Archaeology in the School of Anthropology at University of Arizona. He is a specialist in the Ancient Olympic Games, Greek and Roman cities and sanctuaries, ancient surveying, and modern cartographic and survey techniques to reveal and study ancient sites. He has directed the Corinth Computer Project since 1988, and he is the Director of the Archaeological Mapping Lab in the School of Anthropology. Romano is the Field Director and Co-Director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, a founding member of the Parrhasian Heritage Park, and Director of the Digital Augustan Rome project.
 


 

Notes:

a. There are startling differences as well. Whereas the ancient festival was held in Olympia over a period of about 1,200 years, the modern games move around the world from city to city. The modern games, too, are much larger and more extravagant, probably the greatest secular gathering of peoples in the history of mankind. At the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, for example, 10,651 athletes from 199 countries competed in 300 events, for which 6.7 million tickets were sold. And 3.5 billion people watched the games on television!

b. The Greek word athletes means “one who competes for a prize (athlon)” and could refer to those who won symbolic prizes as well as prizes of material worth.

c. The altis at Olympia was an enclave of temples, altars and freestanding statuary enclosed by a wall—the cult center of the sanctuary.

1. Pindar, Olympian Odes 1.5-8.

2. Inscriptiones Atticae, vol. 1 (2), 77.

3. Pindar, Olympian Odes 10.43-45.

4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5, 8, 4.

5. Pindar, Olympian Odes 1.

6. Helmust Kyrieleis, “Zu Anfangen des Heligtums von Olympia,” Olympia 1875-2000, 125 Jahre Deutsche Ausgrabungen (Mainz am Rhein, 2002), pp. 215-217.

7. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5, 13, 8-11.

8. Pausanias, Description of Greece 6, 20, 10-19.

9. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5, 24, 9.

10. L. Moretti lists a total of 794 individual Olympic victors in two publications: Olympionikai, i vincitori negli antichi agoni Olimpici (Rome: MemLinc, 1957).

11. This number includes Olympic victories of uncertain date and authenticity.

12. This information comes from a bronze inscription from the clubhouse of the athlete’s guild at Olympia. The building was constructed in the first century A.D. by Nero and was in continuous use until the late fourth century A.D. (see U. Sinn, Olympia: Cult, Sport and Ancient Festival [Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000], pp. 114-118).

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  • Peter says

    So — “Pelops bribes Oenomaus’s charioteer, Myrtilus (shown kneeling next to Oenomaus’s wife, who stands to the right of her husband), to loosen the linchpins of his master’s chariot.”
    So cheating at the Olympics is several thousand years old? Some Russians seem to be carrying on a very old tradition. ☺


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