The Ancient Greek Olympics
Traditionally it has always been said that the Games started at Olympia in 776 BC, 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.
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.
'The Games were an attractive means of getting men fit. '
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.Earliest races
A winner being presented with tokens of victory © For the first 13 Olympics there was only one event, the stadion race , which was a running race up one length of the stadium. How long this race was is a matter for conjecture, as the ancient stadium, 192 meters long, visible at Olympia now, did not exist then.
In 724 BC a longer, there-and-back race, the diaulos, was introduced, followed four years later by the long-distance race, the dolichos, a race of perhaps 12 laps. The emphasis on running in the early years of the Olympics may reflect the perceived basic requirements for a fit soldier.
'The emphasis on running in the early years of the Olympics may reflect the perceived basic requirements for a fit soldier.'
Boxing, wrestling, and the pancration (the 'all-power' race, combining all types of physical attack) soon followed, along with the pentathlon, and horse-and-chariot racing. A race while wearing armour was introduced in 520 BC, and even a mule race (in 500 BC, but it was not generally popular). So the changing shape of the modern Olympic programme is not without precedent, though the ancient Greeks would perhaps have baulked at the sight of some of our modern 'sports'.Religion and politics
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.
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.
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.
'A victorious athlete brought great honour to his home city.'
The great historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, tells how in 420 BC 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 BC 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.Nakedness and women
'Sow naked, plough naked, harvest naked', the poet Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer) advises. He might have added 'compete in the Games naked', for that is usually understood to be the standard practice among the ancient Greeks. Some dispute this, for although the visual evidence for it - the painted decorations on vases - generally shows athletes performing naked, all sorts of other people (eg soldiers departing for war, which they would presumably have done clothed) are also shown unclad.
Also, some vases do show runners and boxers wearing loin-cloths, and Thucydides says that athletes stopped wearing such garments only shortly before his time. Another argument is that it must have been impractical to compete naked. On balance, however, it is generally thought probable that male athletes were naked when competing at the Games.
'Women did not participate at the main Olympic festival.'
Women did not participate at the main Olympic festival. They had their own Games, in honour of Hera, where the sole event was a run of five-sixths of the length of the stadium - which would have preserved in male opinion the inferior status of women. Whether women could even watch the festival is disputed.
Unmarried virgins, not soiled by sex or motherhood and thus maintaining the religious purity of the occasion, probably could. Festivals (and, for example, funerals) were among the limited occasions when women, especially virgins, or parthenoi, had a public role. At the Games unmarried girls, besides helping with the running of the festival, may have taken the opportunity to find a fit future husband.
As Pindar wrote, about a victor in the Greek colony of Cyrene -
'When they saw you many times victorious in the Games of Athene, each of the maidens was speechless as they prayed you might be her husband or son.'