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Ancient Greek Olympics: 27 Historical Facts On The Festival And Its Games

For over a thousand years, spectators and competitors from across the region attended the ancient Greek Olympics. At this fascinating festival, they celebrated their religious beliefs alongside the sporting prowess of local athletes in a variety of events.

Marble sculpture of ancient Greek wrestlers, ca 510 BC, courtesy National Archaeological Museum, Athens
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Marble sculpture of ancient Greek wrestlers, ca 510 BC, courtesy National Archaeological Museum, Athens

For a thousand years from 776 BC, every four years, people from all over the Greek-speaking world traveled to the site of Olympia to celebrate the ancient Olympic Games. Here athletes representing city-states across Greece and its colonies would compete in sports from boxing to chariot racing. Those who succeeded in this ultimate test of physical prowess would be treated as local heroes for centuries to come.

Perhaps the sharpest divide between the ancient games-festival and the modern-day Olympics is the fact that the ancient Greek Olympics were as much a religious as a sporting event. Over 70 different religious altars have been discovered at Olympia and the first two days of the festival were entirely devoted to religious sacrifices. This period culminated in the sacrifice of 100 oxen to the god most closely associated with the Games – Zeus.

1. Olympia Was Home To The Site Most Sacred To Zeus

A later copy of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, via The Archaeology News Network
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A later copy of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, via The Archaeology News Network

The Altis grove at Olympia was believed to be the place where Hercules made a clearing in the trees and used the space to hold the first Games in honour of Zeus. Over time, many temples, altars and statues to Zeus were set up at Olympia. However, the most awe-inspiring statue of all was the statue of Zeus within his vast temple. According to Herodotus, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the statue measured nearly 13 metres high and was made of ivory and gold. The statue was destroyed by fire in the 5th century AD.

2. The Ancient Olympics Were Originally Funeral Games

Historians believe that, despite some Greek mythological origin stories, the ancient Olympics actually developed from funeral games held in honour of deceased local heroes in the Bronze Age. Pelops, in particular, was a hero local to Olympia and his grave is still said to be in the Altis.

3. The Olympic Truce Was Signed Before The Games Began

Map of ancient Greece, via TES
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Map of ancient Greece, via TES

Each participating city-state had to sign up to the Olympic Truce. This decreed that states at war should temporarily halt hostilities. This, in turn, allowed safe passage across Greece for athletes and spectators traveling to Olympia. Three heralds were sent out to announce the news of the Truce and the dates of the Games to all the states involved.

4. The Ancient Greek Olympics Were Held At The Height Of Summer

To hold a physically demanding games-festival during the hottest part of the year may seem counter-intuitive. However, this was also the quietest time of the year for agricultural work, the main economy of ancient Greece. This meant that many more people were free to attend and enjoy the Games. It also meant that the festival was rarely disrupted by poor weather conditions.

5. There Was A Hotel At The Ancient Olympics

Aerial view of the Leonidaion today, via Archaeology & Arts
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Aerial view of the Leonidaion today, via Archaeology & Arts

The famous Leonidaion was a hotel for wealthy visitors and officials. Named after its founder, Leonidas of Naxos, this hotel consisted of guestrooms and even small apartments. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the Leonidaion had formal colonnades surrounding it on each side and a large private courtyard garden on the inside.

6. Greek Colonies Held Treasuries At Olympia

The Athenian Treasury at Delphi, courtesy The Beazley Archives
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The Athenian Treasury at Delphi, courtesy The Beazley Archives

It was considered a position of prestige to have a Treasury building at Olympia. Eleven have been discovered and each took the form of a miniature temple. Numerous items were kept inside the Treasuries, but the most important were valuable objects belonging to the colony and an amount of money to be used in case of an emergency.

7. Victorious Athletes Had Poems Written For Them

Bust of Pindar, via Fonte Aretusa
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Bust of Pindar, via Fonte Aretusa

Winners at the ancient Greek Olympics often had victory poems or ‘Odes’ written to honour them by the famous poets of the 5th century B.C, Pindar and Bacchylides. These poems would be performed by a chorus when the victor arrived back in his home state and are also excellent sources of literature for our understanding of the ancient Games.

8. Many Modern Elements Of The Games Did Not Exist In The Ancient Olympics

Many well-known modern Olympic traditions such as the torch relay, which brings the torch from one host city to another, did not exist in the ancient Games. The image of the five Olympic rings is also a modern creation. Interestingly, the marathon event, although named after an ancient Greek place and battle, also was not part of the ancient schedule of events.

9. Women Did Not Participate In The Ancient Olympics

Bronze statue of a Spartan woman, via The Idle Woman
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Bronze statue of a Spartan woman, via The Idle Woman

Married women were prohibited from attending the games as competitors or spectators. One woman, Pherenike of Rhodes, disguised herself as a male boxing trainer. Her boxer won but during her celebrations, she accidentally revealed herself to be a woman. From that moment onwards, all trainers had to attend the registration process naked!

10. Event Rules Were Enforced With Violence

Competitors who failed to comply with the rules of the ancient Greek Olympics were publicly flogged. This included those who committed the offense of a false-start in a running event. There were special officials known as alytes, who stood ready to whip any competitors who, even accidentally, stole such an advantage in a race.

11. The First-Ever Event Held At The Games Was The 200 Metres

The stadium at Olympia (artist’s impression), via Imgur
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The stadium at Olympia (artist’s impression), via Imgur

The stadion was one length of the stadium, which was apparently the length of 600 feet of Hercules, equivalent to 200 metres. Over time, two more running events were added – the diaulos (two lengths of the stadium) and the dolichos (20/24 lengths). An athlete who won all three running events was called a triastes – a ‘triple-eventer’. Leonidas of Rhodes was apparently a triastes for four successive Olympiads.

12. Each Event Was Originally Intended As Training For War

There were no professional soldiers in ancient Greece, instead, the adult male citizens of a city-state were expected to always be prepared for battle. Physical fitness was therefore important for military success. The hoplitodromia race at the ancient Olympics is an excellent example of the links between athletics and war. In this race, athletes had to compete wearing a full set of military armour.

 


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13. Athletes Tied Up Their Penises While Competing

Greek vase depicting naked runners, via The Met Museum
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Greek vase depicting naked runners, via The Met Museum

We know from depictions of athletes, such as those on Greek vases, that men always competed naked (with the exception of the hoplitodromia). A kynodesme, a leather ‘dog tie’, was used to tie up the genitals. Historians are undecided as to why this was, some believe it was for matters of comfort and others believe it was considered dishonorable to reveal the entire penis in public.

14. The Pentathlon Was One Of The Oldest Events At The Games

The ancient pentathlon included five different events, just like its modern equivalent. These events were the discus, long jump, javelin, running race and wrestling. Unlike in the modern Games, the discus, long-jump and javelin did not exist as separate events in their own right. Pentathletes were famed for their versatility and even Aristotle praises their endurance and physical appearance in his work, Rhetoric.

15. Discus-Throwing Is Thought To Have Originated From A Story In Homer’s Iliad

The Townley Discobolus, via The Express and Star
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The Townley Discobolus, via The Express and Star

In the Iliad, to honour the death of Patroclus, Achilles offered an ingot of iron to the man who could throw the ingot the furthest and the sport of discus-throwing was born. The ingot was apparently circular and curved and therefore was roughly the shape of a discus as we know it today. At the ancient Olympics, three official discuses were kept at the Treasury of the Sikyonians to ensure fairness.

16. The Ancient vs. Modern-Day Long-Jump Events Are Very Different

The ancient long-jump event began not with a run-up but with a standing start. Also, in order to propel the athlete forwards, weights were held in each hand and swung forward on take-off. Philostratus tells us that pipe-playing also accompanied the long-jump event. One of the only similarities seems to be that both ancient and modern events allowed three attempts to record the longest jump.

17. The Boxing Event Dates Back To The Minoan And Mycenaean Periods

Statue of a boxer at rest, via The New York Times
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Statue of a boxer at rest, via The New York Times

Boxing and wrestling are two of the oldest sports and depictions of them have been found in Minoan and Mycenaean art. One myth tells of how Apollo was beaten by Ares at the very first competition at Olympia, although historians believe that the sport actually originated in the ancient city of Sparta. The combat event was very popular at the ancient Olympics and contests would often last hours.

18. The Pankration Was The Most Violent Sport At The Ancient Greek Olympics

Attic black-figure skyphos with contest scene, via The Met
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Attic black-figure skyphos with contest scene, via The Met

The Pankration event was a combination of boxing and wrestling which required both skill and strength. Only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden and these rules were strictly enforced by judges. However, the fact that so few moves were forbidden meant that many dangerous forms of attack were permitted such as neck holds, kicking and strangling.

19. Chariot Racing Was Associated With The Dead Passing Into Hades

Chariot racing bronze relief, copy, via Greek Boston
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Chariot racing bronze relief, copy, via Greek Boston

In Homer’s Iliad, the funeral games for Patroclus feature chariot racing as the most important event. It was believed that the horses and their chariot symbolized the soul being carried into the Underworld. By the 25th Olympiad in 680 B.C, both two-horse and four-horse chariot racing had been introduced into the ancient Olympic Games. The chariot races were the first events in the Olympic program.

20. The Rider Running Alongside His Horse Event

Among the other equestrian events was the unusual anabates, or the ‘dismounted-event’, race in which the rider ran the whole race alongside his horse. It is likely that this race had military origins. There were also a variety of mounted races at the ancient Olympic Games. Riders rode without saddles or stirrups, critical accidents and even deaths were common.

21. Olive Wreaths Were Awarded To Winners At The Ancient Greek Olympics

Golden victory wreath, via The History Blog
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Golden victory wreath, via The History Blog

The wreaths given to victors at the ancient Olympics were all made from the leaves of a sacred olive tree at Olympia. This tree was called kotinos kallistephanos, meaning ‘the olive beautiful for its crowns’.

22. Victors In The Ancient Olympics Received A Variety Of Prizes And Honours

Athletes who won their event while the Olympic festival was still in progress were allowed to wear ribbons of white wool tied around their arms, legs and head. In later years, palm branches were also distributed to winners. Those athletes who had sufficient financial means or were supported by someone who did were allowed to erect a statue to themselves in the sacred Altis grove at Olympia.

23. Some Honours For Ancient Olympic Victors Lasted A Lifetime

Greek drinking cup depicting a feast, via National Geographic
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Greek drinking cup depicting a feast, via National Geographic

Winners at the ancient Olympics were also given free food and a seat in the Prytaneion at Olympia for life. The Prytaneion was an administrative building and the main hub for the organisers of the festival. It was also believed to be where the sacred flame of Hestia was housed. This flame had to be kept burning at all times and was used to light other flames all around Olympia.

24. Great Feasts Were Held For The Olympic Victors

At the end of the ancient Olympic Games, huge feasts were held for the winners. Members of their training team, families and supporters were all allowed to attend. We know of one particular feast held in honour of the athlete Empedocles of Agrigentum. Empedocles, a follower of Pythagoras and therefore a vegetarian, had a giant ox made out of spiced bread and divided it among the spectators.

25. The Final Ancient Greek Olympics Were Held In The AD 380s

British Museum model, showing how the site of Olympia looked in ca 100 BC
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British Museum model, showing how the site of Olympia looked in ca 100 BC

It is believed that by the end of the 4th century AD, the Olympic Games festivals had fallen out of favour. The site at Olympia gradually deteriorated after numerous enemy invasions from the likes of the Vandals and Visigoths. The rise of Christianity was also a factor in the decline of the Games. Pagan festivals, such as those held at Olympia, were no longer culturally and religiously relevant.

26. Baron De Coubertin Revived The Olympic Games In 1896

Portrait of Baron de Coubertin
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Portrait of Baron de Coubertin, via The Conversation

The site at Olympia was not officially re-discovered until 1875 by a group of German archaeologists. A French aristocrat, Pierre de Fredi, Baron de Coubertin, was inspired by this discovery and believed that the competitive element of the ancient Olympic Games should be revived. After gaining the permission of King George I of Greece, the first modern Olympic Games were launched in Athens on 6th April 1896.

27. The Logo of the Olympic Games Still Used Today Was Created by the Baron

The Logo of the Olympic Games
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The Olympic Games symbol of five interlocking rings we still use today, known as the ‘Olympic Rings’, was a creation of Baron de Coubertin. Created in 1913 to represent the five continents of the world. It was first used in the Summer Olympics of 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium.


Laura Hayward
About the Author

Laura Hayward

Laura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.


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