Ancient Olympic Games

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Image:Palestra at Olympia.jpg
Ruins of the training grounds at Olympia

The Ancient Olympic Games were an athletic and religious celebration held in the Greek town of Olympia from (historically) as early as 776 BC to 393 AD. There were 292 Ancient Olympic Games.


[edit] Origin

The historical origins of the Ancient Olympic Games are unknown, but several legends and myths survive. One of these involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of the Peloponnesus, to whom offerings were made during the games. The Christian Clement of Alexandria asserted that "[The] Olympian games are nothing else than the funeral sacrifices of Pelops." That myth tells of how Pelops' overcame King Oenomaus and won the hand of his daughter Hippodamia with the help of Poseidon, his old lover, a myth linked to the later fall of the house of Atreus and the sufferings of Oedipus.

Another myth tells of the hero Hercules, who won a race at Olympia and then decreed that the race should be re-enacted every four years, while another claims that Zeus had instated the festival after his defeat of the Titan Cronus. Yet another tells of King Iphitos of Elis, who consulted the Pythia – the Oracle of Delphi – to try and save his people from war in the 9th century BC. The prophetess advised him to organise games in honour of the gods. The Spartan adversary of Iphitos then decided to stop the war during these games, which were called Olympic, after the sanctuary of Olympia where they were held. Had they been named after Mount Olympus, the mountain on which the Greek gods were said to live, they would have been called Olympian games rather than Olympic. The favorite story is that Herakles celebrated cleaning the Augean Stables by building Olympia with help from Athena. Whatever the origin, the games were held to be one of the two central rituals in Ancient Greece, the other being the Eleusinian Mysteries.

[edit] History

The Games first started in Olympia, Greece, a sanctuary site for the Greek gods near the towns of Elis and Pisa (both in Elis on the peninsula of Peloponnesos). The Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia housed a 12 meter high statue in ivory and gold of Zeus, the father of the Greek gods, sculpted by Phidias. This statue was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.

The Olympic Games were held in four year intervals, and later the Greek method of counting the years even referred to these Games, using the term Olympiad for the period between two Games. The historian Ephorus who lived in the 4th century BC is believed to have invented the use of Olympiads to count years, much as we today use AD and BC. Previously every Greek state used its own dating system, something that continued for local events, which led to confusion when trying to determined dates. "Diodorus states that there was a solar eclipse in the third year of the 117th Olympiad, which must be the eclipse of 310 BC. This gives us a date of (mid-summer) 776 BC for the first year of the first Olympiad".<ref>"The Athletics of the Ancient Olympics: A Summary and Research Tool" by Kotynski, p.3 (Quote used with permission). For the calculation of the date, see Kotynski footnote 6.</ref> Nevertheless, there is disagreement among scholars whether the games truly began at this time or not.<ref>See, for example, Alfred Mallwitz's article "Cult and Competition Locations at Olympia" p.101 in which he argues that the games may not have started until about 704 BC. Hugh Lee, on the other hand, in his article "The 'First' Olympic Games of 776 B.C." p.112, follows an ancient source that claims that there were twenty-seven Olympiads before the first one was recorded in 776. There are no records of the Olympic victors extant from earlier than the 5th century BC.</ref>

The only competition held then was, according to the Greek traveller Pausanias, the stadion race, a race over about 190 meters, measured after the feet of Hercules. The word stadium is derived from this foot race.

The early Olympics were also held to be the place where the Greek tradition of athletic nudity was first introduced, some claiming the honor for the Spartans, others for the Megarian Orsippus in 720 BC.

Several groups fought over control of the sanctuary, and hence the Games, for prestige and political advantage. Pausanias writes that in 668 BC, Pheidon of Argos was commissioned by the town of Pisa to capture the sanctuary from the town of Elis, which he did and then personally controlled the Games for that year. The next year Elis regained control.

The Athenian writer Xenophon in 364 BC gives a contemporary record of an Elean attack during the Pentathlon final of the Games themselves, as the Pisans were again in control. The Eleans pushed the defenders almost to the altar before retreating due to missiles being thrown at them from the porticos. During that night the defending Arcadians constructed defensive palisades, and the next morning on seeing the strength of the defence the Elians retreated.

Related to the Elis/Pisa conflict, is the Heraea Games, the first sanctioned competition for women, held in Olympic Stadium. It originally consisted of foot races only, as did the men's competition. Some texts, including Pausanias's Description of Greece, c. AD 175, state that Hippodameia gathered a group known as the "Sixteen Women" and made them administrators of the Heraea Games, out of gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. Other texts indicate that the "Sixteen Women" were peace-makers from Pisa and Elis and, because of their political competence, became administrators of the Heraea Games.

In 12 BC Herod the Great gave financial support to the Games to enable their future survival.

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were the most important and most prestigious of these.

Finally, the Olympic Games were suppressed by either Theodosius I in AD 393 or his grandson Theodosius II in AD 435,<ref>Kotynski, p.3. For more information about the question of this date, see Kotynski.</ref> as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as a state religion. The site of Olympia remained until an earthquake destroyed it in the 6th century AD.

[edit] Events

Unlike the Modern Olympic Games, only free men who spoke Greek were allowed to participate in the Ancient Games. They were to some extent "international", though, in the sense that they included athletes from the various Greek city-states. Additionally, participants eventually came from Greek colonies as well, extending the range of the games to far shores of the Mediterranean and of the Black Sea.

In order to be in the games one had to qualify and have one's name written down in the lists. It seems that only young people were allowed to participate, as the Greek writer Plutarch relates that one young man was rejected for seeming too mature, and only after his lover interceded with the king of Sparta, who presumably vouched for his youth, was he permitted to participate. Before being able to participate, every participant had to take an oath in front of the statue of Zeus saying that he had been in training for 10 months.

Over the years, more events were added: boxing (pygme/pygmachia), wrestling (pale), pankration (regulated full-contact fighting, similar to today's mixed martial arts), chariot racing, several other running events (the diaulos, hippios, dolichos, and hoplitodromos), as well as a pentathlon, consisting of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw and discus throw (the latter three were not separate events).

The Olympic games originally contained one event: the Stadion (or "stade") race. The stade race was between 180 and 240 metres in length. The actual length of the race is unknown, since tracks found at archeological sites, as well as literary evidence, provide conflicting answers. Runners had to pass five stakes that divided the lanes: one stake at the start, another at the finish, and three stakes in-between. Since time was not pertinent to winning the Stade race, merely passing the finish stake first was enough to earn the victory. The Diaulos, or 2-stade race, was introduced in 724 BCE, during the 14th Olympic games. The race was approximately 400 metres, and scholars debate whether or not the runners had individual "turning" posts for the return leg of the race, or whether all the runners approached a common post, turned, and then raced back to the starting blocks. The Dolichos was introduced in 720 BCE. Separate accounts of the race present conflicting evidence as to the actual length of the Dolichos. However, the average stated length of the race was approximately 18-24 laps, or about three miles. The event was run similarly to modern marathons- the runners would begin and end their event in the stadium proper, but the race course would wind its way through the Olympic grounds. The course would often flank important shrines and statues in the sanctuary, passing by the Nike statue by the temple of Zeus before returning to the stadium. The last running event added to the Olympic program was the Hoplitodromos, or "Hoplite race," in 520 BCE. The runners would lap the stadium for one mile (1500 metres) in full or partial armour, carrying a shield and additionally equipped either with greaves or a helmet. The event was a practice in displaying military capacities of the various poleis that competed, as armour weighed between 50 and 60 lbs. and emulated speed and stamina needed for warfare. Due to the weight of the armour, it was easy for runners to drop their shields or trip over fallen competitors. In vase painting depicting the event, some runners are shown leaping over fallen shields.

Boxing became increasingly brutal over the centuries. Initially soft leather covered their fingers but eventually hard leather weighted with metal was sometimes used.<ref>"Boxing gets Brutal", Encarta, March 23, 2006..</ref>

In the chariot racing event, it was not the rider but the owner of the chariot and team who was considered to be the competitor, so one man could win more than one of the top spots. The addition of events meant the festival grew from 1 day to 5 days, 3 of which were used for competition. The other 2 days were dedicated to religious rituals. On the final day, there was a banquet for all of the participants, consisting of 100 oxen that had been sacrificed to Zeus on the first day.

The winner of an Olympic event was awarded an olive branch, and was often received with much honour throughout Greece and especially in his home town, where he was often granted large sums of money (in Athens, 500 drachma, a small fortune). (See Milo of Croton.) Sculptors would create statues of Olympic victors<ref>Ageladas</ref> and poets would sing odes in their praise for money.

It is often said that wars were halted during the Games but this is not true; however, athletes, who were often soldiers, were permitted to leave the army to participate in the Games, and were guaranteed safe passage through enemy territory.

Participation in the games was limited to male athletes; the only way women were allowed to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events. In 396 BC and again in 392 BC, the horses of a Spartan princess named Cynisca won her the four-horse race.

The athletes usually competed naked, not only as the weather was appropriate but also as the festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was occasionally used by the competitors, not only to keep skin smooth but also to provide an appealing look for the participants. Competitors may have worn a kynodesme to restrain the penis.

[edit] Famous athletes

  • from Athens:
  • from Sparta:
  • from Rhodes:
  • from Croton:
  • from other cities:
  • non-Greek:
    • Tiberius (steerer of a four-horse chariot)<ref>Tiberius, AD 1 or earlier - cf. Ehrenberg & Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford 1955] p. 73 (n.78)</ref>
    • Nero (steerer of a ten-horse chariot)
    • Varastades, Prince and future King of Armenia, (last known Ancient Olympic victor (boxing) during the 291st Olympic Games in the fourth century. <ref>369 according to Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece

by Nigel Wilson, 2006, Routledge (UK) or 385 according to Classical Weekly by Classical Association of the Atlantic States</ref>

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes


[edit] References

[edit] External links

et:Antiikolümpiamängud el:Αρχαίοι Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες fr:Jeux Olympiques antiques it:Giochi Olimpici Antichi he:המשחקים האולימפיים העתיקים hu:Olümpiai játékok nl:Olympische Spelen in de Klassieke Oudheid ja:古代オリンピック pl:Starożytne igrzyska olimpijskie pt:Jogos Olímpicos antigos ru:Античные Олимпийские игры sk:Olympijské hry (starovek) fi:Antiikin olympialaiset zh:古奥林匹克运动会

Ancient Olympic Games

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