A Guide to the Ancient Olympics

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Nike, goddess of victory, crowns the winner of a boxing match. Panathenaic prize amphora with lid (detail), 363–362 B.C., attributed to the Painter of the Wedding Procession. Terracotta, 35 1/4 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 93.AE.55. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program


What really happened in the ancient games? Learn the essentials about nudity, oil, core events, and victory in the ancient Greek Olympics—plus where to read more


By Shelby Brown / 08.13.2016

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The Olympic Games began almost three thousand years ago as an athletic contest held during Greek religious celebrations. The Olympics continued for over a millennium, setting a standard for athletic excellence that has lasted into the modern era. Eight hundred years into the Games, the historian Dio Chystostom dramatically expressed the enduring power of an Olympic victory: “You know that the Olympian crown is olive leaves, and yet many have preferred this honor to life itself” (The Rhodian Discourse 31.110).

While there is much we don’t know about the ancient Games and their context, there are many fascinating facts we do know, thanks to historical texts, archaeological finds, and depictions in art. As an Olympics fan, archaeologist, and specialist for academic audiences at the Getty Villa, I’ve used objects from our collection to illuminate salient and surprising facts about the ancient Games. (For a far less serious look, watch the following BuzzFeed video about the ancient Olympics):

Origins

The original games were held in 776 B.C. in a sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, at a festival in honor of the god. The festival started small, but eventually grew to last five days and include processions, sacrifices, award ceremonies, and a victory party. There were far fewer events than today, and only men could compete (but keep reading to learn about women and horses).

Olympiads—the four-year periods from one Olympic Games to the next—were so important that eventually they were used as a calendar for dating important political and historical events. Many victors’ names survive from 776 B.C. to A.D. 385.

Why did the Olympics exist? Ancient authors disagreed on this question—and scholars still debate the reasons for competitive sports today. One rationale for the competitions was that they helped keep men fit for war. (See Nigel Spivey’s chapter on sports as “War Minus the Shooting.”) Since the Greeks associated physical excellence with moral superiority, victory was a worthy tribute to the gods, and the games also brought Greeks together in relatively peaceful competition, for a change. An Olympic truce in the months before the festival even allowed athletes and visitors to travel safely.

When did the Games start? A man from Elis, the city that oversaw Olympia, calculated backwards around 400 B.C. to figure out the 776 date, which has been cited ever since (see Paul Christesen on Olympic victor lists). Long before that official date, though, there were probably celebrations and competitions at the site. The Games lasted almost 1,200 years, ceasing in the late 4th century A.D. under Christianity, and were later reinvented for the modern world in 1896.

Competitors

The games brought competitors together from all over the Greek world (Greece and its colonies). Only male citizens competed, in two categories: men and boys (future citizens, in the case of boys). Women, foreigners, and slaves were not allowed. Women did, however, have their own games in honor of Zeus’s wife, Hera.

Women could win at Olympic chariot racing, but not by active participation. If a charioteer won, the person who paid for the chariot and horses also won, so rich women snuck in that way.

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This charioteer races to victory in a four-horse chariot. Attic Panathenaic amphora (detail), 490–480 B.C., Kleophrades Painter. Terracotta, 25 9/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AE.9. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

All educated Greek males trained in the core events of the Olympics as part of their schooling, and each town of any size had at least one gymnasium (which has gymnos, “naked,” as its root) that offered space for running, long-jumping, throwing discus and javelin, and the “heavy contests” (barea athla), like wrestling. Only the really rich could pay for a chariot, but almost any youth in school could theoretically become an Olympian!

Spectators

People also came from all over the Greek world and beyond to Olympia to attend the games. Foreign visitors and dignitaries, officials from the Greek city-states, trainers and families of athletes, and people who simply wanted to watch—just as they do today—came to Olympia to brave searing summer heat, dust, and extremely limited facilities.

“People” mostly means “men.” Pausanias, a second-century A.D. travel writer who provides invaluable descriptions of Olympia, says that a law existed to throw women (by which he means married women) off a nearby cliff if they trespassed on the sacred grounds! A priestess of Demeter and unmarried women (virgins) could, however, watch the Games. (See Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.6.7 and 6.20.9.)

The largest space for viewing the events was the outdoor stadium, which held about 40,000 people, standing packed together in the heat. Olympia was famous for being miserably uncomfortable; the events were for glory, not for comfort. Pliny (1st century A.D.), Pausanias (2nd century A.D.), and others reference the need to pray to Zeus as Averter of Flies! (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.14.1.)

Nudity

Athletes competed naked, although they started out wearing some sort of loincloth or “shorts.” Even the ancients were not clear about the origins of naked competition.

At the earliest games, the only event was the sprint, and Pausanias says in his Description of Greece 1.44.1 that the first naked runner simply lost his garment on purpose, because running naked was easier. His theory seems fairly reasonable when we consider that there were, as yet, no stretchy fabrics to reduce drag and wick moisture away. Greeks also equated nudity with athletics, athletics with beautiful male bodies, and beautiful male bodies with excellence—so nudity was natural.

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On this Roman container, two naked athletes struggle to gain an advantage over one another at the beginning of upright wrestling. The competitors in ultimate fighting, which was more vicious, quickly ended up on the ground. Situla with a frieze of athletic contests, A.D. 75–100, Gallo-Roman. Bronze, 5 1/2 in. diam. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AC.41

Unlike athletes, trainers (again, always men) were clothed at first—until one was revealed to be a woman when she jumped out of the trainers’ enclosure upon her son’s athletic victory. After that, trainers also had to go naked at the events. In art, however, referees and judges are shown dressed.

The Gym Bag

An athlete’s “gym bag” held a container of oil, a scraper, and a sponge. Olive oil was used as a skin protectant, but it made things worse in some ways. There is no doubt that athletes got really dirty, since they rubbed the oil fairly thickly on their bodies before competition. It was thought to safeguard the skin from the elements and keep it supple, and it was also used to clean the body.

Wine Cup with an Athlete Applying Oil

On the inside of a drinking cup, an athlete pours oil into his palm as he prepares to exercise or compete. His javelins and discus (in a sling) are nearby. Attic red-figure cup, about 510 B.C., attributed to the Ambrosios Painter. Terracotta, 9 7/8 in. diam. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.298. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

After competition the athlete scraped off the dirty oil, gloios, with a stlengis, a curved bronze scraper. He also took the equivalent of a shower, using his sponge. Some gymnasia, at least by the second century B.C., would collect and sell the dirty oil as a medicine for inflammation. We don’t know if Olympic trainers or athletes saved the used oil from Olympic competition, but it probably would have been worth money. (For more on this fascinating practice, see a great post by classicist Jason Konig, Sweat Collectors in the Gymnasium, and sources in Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, pages 18, 20, 141, and 218.)

Scraper

Both Greeks and Romans oiled their bodies and scraped the oil off with a tool, stlengis in Greek, strigilis in Latin. Strigil, A.D. 1–100, Roman. Bronze, 8 3/4 in. long. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.AC.101. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The Athletic Cup?

Not to belabor the point, but…were they really, totally naked? No protection? Yes. In fact, instead of using an athletic cup, a Greek athlete sometimes tied a string (kynodesme) around his foreskin and pulled his penis back. Not all athletes did this, but we see the practice in ancient art. We’re not entirely sure about all aspects of the tying. Although there is much experimental archaeology, this is one area that has not received a lot of attention (or at least it has not been published!), except in medical contexts.

Curious? See the article on The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome; footnotes 22 to 31 link to classical illustrations of tied penises.

The Olympic Oath

Although we don’t have a copy of the text of the ancient Olympic oath, Pausanias summarized it in his time, the second century A.D. The athletes, their trainers, and their fathers and brothers held the flesh of a boar sacrificed to Zeus Horkios (Zeus of the Oaths), and swore that they would do nothing to dishonor the games.

The athletes also swore that they had trained for ten straight months, and judges of boys’ events swore that they would judge fairly, would not accept bribes, and would keep information about the athletes private. (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.24.9–10.)

Cheating

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Close-up of officials overseeing athletic competitions. They rest switches on their shoulders to use for beating cheaters. Attic black-figure volute krater (detail), attributed to the Leagros Group, 510–500 B.C. Terracotta, 23 1/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AE.95. Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Many Olympic officials shown in art are carrying a symbolic stick or switch for hitting those who cheated or misbehaved. Some of the names of the officials also indicate their function of dishing out physical punishment. Ancient historians including Herodotus, Thucydides, and Lucian all commented on these Olympic beatings and whippings. (For details on ancient Olympic officialdom and punishments, see the essay on judges and judging in Onward to the Olympics).

In the fourth century B.C., on two separate occasions cheaters who had offered bribes to win, and who had taken bribes to lose, paid large fines to cover the cost of setting up statues of Zeus at the competitors’ entrance to the stadium. These served as reminders to the athletes that cheating had financial consequences as well as physical ones.

Olympic Events

From 776 to 724 B.C., athletes only competed in one sport, the sprint or stadion (about 200 meters). Between 724 and 396 B.C., organizers added the following events to the men’s category, in this order (I’m omitting sports that were added but later dropped):

  • Double sprint (diaulos)
  • Distance race (dolichos)
  • Wrestling (pale)
  • Pentathlon (pentathlon)—this included discus (diskos), long jump (halma), javelin (akon), and running and wrestling separate from the events outside the pentathlon
  • Boxing (pyx or pygme)
  • Four-horse chariot racing (tethrippon)
  • Horseback racing (keles)
  • Ultimate fighting (pankration, meaning “all power”)
  • Two-horse chariot racing (synoris)
  • A race in armor (hoplitodromos)

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Drinking cup showing naked athletes practicing events of the pentathlon. Next to a flute player (playing a rhythm to help athletes time their movements) are two discus-throwers and an athlete holding a weight (carried in the long jump). Two javelins lean next to the flute player. To the far right an athlete uses a pick to loosen hard soil so the long jumper will not hurt himself, and the discus and javelin can land properly and leave a clean mark. Attic red-figure kylix (detail), attributed to the Carpenter Painter, 510–500 B.C. Terracotta, 15 in. wide. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AE.25. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

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In this detail from the neck of a mixing bowl for wine and water, officials holding sticks for beating cheaters stand interspersed among competitors. From left to right: hoplitodromos (race in armor), long jumper or sprinter, discus thrower, flute player, javelin thrower, wrestlers, and panktatiasts (ultimate fighters) bleeding heavily. The loser lifts a finger in submission. Attic black-figure volute krater (detail), attributed to the Leagros Group, 510–500 B.C. Terracotta, 23 1/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 96.AE.95. Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

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This fragment of a Roman coffin lid shows athletes in action. Runners race to the right, their arms outstretched in an unusual pumping motion. They are followed by a racer in armor. On the left side a man with a pick (broken) prepares the soil for events of the pentathlon while the athlete watching him holds weights for jumping or exercise. Fragment of a sarcophagus lid, A.D. 180–190, Roman. Marble, 8 11/16 × 33 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 71.AA.257

The heralds (kerykes) and trumpeters (salpinktes), who were essential for announcing events and victories, were allowed to compete in 396 B.C. The winners were then put to work for the rest of the Olympics! (For more on Olympic events, see Donald Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, chapter 6.)

The Sprint

The most important event at Olympia, to judge from the victor’s long-term glory, was the sprint (stadion), which as I noted above was the only competition for many years. Officials didn’t time the runners and list records— the race was simply about who was fastest to the finish line in a given year. Officials could whip a runner who false started, and they ensured a fair start by letting down a rope from a starting gate (hysplex). If you tripped over it, you had false started.

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These athletes, on a trophy from Athens, represent longer-distance runners who have settled into their stride. Most sprinters are shown in Greek art with their arms pumping wildly. Panathenaic amphora with lid (detail), about 320 B.C., attributed to the Nichomachos Group. Terracotta, 44 1/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AE.5. Image courtesy of Perseus Digital Library

The Olympiad, the four-year period between games, was named after the winning athlete. When a writer would date a political or historical event to an Olympiad and victor, he would say, for example, that it happened “in the year (or the second, third, or fourth year) of the Olympiad in which X won the stadion.”

Awards: Olympia vs. Athens

At Olympia, there was only one winner…and many losers. Right after the win, an athlete was awarded a palm of victory (basically, a palm frond), and ribbons were tied around his head, legs, or arms. During a “victory lap,” he might be showered with leaves (phyllobolia). His final and biggest reward was an olive wreath from Zeus’s sacred tree. He got no medals, no money, and no endorsement deals.

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A life-sized bronze statue of a victor in the men’s category at Olympia, wearing his olive wreath. He has just put it on his own head or is taking it off to dedicate to the god. Statue of a Victorious Youth (detail), 300–100 B.C., Greek. Bronze with inlaid copper, 59 5/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AB.30

Winners—always just first place—did better than “just a wreath” back home. Athletes represented their city-states at this prestigious Panhellenic festival, and the victor’s town was very excited about his victory—just as our athletes’ home towns are today. Cities rewarded their victorious Olympic athletes with many different benefits, from lavish welcome-home receptions to money and free meals.

Other athletic competitions also awarded wreaths and some prizes of more value. The major stephanitic (“crown” or wreath) games began after those at Olympia, and an athlete was especially honored if he won all four; this was like winning an ancient Grand Slam. The crown games were held at the cities of Olympia, Nemea, Isthmia, and Delphi, and there was crossover in the core events at all the major game sites. (For more on the various Games, see Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece).

The Athenian games were well known, but they were not part of the stephanitic group. Athens offered the usual events and also some just for local competitors. The city awarded monetary prizes, even for second place (and up to fifth place for some musical events). We have a number of Athenian prize vessels (Panathenaic amphorae) at the Getty Villa that were awarded for victories at Athens.

These look a lot like trophies today, and they signified glory—but perhaps even more importantly, they were filled with thirty to forty gallons of olive oil worth a lot of money, and useful for cooking, lighting lamps, and oiling and cleaning the body.

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This victory trophy commemorates a local competition at Athens. In an event reminiscent of Bronze Age chariot warfare, a soldier leaps on and off the chariot as the horses gallop. Attic Panathenaic amphora with lid (detail), 340–339 B.C., attributed to the Marsyas Painter. Terracotta, 30 7/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AE.147

No one could beat the Olympics for sheer prestige, but the Athenians knew that good prizes would bring good competitors. An inscription surviving from the fourth century B.C. tells us that the stadion winner at Athens won 100 amphorae of oil, and the man who came in second won twenty. Athletes probably gave away or sold some of their prizes, but they would have used some of the oil themselves and buried some of the vessels in their tombs as a reminder of former glory. Possibly the only known skeleton of an Olympic athlete, who may have been a pentathlete, was buried with four Panathenaic amphorae; but confusingly, all depict different events.

Why There’s Still More to Learn

Art, literature, artifacts, and archaeological sites give us a lot of information about the ancient games—but there is still much scholarly debate. Since the original Olympic Games lasted over a thousand years, and people designed buildings and equipment for them and discussed them for most of that time, what’s the problem?

  • Things change over a millennium! Applying information from one century to another is dangerous, but we have to do it to paint a picture of the Games.
  • Many written sources talk mainly about their own time or cite (sometimes badly) lost, older authors. And they leave a great deal unsaid, because their readers already knew a lot.
  • Texts written on inorganic materials are mostly lost. Inscriptions on stone are often cut off at the top or the bottom, or along one side—usually at places where you were JUST about to find out what you wanted to know.

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This partial victor list from the early 200s A.D., on a papyrus fragment riddled with holes, illustrates one reason for our difficulty reconstructing past Olympic Games. The British Library, London. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Most archaeological evidence at Olympia (and other sites of competition) is badly damaged, and all organic remains—starting gates, javelin shafts—have decayed.
  • Images in art give us a single stop-motion shots that we have to piece together from multiple, contradictory representations. Also, artists tend to idealize athletes’ bodies and poses. Determining what is “real” is extremely difficult.

Given holes in the evidence, it’s fun to fill in the gaps and imagine how the games worked in any one Olympiad, but we always need to hope and wait for more information to be uncovered.

Resources

Want more? Here are easy-to-search online resources and a sampling of useful publications in the field.

Good online sources of information

These sources overlap, but each offers a slightly different approach.

Ancient Olympics Guide, Archaeology online magazine

Ancient Olympics, University of Leuven, Ancient History Department (images are not cited)

The Ancient Olympics, Perseus Digital Library Project

The True Story of the Ancient Olympic Games, David Romano, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona

The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games, University of Pennsylvania Museum

Olympic Games, Ancient History Encyclopedia

For kids

Olympic Games, Hellenica World

Ancient Greeks: The Olympic Games

Books

Beale, Alan. Greek Athletics and the Olympics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. A book for older students that pulls together a great deal of information in a readable way, quoting ancient authors. The author asks questions that reveal how different people may see the evidence differently. Good reading even for adults.

Christesen, Paul. Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. See p. 2, chapter 2, and appendix 12 on the 776 B.C. date.

Jenkins, Ian, and Victoria Turner. The Greek Body. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009. Good source on beautiful bodies and Greek attitudes.

Miller, Stephen G. Ancient Greek Athletics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See the excellent glossary of all possible athletic terms. This is the most comprehensive single overview of ancient Greek athletics.

Miller, Stephen G. Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources, 4th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. A great way to read the ancient sources for yourself.

Scanlon, Thomas, ed. Sport in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Volume 1. Early Greece, the Olympics, and Contexts (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. For the scholarly and historically minded: important classic works on a variety of topics, updated and newly introduced.

Schaus, Gerald P., and Stephen R. Wenn. Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games. Wilfrid Laurier University and The Canadian Institute in Greece, 2007. See especially David Gilman Romano, “Judges and Judging at the Ancient Olympic Games,” 95–114, and Hugh M. Lee, “The Halma: A Running or Standing Jump,” 153–166.

Swaddling, Judith. The Ancient Olympic Games, 3rd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. Offers a quick but comprehensive overview with good illustrations from the collection of the British Museum.

Valavanis, Panos. Games and Sanctuaries in Ancient Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea, Athens. Translated by David Hardy. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. This large book is beautifully illustrated in color with scenes from all the great Panhellenic events.

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