Games in Ancient Greece

This summer millions of sports fans will be watching the Olympic Games, broadcast from Rio to televisions and radios all over the world. There will be huge opening and closing ceremonies and athletes from every continent will compete in a vast array of sports. Hundreds of medals will be won and celebrity status achieved.

Much of this is inherited from the original Games in ancient Greece, but an awful lot would leave ancient Greeks completely baffled. I also imagine that Greek sports fans would be haughtily calling us a bunch of barbarians and finding some of our modern habits ans customs rather perplexing. 

So just how different were the Games in the ancient world? And why were they so phenomenal that we resurrected them over a millennium after they were closed down?

In posts over the next few weeks I’ll talk about a few aspects of athletics in the ancient world;  the recognisable parts that we love to feel familiarity with as well as the events and customs that shock our modern sensibilities and challenge our conceptions about how civilised ancient civilisations actually were. For now, here is a crash course in the most famous sporting events in ancient Greece.

The Olympics were one of four sets of Games held in Greece that collectively were known as the Panhellenic Games, ie Games of the Greek speaking world.

The Olympics were held at a sanctuary of Zeus called Olympia near to the city of Elis and they are the oldest of the four, the first Games being held in 776 BC. There were also Games dedicated to Zeus at Nemea. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi and were sacred to Apollo and the Games at Isthmia near Corinth were dedicated to Poseidon. Whilst undoubtedly highly entertaining, the Panhellenic Games were religious festivals first and foremost. 

These events were open to any competitors from a Greek city or polis. The only prizes were symbolic crowns and there were no prizes for anything but first place; to come second was to lose. A winning athlete may not have won an expensive prize but could expect to be showered with gifts and benefits from his proud home city.

There were other athletic events to compete in; some cities had their own, smaller sacred Games open to their own citizens and many cities also hosted prize games that did offer huge piles of cash to victorious visiting athletes. Success on the professional circuit could make a talented Greek rich for life.

Athletes tended to be affluent anyway, poorer men could not afford to stop working long enough to spend hours each day training or schlepping around on the Games circuit. Families who left the grunt work of their business to slave labour were more likely to have the spare time necessary to dedicate to a proper career in sport. Poorer boys who showed promise could still rise to the top if they were talented enough to secure state funding or handsome enough to catch the eye of an older man with cash to burn. 

But for the rarest of exceptions, athletes were male, the only (respectable) role in public life open to free women being that of a priestess. Competitors were also free, although slaves usually drove in chariot races (and their minted owners were named as victors!) 

The Greeks did not consider team sports of any kind to be a competitive event. If you were to say to an ancient athlete that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” it’s likely that he would assume you were joking or wonder if you were mentally sound. Or worse, that you were a barbarian. Balls were for exercise only and ballgames were merely recreational. There were no aquatic events although swimming pools did exist for athletes to exercise in and soak their tired muscles. The idea of Games being held in winter would have made a Greek shudder. 

The Games drew in spectators from the entire Greek speaking world, and since the Greeks really loved to found colonies that meant athletes and sports fans travelled to central Greece from as far away as North Africa, Spain and the shores of the Black Sea. Cities from southern Italy and Sicily were particularly good at producing star athletes.

The modern Olympics travel, hosted by a different city in a different country each time. The hosts compete to build the cleverest, most attractive stadiums etc to show off their architecture and art to the world (some being more successful than others…) The ancient Panhellenic Games stayed put, so city states erected their buildings at the sanctuaries instead, along with statues of their victorious athletes and greatest military victories. To tour Delphi or Olympia was a little like taking a miniature tour of Greece itself. Visitors to the Games could admire art and architecture from all over the Mediterranean, all in the same place.

Greek men considered it an ambition to attend a Games at least once in their lives, those with enough time and money spent as much time as possible travelling to the sanctuaries to spectate. It’s estimated that nearly fifty thousand people would visit Olympia each Games. Travelling to a sanctuary could sometimes take weeks, but the Panhellenic Games were so culturally important and considered so sacred that sports fans were seen as religious pilgrims. To harm them on their journeys was forbidden. Whilst wars between city states didn’t pause, spectators from every city were expected to travel together in peace and leave their rivalries for the battlefield. Like the terrible events at some of the modern Games, those rules were sometimes broken, but then as now the Games were the perfect time to forget differences and celebrate what we have in common. 

All sanctuaries in Greece were closed down in 394AD by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I and so the Games were by extension shut down due to their pagan core. 

For nearly twelve centuries, the Panhellenic Games provided the greatest spectacle in the ancient world and continue to inspire today.

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