Ancient Olympic Games

From Hull AWE
Jump to: navigation, search

The original Olympic Games, of which the modern Olympic Games are a revival, were held in ancient Greece, at four-yearly intervals, from the eighth century BCE to the end of the fourth century CE. They were as much a religious festival as a series of athletic and sporting contests and were held at Olympia, a plain in Elis in the northwest Peloponnese in honour of Zeus, in Greek mythology the greatest of the gods. Zeus was believed to live, along with many of the other Greek gods, on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, and for this reason was known as Olympian Zeus. (Do not confuse Mount Olympus, which is in northeast Greece, on the borders of Macedonia and Thessaly, and the plain of Olympia, the site of the Olympic Games, which is more than 200 miles to the south. The latter was nonetheless closely associated with Zeus, as the main sanctuary to the god was situated there.)

The Greeks used the four-year period between one celebration of the Olympic Games and the next - usually known as an Olympiad - as a unit of chronology to date events. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE, and so an event which, according to our chronology, took place in 737 BCE, would be said to have taken place in the second year of the eighth Olympiad.

The first Olympic Games, in 776, lasted a single day and consisted only of competitions in running and wrestling, but over the following three centuries the Games were gradually enlarged to include, for example, chariot-racing, and by 472 BCE they lasted five days. On the first day there were various religious ceremonies and the competitors swore an oath that they would compete fairly. The second day was taken up with chariot- and horse-races and with the pentathlon, and the third day with boys' events. On the fourth day there were the men's track events, as well competitions in jumping, wrestling, boxing, and the pankration (πανκράτιον, a 'no holds barred' mixture of boxing and wrestling), the final event being a race for men in armour. On the last day there were further religious ceremonies and a feast for the Olympic victors, whose prizes were crowns of wild olive.

The Olympic Games were regarded as the greatest of the Panhellenic festivals, i.e., the festivals in which the various contests were open to (male) competitors from any of the Greek city-states - women were never permitted to take part - and during the period of the Games any hostilities between participant states were suspended.

The other Panhellenic Games were:

  • the Pythian Games. They were held every four years (in the third year of each Olympiad) at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo and were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. (The adjective 'Pythian' refers to Pytho, the region in which the city of Delphi was situated.) Apollo was the god of music and the arts, and the earliest festivals at Delphi involved musical competitions in which the contestants sang hymns to the god. In the sixth century the festival was reorganised and competitions in athletic and equestrian events were added, though throughout its history the competitions in instrumental music, singing, dancing, drama, and prose- and verse-recitation were the primary focus of interest rather than the athletic and equestrian contests. The victors' prizes were crowns of bay leaves.
  • the Nemean Games. They were held every two years (in the second and fourth year of each Olympiad) in the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea in the northeast Peloponnese and were managed by the state of Argos. The victors' prizes were crowns of wild celery.
  • the Isthmian Games. They were held every two years (in the second and fourth year of each Olympiad} at Corinth in honour of the god Poseidon. The victors' prizes were crowns of wild celery.

The Greek lyric poet Pindar (518-438 BCE) wrote celebratory odes in honour of many of the victors at the Olympic and the other Panhellenic Games.