A Brief History of the Ancient Olympic Games
The ancient Olympic festival, from which we derive the Olympic games of today,
was a pivotal force in ancient Greece. Its recorded history spans more than a
millennium—from 776 BC to AD 392, a total of 293 Olympiads. The Games developed
gradually, mirroring the rise of classical Greek culture. The ancient Olympics
were based on a philosophy of balance between physical/athletic and spiritual/moral development
that was a cornerstone of Greek democracy. As the ideals and political forces that
inspired the Games began to deteriorate, so did the festival. Under Roman rule,
the Olympics experienced a renaissance, but in a form not true to its original spirit.
Finally, by decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius I, the Games were abolished in AD 393.
So, how did the ancient Olympic games come to be? Why did they become so famous in
the ancient world? Why were so many magnificent structures built at Olympia?
The answers to these questions trace a fascinating journey through the history
of ancient Greece, "the cradle of civilization."
The Site of Olympia
The history of the ancient Olympic games must be traced in relation to its permanent home:
the sanctuary at Olympia. The site is located in the northwestern part of the Peloponnese,
which is the southern peninsula of mainland Greece. The site takes its name from Mount
Olympus (mythic home of the pantheon of gods, of whom Zeus was chief), which is not close
to Olympia, but well to the north on the mainland. Olympia was (and is) situated in a rural location, in a valley at the base of Kronos hill (named for the father of Zeus), bordered by the
Kladeos river on the west and the Alpheios river along the south. Olympia is located
in what was the region of Elis, and the city-state of Elis controlled the Games for almost all
of its history.
Exactly why or how Olympia came to be a sacred place is lost in the mists of prehistory.
There is evidence that Olympia was being used as a sanctuary at the end of the Mycenean
period (12th century BC). By the 10th century BC, it was an established center for worship,
and religious activities had blossomed by the late 8th century BC. Zeus quickly emerged
as the focus of worship, and he remained the main divinity at Olympia until the end of antiquity.
Olympia consists of temples, altars, athletic facilities, and other buildings within a described area.
The site developed gradually over the years until it was crammed with temples and sacred articles.
The oldest and most sacred place at Olympia, the "holy of holies" as it were,
is a wooded grove called the "Altis." The Altis is located on a naturally occurring
shelf of land behind the site along the northern extent at the base of the hill of Kronos.
This rural sanctuary was an ideal place for a regional festival.
Religious Festivals in Antiquity
The Greeks of ancient Hellas (Dark Ages; 1100 to 800 BC) were scattered, and city-states
had not yet begun to organize themselves. The region was settled by people who shared a
common ancestry, religion, and language, yet had no common government—were in fact often
at war with each other. Sanctuaries became cultural, social, and religious centers where
people from these independent settlements could come together. Religious festivals grew up
around the great sanctuaries and combined worship with sporting events, music, theater,
dance, and public debate. Although the idea of combining sports competitions and religious
worship seem foreign to us today, they were a natural part of Greek thinking.
The early Greeks believed that the deities gave power to the athletes to compete,
and victors were lauded as those favored by the gods. Sports events also grew out
of a natural competitiveness, and leaders encouraged them for their military benefits—in an
age when all warfare depended on men, not machines, a strong, agile male population was a necessity.
So, how did the Olympic festival get started?
There is much we can learn about the ancient Olympic games from various literary,
mythological, and archaeological sources. These are not sufficient, however,
to piece together the exact origins of the Games at Olympia.
It seems probable that races were held at Olympia on various occasions,
slowly grew in popularity, and eventually came to be organized as a quadrennial event.
What we lack in hard evidence is made up for by an abundance of [myths and legends] about the origins of the Games.
Starting in 776 BC, Olympic victors were officially recorded in the Olympic lists.
This date (776 BC), which is the earliest verifiable date in the history of Western
Civilization, is universally accepted as the official beginning of the ancient Olympic games.
The most significant event in the early history of the Games is the birth
of the Olympic truce (824 BC). The truce began as a month-long "Holy Treaty"
between king Iphitos of Elis (city that controlled Olympia),
king Lykourgos of Sparta, and king Kleosthenes of Pisa
(see our page on the
). Other Greek city-states
subsequently ratified this agreement.
A key to the success of the truce was the perpetual neutrality of Elis (which it maintained until 420 BC during the Peloponnesian War).
The Olympic truce changed the Games from a local event into a growing panhellenic
competition that drew competitors and spectators from neighboring regions.
For the first 13 Olympiads (counting from 776 BC), the only event was the 200-meter sprint.
This race took place on a simple track that was nothing more than a rectangular area
of cleared ground. It was around this time (750 BC) that Greek city-states began
to organize. Longer foot races were added at the 14th and 15th Games and the
pentathlon and wrestling were introduced at the 18th. Around the time of the
19th Olympiad (704 BC), various improvements were made to Olympia, including
several wells to the east and changes to the northern boarders. Large areas
ground were leveled and the sanctuary was improved.
The early-to-mid 7th century saw the introduction new combat events—such as boxing (688 BC) and "pankration" wrestling (648)—and equestrian events—such as chariot racing (680) and horse races (648). (See
for more information on the events of the ancient Olympics.)
As events, participation, and enthusiasm increased, the games at Olympia
drew larger and larger crowds from the Greek-speaking world.
The Games were well on their way to accomplishing something that
had eluded politicians for centuries—the molding of scattered people
from warring municipalities into a cohesive culture that shaped the
history of the world. The Olympic games became a link, a bond between
people of a common blood. It is important to note that only those who
could verify their Greek lineage were permitted to participate.
International competitors were not welcomed until much later in
the history of the Games. This policy was not for the purpose of
exclusion or based in ethnocentricity; rather, the Games were seen
as a way of fostering friendship among the warring Greek city-states
with the aim of forming a nation.
The success of the Olympic games prompted other trans-regional events.
The Four Panhellenic Festivals
In the 6th century, the positive effect of the polis-encompassing Olympic games
on the formation of Greek culture inspired three other panhellenic festivals.
The first was the Pythian games at Delphi (begun in 590 BC) in honor of Apollo
(son of Zeus; god of prophesy, music, and healing). The prize was a wreath
from Apollo's sacred plant, the laurel. (Athletic competitions, whether
great or small, were always held under the patronage of a Greek deity.)
Eight years later in 582 BC, the Isthmian games for Poseidon (brother of Zeus;
god of waters, earthquakes, and horses) were formed, awarding a sacred pine
wreath. The celery wreath was conferred at the Nemean games (in honor of Zeus)
for the first time in 573 BC.
As people from mainland Greece began emigrating and forming colonies
around the Mediterranean (750-650 BC), they took the tradition of
these athletic festivals with them, as well as the culture of athleticism.
In later years, many of the great Olympic victors came from these remote regions,
full of enthusiasm for the Greek "athletic ideal."
By now, the "athletic ideal" was a part of the Greek psyche, regional and national
athletic competitions were well attended, and every city boasted a public gymnasium
that was a cultural and educational center (see the
An increasing number of visitors and competitors were coming to Olympia and its prestige
was growing. The first temple, dedicated to Hera (Zeus's wife) was erected from 599 to 589 BC.
A series of treasuries were dedicated in the Altis by various Greek cities, of
which many were wealthy Greek colonies. These treasuries were small temple-shaped
buildings that contained valuable offerings to the gods.
Improvements were made to Olympia to accommodate the influx of attendees.
In 560 BC (around the 55th Olympiad) the first rudimentary stadium was constructed.
It was a simple track located on the southern slope of Kronos hill.
The most peaceful period in the history of Elis (and the period of greatest respect
for the Olympic truce) was disrupted by the Persian Wars (530-479 BC),
which put a temporary halt on further construction (although the stadium
was remodeled in 500 BC). (To learn about the battle of Marathon
against invading Persian forces in 490 BC, which later inspired the
marathon race, please refer to the
page.) It was
around this time (520 BC), that the race-in-armor event (hoplitodromia)
was added to the Olympic games (see
Greek culture was growing and changing, and new ideas and philosophies were forming.
Democracy was first introduced in 508 BC.
The groundwork for the age of Greek Classicism was now in place.
The Golden Age
It was during the Classical era (5th to 4th century BC) that the Olympic games
came into their own. The victory against the Persians (in 479 BC) gave the
collection of city-states a strong national identity and pride, and
Olympia became a symbol of this growing Greek unity. The ideals and
principles that inspired the Games were at their pinnacle, and the
fame and prestige of the Olympics grew exponentially. During this zenith,
the Olympic festival drew crowds not only from the Peloponnesian Peninsula
but also from colonies as far away as Libya and Egypt. The athletic ideal
of amateurism—the relationship between spiritual and athletic accomplishments
and the holistic approach to the education of mind, body, and spirit—was at
its apex. This was the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Poets and other
writers recited spontaneously at Olympia, sculptors worked on statues while
surrounded by spectators, and great leaders and politicians delivered orations
to the crowds assembled for the Games.
This period saw a flurry of construction at Olympia. Up until the beginning of
the 5th century, the only major buildings at Olympia were the Heraion (temple of Hera,
wife of Zeus), the Bouleuterion (council house), and several treasuries in the Altis.
The first classical construction was the temple of Zeus (472-457 BC), a magnificent
structure that stood as the spectacular centerpiece of Olympia for the remainder
of its history. It was designed to accommodate the 13-meter-high gold and ivory
statue of Zeus (cir. 435 BC), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and one
of the largest statues ever raised in an enclosed room. The figure depicted Zeus,
seated on a throne, with a scepter in his left hand and Nike (winged victory) in
his right hand. It was the work of famed sculptor Pheidias, who had just finished
the gold and ivory figure of Athena for the Parthenon (built 447 to 438 BC) in Athens.
A visit to Olympia was also a pilgrimage to Zeus's most sacred locale.
A number of other religious and secular buildings as well as athletic facilities
were also constructed at Olympia around this time. These included bathhouses, a pool,
a temple to Rhea (mother of Zeus), a banquet hall / administration center, a grand
hotel for VIPs, more treasuries, and several colonnades. The third and final stadium
(capacity 45,000) was constructed in 350 BC, further away from the sanctuary
for more information).
Alas, in 431 BC, the rivalry between states overcame the fragile unity when Athens
supported Corinth in battle against Sparta, thus launching the Peloponnesian War.
Elis (city-state that controlled the Games), who had heretofore been neutral,
sided with Athens and banned the Spartans from the Olympics. Consequently,
the 424 BC Games (89th Olympiad) were held under the watchful eye of armed troops.
In 404 BC, the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans. Nine years later (395 BC),
several city-states, including Athens, took advantage of Sparta's involvement in
war with Persia to challenge Spartan supremacy. The Corinthian War lasted until
Sparta was defeated in 387 BC.
These wars dealt a devastating blow to the religious and national unity of the Greeks,
from which they never fully recovered.
Philip II of Macedonia began construction of the family memorial monument at Olympia
(the Philippeum, 337-335 BC), and his son, Alexander the Great (who reigned from 336-323 BC),
saw its completion. Philip II and his descendants attributed great importance to Olympia by
offering gifts and dedications and inspired other wealthy donors to do the same.
With the end of the Classical period, the philosophy behind the Games began to decline,
mirroring the decline in the general history of ancient Greece.
Where once the worship of Zeus had been the focus, and all victory was
attributed to the aid of the gods, and victors offered their crowns at the
feet of their patron deity; now athletes reveled in personal glory for their
achievements. The Olympic games were becoming less a religious festival and
more a world-premiere athletic competition. Olympic victors were showered with honor,
glory, and increasingly valuable prizes (see
This period saw the rise of the professional athlete for the first time.
This focus of this era on athletes (rather than divinities) was reflected in the construction at Olympia.
Between the 3rd and 1st centuries, additional athletic facilities were built
(exact dates are not known). These include improvements to the baths used by the athletes,
a large gymnasium for track competitors to practice in, and a "palaistra,"
an arena where training in combat and jumping events took place.
Roman intervention in Hellenic affairs began in the early 2nd century BC and ended with
the loss of Greek independence in 146 BC, when Rome imposed direct rule on Greece and Macedonia.
It was the end of Greece, the beginning of the Roman period,
and the beginning of the end for the Olympic games.
"When in Rome…"
The glory of the Olympic festival died with the glory that was classical Greece,
although the Games lived on in a debased form under the Romans. In fact, the economic
and cultural revival and political stability of the Roman occupation marked a brief
renaissance of the Olympic games, albeit Roman-style. The Games ceased to be a sacred
festival and became more like gladiator contests—increasingly violent and bloody.
Boxers added iron to their gloves to appease the thirst of the crowds for blood.
The Games also became "international" under the extensive umbrella of Roman citizenship
now enjoyed by regions as far removed as Egypt. What once was the exclusive province
of free-born Greeks now named Roman slaves among their ranks.
Imperial patronage saw to it that the site of Olympia was improved on a scale befitting
that of a Roman showpiece. Extensive repairs to the temple of Zeus and other buildings
took place and new monuments and athletic facilities were dedicated. First to be built
were "modern" comforts such as several hot baths, the aqueduct that served them, and
comfortable Roman guest houses. In AD 150, Herod Atticus built the Nympheum in honor
of his wife Regilla.
The weakening Hellenic devotion to the once-revered gods of ancient Greece
was indeed no match for the juggernaut of Roman imperialism.
Abandoned by the Gods
The Romans committed many sacrileges against the Greek gods of Olympia.
The temple of Rhea was converted into a shrine to the "divine Augustus."
The treasuries of the Altis were sacked by the Roman general Sulla.
When a number of strong earthquakes damaged much of Olympia in the 3rd century AD,
the Greeks believed it to be a warning by the gods. Undeterred, Emperor Claudius
attempted to carry away the gold and ivory statue of Zeus to Rome,
where he planned to replace the statue's head with his own. However,
the ship that had been sent to fetch it was hit on the way to Olympia
by a thunderbolt (the symbol of Zeus). None of these "divine warnings"
deterred the Romans, however, and early in the 4th century AD,
Constantine the Great removed the historic statue for good.
As if the gods had finally abandoned Olympia, its fortunes rapidly declined.
A series of catastrophes befell the site of the once-great Olympic games.
In AD 267 the invasions of barbarian tribes prompted the fortification of
the sanctuary by using rubble from monuments damaged in the earthquakes of
the 3rd century. In the 4th century AD, the Kladeos River, which flowed along
the west side of Olympia, burst its banks and washed away almost half of the
great gymnasium. It never returned to its former course, and thus permanently
redefined the western border of Olympia.
In spite of these disasters, Olympiads continued to be held, but the end was near.
Christianity was founded during Roman rule. In the year 324 AD,
Constantine became the ruler of the entire Roman Empire.
For the first time a Christian emperor had ascended to the throne.
Constantine came to the conclusion that Rome had ceased to be a
practical capital for the empire from which the emperor could exact
effective control over its frontiers. On November 8, AD 324, Constantine
created his new capital on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium,
renaming it Constantinople. Rome gradually
was weakened and eventually was conquered in 476 AD by the tribes of the north.
In the east, in Constantinople, the Christian church enjoyed full support
from the government. During that time, it waged war against heresy and
any notion of the ancient "pagan" religion.
In AD 393, Theodosius the Great (Theodosius I), the Christian emperor of the east Roman Empire, outlawed the Olympic games.
The temple of Zeus was demolished in AD 426 by decree of Theodosius II.
Over the years, storms deposited rocks and dirt from Kronos hill across the site.
Gradually a new village was laid over the ancient ruins, which was most likely
destroyed by the Avars in the late 6th century. Then, two massive
earthquakes decimated the site, destroying buildings and toppling columns.
The site was left in ruins and could no longer be inhabited.
In the late Middle Ages the Alpheios river flooded the site and washed away the hippodrome.
The flooding from both rivers (Kladeos to the west and Alpheios along the south) deposited much silt until the site became
completely buried to an average depth of 4 meters.
And there it remained—buried, quiet, waiting for that time when the world was
again ready to embrace the Olympic ideal.
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