The ancient Olympic truce protected athletes and pilgrims traveling
to and from the games. Participating city-states were restricted from military actions and
legal disputes for the duration of the games. In the modern Olympics, the truce is not legally
binding, but the spirit of peace inherent in the truce is honored.
"May the world be delivered from crime and killing and be free from the clash of arms."
—From the early Olympic truce
Longing for Peace
After an interruption of eight years due to the First World War, the Olympics made a welcome
return in 1920 in Antwerp. This Belgian city was chosen to host the Games in recognition of
how severely and bravely it had suffered during the war. The Antwerp games were notable for
many things, not the least of which was the release of hundreds of doves during the opening
ceremony, symbolizing the return of peace to the continent of Europe. Since then, the releasing
of doves has become a permanent part of opening ceremony protocol.
The Ancient Olympic Truce
The Greek word for truce (ekecheiria) means "the holding of hands" and "the break of hostilities."
The Olympic truce began in 824 BC as a month-long "Holy Treaty" between king Iphitor of Elis, king
Lykourgos of Sparta, and king Kleosthenes of Pisa.
The terms of the truce were engraved on a bronze discus that was kept in the Temple of Hera
in the Altis at Olympia. The official terms of the truce were:
Neither armies nor weapons were allowed to enter Elis
Attendees whose city-state was at war could travel safely
through hostile areas
No death penalties were allowed
In order to spread the news of the truce before the start of the Olympic festival,
three heralds decked with olive wreaths and carrying staffs were sent out
from Elis to every Greek state. It was the heralds' responsibility to reaffirm
the date of the festival (each city-state had its own calendar system), to invite the inhabitants to attend, and to announce
the Olympic truce. Because of this, they came to be known as the "truce-bearers"
(spondophoroi). These heralds were also the official warrantors of the truce
and full-time legal advisors to the Eleans.
Although the Games themselves lasted for five days, the truce was in effect for one month.
Later it was extended to two and then three months to protect visitors coming from further away.
Even though the truce ended after the Games, the ongoing neutrality of Elis, which was achieved
through the negotiation of treaties with other city-states, was indispensible to the success of
the quadrennial truce.
The Role of the Ancient Truce
It is hard to overestimate the role of the Olympic truce in the development of the Hellenic culture. Before the first Olympics and the first truce, the region of mainland Greece was ravaged by civil wars and unrest. Because of the protection of the "sacred truce," the Games flourished and became a force for peace and unity among the Greek people, a safe venue for athletic and academic exchange, and helped to solidify the Greek identity. The strongest indicator of the interdependency between the truce and the Games is the fact that when, after having lasted for a millennium, the immunity of the truce was no longer necessary, the Games themselves lost momentum and quickly died out.
The Olympic truce had a strong religious component from its beginning.
The ancient Olympic games were always religious in character,
especially around the 5th century BC. All participating city-states acknowledged Zeus
as the supreme god among gods, and they came to the sacred grounds of Olympia to compete
among each other and pay their respects to Zeus' temple. Taking that fact into account,
it is no surprise that only Zeus-fearing Greek city-states were initially invited to participate.
On the right side of the temple of Zeus at ancient Olympic was a statue of Zeus being
crowned by the truce. Violating the terms of the truce was regarded as blatant disrespect to Zeus.
The Olympic truce was compromised on several occasions.
Religious attitudes fluctuated during antiquity.
During the peak of religious fervor (5th century BC), violators of the Olympic truce
were heavily fined. Later we find the Olympic games being held under the protection
of troops in fear of a Spartan invasion. Later still, Alexander's army marched to
Olympia in the 3rd century BC to pillage the treasuries.
Olympia was rich in treasures, yet had no fortifications.
Its sacredness was its protection against invasion.
Once the worship of Zeus faded away, so went his treasures,
and the Olympic truce became a distant memory.
The Legacy of the Truce
In the modern Olympic games, common religion was never a factor.
Yet the fathers of the Olympic movement found value in the Olympic truce.
Proponents respect its moral disposition and its message of global unity and hope.
Skeptics claim that the Olympic truce has to measure up against conflicting political forces
and human greed. They are both right!