Glory of the Gods: A Brief History of the Ancient Olympic Games

You must be swift as the coursing river/ With all the force of a great typhoon/ With all the strength of a raging fire/ Mysterious as the dark side of the moon — “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, Mulan

This week, I thought we’d tackle something topical and talk about the original Olympic Games, as the Greeks and the Hellenistic world participated in them, in honor of the athletes risking life and limb to compete in Tokyo. Besides, this will give me a nice break from digging through the as-typically-inscrutable Olympic tv schedule.

[This would helpful if was actually when events were airing…]

Like most things in ancient Greece, the Games were thought to have had a mythological origin. One version of this origin was that the Idaean Daktyloi, five male deities born of the Cretan nymph Ankhiale, invented them as an amusement to the infant Zeus as he was being raised in secret on Mount Ida. The Daktyloi each represented a finger of the hand, and Herakles (perhaps the earliest iteration of the deity whom would eventually be the famous son of Zeus), the “thumb” brother, instigated a foot race with his siblings: Aeonis (the forefinger), Epimedes (the middle finger), Iasus (the ring finger), and Acesidas (the pinky). The infant Zeus awarded a wreath of olive leaves to the winner (no word on which brother it was), and it was the five brothers that instituted the four-year interval between the games — one year for each brother, with the games taking place on the fifth year, if one counts inclusively.

However, the more famous mythological origin for the Olympic Games comes from the story of Pelops, son of Tantalus and grandfather of the cursed House of Atreus. Tantulus is one of the famous residents of Tartarus, the only level of the Greek underworld where actual punishments are meted out. The etymological sire of our word “tantalize,” he is tortured for eternity by a tree whose fruit is always out of reach while standing in a pool whose waters always recede if he bends to drink them. The sufferers of Tartarus were there for extreme hubris against the gods, and Tantalus was punished for testing the omniscience of the Olympian gods by killing his son Pelops and serving his corpse to the gods at a banquet. The gods, recognizing the gruesome nature of the food they were offered, refused to eat, with one exception. Tantalus’ banquet takes place during the goddess Demeter’s frantic search for her missing daughter, Kore, who’d been secretly kidnapped by Hades (which party attendant Zeus was fully aware of, btw). But as a result, the grief-distracted goddess absentmindedly eats a bite from her plate before the furious gods can confront their host.

[Worst Yelp restaurant review ever]

Luckily for Pelops, the gods resurrect him and give him an ivory shoulder made by Hephaestus to replace the one Demeter accidentally ate (thank goodness she didn’t eat something more vital, I guess). Perhaps to make his harrowing experience up to him, and to remove him from a clearly unfit parent, the gods take Pelops back to Olympus with them and they raise him amongst themselves. The god of horses, Poseidon, teaches Pelops to be a master charioteer, capable of driving the divine chariots (which as Helios’ son Phaëton would learn is no small feat). He was also Poseidon’s younger lover at this time, which makes the temperamental god willing to do the boy a good turn later.

Eventually, Pelops grows into an enviable manhood. Pelops’ name (in Greek: Πέλοψ) means “dark eyes” or “dark face,” and indeed he is often referred to as “dark-faced Pelops” in the oral tradition, but this was upheld as a standard of beauty for active, athletic Greek men and Pelops is also described as ethereally handsome. He desires to marry Hippodamia (Ἱπποδάμεια, appropriately for Pelops, “She Who Tames Horses”), daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa. However, like any good folktale king, Oenomaus has received a prophecy that he is destined to be killed by his son-in-law, so he sets an impossible task for the winning of Hippodamia’s hand. The king is also a master charioteer, and has defeated eighteen suitors in horse races (whose severed heads decorate the pillars of his palace) when Pelops shows up to challenge him.

[Pelops and Hippodamia]

Feeling the heat a bit, Pelops decides to increase his odds. He asks Poseidon for help and the god gives him a divine chariot with four winged horses. He and Hippodamia also get her father’s driver, Myrtilus, to remove the axles of his chariot and replace them with ones of beeswax, in exchange for half of the kingdom and the first night with Hippodamia (and presumably her virginity). So, the race is run with Pelops and Hippodamia in one chariot, and Oenomaus and Myrtilus in the other. It’s really close until the beeswax axles do their work and the king’s chariot flies apart. Myrtilus is able to jump clear, but Oenomaus is dragged to his death. Pelops wins his princess, but he reneges on his promise to Myrtilus and throws him off a cliff into the sea. As he plummets to his death, Myrtilus, who is a son of the god Hermes, curses Pelops and his line. This is the origin of the curse that will destroy his family, a curse that compounds with each successive generation. Among a long list of other calamities, Pelops’ son Atreus will kill one of his other sons; Atreus’ sons Agamemnon and Menelaus will bring the Greeks to the Trojan War; and Agamemnon’s son Orestes will murder his mother in revenge for his father’s murder.

But on a much, much lighter note, Pelops organized a set of funerary chariot races at Olympia in honor of Oenomaus in order to honor his dead father-in-law and purify himself from responsibility for his death. It’s from these gruesome roots that the ancient Olympics allegedly arose, proving that most modern Olympic scandals are at best a drop in the bucket and at worst par for the course.

[In hindsight, probably should have organized something similar for Myrtilus. Would have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble…]

On the slightly more historical side of the card, Aristotle places the first Olympic Games as having taken place in 776 BC. Most ancient historians concur with this date, and the archeological record in Olympia actually supports this timeframe as being a likely origin point. The four-year time spread of the Games was called an Olympiad, and referred to the entire period between games. So, it is common to in Greek records to tell us that something happened during the 113th Olympiad, for example. This doesn’t mean the event necessarily happened at the same time as the games themselves, but rather during that game’s four-year period.

Unlike today with our rotating host city schedule, the ancient Olympics were always held in Olympia, in the city-state of Elis on the Peloponnese. The games organized and judged by the Hellanodikai (Ἑλλανοδίκαι, “Judges of the Greeks”), a group of Elean citizens from the city-state’s leading families. It was originally a hereditary position, but later on, elections determined who would judge at a single holding of the games. Elis took their role as hosts very seriously, and the Hellanodikai were renowned for their impartiality and fairness. They were prohibited from competing in the games themselves, either as athletes, or in the case of the equestrian events, as the owners of a team.

[The ancient Peloponnese]

During the ten month period prior to any holding of the games, the newly elected Hellanodikai would move into a special facility, the Hellanodikaion, where they would be specifically trained in all of the necessary rules and regulations of the games to ensure a successful operation. They oversaw the proper rites to open and close the games, as well as the actual training of the competing athletes. The participants were scored on physical skill and prowess, naturally, but also on their behavior and character, and an athlete who wasn’t up to snuff could be barred from competition by the Hellanodikai.

The Olympics were one of four major tournaments collectively referred to as the Panhellenic Games, sporting events in which many of the Greek city-states competed against one another on a set schedule. While I’m sure the enactors of the modern Olympics in 1896 had really been trying to celebrate the pure spirit of athletic competition and Greek revival, the ancient Olympics were very much in the spirit of the games as they are today: about the beauty of sport, absolutely, but also a serious political tool for everyone involved and a way for the city-states to assert dominance over each other.

[The remains of the palaestra of Olympia, where athletes would train]

That said, there was some beauty, too. The so-called Olympic Truce was enforced during the competition, in which wars were paused to protect both the Olympian host-state Elis from being attacked while holding the games, and to allow athletes and spectators to travel safely to and from the venue. Incidentally, the modern Games have tried to do something similar, but the IOC has never really enforced it. Occasionally, host nations have attempted to bring the spirit of the truce into its celebration, especially during the relay of the Olympic Torch, but participation is always spotty. Probably the closest any of us have seen to something in the spirit of the original Truce is the decision of North and South Korea to have their athletes walk together during the opening ceremony, first for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, and later more famously during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Also, at their heart, the ancient games were a religious festival. The Olympics, as their name implies, were held to honor the Olympian gods, especially Zeus, the lord of them all. On the middle day of the games, a hundred oxen would be sacrificed to him, and the statue of Zeus in his temple at Olympia, created by the famous sculptor Phidias, was one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world. Supposedly Phidias immortalized his young lover, Pantarkes, winner of the 86th Olympiad’s boys’ wrestling event, by carving Pantarkes kalos (Pantarkes is beautiful) into the statue’s little finger. Suetonius also tell us that the Statue of Zeus defied the Roman emperor Caligula, after the young emperor had commanded that all of the most famous statues in the world be decapitated and their heads replaced with his own image. When workman came to Olympia to behead the statue, it was said to have “suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffolding collapsed and the workmen took to their heels.” Either way, Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD before his project could be carried out, so, chalk one up for Zeus. The statue would survive until sometime in the 5th century AD, when it was either destroyed in a fire after being removed to Constantinople, or in the fire that largely destroyed its temple during roughly the same period.

[Rendering of what the Statue of Zeus may have looked like. The most impressive part of the sculpture is that it was chryselephantine, made of gold and ivory, rather than marble.]

Since we’ve already brought the Romans into things, it should be noted that the truly Greek Olympic games had been in a slow, but steady decline in the decades following the Roman conquest of Greece. The Republic didn’t have the energy to devote to its provincial lands, and as a result, the popularity of the games as a pan-Hellenic event slid for many years, kept alive by local Elean athletes who competed even when few other challengers appeared. The fall in prestige is further evident by Sulla being willing to ransack the Olympian treasury to fund his war with Pontus in 86 BC without fear of serious consequences.

It isn’t until Octavius revives interest in the event that the future of Olympia and its games begins to look up a bit. You can tell that he took the restoration seriously because he put his best dude, Marcus Agrippa, on the job to fix up the Temple of Zeus and convinced Herod of Judaea to subsidize the games of 12 BC. Outside of the equestrian events (we’ll get to that in a minute), the Romans were never interested in competing in the games, but if there was one thing Octavius knew how to seize, it was a good propaganda tool, and he recognized that the games built him a lot of goodwill in the East, making them well worth the effort. And once he becomes the Divus Augustus upon his death, the Eleans place his divine image amongst the other Olympian gods in the city’s Altis, its sacred quadrangle of temples. Where one suspects he was much more welcome as the father of the revived Games than Caligula would be a few decades later.

[Encyclopedia Britannica has made us a handy quick guide]

As for the games themselves, the slate slowly evolved to cover twenty-three events, but much like the modern Olympics, not all events were present at every Olympiad, which was typically capped at no more than twenty events. Some of the events were doubled based on the age of the participants (i.e., wrestling for men and a separate event for boys, or separate races based on the age or number of the horses), so the actual number of distinct events is closer to a dozen. Many of the events, like sprints and distance running, wrestling, long jump (done with the aid of weighted bags to propel the jumper forward), boxing, and discus are familiar to a modern audience. But there were also less familiar events like mule-cart racing (eventually abolished by the 84th Olympiad), and heraldic and trumpeting contests. The latter was a part of the ceremonial aspect of the games from the beginning, but during the 96th Olympiad it was added as an event where the heralds (kerykes) and trumpeters (salpinktai) would be judged on their enunciation and clarity of tone, respectively. During his infamous Olympiad of 67 AD, Emperor Nero would introduce another music and singing event, and out of fear, the judges would award him the olive for it, even though the emperor was known to have a terrible voice. Though, predictably, this would not be an event that would survive his assassination, and the Hellanodikai would spend the next Olympiad repaying all of the bribes made during Nero’s games to restore their reputations.

Although the philosopher Xenophanes would say that “Victory by speed of foot [the running events] is honored above all,” many viewed the equestrian events, by virtue of its aristocratic participants, as the most prestigious of the Olympic events. Because only the wealthy could afford to own horses and field competitive teams, chariot racing and traditional horse racing (keles), were the sports of kings just as much as they are still among the more elitist events at the modern games. Chariot racing was amongst two-horse and four-horse teams, and while not the most egalitarian of Olympic events, horse events were the only ones open to women. They couldn’t compete as drivers or riders, but they were permitted to enter teams as owners.

[Which is something in a festival we’re not particularly certain they were even allowed to watch. The most daring historians think that perhaps parthenai, unmarried girls, could attend some of the events, but it is almost universally assumed that married women were prohibited from being spectators, because of women’s circumscribed place in Greek public life.]

One of the most famous of these women owners was a Spartan princess named Kynisca, who trained her own horses and then entered them as an owner in several games. In her first Olympiad in 396 BC, she became the first woman to earn equestrian laurels, and she repeated her victory in the following Olympiad of 392 BC. Although she didn’t do the racing, as a Spartan woman who was raised in a competitive, athletic environment completely alien to other contemporary Greek women, the records of her breeding and training her own teams are very plausible. To commemorate her victories, which would have reflected a great deal of political prestige on her family she erected a monument with the inscription: “Kings of Sparta who are my father and brothers/ Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,/ have erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman/ in all Hellas to have won this crown.

Equestrian events remained among the most popular amongst high-ranking Romans as well once the Olympics experienced their Augustan revival. The future emperor Tiberius would win the four-horse chariot event himself as a driver, and Nero would win his Olympiad’s ten-horse chariot event. Though it should be noted he was actually thrown from his chariot during the race, but he was awarded the victory “because he would have won if he had finished the race.” 

[Instead of Nero’s participation trophy, here’s a fragment of Kynisca’s celebratory pillar.]

The Olympics would continue to be held through the early Common Era, with the last we have definitive documentation being held in 393 AD under the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, who would officially ban them after this. Though, as with the dip between the occupation of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire, it is likely the games continued to be held locally in a sporadic fashion beyond this despite the imperial edict. What would finally do in the ancient Olympics were far more natural forces. Two major earthquakes in the mid 6th century devastated Elis, which had already been decimated by the first appearance of Black Plague in Europe around the same time. This coupled with growing endemic flooding finally caused Olympia to be abandoned in the following century, the Olympics being abandoned with it until the modern era. The Olympic Games lasted for nearly a millennium of change and turmoil in the ancient world— here’s hoping the modern games make it twice as far 🏅

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