boxing children at the the
Minoan site of Akrotiri
The Greeks loved competition. Musicians and poets, as well as athletes, were pitted against one another in contests, and even dramatic plays were staged as tournaments with the winner being selected by a jury. There were also competitions for drinking, singing and male beauty. Socrates believed that arts and sports were the most important factors in man's development. There were also associations with the gods. Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus, were the gods of boxing, wrestling and equestrian sports.

Athletics had been around before original Olympics. Homer describes chariot races, wrestling, weigh throwing and running events sponsored by Achilles to honor a Patroclcus. Mesopotamians and Egyptian didn't have organized sport. While the Greeks had the Olympics, the Romans had gladiator contests.

For the Greeks there was an aesthetic, even sexuality, to sports. “Each age has its beauty,” Aristotle wrote. “In youth, it lies in the possession of a body capable of enduring all kinds of contest...while the young man is himself a pleasant delight to behold.”

Cockfighting predates Christ by at least 500 years. Believed to have originated in China or India, it was practiced by the ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans, who identified it with Eros, the God of Love and passed it on to medieval Europe.

Books Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen G. Miller (Yale University Press, 2004). Exhibitions: Games of the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; The Games in Ancient Athens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Purpose of Sport in Ancient Greece

Nike crowning an athlete
Winning was everything in ancient Greek sports. The Greeks were primarily into individual sports in which there was only one winner. Contestants did not bother to enter events in which they thought they were going to lose. Winners received a crown of wild olives branches and prestige--- that was sometimes worth a lot of money. Losers did not shake the hands of the victor and they returned to their hometowns "by back ways...sore smitten by misfortune." The sportsmanship sometimes manifested in the modern Olympics is something that mainly comes from upperclass Englishmen. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Sport was seen as more than just sport. In his book Ancient Greek Athletics Stephen G. Miller wrote: “Athletics was not simply about competition; it concerned winning a prize. Sport for sport’s sake was not an ancient concept...There was an acceptance at both popular and philosophical levels, of prime imaginative and imitative purpose in play, an understanding, essentially that, all games were war games.”

In addition to sport there was athletics for exercise. This was carried out at gymnasiums and the primary purpose was prepare and train and keep them in shape afterwards (every citizen under 60 could be called up for military service). Physical fitness was only viewed as something one did for himself; it was a civic duty integral to preservation of the state. At the gymnasiums, older men taught boys about their duties to the community, proper behavior and how to carry oneself as a man.

Sacrifices and Greek Sport

Sacrifice of a boar
Sacrifices were held to mark the beginning of special events and to commemorate the birthdays of the important gods and goddesses. Wine, barley and blood of the sacrificed cattle, pigs and sheep were offered on the altars of the gods and then consumed by the people attending the sacrifice to symbolize the union between mortals and gods. Sports competition were sometimes seen contests for divine favor.

The Olympic games began with the sacrifices of a pig to honor Zeus and a black ram to honor Pelops. During the games a three-month truce was declared and all the athletes attending the games were guaranteed safe passage. At the games themselves spectators and contestants were required to leave their weapons outside the stadium before they entered.◂

Ancient Greek Poetry Competitions

A large annual dramatic and lyrical festival and competition honoring Dionysus was held in the city Dionysia in Athens. It began with a religious procession, culminating in songs, choral dances and sacrifices. The main events featured choral songs called dithyrambs. Dithyrambs were performed by a "circular chorus" of 50 men and boys who sang and danced around an altar in the orchestra area of a theater.

Tribal choruses competed against one another in festivals sponsored by wealthy citizens. The first prize was a bull and a tripod dedicated to Dionysus, second prize was an amphora of wine, and third prize was a goat. At this point in time music, poetry and drama were essentially the same thing and the subjects of the poem-songs were the Greek myths and episodes from the Iliad and Odyssey. Fertility festivals started dying out around this time because the harvests and rains they promised to deliver failed to arrive. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Each of the ten Athenian tribes sponsored two dithyramb choruses: one made up of men and other of boys. A wealthy patron paid for the costuming and training for the chorus members and a poet---who composed a poem for the events and choreographed the dances--- and a trainer and flutist. It is thought the chorus members circled an altar in the theater and did some dance steps as they did. The chorus also sang and danced during interludes between the dramatic plays.

The contest are said to go back a long time. There is one story of Homer facing off against his younger rival Hesoid, with Hesoid taking first prize because his book Work and Days , a long poem about farming, was deemed more “useful” than the Iliad .

Olympics in Ancient Greece

Panathenaic amphora Kleophrades
The ancient Olympics games lasted for five days---three days of major competition, and a day each for an opening and closing ceremony. Running and field events were held the first day. Horse and chariot races were on the second day and the wrestling and boxing events were held on the forth day. The number of contestants varied from year to year in each event and it was not unusual to have over 40 racers flying around the narrow track in the chariot races.〉<

There were usually about 300 athletes competing in 15 to 18 events. Athletic and running competitions were held in the stadium and horse and chariot races were held in the hippodrome. Since athletic contests began as part of a religious ceremony no admission was charged. Money for the construction of buildings and temples was supplied by donations from rich patrons and from booty claimed in wars with neighboring city states. Women were not allowed to attend men's competitions and any woman caught at the games ran the risk of being thrown off a cliff. [Source: Lionel Casson, Smithsonian, February 1990 (〉<)]

What is known about the ancient Olympics comes from ancient texts and excavations at Olympia and other sites. There are many depictions of athletes and sporting events on vases and sculptures. Many of the texts were written by people who did not witness the events themselves and sometimes wrote them centuries after they happened.

Books: The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey (Oxford University Press, 2004); The Olympics: Myth, Fraud and Barbarism by Kyriakos Simopouls; The Naked Olympics . By Tom Perrottet (Random House 2004); A Brief History of the Olympics by David Young, a classics professor at the University of Florida (Blackwell Press, 2004).

Early History of the Olympics in Ancient Greece

Ancient Olympic starting line
The ancient Olympic games were held every four years for over 1000 years---from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393., quite a remarkable feat when one considers the modern Olympics have been around for slightly over a century and the Mediterranean region experienced great changes and upheavals during the time the ancient Olympics were conducted.

Some say that ancient Greek history began with the first Olympiad in 776 B.C. Pythagoras said life is "like the great and crowded assembly at the Olympics Games." They were so important that yearly time was marked in four year units between Olympics. Year one was the year first quarter of the 195th Olympiad.

Informal games had been held for several centuries before the Olympics began. The Olympics themselves grew out of funerary games held in honor of the Greek god Zeus. A cult to worship Zeus formed sometime the 10th century B.C. There are several myths describing how the Olympics came into existence. In one, Kronos and Zeus fought for possession of the Earth at Olympia, and the games became a commemoration of Zeus's victory. Another says the Olympics were instituted by a warrior named Pelops to celebrate his marriage to Hippodamia. Pelops had won his bride by killing her father in a chariot race in which the warrior bribed a charioteer to pull a pin out of the axle on the father's chariot.◂

Later History of the Olympics in Ancient Greece

The golden age of the Olympics was the late 6th century to the early 5th century B.C. with the peak was perhaps in 476 and B.C. After that the games were marred by refusal of the city states to accept Olympia’s authority over the games, divisions within Greece and war. The games went through a period of ups and downs after the Romans took over Greece in 146 B.C., with a low reached when Nero was emperor (See Below).

Contrary to myth wars were not called off during the Olympics but there appeared to have been times when truces were called during fighting to accommodate the Olympics. For a brief period in the 5th century an Olympics appeals board settled disputes involving the city states that participated in the Olympics.

Many of the political problems that have tarnished the modern Olympics were present in the ancient Greek games. In 424 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were banned. Once during a wrestling match, spectators had to run for cover when a military force from Elis chose that moment to launch an attack. Fighting went into the night in the middle of some of Olympia’s most sacred temples with spectators cheering the combatants. But no matter how bad things got the Olympics were never canceled, not even as the Persians prepared to invade and Athens and Sparta fought in the Peloponnesian War.


Olympia (10 kms from Pirgos in western Peloponnese) held its first competitions over 3000 years ago. The early events included wrestling, chariot racing and horse racing as well artistic and literary competitions. The prize given to the winners was a crown of olive branches that was always cut from the same tree. A common practice for the winners in his home town was to knock down the city walls.

Olympia is beautifully situated on a fertile plain, surrounded by mountains and forests with pines, oaks and olive trees ten miles from the sea. The Cladeus river used wind through Olympia but it changed course covering the valley with silt. A proper town was not really built until after the arrival of the Olympics. As the popularity of the Olympics grew so to did the town. The stadium was moved slightly from its original position and both the track and and spectator facilities were improved. A new temple of Zeus was built between the games in 476 B.C. and 456 B.C.

When you visit the archeological site of Olympia the first place you come to is the Prytaneion where the winners ceremonies took place. To the south is the Doric temple dedicated to the Hera, goddess of the Seasons. Special running races were held here that only virgins from Eleia were allowed to participate in. Nearby is a Temple dedicated to Zeus that used to house an ivory and gold statue of the god.

Another set of ruins located a short distance away includes the wrestling school, gymnasium and baths. At the foot of a small mountain small edifices were raised by each city-state to house jars which contained the blood of sacrificed animals. Next to this is a semicircular marble tank that held Olympia's water supply and near hear is the stadium where the events where held. It is possible to walk through the same tunnel used by the naked athletes as entered the stadium with up to 40,000 spectators cheering.

Ancient Greek Olympic Spectacle

Olympia stadium entrance
The ancient Olympics were more than just a sporting competition: they were a sporting spectacle combined with Carnival-like partying and religious rituals, with some events such as the pentathlon performed to accompaniment of flutes. In addition to more traditional athletic contests there ere also beauty pageants, eating competitions, poetry-reading contests, side shows with magicians and sword swallowers, numerologists, processions, rites, dozens of altars, public banquet halls, snacks such as roasted sow womb and feasts where 100 oxen were slaughtered. The writer Tom Perrottet described them as “the Woodstock of antiquity.”

In the Opening Ceremonies the athletes walked in one by one---naked except for perfumed oils. Each athlete was introduced by name and the name of his father and home city-state by a sacred herald. And this took place a stone’s throw from the 40-foot-high statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Winders of the World. There was no torch ceremony (that was added to the modern games at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin).

Drunks stumbled around after drinking parties called symposia . Young boys in make up performed erotic dances. Prostitutes often made as much in the five days of the Olympics as the would make the rest of the year. Vendors selling love potions made with horse sweat and chopped lizard did equally well. A great deal of flirting appears to have gone on even without females in attendance at the events. A messages inscribed in the stadium at Nemea reads: “Look up Mischos in Philippi---he’s cute.”

Olympic Experience in Ancient Greece

Around 40,000 spectators showed up for the Olympics. Admission was free. Spectators spent much of their time on their feet. There were no seats. If one sat down on the embankments that served as stands it was difficult to see. The Greek word stadion literally means “a place to stand.”

At the ancient Olympics there were no hotels. restaurants or public transport---Olympia was essentially empty except for a few caretakers and priests when the Olympics was not going on. There was only one inn and that was reserved for ambassadors and dignitaries. The rich spectators slept in elaborate tents while most everyone else slept underneath the stars or improvised shacks. Many speculate Olympia at the time of the Olympics resembled a shanty town. Nigel Spivey described being there as “persistence inconvenience and unpleasantness in human experience---overcrowded, underequipped, made bearable only by the quality of the spectacle.” Even Aristotle slept with snoring strangers in a shack.

Vendors sold wine, cheese, olives, wine and bread and the water supply system, which consisted of a few wells and cisterns was often over taxed. In mid summer the rivers were often dry. Much of the water was brought in by mule. Sanitation was a big problem. No one bathed. The smell of sweat must have hung heavy in the air. Supplying water and sanitation for such a large crowds was such a problem that people sometimes ied of dehydration and fever. It wasn't until the second century A.D., nearly 900 years after the Olympics had been going on that an aqueduct and a proper waste system was built by Herodes Atticus of Athens, the richest man in Greece at that time.

Cooking fires created a cloud of smoke. Crowds were kept in line by whip-wielding local officials. Biting flies were a big problem and many offerings were left of the altar of Zeus to keep them away. “But of course,” the Athenian philosopher and sports enthusiast Epictetus wrote, “you put up with it tall because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”

Olympia was located in a remote area and getting there no easy task. Many made the entire 340 kilometers journey from Athens by foot. Many died in ship wrecks sailing from places as far away as Spain and the Black Sea. But for Greeks the Olympics were almost the equivalent to Mecca and every able body citizen was expect to attend at least once in their lifetime.

Other Olympic-Style Gatherings in Ancient Greece

In addition to the Olympics, there were similar sporting competitions held all over Greece and Asia Minor. These included the Nemean Games, Delphi Games, Isthmia Games held near Corinth and the Panathenaea at Athens. They were all founded in the 6th century B.C.

Founded in 573 B.C., the Nemean games took place every year and were most similar to the Olympics. The Pythian games were held every four years at Delphi to honor Apollo, and the Nemean games and Ishmian games were held every two years.

All these games were scheduled so that there were at least one or two events every year and together they were known as the circuit. Athletes came from as far away as France and Syria to compete and traveled a circuit not unlike the golf or tennis tours of today.

End of the Ancient Greek Olympics

In the 291st and last ancient Olympiad in 388 A.D. and Armenian prince won the boxing event. Six years later, in A.D. 393, the Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I halted the Olympics as part of an effort to crack down on paganism.

Ancient Olympia was rediscovered in 1766. The revival of the games was first suggest by a Greek poet named Panagiotis Soutsos in 1835. Much of the mythology about amateurism and sportsmanship that lies at the foundation of the modern Olympics is rooted more in Victorian England than ancient Greece.

The Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896 due to the efforts of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin who felt his country needed to shape up after their defeat by the Prussians in 1870. Thirteen countries competed in mostly track and field events. Greece was without a winner until the marathon. The first modern Olympics almost didn't come off at all for financial reasons, but Greek merchant George Averoff came through with $184,000 at the last moment to save the day.◂

The modern games now feature more than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competing in more than 300 events. The Olympic motto is “citius, altius, fortius ---(swifter, higher, stronger”).

Resurrection of the Nemean Games

The American archaeologist named Stephen Miller, resurrected the Nemea Games, another sports festival held in the era of the ancient Olympics, in the ancient stadium in Nemea. Nemea is 80 miles south of Athens in the Peloponnesus.

Athletes competed almost as they would have in ancient times: they competed barefoot but not in the nude and women were allowed to compete. Some from 500 runners from 28 countries competed in events like the stadion dash (89 meters) and the 7.5-kilometer Footsteps of Herakeles race. The winner was crowned with a ring of wild celery taken from a stream near the stadium.

Ancient Greek Marathon

The marathon is an event run in the modern Olympics. It was not part of the ancient Olympics. It commemorates an event, though, that occurred in ancient Greece. The marathon story is based on an account of the Battle of Marathon in The Histories by Heredotus. It was written about 50 years after the battle took place.

The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. is one the most famous battle in ancient Greece. A Persian force of 20,000 men and a fleet of 600 ships landed on the Plains of Marathons, about. 25 miles from Athens. They were defeated by the Athenian army, under the command of general Miltaides, even though it was outnumbered six to one. Miltaides organized his forces so that its strength was in the wings.

When the Athenians learned that the Persians had arrived, Pheidippides, an Athenian runner, ran 150 miles to Sparta to seek the help of Sparta. The Spartans didn't participate because they were holding a religious ceremony at the time. The Athenian army, which was camped out in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon plain, was forced to fight against the Persians without any help from the Spartans

After the Persian army was routed the panic-stricken Persians retreated to their boats. This time Pheidippides ran 26.3 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians and then fell dead after he gave the message: Rejoice! We conquer!"

Revising the Marathon Story

The story of Pheidippides, who has also been referred to by other names, is generally believed to be an amalgamation of separate incidences. The run to Athens apparently involved the army, which after winning at Marathon, hustled back to defend the city against the remnants of the Persians, who had regrouped in their ships and planned an attack that never materialized.

The Marathon to Athens run appears to be a myth. Herodotus described the 150 mile run to Sparta by Pheidippides but said nothing about running to Athens and dropping dead. After the Persians held Marathon they tried to attack Athens while it was unguarded but the Athenians returned home to repel the attack. The Pheidippides running to Marathon to Athens appears to be an embellishment of that story. If the story is true it means that Pheidippides about 325 miles in less than a week: 150 miles from Marathon to Sparta, 150 miles back to Marathon, where he likely participated in the battle, then ran to Athens. No wonder he dropped dead.

The legend of the Pheidippides provided the inspiration for French scholar Michael Breal to suggest adding a "marathon" race to the program of the 1896 Olympics to his friend Pierre de Coubertin. The distance between Marathon to Athens is about 24 miles but the distance was extended to 26 miles and 385 yards at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London so Queen Victoria could watch the race from the window of her palace.

History books have the battle and the run taking place in September, when Greece is relatively cool, but reexamination of historical and astronomical data indicated that the run more likely took place in August, when Greece is very hot. This would explain even better why Phidippides dropped dead. The original September 12th date of the run was determined in the 19th century by German scholar August Boeckh based on Herodotus’s accounts, which includes the phases of the moon. Scholars at Texas State University reexamined the data and came up with an August 12th date based on the fact Boeckh failed to take into consideration that the Spartan calendar, from which the date was determined, was one month different than Athenian calendar.

Other Ancient Greek Sports

Ancient Greek football player
The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played ball games but ball games were dismissed as children’s games and not held in the Olympics. The Greeks played ball game called phainmuda that is similar to netball. Episkyros was team game that required dodging and marking in a relatively small space. Hockey is one of the oldest stick and ball games. Early forms of hockey were played in ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia.

The ancient Chinese, Greeks, Indians and Persians also practiced forms of tumbling and acrobatics to prepare for battle. The word gymnastics is derived from the Greek word for "naked" ( gymnos ). The sport was revived in the 1700s in Germany as an activity for schoolchildren.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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