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Mediterranean Chronology


The Olympic Games

776 BC

Statue of Olympic Zeus

            According to the earliest records, the first Olympic games were held in 776 BC.  The Olympic games originate in athletic contests to  honor of Zeus and other deities at Olympia.  The games were also helped to solve the constant civil wars among the Greek city-states.  During the Olympic games Elis and Olympia were sacred sites and that no armed man should set foot on the grounds.  In addition, three months before and after the games, a truce should exist among all the Greek city-states.  This sacred truce of the games became an almost religious observance among the Greeks

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     The ancient Greek Olympics were held every four years during the full moon of midsummer. That date was chosen so the games could last into the night.  The time between games was called an Olympiad, and each Olympiad was named for an athletic victor at the previous contests.  Coribus from Elis won a 200-meter foot race.  To honor him, Coribus' name was given to the first Olympiad.  The Greeks used the Olympiads as a way to establish historical chronology.  Later, Greek historians noted important events by placing them in the Olympiad in which they occurred.

            Only free born male Greek citizens not accused of murder or sacrilege were eligible to participate.  Training began as early as one year before the games in the athlete's home city.  A month before the games, the athletes were the obligated to move to Elis or Olympia for their final training.  It was here that the athletes were taught the rules of fair-play and honorable competition.

            Spectators also abided by strict rules.  Only free men not convicted of any sacrileges could attend.  Women, especially married women were not allowed to watch nude contests between men.  Only the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, seated on the altar of the goddess, was allowed to watch the contests in the stadium.

            People from all over Greece gathered for this Olympic festival.  It was a chance to sell goods, recite poems for money, negotiate business deals, and even sign peace treaties between cities.  Visitors slept in the open air or tents due to overcrowded small residential quarters.

            A simple foot race marked the early Olympic games, but over the centuries the games became numerous and complicated.  At most, a total of fourteen contests were held over a  period of four days.  The games were divided into two classes:  physical contest were held in the stadium nude, and those on the race tracks with chariots.

            The first day of the games began with sacrifices to the gods, for the games were meant as religious tributes.  At the great altar of Zeus, the athletes vowed that they were eligible to participate in the games and that they would obey the Olympic rules while competing.  Judges, trainers, and even the athlete's parents all had to make a similar vow.

            The second day of the games began early with the chariot races followed by the horse races.  Spectators then hurried to the stadium to watch the pentathlon.  These contests lasted until evening and marked the end of the first day of the festival.

            The third day of the games began with a sacrifice to Zeus, which was the most solemn moment of the entire festival.  A herd of 100 bulls were slaughtered by assembled priests after a procession to the Great Altar of Zeus.  The thighs of the killed bulls were burned as a sacrifice while the remains of the bull was used in the victory banquet at the end of the games.  The remainder of the day was the boys' events.

            On the forth day, foot races, wrestling and boxing events, and the pankration (combination of wrestling and boxing) took place.  This day marked the end of the athletic events of the Olympic festival.

            The victory banquet was held on the fifth day.  It started with a procession to the Temple of Zeus, referred to by the Greeks as the Altis, where each winner received his wreath of live branches from olives.  Crowds then showered them with flowers.  Meat and wine were feasted late into the night and by morning, the athletes, trainers, and families left for home.

            The victors of the Olympic games were rewarded generously.  Statues were erected in their honor  Parades with chariots, songs, and poems written in their honor were given in their hometowns.  Other special privileges awarded to the athletes were choice seats at all public spectacles; statues carved in their image were placed in prominent locations in the city, and they were also exempt from paying taxes.  Cash rewards were common.  In some Greek cities, part of a wall was torn and victorious athlete was led in though the opening.  This ritual signified that any city with strong citizens had no need to defend itself with a wall from its enemies.

            The importance of the Olympic games in the Hellenic world is the "profusion" of buildings, statues, and other archaeological remnants found at the site.  Now lost, but was considered at the time the most stunning artwork was the central statue of Zeus created by the Greek sculptor Phidias.  This statue was made of chyrseliphantine (gold and ivory) and stood about forty feet high.  The statue showed Zeus seated on a regal throne and holding a scepter in left hand and the figure of Victory in the right.  The beauty of the statue was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world.

            As the popularity of the Olympic games and other Greek athletic festivals spread, it forced out amateur athletes in which the original games were meant to attract.  Specialization in particular events began to take place.  According to Ring, "the development of body, mind, and spirit that the original games hoped to encourage was forgotten." 


Bibliography:

The illustration is an artist's recreation of the famous statue of Zeus made by Phidias for the Olympic Games. This image from:  www.mmmpcc.org/jerrywalkosz/greek/zeus.jpg.  Used by permission.

Ring, T.  1995.  International Dictionary of Historical Places.  Vol 3.  Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher.  Chicago, London.

Christopoulos, G. A. & Bastias, J. C. Eds.  1975.  History of the Hellenic World:  The Archaic Period.  Pennsylvania State University Press.  University Park, Pennsylvania.


Edited, Researched and Written by: 
Sharon Pecson and Cathy Sutherland
March 16, 2000

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