Tag Archives: Ancient Olympics

20: Ancient Olympics, Part 3

Alright, welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. It’s time to wrap things with part 3 of the Ancient Olympics. We looked at the foundation myths for the four major crown games at Delphi, Nemea, Isthmia, and Olympia. We also, ahem, exposed the concept of nudity as a quintessentially democratic Greek dynamic to ancient athletics. This time we’re getting in to the nitty gritty where we can smell the sweat and taste the dirt. Ancient athletics never felt so real. We’ll keep looking at what makes the Greek games essentially Greek and we’ll run through a survey of the different types of athletic events at the Olympics. Then we’ll go on a nice little marathon run and polish things off with some character portraits of notable athletes.

Like nudity, explored in episode 19, another fascinating quality to the ancient Greek games, which contributed to their idealized democratic nature, was how judging took place. All subjectivity was removed from judging. There were no points awarded for grace or form. Judging was done using objective standards. Who hurled the javelin furthest, who ran the fastest, or who threw his opponent to the ground first. Judges are fairly easy to spot in Greek vase painting. Just look for the guy with the big stick. We see judges calling matches to an end when a victor is declared, or sometimes intervening in a match when a contestant breaks the rules. The beauty of competing in the nude — no, this isn’t going where you think — but it’s that the aristocrat and laborer were judged alike and judgment was swift and harsh.

Most of the events of the Ancient Olympic Games are familiar to us. The earliest type of event, the only event that would have been held at the supposed first Olympiad of 776 BC, was the stadion, from which we get the word “stadium.” The stadion was basically just the ancient equivalent to the 200 meter dash. Contestants would run down the length of the stadium, which was 600 ancient feet. Funny thing is, though, the official length of a foot varied from location to location. The length of the stadium at Olympia was different from the length at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea. But that sort of standardization didn’t really matter to the ancient Greeks. Another footrace that was added to the Olympics in 520 BC was the hoplitodromos, where athletes would run down the stadium and back in armor, wearing helmets and greaves, and carrying shields. Again, there’s no evidence that there was any sort of standardization to the weight of the armor being carried. Similarly, in the pentathlon, one event was the long jump. Athletes would often jump with the aid of handheld weights called halteres, or halters. Halters have been excavated from different sites and periods and there’s no apparent pattern to their shape or weight. Much like a bowling ball, you’d use whatever weight works best for you. The other four events of the pentathlon, which originated in 708 BC, included the discus, the javelin, the stadion, and wrestling. You might think that’s where we get modern Greco-Roman wrestling from, but that’s just Victorian nostalgia run amok.

Similar to wrestling was another full contact event called pankration, literally “all-powerful,” the no-holds-barred ancient equivalent to mixed martial arts or the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The only illegal moves in the pankration were gouging and biting. Everything else was fair game. The idea for these rules comes from Hercules’s battle against the Nemean Lion. The lion’s hide was impenetrable to sword and spear, so Hercules was forced to grapple with it, choking the beast to death. Now, the pankration was not by definition a death match, but yes, some contestants did die. One of the most well known is Arrhichion of Phigaleia, pankration victor of the 572 and 568 Olympics. In his third attempt at an Olympic victory in 564, his opponent managed to get a good strangle hold on Arrhichion, slowly choking the life from him. But as darkness swept over him and the sleep of death crept in, Arrhichion swiftly executed one final move to wrench his opponent’s ankle from its socket. His opponent, still applying the choke hold, signaled submission to the judge. Arrhichion simultaneously became a three-time Olympic victor and slipped away into death.

We also see boxing, called “pyx,” added to the Olympics in 668 BC. And to round out the gymnikos agon, the nude games, we see the diaulos added in 724 BC. The diaulos was the second event added to the Olympics, after the stadion. Diaulos is the word for a double-flute, a common instrument from Ancient Greece. Playing on that term, the diaulos race was a double stadion, or down and back, just like the later hoplitodromos. And at the next Olympiad four years later in 720 BC, we see the addition of the dolichos, the long-distance run, somewhere around 20 to 24 laps of the stadium. It’s interesting that you can identify which race is being depicted in art based on the position of the runners’ knees and arms. If their arms are raised high up with knees high in long strides, they’re running the shorter stadion. If their knees aren’t quite as high, it’s likely the diaulos. Arms carefully tucked in to the torso like jogging, that’s certainly the long-distance dolichos. But if you’re not sure, inscriptions next to the runners sometimes provide additional evidence.

What about the marathon, you ask? The famed 26.2 mile run popular throughout the world today named after the famous ancient Greek site of the Battle of Marathon? You might be surprised to know that there was no such thing as the marathon run in the ancient world. It’s an entirely modern invention. The idea of the marathon originates from two possible stories that may have gotten mixed together in later times. The Battle of Marathon was a major Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC. The basic story is that the Athenians sent a messenger named Pheidippides to run from Marathon to Athens after the battle to announce their victory. As soon as he arrived and shared the news, he dropped dead. But there’s no mention by Herodotus in his contemporary account of the Battle of Marathon of anyone running from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news. He does mention a messenger named Pheidippides or sometimes Philippides in some manuscripts, who ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle to seek Spartan aid. The other story that gets mixed with Herodotus’s is that the Athenian hoplite force, after defeating the Persian army at Marathon, marched at a high pace in full armor the 25 or so miles all the way from Marathon to Athens to defeat a second wave of the Persian attack. So, as I said, these two stories of two different runs eventually get mixed together to form the much more romantic account of Pheidippides, his valor, and his tragic self-sacrifice to bring news of the victory of democractic Greek heroism over the barbaric imperialism of Persia at the Battle of Marathon.

And the marathon run itself? Yeah, that was invented for the first modern Olympics in 1896 in an attempt to echo the legendary glory of Ancient Greece. As a side note, the distance was eventually standardized to 26 miles and 385 yards after the 1908 London Olympics. Today’s marathon run is not the distance from Marathon to Athens, but the distance from Windsor Castle to the royal box at the London Olympic stadium.

We’ve talked a lot about the gymnikos agon, the nude events, but what about the hippikos agon. I already mentioned that, despite all the hooplah about chariot races in art and literature nearly as far back as the Greek Dark Ages, they weren’t officially part of the Olympics until 680 BC. The first horse race to be added was the tethrippon, the four-horse chariot race, which was 12 laps around the hippodrome. But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise you any more that the length of the hippodrome wasn’t standardized from location to location. We also find the synoris, a two-horse chariot race, and the keles, a mounted horse race. As with today, it was advantageous to have as small and light a jockey as possible, but back in Ancient Greece that usually meant having a young slave boy race your prize horse. This silver coin from the Art Institute of Chicago commemorates the keles race won by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC, father of Alexander the Great. The youthful jockey holds a palm branch, a secondary victory trophy given out at the games by this time. Philip’s name is stamped on the coin fragmented by the horse’s head. And on the other side (technically the obverse, if you want to talk numismatics) we see the god Zeus, the ultimate victor at the Olympics. Don’t forget — he’s the reason for the season.

Despite all this talk about the Olympics being the ultimate emblem of Greek democracy, there was definitely a social divide among the competitors and events. While any decent athlete could compete in the nude events, the horse races always held a certain air of snobbery and elitism. To enter in the horse races, one had to be able to afford a horse, chariot, rider, and training, which only the wealthiest of Greeks could afford. Last time in episode 19, we saw in the funeral games of Patroklos in Book 23 of the Iliad that Odysseus excelled in the footrace and wrestling match. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t compete in the chariot race, perhaps because he is one of the less affluent Greek kings at Troy and couldn’t afford to lug a team of race horses and chariot with him on a military campaign.

But this social divide didn’t prevent the masses from reveling in the spectacle of the horse races. By all accounts they were extremely popular. Popular for the masses and also as a means for political maneuvering and exploitation. The coin commemorating Philip’s keles victory ensured his fame and name would be dispersed throughout much of the Greek world. As Philip expands his outreach, he gains control of game sites, maneuvering to unify all of Greece in part through athletic competition, not as a series of disparate sacred centers and city states, but as a united nation of Hellenic people.

Hopefully this trilogy of episodes on the Ancient Olympics has whetted your appetite to delve a little deeper. If you’d like to learn more, visit the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org, where you’ll find a section under Greece on “the Olympics and Other Greek Games.”

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

19: Ancient Olympics, Part 2

Alright team, fall in! It’s coach Lucas Livingston here and it’s time for part two of the Ancient Olympics on the Ancient Art Podcast. Last time we found out about the historical and mythological foundation of the ancient Olympics. We heard a bit about the Twelve Labors of Hercules and the tragic family line of Pelops and Hippodameia, also called the House of Atreus. And we wrapped up with a teaser about funerary celebrations going hand-in-hand with athletic games.

This time we’ll continue to explore the idea of a tragic untimely demise as a good reason to hold an athletic contest. We’ll take a close look at some very early Greek artwork dated to about the time of the foundation of the Olympic games, which may suggest chariot racing. And then we’ll try to get a grip — so to speak — on the whole idea of nudity in the ancient games. So, stand up, put on your beer hats, and paint your faces, because it’s game on!

Funeral games are a big deal in Ancient Greek stories and history. Many of the foundation myths of the more famous Greek Games are centered around honoring someone’s tragic death. The Pythian Games at Delphi are said to have begun to pay honor to the nymph Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree to escape the amorous clutches of the god Apollo. This famous story has been captured by a lot of artists and authors throughout the centuries. Most notable perhaps are the passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of tales involving various physical transformations, and this magnificent marble masterpiece by baroque sculptor Bernini in Rome. And since Daphne transformed into a laurel tree, that’s why victors at the Pythian Games were crowned with a wreath of laurel. The ancient games at Nemea were held in honor of the death of the infant boy Opheltes, who was bitten by a snake while lying in a bed of celery. Hence, victors of the Nemean Games were crowned with a wreath of wild celery. And the Isthmian Games were established as funeral games for another infant boy Melikertes, also called Palaimon, who died clutched in his mother’s arms as she threw herself from a high cliff into the unforgiving sea to escape her wrathful husband driven mad by the gods. The boy’s body was brought ashore by dolphins to a pine grove at Isthmia sacred to the god Poseidon, hence a crown of pine for those victors. You see where we’re going here? These four games, the Olympian, the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian, are called the crown games, because the victors were all awarded with crowns instead of money. We also have the money games, which are found throughout the entire Greek world. Sometimes just local and sometimes huge and rivaling the scale of the crown games, like the Grand Panathenaia at Athens.

Funeral games feature prominently in literature too. Towards the end of the Iliad in book 23 we see Achilles organizing funeral games to honor the heroic death and memory of his young side-kick Patroklos. The Iliad is a fascinating archaeological artifact. Though the date of its composition is hotly debated, it’s generally considered to be in the 8th century BC plus or minus a century. For generations it was passed down not through manuscripts, but by oral tradition — by memorization and recitation for performance. It crystallized some time in the 7th or 6th century BC into the form that has come down to us today. The poem looks back to the mythological heroes of the Mycenaean Bronze Age civilization from about 1600 to 1100 BC, but it shows clear and obvious examples of the Iron Age culture contemporary to that Homer fellow (if he ever even existed, but I digress). The value of the Iliad to Greek athletics lies in the thorough description of the different events at the funeral games of Patroklos. Two events that receive a lot of attention in the Iliad are the chariot race and footrace. Here’s a great translation by Stephen Miller, author of Ancient Greek Athletics, although I paraphrase in part to keep a PG rating:

“Ajax was in front, but Odysseus was running so close behind that his feet were hitting Ajax’s tracks before the dust could settle back into them, and his breath was hitting the back of Ajax’s neck. All the Achaians were cheering his effort to win, shouting for him to pour it on. But when they were in the stretch, Odysseus said a silent prayer to the gray-eyed Athena, ‘Hear me, Goddess; be kind to me, and come with extra strength for my feet.’ So he prayed, and Pallas Athena heard him, and lightened his limbs, feet, and arms too. As they were making their final spring for the prize, Ajax slipped and fell (Athena tripped him) where dung was scattered on the ground from bellowing oxen, and he got the stuff in his mouth and up his nose. So Odysseus took away the mixing bowl, because he finished first, and the ox went to Ajax, He stood with his hands on the horns of the ox, spitting out dung, and said to the Argives, ‘Oh [crap]! That goddess tripped me, that goddess who has always stood by Odysseus and cared for him like a mother.'” (Stephen Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, Yale University Press, 2004, page 30)

The popularity of these athletic events can also be seen in the artwork contemporary to the composition of the Homeric epics and the foundation of the Olympics, like on this Geometric Period pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago from about 760-735 BC, with a team of four neatly assembled horses decorating the lid. We can imagine the chariot that was attached to this four-horse quadriga, or in Greek tethrippon. And also on this giant Geometric Period krater or mixing bowl at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from about 750-735 BC. On it you can see a body lying in state with mourners assembled all around, and in the lower register alternating depictions of charioteers and soldiers race along. Note that this vessel comes nearly 400 years after the Bronze Age period, but the figures on foot carry the trademark Bronze Age style figure-eight shields from centuries earlier. So, just as rhapsodes singing the Iliad and Odyssey are looking back to the mythic heroes of Mycenae, so too are the artists of this time as they decorate the Geometric style vases.

Charioteers and runners continued to be the favored athletic subjects of Greek vase painting through the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Athletic events at the Greek games can be broken up into two basic categories: the gymnikos agon and hippikos agon.

Agon basically means a game, contest, or athletic event. It’s the Greek word from which we get “agony.” Agony in its most basic sense is the strife, struggle, and sacrifice endured in pursuit of victory. Gymnikos means “nude,” so the gymnikos agon are the “nude games,” whereas the hippokos agon refer to the “horse games,” which include a few different mounted and horse-drawn races. Considering the popularity of chariot races, though, it’s ironic that they didn’t become an official part of the Olympics until 680 BC, a good century after the supposed foundation of the Olympics and after the incorporation of nearly all the nude events.

So, what’s the deal with all the nudity? Nudity in ancient Greek athletics is perhaps the most quintessentially Greek aspect to the games. It’s the equalizer of men. Competing in the nude, no one could argue that the latest Adidas nanotechnology swim suite gave anyone a leg up on the competition. Nudity preserved the essential democratic nature of Greek athletics. It also prevented preference or prejudice based on social class. All discriminating demarcations are stripped from the competitors, who must rely on their skill and strength alone. We’re all the same when stripped down to our bareness romping in the dirt, oil, and sweat. We’re all Greek citizens.

Nobody knows for sure when or how the idea of competing in the nude came about. Various ancient sources provide us with amusing accounts of loincloths falling off mid-race, only to learn that nudity supposedly provided a possible competitive edge. One common association of the nude athlete is with the ancient mythic hero. You might remember back in episode 6 on the Classical white-ground lekythos — the oil jar — we learned that the nude figure here presents an interesting duality of the youthful nude athlete and the epic hero. We also saw this more recently in episode 16 on the Metropolitan Kouros. Perhaps this noble association was also aspired to by athletes in the nude on the field at ancient Olympia. And it makes extra sense to have the nude epic hero depicted on the lekythos, because that’s one sort of jar that athletes in the gymnasium would have used to dispense oil. There are a few different interpretations for the use of oil in Greek athletics. Rubbing olive oil into your skin before a competition would give your body a lovely glistening sheen. We can attest to this from WWF ca. 1985. There could also be some sort of ritual libation significance to rubbing oil over one’s body. What might make the most sense, though, is the cleansing purpose of oil after the match. After accumulating all the sweat, dirt, sand, blood, and other filth of a match, you’d run a strigil down your limbs and the oil acted like a nice lubricant, so the grime had a harder time sticking to you. We looked a little more closely back in episode 6 at this example of a strigil from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s about all the time we have for this episode. Tune in next time for part 3 on the Ancient Olympics as we tour the variety of athletic events, both the nude games and the horse races. Questions, comments, suggestions? You can email me at info@ancientartpodcast.org. Or visit the website and click on “feedback” at the top of the page. While you’re there, please take a minute to fill out the survey to help me get a better sense of who’s listening. iTunes reviews help get the podcast noticed, so please consider sharing the love. You can also add your comments next to each episode at ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


18: Ancient Olympics, Part 1, the Foundation

Hello and welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m Lucas Livingston, your guide on our foray through the Ancient World. In this episode, we’ll travel back to Ancient Greece to witness a spectacular event, the largest tailgater in the Ancient Mediterranean World, the Ancient Greek Olympic Games.

In an immaculately pristine fantasy world, the Olympics were an emblem of Greek democratic ideals, the epitome of what could only be described as “Greekness.” The Olympics placed the peasant and the aristocrat on the same level playing field; the citizen is not judged by the size of his coffers nor the achievements of his ancestors, but by his own aptitude and human excellence in the arena.

Sure, that’s what we’d like to think, and yes, there certainly is some truth to that in theory, but in practice, in this wonderfully nebulous, unpredictable, and awkward thing we call reality, the ancient Olympics were subject to corruption, politics, partisanship, and prejudice as much as their modern counterpart. But before I go rambling off on a tangent, I want us to set our task in front of us here. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll need to break things up into multiple episodes. In this episode, we’ll briefly explore the origin of the Olympics and other Greek games, and delve into their mythic foundations. Yes, there were plenty of other athletic competitions in addition to the ancient Olympics, and we’ll check out some of them too. Later we’ll take a look at what makes the Greek games distinctly Greek, the “Greekness” of the Greek games, and we’ll break a sweat surveying the variety of athletic events. And then we’ll wrap up with some wonderful historical anecdotes placing everything in context.

The foundation of the Olympics is traditionally placed at 776 BC. Right, and this flat world was created October 23rd, 4004 BC. No really, how do we know the Olympics began in 776 BC? We’re certainly not 100% sure, but the Greeks kept an official record of winners of the Olympic games, called the Olympic register. Ancient historians knew where their time was on that list (um, at the bottom, duh!). So, going on the assumption that the Olympics were held every four years (just like the modern Olympics; that’s where we got the idea from), historians could trace back to the first victory of the first Olympics happening so many years before their time. And we, using these funny numbers to reckon dates, call that the year 776 BC.

Ok, wake up. We’re done with the chronology. Supposedly we know when the Olympics started, but why did they start and by whom? As with all the other major athletic competitions throughout the Ancient Greek world, the establishment of the Olympics is deeply entrenched in mythology, or history, or it’s kind of one in the same. Ancient sources like the famous lyric poet Pindar say that the Olympic games were established by Herakles to celebrate the accomplishment of one of his Twelve Labors, the Cleaning of Augean Stables. You probably know “Herakles” better as “Hercules.” Herakles is the Greek version, Hercules the Latin. Those Twelve Labors, in fact, are the subject matter of the metopes decorating the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the sacred site of the ancient Olympics.

A brief geography lesson here. Olympia is located on the western coast of the Greek Peloponnesos, which means the “Island of Pelops,” but it’s not really an island. Technically it’s a peninsula, but that’s almost a stretch too. Olympia wasn’t exactly a town. It was a religious sanctuary to Zeus, a popular pilgrimage site and tourist destination, and of course host to the most famous sporting event of the ancient world. Near Olympia is Elis, which ruled over Olympia in ancient times. Right next to Olympia is the town of Pisa, not to be confused with the Italian Pisa, which brings us to the next story.

The more popular mythic origin for the ancient Olympics is that of the celebration of the victory of Pelops, namesake of the Peloponnesos, in his chariot race against King Oinomaos of Pisa. That story is also depicted on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the east pediment. Here in the pediment from about 460 BC we see the larger-than-life Zeus in center with Pelops and Oinomaos at his sides. The god Poseidon really liked Pelops and gave him a set of horses touched by the divine. Pelops set out traveling and came upon the kingdom of Oinomaos and his lovely daughter Hippodameia, “subduer of horses.” It was known throughout the land that whoever could best King Oinomaos in a chariot race would win the hand of Hippodameia in marriage. If, however, you challenged the king and lost, your life was forfeit. Many a suitor had tried and failed, their skulls decorating his palace like trophies, but young Pelops knew his magical steeds could beat the king in a race. Oinomaos, son of the god Ares, had magical unbeatable horses, himself, though. Hippodameia knew this, but had fallen for Pelops and didn’t want to see him consigned to the same fate as the many suitors before. So she conspired with her father’s charioteer, Myrtilos, to replace one of the bronze linchpins with a wax replica, offering herself to Myrtilos if he ended up following through with the sabotage. He did so, and in the heat of the race between Pelops and Oinomaos, the friction of the spinning wheels caused the wax linchpin to melt and break. The wheels of the chariot crumpled beneath King Oinomaos, throwing him to the earth. His precious, magical, unbeatable horses pressed on dragging him by the reigns tied around his waist and trampling him to death. It was just a tragic accident. The chariot race was always a dangerous sport. This wasn’t the first death by chariot race and surely wouldn’t be the last. But Pelops knew of the treachery of Myrtilos and the promise Hippodameia had made, yet he had no intention of letting Myrtilos see it through. Now Pelops, the new king of the Peloponnesos, took Myrtilos out for a ride along the sea, fought with him and threw him into the ocean’s deep. As Myrtilos succumbed to the sea’s dark embrace, he cursed the offspring of Pelops and Hippodameia. And so it begins.

In short, a series of family tragedies ensue involving various family members killing each other for various reasons. This dynasty of Greek tragedy is passed down among the generations and preserved in famous stories that might be familiar to us. Atreus butchers his nieces and nephews and serves them to his brother Thyestes. King Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, before sailing off to the Trojan War. Some twenty years later Queen Clytemnestra and her lover and brother-in-law Aegisthos murder Agamemnon for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The vengeful Elektra and Orestes kill their mother Clytemnestra and their new father-in-law Aegisthos. Orestes is hounded by the Erinyes, the Furies, for his sins and nearly goes insane, but he’s finally vindicated by divine pardon. So, all of that was going through people’s minds as they gazed up at the Temple of Zeus. The old seer off to the side strikes of foreboding pose realizing the misfortunes that will play out for the participants of this race and their descendants.

Perhaps it was thought that this story would help keep would-be cheaters at the Olympics in line or maybe it provides a moral lesson for the general audience. But this didn’t cast a dark shadow over the Olympic games. Nearly all the foundation myths of the major Ancient Greek athletic competitions were heavily steeped in tragic death. The tradition of athletic competition goes hand-in-hand with funerary celebrations. We encounter numerous examples of funeral games in art, myth, and history, which we’ll explore more closely next time when we’ll also dive in to looking at the specific types of athletic competitions and events from the ancient Olympics. We’ve only scratched the surface here, so stick around.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org