ancient greece the olympic games

7 Weird Facts About the Ancient Greek Olympic Games

Continuing its record as the longest year in history, it’s August 2020, part 2 and the Olympics have just ended.

The Olympics have a long rich history. The modern games have only occurred since 1896, but the tradition of the Olympics can be traced back thousands of years to Ancient Greece.

The ancient Greek Olympic games were part of a pagan festival to honor the Greek God, Zeus. Like today’s Olympics, they were trials of strength and power, with events like sprinting, javelin, shotput, and the chariot race.

Ancient Olympians were held in high regard and welcomed home heroes, but they did not compete for money or medals. Instead, winners received wreaths, and statues were often built in their honor.

What better way to embrace the feeling of inferiority than reminding yourself that people have been proving they’re better than you at sports for over 2 millennia?

7. Where were the ancient Greek Olympics held?

For much of antiquity, Greece was a divided nation made up of city states with differing philosophies and notions about what Greece should become. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) led to further strife as warring Athenians and Spartans fought for control of the country.

Elis home of ancient greece olympics

In order to let the games take place, a peace treaty was observed during the events meaning participants could travel to and from the ancient Greek Olympics home in Elis without fear of attack. Unless, of course, they lost…

(side note: if you want to feel what it was like to compete in the ancient games – you can actually do so in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where you travel to Elis and, if you’re good enough, become an Olympic champion).

6. Heraean Games – no women allowed

Women weren’t invited to compete in the ancient Olympic Games. It was a competition for men to showcase their strength, dominance, and nakedness.

But women in Ancient Greek society had their own day. Known as the Heraean games, after Zeus’ wife Hera, they occurred around the same time as the ancient Olympics, but unlike the games had only one competition.

greece olympics heraen

Unmarried young women competed in a footrace similar to the one performed by males at the Olympics, but one-sixth shorter. Unlike the males, however, the women didn’t compete naked; instead, they wore short dresses with one breast exposed.

5. Naked Wednesdays

Might be about 15 years late with the Friends reference there.

Ancient Greeks were debauched, wine-soaked masters of appreciating the human form. Poems, artwork, and other historical sources show that overall attitudes toward sex and nudity were surprisingly casual and playful.  

What I’m trying to say is, ancient Greece was a bit… well…. horny.

greece olympics naked

This year’s games athletes are (quite rightfully) arguing against the notion of sexist outdated Olympic costumes; but if they had taken part in the ancient Greek games, they would have instead been completely naked.

The funniest part is that no one is exactly sure why. Historians speculate it was a way to demonstrate their status and power and for the athletes to pay tribute to Zeus. All we know from the lustful poems that remain is that their unabashed nature showcased their dominance via the beauty of the naked, oiled, male athletic form. Apparently.

4. Pankration

Pankration was an ancient Olympic game that combined boxing, wrestling, and various martial arts, with an extra dose of anything goes.

pankration wrestling greece olympics

A favorite of the bloodthirsty crowd, there were very few limits on what was allowed and even attacking the genitals was encouraged. The only things that weren’t, were gouging or biting of the eyes, nose, or mouth. Presumably, because that would make the grappling a little too reminiscent of a schoolyard fight.

Living up to the reputation of bloodthirsty fighters, the Spartans were particularly talented in this “sport”.

3. To the death

Although not super common, there were instances of athletes dying during the ancient Olympics. For some, it was preferable to losing, especially those who competed in the Pankration.

The most notable example of this was the ancient Olympic Pankratiast champion, Arrhichion. Although he had already won twice before in previous games, it was Arrhichion’s third and final attempt at Pankration that ultimately led to his death.

And somehow…. He still won.

Arrhichion athletes in ancient greece

According to writings by Philostratus of Athens, the athlete dislocated his opponent’s toe at the same time as being strangled to death. The pain was so severe that as Arrhichion drew his last breath, his opponent surrendered; leaving the dead man the victor.

2. Why did the ancient Olympic Games end?

As we’ve covered, the ancient Olympics were first and foremost a pagan festival to honor Zeus. A long-time misunderstanding is that when Roman Emperor Theodosius I took control in 363 AD, he banned pagan festivals in favor of pushing Christianity.

ancient greece the olympic games

This is something even some of the top history sites get wrong. Whilst historians believed this for a long time, recently uncovered evidence suggests the festival continued through to the reign of Theodosius’ grandson. We can only speculate as to the reason why they eventually ended, but the consensus is they simply fell out of favor after 1000 years of existence.

A more depressing answer than an evil Emperor forbidding it, but the more likely outcome, nonetheless.

1. The greatest Olympian of all-time 

We’ve covered naked contestants, lusting poets, and dead winners; but there was one man who towered above all, as the greatest Olympian of all time. That’s throughout the 1000+ year history of the ancient games and the modern Olympics.

ancient olympics running

Leonidas of Rhodes is, to this day, considered the greatest sprinter in history. He triumphed across all 3 types of foot race that occurred in the ancient Olympics – the stadion (200m), the diaulos (400m), and the hoplitodromos (also 400m but contestants were also expected to carry a helmet, greaves, and heavy shield).

Leonidas won a massive 12 individual wreaths across 4 ancient Olympic games. A record that wasn’t beaten until Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympics, 2000 years later.


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