The Ancient Olympics

ancient-sports-stadiumIn our day and age, the news are dominated by conflict, whether it is domestic or international- covering everything from politics to war. Keeping yourself well-informed is extremely important, but sometimes we need a break from the negativity in order to preserve our mental sanity. The Olympics are one of those rare events, along with the World Cup, that truly bring the world together. There is much to appreciate about the Olympics even if you are not athletically inclined (like I am not). It is wonderful to see countries from around the world, even those with normally tense relations, competing in a spirit of camaraderie. It makes you think that peace is possible and there is hope for the world.

Olympia, Greece

This idea of international peace during the Olympic Games is not new. The Olympics began in ancient Greece, in Olympia to be more precise. (I was lucky enough to travel to Greece when I was younger and visited Olympia, and even sat in the ancient stadium pictured above.) The original Olympic Games began in 776 BCE and were in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Just as now, they took place every four years, but a period of decline began when Greece was conquered by Rome in 146 BCE. The games ended in 393 CE, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, who had converted to Christianity, ordered a halt to all pagan practices. However, when the games were occurring, an Olympic Truce was declared throughout all the ancient Greek city-states, so that anyone could travel to or from the games as either a participant or spectator. Messengers would travel from city to city announcing the dates for the games, and therefore the truce.

Originally, the athletes were required to be Greek, male, and freeborn. Women, slaves, and foreigners were not allowed to participate. After the Roman conquest of Greece, Romans were allowed to participate. There is much debate among historians over whether or not women were eventually allowed to participate or even watch. The competitions included running, wrestling, boxing, chariot and horse races, and pankration (considered the toughest of the events, a combination of wrestling and boxing). Unlike now, in the original games there was only one winner, who received an olive branch crown in the Temple of Zeus during the closing ceremonies. The winner was considered a hero and enjoyed perks for the rest of his life, such as the right to have a statue of himself in his hometown.


After the ancient Olympic Games ended, there were no games for 1,503 years, until 1896 in Athens, Greece, when the modern Olympic Games began. However, there is still a connection to the ancient games. The Olympic Torch Relay began in 1936 with the Berlin games, but the flame is still lit every year in the ancient ruins of Olympia. Fire was a divine element to the ancient Greeks, and they kept perpetual fires burning at their major temples. The Olympic flame is lit the same way now as it was in the ancient games- with the sun and a skaphia, or parabolic mirror. Once the torch is lit, it is carried from Olympia to wherever the games are being held. It is used to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony, which remains lit throughout the games until the Closing Ceremony. Along Torch_Relay_Origins_Values-1400the way from Olympia to the host city, the bearers of the flame take a tour and stop in different cities carrying a message of peace, just like the messengers of the Olympic Truce during the ancient games. In this way, the Olympic tradition of promoting international peace is continued.


International Olympic Committee- Games of Antiquity Factsheet

International Olympic Committee- The Olympic Torch Relay Factsheet

To learn more, check out the following sites:

International Olympic Committee- Ancient Olympics page

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology- The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

Tufts University Perseus Digital Library Project- The Ancient Olympics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s