By Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen
The 2020 Olympics, postponed because of COVID19, are due to start this week in Japan. They might be cancelled again, but the athletes have been training hard and Sarah E. Bond and I talked about the beginning, the end, and the tender parts of the Olympics with Jonathan Van Ness on his podcast Getting Curious. (Go here for a transcript). Here’s a short post from Sarah and me.
In the Beginning (Joel)
In Pindar’s 10th Olympian Ode, we find the traditional story for the creation of the first Olympic games. Herakles established them to honor his father and the rest of the gods during his various labors. Pindar’s poem, an epinician (a poem composed in honor of an athletic victory) is one of many that blends myth, history, and effusive praise–a heady mix wielded by sportswriters to this day.
The traditional date of the first Olympics is 776 BCE. The event was so important that its four-year cycle was the only calendar system shared by ancient Greek cities. (Each city-state had its own way of keeping time, typically a luni-solar system based around religious festivals, agrarian rites etc.)
But the Olympics were not the only Panhellenic games. Between the legendary founding of the Olympia and the Classical Age three other major games developed: the Nemean, Isthmian, and Pythian. These games had what you might expect: running, archery, boxing. They also had musical and choral competitions and some of the biggest events wouldn’t be found at today’s Olympics (the chariot games).
Athletic festivals like the Olympian games were part of a handful of cultural practices we now recognize as creating Panhellenic identities. Other include worship at the cult-sites of Delphi and Delos and Homeric and Hesiodic poems. The Games were an essential part of aristocratic culture–so much so that there are accounts of people considering the games a good place to find a spouse.
Just as today, most of us would have no chance of competing in the games: they were for those healthy and wealthy enough to spend their time training and of blood noble enough to have the presumption to enter the contests. They were of such prestige in Athens that an Olympic victor was awarded with meals for life in the public dining hall.
The earliest games we have recorded in literature are in Homer’s Iliad where Achilles hosts funeral games in honor of Patroclus. Those games create an experimental space where the leading figures of the Achaeans could compete against one another without actual murder. Indeed, a close reading of Iliad 23 will show that Achilles, Menelaos, Antilokhos, and friends negotiate some of the same political tensions that causes the conflict in book 1.
Athletic contests in early Greece, then, developed as a ritualized kind of practice for war. Most of the events practiced–running, wrestling, javelin throwing–are those that aristocrats would have practiced in preparation for war. But instead of fighting each other to the death, they struggled over honor on the field. Probably naked. Probably cheating and scrabbling for every advantage just like today.
In the End (Sarah)
The traditional date for the last ancient Olympic games is 393 CE—even if ancient historians such as David Potter (2011) and Sofie Remijsen (2015) have questioned the reality of this rather synthetic date.They place the final games later into the reign of the emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450 CE). In the years prior to the concluding competition, the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Nicene Christian born in Hispania, had undertaken sweeping legislation and withheld state funds in order to quell traditional Roman religio and address heresies within the empire. The closing of the famed festival games held in honor of Zeus may have been but one move in a broader agenda which promoted Nicene Christianity while suppressing spaces, rituals, and people labeled as either pagan or heretical. Or the games may have simply petered out and fallen victim to the institutional and financial shifts at play in the late Roman Mediterranean.
In 380, the “Edict of Thessalonica” (also known as Cunctos populos; CTh 16.1.2 trans. Jacobs) was directed predominantly at the heretics of Constantinople. It took on a more wide-ranging significance defining Nicene Christianity as the “official” faith of the Roman Empire with the compiling of the Theodosian Code in 436. However, other imperial actions did signal attempts to literally and figuratively snuff out paganism. In 391, the eternal flame of Vesta in Rome was extinguished and numerous laws banned sacrifices or withheld money from traditional religious cults. As Remijsen notes, the closing of Greek athletic festivals in Late Antiquity was not just religiously motivated, but also influenced by financial, institutional, and political aims. Agonistic budgets were high and the shift to a more centralized financial scheme meant athletic festivals could not be paid for.
Whatever the motives for the demise of the Olympic games in Late Antiquity, the historic festival has left behind a wealth of literature, papyri, inscriptions, art, and archaeological remains that continue to grip the imagination of the modern public since the reinstitution of the games in 1896. The Olympics can and have been used for nefarious purposes (e.g. the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Leni Reifenstahl’s propaganda film Olympia). However, the modern Olympics can also nudge us to reinvestigate the origins and evidence for the Archaic games.
That is what we hoped to accomplish—along with having a little fun—with Jonathan van Ness and his team at Getting Curious. Take a listen and enjoy some fun tangents.
Bibliography and Resources
Barringer, Judith M. Olympia: A Cultural History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021 (forthcoming).
Brown, Shelby. “The Getty Villa Guide to the Ancient Olympics,” Iris blog (August 13, 2016).
Bond, Sarah E. “A Brief History Of Olympic Nudity From Ancient Greece To ESPN,” Forbes (August 4, 2016).
_____”Yes, Ancient Olympic Athletes Had Sponsorship Deals, Too,” Forbes (August 10, 2016).
Christesen, Paul. Olympic Victor Lists and Ancient Greek History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Jacobs, Andrew. “Edict of Thessalonica,” also known as Cunctos Populos,” AndrewJacobs.org
Potter, David. The Victor’s Crown: A history of ancient sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Remijsen, Sofie. The End of Greek Athletics in Late Antiquity. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
_____”The End of the Ancient Olympics and Other Contests: Why the Agonistics Circuit Collapsed in Late Antiquity,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015): 147-64.
Remijsen, Sofie and Willy Clarysse, Ancient Olympics, KU Leuven (2012).
Toth, Peter. “The Olympic Games at the British Library,” Medieval Manuscripts Blog (August 3, 2016).