Ancient Olympic Games
A Brief History
with
Sources & Links

by


Harvey Abrams, BS, MAT, Ph.d/abd.


The latest updates were made JUNE 24, 2019. More Olympic History pages are coming this summer.

1. INTRODUCTION


The ancient Greek Olympic Games are so old that even they ancient Greeks themselves did not know how old they were. The origins of the ancient Olympic Games are steeped in various Greek legends and myths. Different versions of the origins of the Olympic Games were described by ancient writers such as Pindar, Strabo, Phlegon, Pausanius and Eusebius.

All of these writers came many years after the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY were written by an ancient Greek writer named Homer. There is no evidence to date Homer's works, but they have been dated by historians to be from the period of the 10th to the 6th centuries BCE. In fact, there is no evidence that shows Homer was the writer and it is possible that these works were written by more than one person.

Studying the ancient Olympic Games - indeed studying anything about ancient civilizations - requires finding source material that you can read, understand and use to gather evidence so you can draw a conclusion.

Keep in mind that what we know today is only a mere fraction of what happened 3,000 years ago. Most evidence of ancient history has been lost over time. There was no paper back then. They did write on such things as stone, clay or papyrus. Think about your own history -- what happened on the day you were born? What evidence exists to prove your date of birth? Do you have your birth certificate? Who prepared it? Is it authentic? Did your parents tell you about the day you were born? Was there a newspaper article written about your birth? Did someone take photos or movies of your birth? Did you talk to any doctors or nurses who were there?

So in studying the past -- even your own past -- how can you find out what happened? There has to be something to look at (evidence), or someone to talk to (witnesses). Think about the difficulty of studying ancient history, how could we possibly know anything about the Greeks who lived 3,000 years ago?

We do research, we look for "sources of information." Some of our knowledge is based upon:

A. Ancient Greek and Roman writers (literary evidence)

Pausanias, Guide to Greece
Much of what we know about the ancient Olympic Games comes from the first known "travel writer," Pausanias. His written works have survived and they provide us with his first-hand look of the ancient world with his very detailed descriptions. If he were alive today then he would be writing articles in the travel section of newspapers.

Here is an example of his writing:

[5.8.5] After the reign of Oxylus, who also celebrated the games, the Olympic festival was discontinued until the reign of Iphitus. When Iphitus, as I have already related, renewed the games, men had by this time forgotten the ancient tradition, the memory of which revived bit by bit, and as it revived they made additions to the games.

[5.8.6] This I can prove; for when the unbroken tradition of the Olympiads began there was first the foot-race, and Coroebus an Elean was victor. There is no statue of Coroebus at Olympia, but his grave is on the borders of Elis. Afterwards, at the fourteenth Festival, the double foot-race was added: Hypenus of Pisa won the prize of wild olive in the double race, and at the next Festival Acanthus of Lacedaemon won in the long course.

See:
The Theoi Greek Mythology Website (www.theoi.com)
"An online source of some ancient Greek writers: "The Theoi Classical Texts Library is a collection of translations of works of ancient Greek and Roman literature. The theme of the library is classical mythology and so the selection consists primarily of ancient poetry, drama and prose accounts of myth."


B. Ancient archeological sites & ruins, statuary, vases & pottery
(archeological evidence)


Entrance to Ancient stadium at Olympia

This is what is left of the entrance to the ancient stadium at Olympic...it used to be a tunnel that led into the stadium. The stadium was found by German archeologists in the 19th century...is was lost under centuries of mud and earth for 1,500 years.

Greek vase with athletes

Many thousands of ancient vases and pieces of pottery have been found with colorful artwork that shows various sports and athletics. We can only guess as to the meaning of each painting.

C. Stone carvings and reliefs (epigraphical evidence)

A "relief" is a design that is raised above the background which has been carved away by the artist/sculpture.
An "engraving" is chiseled into the stone, usually done for text.



This wrestling relief (above) was the base of a statue in Athens, one of three pieces found in 1922 as part of the "Themistoclean wall." But what does it mean? Does it honor an athlete? An Olympic champion? Was it part of a memorial or gravesite? We can only guess. See more here: The New Athenian Statue Bases, by S. Casson, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 45, Part 2 (1925), pp. 164-179


This relief (below) shows a young athlete who is either placing a crown of olive on his head, or, perhaps he is taking it off, we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that crowns were made of olive tree branches and placed on the heads of victorius athletes, a great honor to the ancient Greeks. See more here: Self-Crowning Athlete, Votive Relief, Field Museum, Chicago, IL

Greek relief boy athlete

Below is an example of ancient Greek text engraved (chiseled) into stone. Until the middle of the 20th century it was considered to be important for students to learn both Greek and Latin while in school. This was part of a "classical education" that is rare today.

Ancient Greek engraved into stone

D. Ancient Greek and Roman coins.


Coins from ancient Greek times have survived in vast numbers and thousands are found every year making this an interesting hobby. Most coins were made in bronze or silver, but some were made in gold. There are many coins from the region of Aspendos that depict wrestlers for a period of 200 years, yet we do not know why this was so common. Other coins show throwing the discus, chariot racing and the statue of Zeus at Olympia. See more here: Ancient Olympics, KULeuven, Belgium.

----



The material to study ancient Greek sport and the Olympic Games is scattered all over the world in museums, libraries and archeological sites. The world wide web can help you find some, even much of the material. But a trip to the library is still in your best interest. Don't be too lazy to read a book! Learn another language, such as Greek or Latin! At the very least learn the words that are related to the Olympic Games and sports.

Learn how to do research. Ask good questions about the "sources of information." The web will not answer all your questions, but it can help a lot. Just do NOT depend upon it for everything!

Remember - the Source of your information is very important. How do you know that the source is correct? Is the source an English language translation from the original Greek writer Pausanius? Or is the source a website written by your best friend from fifth grade? Be careful not to relay on web sites that are written by individuals...unless they are at a university web site. Good luck!




Created on October 29, 2000
Updated on February 20, 2008
Updated December 6, 2014
Updated June 24, 2019
These pages are dedicated to K & A.





2. The Ancient Olympic Games -- 776 BCE to 393 CE


In almost every book and website you will find information that says the ancient Olympic Games started in 776 BCE -- but this is NOT accurate.


The Olympic Games did not start in 776 BCE - they started much earlier! But they were so old that even the ancient Greeks did not know when they started. The origins of the first Olympic Games were unknown because the Greeks failed to record the events. The sports were not the important part of the festival. The Olympic Games were merely a small part of a much larger event - it was a religious festival in honor of the Greek God Zeus.

Allow me to ephasize this: the origin of the Olympic Games was NOT as a sports festival for fun and glory. The ancient Olympic Games were part of a religious festival to honor the gods. Over a period of several hundred years the sports became more important within Greek culture and the Olympic festival became an important meeting place for Greek, and eventually Roman politics.

The year 776 BCE is not the year of the first Olympic Games. It is the first Olympic Games with the name of a recorded victor. All earlier Olympic victors were unknown, even to the Greeks, five hundred years before Christ was born. Winning a running race or any competition was not important enough to the Greeks to record.



The origins of the Olympic Games are unknown, but there are some theories. They may have started as early as the 14th century BCE. The stories of funeral games (celebrations in honor of a dead king or notable warrior) come to us from Homer's works -- the Iliad and the Odyssey. He wrote about the Trojan War, which historians date approximately 1193-83 BCE (12th century).


Many ancient writers used Homer's works along with others which have been lost since ancient times. Sadly for us the ancient writings were destroyed in fires and wars long before the printing press was invented. All written works had to be made by hand, so few copies existed. Ancient Greek and Roman writers offered different versions of the origins of the Olympics. Some ancient writers attempted to recreate actual dates. For example, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his CHRONOLOGY circa 324 CE. That's the 4th century after Christ -- over 1,000 years after the ancient Olympic Games began. He recreated the Olympic Register of Victors (a winner's list) from 776 BCE to 217 CE, the 1st through the 249th Olympiads. His work was based on the work of Sextus Julius Africanus who wrote a century earlier. But this "book" was lost in ancient times and we only know that it existed because translations of chapters exist in other languages -- the entire "book" in its original Greek languages does not exist.


But these Roman era writers were actually latecomers. The ancient Greeks had attempted to get their Olympic records straight for centuries. The records of the ancient Olympic Games were first recreated in the 5th century BCE by Hippias of Elis and a century later revised by Aristotle. These works are known only because later writers referred to them - no copies have survived for us to examine. What happened to them? Unfortunately all the libraries that existed in ancient times had fires -- and all the papyrus scrolls that filled the shelves burned to ash. Much of ancient history has been lost forever because these fires destroyed the few copies of writings that existed.


Our knowledge of the ancient Olympics is fragmentary and based on a tiny portion of literary evidence that has survived -- my guess is that perhaps 10% has survived. Other historians might give you a different percentage. When the Romans conquered the ancient world -- including Greece, they translated Greek works into Latin. Sometimes the new "books" had both the Greek and Latin for the reader. Some works were translated by early Christians into other languages such as Armenian.


Much of what we know is based on an incredible Guidebook to Greece written by Pausanius in the 2nd century CE, about 900 years after the Olympic Games started record-keeping. He went to Olympia, described all the statues that decorated the site and interviewed the officials who worked there. His work, written in Latin, has been translated into English and you can buy this paperback in most bookstores today. You should have a copy in your school library and use it as a "primary source" of information. But remember this -- The Olympic Games were already over 900 years old when Pausanius wrote his book -- and that was 1,800 years ago!


For your convenience I have added a link in the section below to a Dutch website that has put the entire work of Pausanias online in English and Dutch. There are MANY spelling errors so be careful - you might want to compare it to a book in a library collection.


Because archeologists are always finding new caches of evidence, it is still possible that someday we will find papyrus scrolls in vases which shed more light on the ancient Olympic Games. That will be very exciting!


Here is a brief list of some ancient writers you can use in your research:


  • Homer, 10th - 6th century BCE (Iliad, Odyssey)
  • Pindar, 518? - 446 BCE (Odes)
  • Hippias of Elis, 5th century BCE (works lost)
  • Aristotle, 4th century BCE
  • Strabo, 63 BCE - 21 CE (Geography)
  • Phlegon of Tralles, circa 138 CE
  • Pausanias, 174 CE (Guide to Greece)
    Pausanias wrote his book in the 2nd century CE and it was first "printed" as a book in modern times in 1516 in Latin. Another edition was printed in 1583. It was translated by scholars into English in the late 1890's and is available today in a paperback edition. Look in any good bookstore for a copy.
  • Sextus Julius Africanus, 3rd century CE
  • Eusebius of Caesarea, circa 324 CE (Chronology)




3. LINKS to Ancient Olympic studies






4. Commentary by Harvey Abrams, BS., MAT., Ph.D/abd



There are now hundreds of links on the web about the ancient Olympic Games because in 2004 Athens (Greece) hosted the Olympic Games. There was a serious increase in interest in Greek history, especially among Greeks. I observed that this increased interest in the ancient Greek Olympic Games was at an all time high in my academic career. I have looked at many of these sites and there are so many errors being repeated due to lack of scholarship that you need to be very careful what you use for your own research.

BE CAUTIOUS...much of what has been written has merely repeated the vast number of errors published in previous books. Other errors are intended to re-write history based upon the personal bias of the writers -- especially Greek writers. This is known as "revisionist history."


Then the 2012 Olympic Games were hosted in London (England/Great Britain/United Kingdom) and another vast quantity of English language material appeared on the internet. Again many errors were repeated - so there is a lot of garbage to wade through on the internet.

  • For example -- if a site says that the Olympic Games started in 776 BCE -- it is wrong. The first Olympic champion -- whose name is known (Coroebus) -- can be traced to 776 BCE -- and therefore the ancient writers used this date as the 1st Olympic Games and numbered later Olympic Games from that date. But this is because there were no known "winner's lists" for over 100 years before the Greeks started keeping written records -- and these records were later lost or destroyed in fires.

  • Almost no site understands the ancient Olympic "truce." If the site tells you that all wars "came to an end" or that "all hostilities ceased" -- it is not true. The Olympic "truce" merely allowed travelers to go to the Games at Olympia -- to walk through Greece without being murdered or robbed -- because the traveler was protected by "Zeus" -- the Greek god. Wars did not come to an end.

  • If a site mentions the "amateur ethic" of ancient athletes -- it is not true. "Amateurism" was a 19th century British idea. The ancient athletes were almost all professionals and earned huge sums of money and lots of glory for their victories. In the modern Olympic Games the concept of amateurism existed until recently. Today, professional athletes do compete in several Olympic sports such as basketball.

  • Some sites will tell you that the Olympic Games returned to their home in Athens in 2004. This is very misleading and wrong. The ancient Olympic Games were never held in Athens. The ancient Olympic Games were in Olympia, Greece, far away from Athens. However, the modern Olympic Games were in Athens in 1896 and again in 1906. In 2004 Athens hosted the Olympic Games for the third time -- the only city ever to host three modern Olympic Games. (Paris has hosted the Olympic Games twice, in 1900 and 1924. Los Angeles has also hosted the Olympic Games twice, in 1932 and 1984).

  • The ancient Games were not unlike the modern Games -- there was cheating, bribery, corruption and intense "nationalistic" competition -- in addition to religious festivities and sacrifices, poetry and art, and incredibly talented athletic competition in a variety of sports.

Try to use museum websites or university websites for your research. Avoid private web sites or encyclopedic sites. If I have listed a link then it is because I reviewed it myself and found it to be high in quality and research value.

But don't forget the best sources -- your local LIBRARY and the professional LIBRARIAN who can help you find quality material for your project.


And a final word of advice from an educator - if you are an American college student then get a passport. Go to Greece and Italy for a semester to study overseas, get 6 or even 9 credits towards your degree, and learn more about Greek and Roman history. Tell your parents it is an essential aspect of your educational experience...because it is.


If you use the information on this page for your research project --
then you have to "cite" this page as follows:
~

Abrams, Harvey. Ancient Olympic Games: A Brief History With Sources & Links.
Harvey Abrams - Books, June 24, 2019.
URL: http://www.harveyabramsbooks.com/ancient.html
Viewed: Month & date, year.
(The date that you viewed this page goes here)


~


You need to do this because web pages change frequently --
and I might update or change this information, too.
You cite this page (and all your sources) so a reader can return
in order to check the accuracy of your work.





Copyright 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2019 Harvey Abrams. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the expressed written permission of the author. Or the wrath of Zeus will be upon you.



Harvey Abrams, BS, MAT, Ph.D/abd
Olympic & Sport Historian
HARVEY ABRAMS-BOOKS
P.O. Box 732
State College, PA, USA 16804
email: Olympicbks@aol.com
Olympicbks@aol.com

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Created on October 29, 2000
Updated on February 20, 2008
Updated March 21, 2012
Updated December 6, 2014
Updated August 21, 2016
Updated June 15, 22, 24, 2019