THE most remarkable characteristic of Greek athletics is their continuity. The sports of the eighth century B.C. are the same as those of Homer—the chariot-race, the foot-race, throwing the diskos and the javelin, wrestling, and boxing. These events with certain variations and additions make up the programme of the athletic festivals of Greece during their whole history; they survive the loss of Greek independence, are taken over by Rome, and in places are still found even after the fall of the Roman Empire. This continuity is due in the first place to the practical character of these sports, in the second place to the athletic festival through which athletics were brought within the sphere of religious conservatism.

Athletics were to the Greek far more than mere recreation. To the Homeric warrior they were the means of training and maintaining the physical vigour and activity which he needed in a warlike age. But they were almost equally essential to the Greek of the fifth century. Greece was never a land of peace; quarrels between neighbouring states were frequent; their petty wars required no long preparation; the citizen might at a moment’s notice be called upon to take the field and fight, and in the conditions of ancient warfare his safety depended on his physical fitness.

This explains the important place that athletics held in Greek education; it explains too why games, which with us form so prominent and popular a part of school life, never developed to the same extent in Greece. Games have many advantages over pure athletics. They are superior in interest, and they are superior as a training of character, developing the team feeling and unselfishness. But as physical training they are valuable chiefly for those who excel in them; those who have no aptitude for them derive but little benefit. They cannot train a whole nation.

The defect of athletics proper and of all systems of physical drill is that the interest is quickly exhausted. This defect was remedied in Greece by constant competitions, competitions for all ages and not only local but also national competitions. In the latter a new and nobler element was introduced, for the athlete competed not merely as an individual but as the representative of his state.


It was the city state system that made the national athletic festival possible. In Homer we hear of no athletic festivals, hardly indeed of any religious festivals. The conditions of tribal life were too unsettled, too fluid for the growth of organized religion or sport. Of the period that followed we know little, save that all was chaos in Greece. The land was distracted by continuous migrations and wars which destroyed the last traces of the Aegean civilization. For centuries there was a stream of immigrants from the North, some conquering, others settling down peacefully among the older inhabitants. Chief among them were the Dorians, a hardy, warlike, athletic race of mountaineers who made themselves masters of most of the Peloponnese. But the land was too narrow for them all, and as early as the tenth century or earlier, another stream of migration set eastwards. Aeolians, Ionians, Dorians in turn took to the sea and occupied the islands of the Aegean and the coasts of Asia Minor. There they brought the Greek language and civilization, their love of music and of sport. Contact with the kingdoms of the East forced them to closer unity, and the city state arose. In the rich valleys of Asia Minor these cities grew rich and prosperous; commerce, literature, and art flourished. When on the mainland order was at last restored, the rural villages in turn gradually ‘grew together’, and united in city states. So in the eighth century, when a new period of expansion began which spread Greek civilization over the whole Mediterranean world, the type of polity that the Greek settlers everywhere established was the city state. Between the city states of the Greek world rivalry was keen and this rivalry was the life of the athletic festival.

The cities of Asia Minor developed far earlier than those of the mainland. There, probably, athletics first became part of education, and the athletic festival arose. Sport was no longer aristocratic, for the state required the services of every one of its citizens. Soon every state must have had its sports-grounds (gymnasia) and its wrestling schools (palaestrae). In the settled life of the city religion too became organized, with regular holy days and festivals, and here the national love of competition found free scope. There were sports, music, and dancing, all in the form of competition. As a rule the competitions would be confined to the citizens, but sometimes visitors were allowed to compete.


Again, from earliest times we find certain places recognized as possessing peculiar sanctity as the special home of some particular god, and there festivals would arise which would draw together his worshippers from neighbouring tribes or groups of cities. Thus the island of Delos had in the course of the migrations become the religious centre of the Ionians settled in the Aegean isles and on the coast of Asia Minor. The poet of the Hymn to Apollo, who wrote not later than the eighth century, tells how at Delos ‘the long-robed Ionians gather together with their wives and children and delight the god with boxing and dance and song’.²⁵ Boxing was at all times a favourite sport in the Aegean. We remember the professional boxers of the Cretan vase; it is worth noting too that the first victor in boxing recorded at Olympia was Onomastus of Smyrna, who won the prize in 688 B. C., and was said to have drawn up the rules for boxing at Olympia. Yet in the poet’s description of the Delian festival we feel that his interest is not in the boxing, but in the joyousness and grace of the whole scene, especially of the choirs of Delian maidens, chanting hymns to Apollo and Artemis and Leto, and singing the praises of men and women of past days. Even from the mainland choirs came, and Pausanias quotes some lines from the poem written by Eumelus of Corinth in the eighth century for the Messenian choir sent to compete at Delos.²⁶

Musical contests were of course peculiarly appropriate to Apollo. The earliest competition at Delphi was musical. Central Greece was particularly the home of the Muses; poetry flourished in Boeotia in the eighth century or earlier, and musical contests were frequent. It may be that the spirit of the Aegean civilization lingered there longer than elsewhere. Hesiod tells us how he competed at Chalcis, at the funeral games of Amphidamas, and won as a prize a fair-handled tripod which he dedicated to the Muses of Helicon, and later legend asserted that his defeated rival was none other than Homer.²⁷

The Delian festival was the festival of the Ionians and never became truly national. For the Panhellenic festival we must turn to the Peloponnese, the true home of Greek athletics, the home too, as we shall see, of the earliest athletic art. The first and the greatest of these festivals was the Olympic. A brief account of its early history will help us to understand the rise of the Panhellenic festival, its chief characteristics, and the growth of Greek athletics.


Olympia, like Delos, owed its sanctity to its position. It lies a few miles from the sea on the north bank of the Alpheius in the angle formed by it with its northern tributary the Cladeus. North of Olympia and westwards of it stretched the flat coastal plain, the chief highroad into the Peloponnese from the shores of the Gulf of Corinth. Along this plain as far back as we can trace we find tribe after tribe of Northerners who had crossed the Gulf of Corinth pressing southwards. At Olympia their progress was checked by the broad river Alpheius. Here too they found a fertile plain that appealed to their pastoral tastes, and at an early date they established there, on the hill of Cronus overlooking the plain or in the grove of wild olive trees and plane trees at its foot, the worship of the northern sky god, Zeus. Fresh tribes arrived forcing the earlier comers or being forced themselves further south, or eastwards into the mountains. But they were all worshippers of Zeus, and this place, the Canterbury of the Peloponnese, retained for all of them its sanctity. There they would come to consult the oracle at the altar of Zeus, or would gather at his festival, and there at his altar they would hold chariot-races and games.

Greek tradition was unanimous in tracing the origin of the games to Heroic times. Legend connected Olympia with Pelops, who gave his name to the Peloponnese. He was generally supposed to be a Phrygian who passed over to central Greece and thence made his way to the Peloponnese. There he defeated Oenomaus, King of Pisa, in the chariot-race which he ordained as the trial for the hand of his daughter Hippodameia. Oenomaus was thrown from his chariot and killed, and Pelops took his kingdom. Pelops was certainly the chief local hero of Olympia. There he had a shrine and was worshipped as a hero. In late times it was supposed that the festival originated in the funeral games held at his tomb. But the general belief in the fifth century connected the games with Heracles. Pindar tells the story in his Eleventh Olympian Ode. Heracles founded the games after his victory over Augeas. ‘Then the mighty son of Zeus, having gathered together all his host at Pisa and all the booty, measured a sacred grove for his sovereign father. Having fenced round the Altis he marked the bounds thereof in a clear space, and the plain encompassing it he ordained for rest and feasting.’ ‘He set apart the choicest of the spoil for an offering from the war and sacrificed, and he ordained the fifth year feast with the first Olympiad and prizes of victory.’ Pindar even tells us the names of those who ‘won to their lot the new-appointed crown by hands or foot or chariot’. To Pindar then the festival belongs in the first place to Zeus, and it was founded as a thanksgiving after war.


It is unnecessary here to discuss the value of these legends or the manifold theories that have been proposed as to the origin of the Games. I have endeavoured elsewhere ²⁸ to show that there is no necessary connexion between the founding of a festival and the institution of games. In the case of some festivals founded in historical times we know that athletic sports were instituted from the first. We know too that in other cases games were added later. Thus athletic competitions were not introduced into the Pythian festival till the sixth century, though the festival itself and the musical contests were many centuries older.

Festivals arose from various origins. Many, and those the oldest, were connected with vegetation rites and the farmer’s year, others were connected with the worship of some particular god or hero at some particular place. Many festivals originated in funeral games in honour of some chieftain, or soldier, or of those who fell in battle fighting for their country, a practice which we have seen goes back to Homeric times. Others were founded in commemoration of victory. Of this we have an example in Pindar’s legend about Heracles at Olympia. In all these festivals games might be added, but there was no ritual meaning in the games themselves which were purely secular. They were added because festivals were times of peace when men gathered together peaceably under the protection of the gods, and the love of competition that characterized the race found its opportunity in such a gathering.

At the same time it may well be that sports were felt to be particularly appropriate to certain festivals. They were appropriate at funeral games where they might be supposed to be pleasing to the spirit of the deceased who had in his lifetime found his pleasure therein. They were appropriate in games connected with victory. The remnant of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand celebrated their return to safety by a sacrifice to Zeus Soter and by games.²⁹ Sports were appropriate to the festivals of certain gods or heroes, e.g. to those supposed to be the special patrons of sport, Apollo, Hermes, or Heracles. If, as I have suggested, the Olympic festival was from the first the festival of Olympian Zeus, the god of hosts, and was a cessation from war, such sports were particularly appropriate there.

But though the connexion between sport and religion was due to the athletic genius of the race rather than to any ritual significance in the games, we must not underrate the importance of this connexion. Thereby sports were definitely placed under the patronage of the gods, and the victorious athlete felt that he was well pleasing to the gods and owed his success to them. Further, the athlete felt that any violation of the rules of the games, especially any unfairness or corruption, was an act of sacrilege and displeasing to the gods. This feeling undoubtedly tended to preserve the purity of sport at Olympia even when corruption was rife elsewhere. Religious conservatism too tended to check any innovations and accordingly, though additions were made to the programme, the events remained essentially unchanged for nearly twelve centuries. It was to religion that Greek athletics and Greek athletic festivals owed their vitality.


Whatever the beginnings of the festival, there is no doubt that Olympia was at an early date a sacred place. There was a village settlement there in the twelfth century, and thousands of votive offerings have been found there dating from at least the tenth century. But times were unsettled. Olympia belonged originally to the Pisatans, but their control was disputed by the Eleans who were later immigrants from the North. In the course of the struggle the games, it is said, were neglected and forgotten. At last Cleosthenes, King of Pisa, and Iphitus, King of Elis, weary of the war, made a truce and revived the festival. The terms of this sacred truce were engraved on a bronze diskos which still existed in the time of Pausanias. The date of this event was fixed, we do not know how, as 776 B.C., and this year was reckoned as the first Olympiad. From this date the Games were held every four years till A.D. 393.

All festivals are times of truce, but the truce is usually somewhat local. At Olympia the truce was particularly stringent. No one was allowed during its continuance to bear arms in the territory of Elis, and the Eleans advanced the claim that their whole land was sacrosanct. Moreover, after its proclamation, all competitors or visitors travelling to or from Olympia were under the direct protection of the god. To violate any such pilgrim was an act of sacrilege. Even Philip of Macedon was compelled to apologize and pay a fine because an Athenian citizen on his way to Olympia had been robbed by some of his mercenaries.³⁰ The truce in later times, when the envoys announcing it had to travel to every part of the Greek world, must have lasted two or three months. We can easily understand that such a festival, where citizens of hostile states could meet together in peaceful rivalry, even in times of war, was a true influence for peace and goodwill.

We can trace the gradual growth of the festival partly in remains of buildings and inscriptions, partly in the Olympic Register. This work, begun by Hippias of Elis in the fifth century B. C., contained a list of victors in the games. Later it became the basis of Greek chronology, the years being dated by the name of the victor in the stade race, the first event on the list. The records of the first two centuries are perhaps unreliable in detail, but the story that they tell is extraordinarily clear and consistent.

For the first fifty years the Olympic festival was mostly confined to the inhabitants of the Western Peloponnese, but one significant exception is recorded. The Pisatans, resenting the interference of the Eleans, called in the help of the tyrant Pheidon of Argos. Realizing the political value of the festival he invaded Elis and usurped the presidency of the games. Argivè control did not last long. Within the next fifty years the influence of the festival spread rapidly, to Sparta first, then eastwards to the Isthmus, to Athens, to Thebes, and even across the sea to Smyrna. But the chief feature of the period is the number of victories won by Spartans. The growth of athletics in Greece was largely due to the Spartans; they are said to have introduced the habit of stripping naked for games and also the use of oil.³¹ For 150 years they were supreme at Olympia. Out of 81 victories recorded in this period they are credited with 46.

But meanwhile a greater development was taking place. The age of Greek colonization began in the eighth century, and in the seventh century bands of Greek adventurers were founding city states in every part of the Mediterranean world from the Black Sea to the coasts of Spain and Africa, above all in Sicily and Italy. Nothing proves more clearly the national character that athletics had already acquired than the list of victories won by these colonists at Olympia. Indeed, in the sixth century they almost eclipsed the athletes of the Motherland. At Olympia no fewer than six of the so-called Treasuries were dedicated by colonies.

The political importance of such a festival attracted tyrants and others who wished to increase their own prestige. Among the victors in the chariot-race we find Myron and Cleisthenes of Sicyon, and Periander of Corinth, while Cylon, the would-be tyrant of Athens, won a victory in the foot-race.

According to Pausanias ³² the Games had been forgotten during the dark ages and were revived one by one as men remembered them. So for thirteen Olympiads the only event was the foot-race. We need not credit this improbable story, but rather believe with Pindar that the programme from the first contained the chariot-race, foot-race, throwing the diskos and javelin, boxing, and wrestling. Other events were added later, the two-stade race in 724 B.C., the long distance race four years later. In 708 B.C. the pentathlon was introduced, perhaps in place of separate competitions with the diskos and javelin. In 648 B.C. the pankration was introduced, and in the same year the horse-race. The recorded introduction of the four-horse chariot-race in 680 B. C. perhaps means that at this date the four-horse chariot took the place of the two-horse war-chariot which had probably been used in the earliest games. The first events for boys, a foot-race and wrestling, were introduced in 632 B.C.; boxing for boys was added in 616 B. C. Thus by the beginning of the sixth century the athletic programme was complete, the only important addition being the race in armour, introduced in 520 B.C. Various equestrian events, a pankration for boys and competitions for trumpeters and heralds, were added in later times.

The only prize at the Olympic Games was a crown of wild olive. Phlegon ³³ indeed states that this custom was not introduced till the seventh Olympiad, previous to which tripods and other valuable objects were given as prizes. But in this he is probably mistaken. The branches for the crowns were cut with a golden sickle by a boy both of whose parents were living, from the sacred olive tree that grew at the west end of the Temple of Zeus, where even to-day the wild olive may be seen. This looks like a piece of ancient vegetation ritual and suggests that there was an agrarian element in the festival; possibly the four-yearly festival was superimposed on a yearly festival connected with the olive harvest. But whatever its origin this custom of rewarding the victor with no other prize than a wreath of leaves set an example of athletic purity which had an important influence on Greek athletics. The example was followed at the other Panhellenic festivals, and these festivals of the crown ( τεφαν ται) acquired such prestige over other festivals where prizes of value were offered that when in Hellenistic and Roman times it was desired to found new games of special distinction they were always festivals of the crown. Indeed, the Olympic crown is a lesson in sportsmanship for all time, reminding us that the true sportsman contends not for the value of the prize but for the honour of victory and not for his own honour only but for that of his country, his state, his school, his side.


The rise of the Olympic festival from a local to a national gathering gave an impulse not only to athletics but to the feeling of nationality, of Panhellenism, which contact with foreign nations was producing among the scattered states of the Greek world. In this festival combining religion and sport the Greeks beyond the sea found all that was most typical of their native civilization. At Olympia none but a freeborn Greek was allowed to compete; nothing, it was felt, distinguished the Greek from the barbarian more clearly than his love of athletics. So in the sixth century new athletic festivals sprang up everywhere, and three of them attained Panhellenic rank.

Delphi with its oracle had long acquired a national or almost cosmopolitan fame, and there a Pythian festival had been held every eight years with musical competitions. But in 582 B.C. it was reorganized as a four-yearly festival with the addition of an equestrian and athletic programme modelled on that of Olympia. At the same time crowns of bay-leaves cut from the Vale of Tempe were substituted for the valuable prizes hitherto given. In the same year an old festival of Poseidon at the Isthmus was reorganized as a Panhellenic festival. It was held not every fourth but every second year and the prize was a wreath of pine leaves. Corinth was the meeting-place of East and West, and the programme seems to have reflected in its variety the influence of that luxurious state, including horse races, athletics, musical competitions, and even a regatta. The last of the four Panhellenic festivals, the Nemea, was reorganized in 573, and like the Isthmia was held every alternate year. The prize was a crown of parsley.

The national character of these four festivals seems to have been recognized from the first, nor was it ever challenged. They were, par excellence, the Panhellenic festivals, the sacred games, the games of the crown. They formed a cycle (περ οδος), and the highest distinction that an athlete could win was to be a victor at all four Panhellenic games.

The founding of three new Panhellenic festivals within a few years and the immediate recognition of their national character are signs of a change that was taking place. Hitherto the story of Olympia and of Greek athletics has been one of natural growth, the sixth century is the age of athletic organization. Statesmen realize the value of athletics and do their best to encourage them. Solon makes regulations for the palaestrae, and also offers a reward of 500 drachmae to any Athenian who wins a victory at Olympia. A story told by Herodotus ³⁴ illustrates the spirit of the age. In the reign of Psammetichus, King of Egypt (594–589 B.C.), the Eleans sent an embassy to inquire if the wisdom of the Egyptians could suggest any improvements in the fairness of the regulations for the Olympic Games. The Egyptian wise men having heard their story inquired if they allowed their own citizens to compete, and on hearing that the Games were open to all Greeks, whether they belonged to Elis or to any other state, they replied that this was manifestly unfair, for it was impossible but that they would favour their own countrymen and deal unfairly with foreigners. If therefore they wished to manage the Games with fairness, they must confine them to strangers. The Egyptians were not sportsmen. It is to the credit of the Eleans that even in the decline of sport no such ordinance was ever necessary for athletics, though in the fourth century, owing to a scandal, it was found necessary to forbid the judges themselves entering for the chariot-races.³⁵


Of the countless local festivals that sprang up everywhere in the sixth and fifth centuries we know little beside their names. From the lists of victories enumerated by Pindar it is clear that every state had at least one athletic festival and states like Athens and Sparta had many. Moreover, at these festivals some of the competitions were open to athletes from all parts. The prizes were tripods or other objects of value; sometimes they were objects of local manufacture, a cloak at Pellene, a shield at Argos, vases of olive oil at Athens; sometimes the victor received a portion of the victim sacrificed, or perhaps the victim itself. The British Museum possesses a bronze cauldron (Fig. 10), dating from the sixth century B.C. which was found at Cyme in Italy, and which was given as a prize at some local games associated with a certain Onomastus. It bears the inscription, ‘I was a prize at the games of Onomastus.’ Another bronze vase in the British Museum is inscribed in Argive script of the fifth century, ‘I am one of the prizes of Argive Hera.’ ³⁶


Various objects are represented as prizes on the vases and other monuments; tripods, Figs. 8, 184 ; amphorae, Fig. 154 ; armour, Fig. 77 ; bowls, on the Clazomenae sarcophagus.

10. PRIZE BRONZE BOWL FOUND AT CYME IN ITALY. 6th century. British Museum, 163 :



’Eπì το ςOνομ του τo Φε δ λεω θλoîς θ θ ν. ‘I was offered as a prize at the games of Onomastus, the son of Pheidileos.’

B.M. Guide to Greek and Roman Life, p. 63, Fig. 53.

11. VICTORY BEARING PRIZE HYDRIA. 470 B.C. Lekythos. New York, 07.286.67. Drawing by Professor Beazley. Attic r.-f. Vases in American Museums, pp. 75, 76.


12. B.-f. PANATHENAIC AMPHORAE IN BRITISH MUSEUM. On the left, 1903. 2–17. 1, about 400 B.C. Throwing the javelin on horseback. Two epheboi gallop and throw their javelins at a target. The target is a shield with a crown forming a sort of bull’s-eye in the centre, supported by a post. The foremost ephebos has thrown his javelin, which is sticking in the bull’s-eye. For this competition see P. Wolters, Zu griechischen Agonen, Würzburg Program, 1901. On the right, B612, about 370–360 B.C.

For Panathenaic Vases in general see G. von Brauchitsch, Die panathenäischen Preisamphoren; Gardiner, J.H.S. xxxii, p. 179; E. Schmidt, Archaistische Kunst; Beazley, Vases in Poland, pp. 7, 8, and B.S.R. xi, p. 11 ; Arch. Anz. 1919, p. 76 [Beazley, A.J.A. 43, pp. 441–65 and Development of Attic Black-figure, pp. 88–100; Peters, Studien zu den panathenäischen Preisamphoren].


The most famous of these local festivals was the Panathenaea at Athens, though this never attained Panhellenic rank. Its founding in 566 B. C. is usually ascribed to Peisistratus, though, as he had not yet made himself tyrant, Solon may have had a share in it. It was really the remodelling of an old yearly festival, the Athenaea, which continued to be celebrated every year as the lesser Panathenaea. Every fourth year from 566 B.C. there was a celebration of special magnificence. The great event of the festival, the procession that bore the peplos to the temple of Athene on the Acropolis, is familiar to all from the frieze of the Parthenon. It gave an opportunity for the display of all the forces of Athens. The programme was more varied even than that of the Isthmian Games. Besides athletics and horse-races it included musical contests, recitations, torch-races, Pyrrhic dances, a regatta, and even a competition for good looks. There were open events for all comers and local events confined to Athenian citizens, there were contests for men, youths, and boys. For most of the events the prizes consisted of jars of olive oil. Olive oil was the most valuable product of Attica, and its export was a state monopoly. As many as 1,300 amphorae of oil were distributed as prizes, the winner of the chariot-race receiving 100 amphorae.³⁷ As an amphora was worth at least 12 drachmae it is clear that these prizes were of considerable value. The Panathenaic vases which contained the oil were painted on one side with the figure of Athene, on the other with a picture of the contest for which the prize was given. Large numbers of these vases have been found in Italian tombs and elsewhere, and they throw considerable light on ancient athletics. There is a particularly fine collection of them in the British Museum (Fig. 12).


13. MARBLE STATUE OF GIRL RUNNER. Vatican. Copy of fifth-century bronze statue about 460 B.C. The trunk and foot-rest are copyist’s additions. Photograph from a cast in the Ashmolean Museum from which the modern arms have been removed. The arms as restored in the Vatican statue give to the figure a mincing appearance. When they are removed we realize how vigorous is the movement of the figure. Notice especially the forward swing of the right shoulder as the arm swings forward with the left leg. It has been suggested that the position is that of the start or of the turn in the race. But no such motive is required. Without attempting to reproduce any moment in the actual race the sculptor has set himself the task of representing grace and lightness of movements, and in this he has succeeded.


14. BRONZE STATUE OF BOY VICTOR, GENERALLY KNOWN AS THE IDOLINO. Mus. Arch., Florence. Possibly an original bronze about 440–430 B.C. The motive has been much disputed, see W. Hyde, Victor Statues, p. 141 sq. It probably represents a boy victor holding in his hand a libation bowl, and is certainly typical of those statues of boy athletes which were so popular in the latter half of the fifth century B.C. [See, however, Rumpf in Critica d’Arte, 19–20, pp. 17-27].


The inclusion in the programmes of these festivals of special events for boys is clear proof that in the sixth century athletic exercises were everywhere an essential part of education. At Olympia events for boys were introduced in the seventh century. It is difficult to be sure what was the age limit for boys; most of the evidence is late. An inscription containing regulations for the Augustalia at Naples,³⁸ a festival closely modelled on that of Olympia, lays down that boys must be over seventeen and less than twenty years of age; and this was possibly the rule at Olympia. But in an age when birth certificates were unknown there must have been considerable elasticity and much must have been left to the discretion of the judges who doubtless took account of each competitor’s physical development. Thus we hear of a young Athenian who was disqualified from competing as a boy because he was bigger than his fellows, though owing to the influence of Agesilaus he was finally allowed to compete.³⁹ Another youth of eighteen, Nicasylus of Rhodes ⁴⁰ being disqualified as a boy entered for the open competition and won. At the Nemean, Isthmian, and Panathenaic Games there was an intermediate class between boys and men, ‘the beardless’ ( γ νειοι), and there is some reason for thinking that the age limits for boys were twelve to sixteen, for the beardless, sixteen to twenty. Elsewhere in purely local competitions there were far more elaborate classifications. At the Athenian Thesea there were three classes of boys. Some competitions were probably confined to schools. Hence the young Greek athlete was from his boyhood continually testing his powers, first in close local competitions, then in open events in his own city or in neighbouring cities, till at last if sufficiently successful he would enter for one of the Panhellenic contests where the picked athletes of the Greek world met.

Athletics were not wholly confined to men and boys. Legend told of the foot-race in which Atalanta tested the prowess of her suitors, and sixth-century vases represent her wrestling with Peleus (Fig. 158). Athenian women, it is true, were brought up in seclusion and forced inactivity, but it was not so among the Dorians. Spartan girls took part in all the exercises of boys, and they attributed their beautiful complexions and figures to their athletic training. The maidens of Cyrene had foot-races, while Chian maidens wrestled and ran races with boys.⁴¹ At Olympia married women were not allowed even to be present at the festival, but women had their own festival, the Heraea, where there were races for maidens of various ages.⁴² The course was 500 feet, or one-sixth less than the men’s stade. The victors received crowns of olive and a share of the heifer sacrificed to Hera. They had, too, the right of setting up their statues in the Heraion, and there exists in the Vatican a beautiful copy of a fifth-century statue representing one of these girl victors as described by Pausanias (Fig. 13). They ran, he says, with their hair down, wearing a chiton which came a little above the knee, with their right shoulder bare. The festival of Hera is obviously modelled on the Olympic festival, but we do not know when it was introduced.


The multiplication of athletic competitions gave to athletics a national importance unparalleled in any other age or among any other people. The Panhellenic games were in reality inter-state competitions. Every state encouraged athletics, and in the public gymnasia opportunities for practice and training were provided for all at little cost. Moreover, the valuable prizes to be won at local sports and the rewards heaped on the winners in the national games made it possible for even the poorest to compete. Athletics were in sympathy with the growing spirit of democracy. The poor fisherman commemorated in an epigram of Simonides⁴³ ‘who once carried fish from Argos to Tegea’ had the right to compete at Olympia merely by reason of his birth, while Alexander the son of Amyntas had to prove his Greek descent before he was allowed to enter for the foot-race.⁴⁴ At the close of the sixth century the Greeks were literally a nation of athletes.

The popularity of athletics reached its height at the time of the Persian wars. The victory of Greeks over Persians was the victory of free city states over oriental despotism; it was the victory of a handful of trained athletes over hordes of effeminate barbarians. So the national triumph found its fullest expression in the great national games, where in honour of the national gods the picked representatives of the city states competed in friendly contests. The victory of Plataea was commemorated by national memorials at Olympia and Delphi and by the founding of a new athletic festival the ‘Eleutheria’, ‘the Festival of Freedom’. At Olympia the reorganization of the management of the Games dated from this period together with a scheme of building—including that of the Great Temple of Zeus—destined to make the Sanctuary worthy of its national character. Yet almost more significant are the records of the Olympic games of 476 B.C., the first Games held after the war. Themistocles himself was present, the cynosure of all eyes. The list of victors includes names from every part of the Greek world, from Mitylene and the islands of the Aegean, from Sparta and Argos, from Italy and Sicily. Conspicuous among them were Iccus of Tarentum, winner of the pentathlon, quoted by Plato as an example of austerity in training, Euthymus of Italian Locri the boxer, and Theagenes of Thasos the pankratiast, athletes whose names remained household words and in whose honour statues were made by Pythagoras of Samos and Glaucias of Aegina. In the horse-race Hiero of Syracuse was the winner, in the chariot-race Theron of Acragas. No fewer than five of Pindar’s Olympian odes were written in praise of the victors in this Olympiad.

These Panhellenic festivals were much more than athletic meetings, Olympia above all was the meeting-place of the whole Greek world. At an early date various states, many of them from beyond the seas, sought to secure themselves a permanent standing at the sanctuary by dedicating little temples or treassuries. To the festival itself the cities sent official deputations (θεωpíα ) to represent them at the games and in the great procession on the day of the Full Moon when the official sacrifice was offered on the altar of Zeus. We have noticed too the obvious political value of such a meeting, and it was but natural that records of agreements and treaties between states should be set up at such a sanctuary. But apart from this the gathering of men of all classes and from all parts was a unique opportunity for artists, writers, philosophers, for all who had anything to exhibit or to sell. Such opportunities were rare in the Greek world. The poet or philosopher who wished to make himself known outside his native city had to make a round of other cities. But at Olympia he found a representative audience from all parts. There Herodotus read aloud his Histories from the opisthodome of the Temple to the assembled crowds, among whom it was said was the youthful Thucydides. His example was followed by Hippias, Prodicus, and other Sophists. In the next century there arose the practice of erecting honorary statues, and those thus honoured included not only statesmen and generals but philosophers such as Aristotle and Anaximenes. These gatherings were natural opportunities too for trade, and the Olympic festival is described by Roman writers as the Olympic fair (Mercatus Olympicus).

These manifold interests tended gradually to rival the purely athletic interest. Indeed, from the middle of the fifth century the athletic interest begins to decline in Greece. A change was taking place in the character of athletics. Over-competition and the multiplication of prizes had made the conditions for success too strenuous and too exacting for the private citizen. So there arose a class of professional athletes, and though athletics formed part of the training of the Epheboi the people generally lost the athletic habit and grew content with the role of spectators. The decline of athletics was hastened by the incessant wars between themselves which for more than a century distracted the city states of Greece. Yet the crowds that flocked to the festivals showed little diminution, and, though there was a falling off in the athletic competitions, as spectacles the festivals were perhaps more attractive than ever. Horse-breeding was the fashionable amusement of the wealthy, and from this time the number of chariot-races and horse-races increased. Ambitious politicians like Alcibiades and Dionysius of Syracuse sought to further their own ends and win popularity by the magnificence of their displays at Olympia. Others more patriotic sought to revive the spirit of national unity. It was at Olympia that Gorgias appealed to the assembled crowds to forget their differences and to unite in a crusade against Persia, and his example was followed a few years later by Lysias and Isocrates. Indeed, the value of Olympia was never more clearly demonstrated than in this troublous time; there, in spite of athletic decline and corruption, was kept alive the feeling of Hellenic brotherhood.


The rise of Macedon threatened the independence of the city states, and it might have been expected that the athletic festivals would sink into insignificance. But the result was far otherwise. Philip and Alexander, like all who had sought to impose unity on the Greek world, realized the value of the national festivals, and sought to encourage them and to utilize them for their own ends. At Delphi Philip, who had helped the Delphians in the Sacred War, made himself president of the Pythian Games. At Olympia he had himself won a victory in the horse-race which he commemorated on his coins. In Macedonia he founded splendid Olympic Games at Aegae and at Dion. Alexander, in spite of his personal contempt for athletics, regarded Olympia as the capital of the Greek world. There he published the records of his eastern victories and thither in 324 B.C. he sent Nicanor to read before the crowds assembled at the festival the royal rescript ordering the cities of Greece to recall their exiles and acknowledge his divinity. New buildings and monuments testified to the generosity and wealth of the kings of Macedon. We can still see the marble steps of the Philippeion, a beautiful little marble temple begun by Philip and finished by Alexander and containing ivory and gold statues of themselves and other members of their family. Their successors followed their example. From the remains of the palaestra and gymnasium and other buildings we see that all through the third century Olympia maintained its prosperity, and as evidence of the spectacular character of the games we may note that all the buildings of this period were intended to promote the comfort of officials, athletes, and spectators.

Besides the patronage of kings, another cause helped to keep alive the national festivals. Alexander’s conquest meant the Hellenization of the East, and Hellenization meant the city state. Everywhere, in Asia, in Syria, and in Egypt, Greek city states sprang up. Their independence indeed was illusory, but they cherished all the more keenly the semblance of autonomy and sought everywhere to reproduce the ideal of the free city state, and of this ideal athletics and athletic festivals were an inseparable part. So the athletic enthusiasm that had died out in the mother country revived in the cities of the East. Everywhere new festivals arose, modelled on and bearing the names of the old Panhellenic games; everywhere elaborate stadia and gymnasia were laid out. The new cities, following the example of better days, sent their champions to compete at Olympia and Delphi.

The records of the Olympic Games during this period are of remarkable interest.⁴⁵ We look in vain for victors from the great cities of the fifth century from Athens, Sparta, or Thebes. Their place is taken by Elis, Achaea, Arcadia. The remarkable number of local victories is clear proof of the decay of athletics in the rest of Greece. Still more remarkable is the complete absence of names from Italy and Sicily, from the Greek colonies that had played so prominent a part in the sports of the sixth and fifth centuries. The rise of Rome and Carthage had been fatal to those states. But from Macedon and from the East there is no lack of competitors. In the foot-race, the only event of which we have a complete record, we find no fewer than six victories recorded from Macedon and Thrace between the years 324 and 268 B.C. Then they cease, and a similar series of victors from Alexandria begins. Meanwhile there is an ever-increasing stream of competitors from the cities of Asia Minor and the islands. The new cities emulate the old. Early in the second-century Alexandria Troas and Seleucia figure in the lists, while other victors describe themselves as Carians or Lydians.


The last chapter in the story of the athletic festivals is perhaps the most remarkable proof of the hold that they had taken on the imagination of the ancient world. With the loss of Greek independence in 146 B.C. it seemed as if the very raison d’être of these festivals had disappeared and as if their doom was inevitable, and indeed the next century was the blackest in their history. The wars that Rome had waged on Greek soil had impoverished Greece morally, economically, and socially. The national sanctuaries were bankrupt and could no longer afford to keep up their buildings or their festivals. At Olympia the competition fell off, and for a century no athletic statues were erected, for a time even the chariot-race was discontinued. But the Romans, though they looked on athletics with contempt, realized the value of these festivals. It was at the Isthmian Games that Flamininus proclaimed the liberties of Greece, and even Mummius, who destroyed those liberties, celebrated his victory by dedicating at Olympia a bronze statue of Zeus and twenty-one gold shields which were attached to the metopes of the Temple. During the civil wars matters went from bad to worse, and Sulla actually attempted to transfer the Olympic Games to Rome. But Rome had fallen under the spell of Greece, and when Augustus restored peace to the troubled world a new era of prosperity began. The old festivals were restored to their former splendour, new festivals multiplied on every hand, and a wave of athleticism began, culminating in the second century under Hadrian.

The revival under the Empire was due partly to the policy of Augustus and his successors, partly to the spread of athletics in Hellenistic times in the Hellenized cities of the East. The emperors realized that if they were to secure the loyalty of the various nations of their Eastern Empire it must be by encouraging the one thing that united them, the Hellenic civilization of the city states. They flattered these with a show of local independence and lavish grants of Roman citizenship. Clinging jealously to the tradition of the past, the Hellenic portion of the population who formed the aristocracy of these states still cherished athletics as their distinctive characteristic. They even described themselves as ‘those from the gymnasium’, or as we might say ‘old gymnasium boys’, to distinguish themselves from the barbarians.⁴⁶ Every city had its gymnasium and stadium, its festivals and competitions. In the days of freedom these competitions had culminated in the Panhellenic festivals which had served to unite the free city states of Greece. The Emperors saw therefore that the city states of their Eastern Empire could be best continued in their unity and loyalty by a revival of the Panhellenic festivals. There was the additional advantage that Greece and particularly Olympia was geographically the natural meeting-place of East and West.

Augustus seems to have had a genuine liking for athletics, unusual in a Roman. He was especially fond of watching boxing, and even street-fights. He had shown his interest in Olympia even before his principate, and under his influence the temple of Zeus and other buildings were restored and the festival recovered its popularity. The chariot-race was revived and even members of the Imperial family deigned to compete in it. Once more victories in the Games were commemorated by votive statues; new buildings and monuments testified to the patronage of the Emperors and the renewed prosperity of the sanctuary. The buildings at Delphi tell the same tale. Once more crowds flocked to consult the oracle or to view the Pythian Games. The Isthmian Games had since the destruction of Corinth languished under the presidency of Sicyon. Corinth, refounded as a Roman colony and once more wealthy and prosperous, resumed control of the Games, and they were celebrated with all their former splendour and magnificence: allusions to them in the writings of St. Paul show how deep was the impression they made on the apostle’s mind. The Nemean Games shared in the general prosperity. On coins of the second century the names and emblems of the four Panhellenic festivals are frequently represented. Crowds flocked to them from every part of the Roman world.

While the old Panhellenic festivals were thus regaining their prestige, new festivals were springing up on every side not only in Greece and in the East but even in Italy. Augustus celebrated his victory at Actium by holding Actian Games at Rome, and at the newly founded Nicopolis he instituted a new quinquennial Actian festival intended to rival Olympia. The festival which was closely modelled on the Panhellenic festivals included athletic, equestrian, and musical competitions and also a regatta. The victors received as a prize a wreath, and the Actiads were intended to form the basis of a new chronology which was to supplement that of the Olympiads, an intention which was never realized. In this we see the same spirit of conscious rivalry that made the Romans greet the Aeneid as a work greater than the Iliad. Romans and Greeks were not yet completely fused as they were in the second century.

This same feeling appears again in the title of Isolympia, applied to the Augustalia at Naples. Founded in 1 B.C. they were refounded in A.D. 2 as a quinquennial festival with the magnificent title of Italica Romaia Sebasta Isolympia, and they too were to mark a new era reckoned by Italids. The festival consisted of two parts; the first part, like the Olympic Games, contained only athletic and equestrian events and the prize was a wreath: the second part, modelled on the Nemean and Pythian festivals, contained also musical and dramatic competitions, and some of these were confined to citizens of Naples. The victors in these received sums of money. We have seen that in Hellenistic times many festivals had been founded at various places bearing the name of Olympia, Pythia, Nemea. The right of granting these titles, which had probably been vested in the authorities of these sanctuaries, seems later to have been usurped by the Emperors. In A. D. 86 Domitian gave to the Capitolia which he founded at Rome the title of Olympia.

Of the number of festivals old and new we can form some idea from inscriptions recording the victories of famous athletes. One single example must suffice. It is the inscription in honour of Titus Flavius Artemidorus of Adana in Cilicia who won the pankration in the first Capitoline Games in A.D. 86.⁴⁷ He was a periodonikes or victor in all the four Panhellenic Games, and his inscription records other victories at the Actia, at Naples, Smyrna, Pergamum, Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, Tralles, Sardis, Laodicea, Argos, and other places. Some festivals bear the name of wealthy benefactors who sought thereby to win popularity and immortality themselves. The Balbillea at Ephesus were founded by the astronomer Balbillus in the reign of Vespasian, the Eurycleia at Sparta by a patriotic Spartan, Eurycles, a friend of Herod the Great. Herod himself, in violation of all the traditions of the Jews, erected a theatre and amphitheatre at Jerusalem, and instituted a festival in honour of the Emperor with athletic, equestrian, and musical contests, to which he tried to attract competitors from all parts of the world by the lavishness of his prizes. Not content with this he exasperated the Jews by exhibiting gladiatorial games where criminals were forced to fight with wild beasts. Yet even this did not excite their resentment so much as the trophies in the theatre which they mistook for idols.⁴⁸

The athletic movement initiated by Augustus was, at least as far as Italy was concerned, purely artificial. The athletic festival was to the Romans nothing more than a show. In the first century of our era they still regarded the Greeks with a certain contempt, and despised Greek athletics. To strip naked and to contend in public was degrading in the eyes of a Roman citizen. The populace in the cities of Italy had long been brutalized by gladiatorial shows and craved an excitement which pure athletics could not give. The only athletic events which interested them at all were, the fighting events, wrestling, boxing, and the pankration. In the mosaics with which their baths were decorated these are the chief events represented. To make boxing more exciting the competitors were armed with the murderous caestus. Often too these contests were supplemented by gladiatorial shows and fights of wild animals. No effort was spared to enhance the splendour of the Games, to add interest and variety to the programmes, and to ensure the comfort of spectators. An advertisment of games to be held in the Amphitheatre of Pompeii announces that awnings will be provided and sprays of perfumed water (vela et sparsiones).⁴⁹

In Greece and in the East the festivals had the same spectacular character. There too we find elaborate stadia provided for the comfort of spectators, there too we find gladiatorial games. At cosmopolitan cities like Antioch and Corinth gladiatorial games were naturally at home, but we even hear of them being held in the theatre of Dionysus at Athens. Still, for the most part, the Greek festivals maintained their traditional athletic programmes. But the rivalry between the city states was gone, nor were the crowds that flocked to the festivals a sign of an athletic nation. The competitors at the national games of Hellas were mostly professionals from Alexandria and the East, men who went about from festival to festival amassing prizes and rewards. How they managed to establish their claim to Hellenic descent, which was still required at Olympia, is a problem. They had no more claim to represent any Hellenic state than hired football professionals from Scotland have to represent an English town. Yet the success of a Cup-tie team hardly evokes greater local patriotism than did the success of those cosmopolitan athletes at Olympia in the city which they elected to represent.

The cosmopolitan character of the competition is shown in inscriptions where competitors are described as drawn from the inhabited world (o κoυμ νη). They are no longer Hellenic but oecumenical. As a rule the competitions are confined to free citizens, but at some local festivals even slaves were allowed to compete. An inscription carved on the rock at Fassiller, a small village in Pisidia, which contains regulations for some local festival, says that if a slave is victorious he must hand over a quarter of the prize money to his fellow competitors.⁵⁰

In spite of its artificiality the athletic movement steadily gained ground. Two causes especially contributed to this result, the revived prestige of Olympia and the pride of Hellenism in the East.

Olympia had from the first inspired the Romans with a respect that they did not usually feel for things Greek. In the dignity of Olympian Zeus they recognized their own Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Livy tells us how Aemilius Paulus as he gazed on the statue of Zeus was deeply affected as if in the presence of the god himself. Under the Empire the ideal of the godhead represented by Pheidias fascinated thinkers and philosophers more and more. The venerable tradition of the Games and the dignity of the ritual also appealed strongly to the Romans. It had been the policy of Augustus at Olympia, as elsewhere, to revive the ideals and to restore the worship of the past, and in this he was ably seconded by the authorities of Olympia. By insisting on exact obedience to the regulations of the Games, by sternly repressing all corruption, they made Olympia an example of athletic honour and of the purity of sport. ‘It is strange’, says Pausanias, speaking of one of the rare cases of bribery at Olympia, ‘that any one should be found to despise the god at Olympia and to receive or give bribes in connexion with the games.’ ⁵¹ Such an example was badly needed. Its effect is seen in the reverence that Olympia inspires even in writers who are most emphatic in denouncing the corruption of athletics. In the second century A. D. the festival attracted crowds as great as, or even greater than, in the days of freedom; Olympia was once more the meeting-place of East and West, the centre of Hellenism and of Hellenic religion.

We have noted that most of the competitors at the Olympic Games came from Egypt and Asia. Of the character of professional athletics at this time we shall deal more fully in another chapter. But the evils and corruption that too often degraded athletics must not blind us to the fact that since the loss of Greek independence it was in the cities of the East that Hellenism had found a refuge, and that what survived of the old athletic tradition was to be found there. In the schools and gymnasia athletics were still an essential and valuable part of education, and the athletic ambition was kept alive by competitions for boys of all ages from the local schools at their athletic festivals. If some of these festivals were degraded by the introduction of gladiatorial games and contests of wild beasts, there were others where the old athletic ideal was jealously maintained. We have a striking example in the games held at Daphne, near Syrian Antioch. Founded originally by Antiochus Epiphanes they received from the Eleans the title of Olympia in A. D. 44. The model of Olympia was followed in every particular not only in the programme and administration, but also in the relation existing between Daphne and Antioch which corresponded to that between Olympia and Elis. In the fourth century a fierce dispute arose about a proposal to transfer the festival from Daphne to Antioch. The conservative party headed by Libanius opposed it hotly on grounds of religious sentiment. The innovation, they urged, was an act of sacrilege, a violation of the true Olympia. We have many references to these games in the writings of St. Chrysostom who was presbyter at Antioch, and the festival continued to be celebrated as late as the reign of Justinus in the sixth century.

Nor must we condemn indiscriminately the whole class of professional athletes. We certainly find some at all times who tried to realize the old ideal, who were true sportsmen. Such were Melancomas of Caria and his son of whom Dio Chrysostom has left a charming picture.⁵² Such was Tiberius Claudius Rufus, a pankratiast of the reign of Hadrian,⁵³ who at Olympia maintained the contest till nightfall against an opponent who had drawn a bye in the previous round. The Eleans passed a decree in his honour recording how he had resided at Olympia for the necessary course of training, had followed the traditional law of the games, and in the contest had given an exhibition worthy of Olympian Zeus and of his own reputation and training.

Under Hadrian and his successors the mainland of Greece regained its prosperity and pre-eminence. Numerous buildings throughout Greece bear witness to Hadrian’s interest in the games and to his generosity. At Athens he built a gymnasium, at Corinth he provided baths, at Nemea he instituted a winter festival, while at Mantinea and Argos he founded games in honour of his beloved Antinous. His favourite Herodes Atticus rebuilt the stadia at Athens and at Delphi, and contributed to the comfort of spectators at Olympia by providing a new water-supply terminating in the so-called Exedra. There seems to have been a genuine athletic revival in Greece, and particularly at Sparta. The Panhellenic festivals regained all their former splendour, and maintained their prosperity till the invasion of the Goths in the third century. From this time we hear little more. Yet in the reign of Julian we find them still continuing. The last Olympic victor whose name we know is the Armenian Prince Varazdates, who won the boxing in the 291st Olympiad (A. D. 385). But the end was at hand. The religion to which the Panhellenic festivals owed their life was dying. Christianity was now the established religion of the Empire. These festivals were the last stronghold of paganism, and their very popularity sealed their doom. The oracle of Delphi had been dismantled by Constantine: the Olympic festival was abolished by the express decree of the Emperor Theodosius in A. D. 393. The other festivals probably came to an end at the same time, though in the East some festivals like the Olympia of Antioch still lingered on till the sixth century.

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