- Beginning of the Ancient Olympic Games
- Ancient Olympic Ceremonies
- Ancient Olympic Training
- Olympic Games for Women
- Plato on Athletic Competitions for Women
- Pictures of Ancient Women Athletes
- Sports Trophies
- Famous Women Athletes
- Rules of Sports
- Boxing in Ancient Greece
- Footraces in Ancient Greece
- Chariot races in Ancient Greece
- Clothing, or lack of it in the Ancient Olympics
- Relation of Ancient Olympics to Modern Olympics.
- Games Ancient Greeks Played
- Ask a Question about Women in Greek Sports
- Answered Questions about Women in the Ancient Olympics
Olympia was a cult site in the Northwestern Peloponnesus near Ellis. Even in Archaic times the site included a temple of Hera and of Zeus, as well as the Stadium. The land around the site was unproductive and could not be used for agriculture. Early Greece developed as a number of city states and it is plain that Olympia was a neutral and international site that served them all. The athletic contests that were held there were part of a larger goal of providing a neutral place where influential citizens could meet and settle differences or communicate on matters of politics and trade. Other events were also held that emphasized the religious nature of the activities. It is certain that the athletes felt that their contribution was religious in nature.
The following story is told in the Olympian 10.55 of Pindar of the first Olympics:
“Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years’ festival with the first Olympic games and its victories. Who won the first garland, with the skill of his hands or feet or chariot, setting the boast of victory in his mind and achieving it with his deeds? In the foot race the best at running the straight course with his feet was the son of Licymnius, Oeonus, who had come from Midea at the head of an army. In wrestling, Echemus won glory for Tegea. And the prize in boxing was won by Doryclus, who lived in the city of Tiryns. And in the four-horse chariot the victor was Samos of Mantinea, the son of Halirhothius. Phrastor hit the mark with the javelin. Niceus sent the stone flying from his circling arm beyond all the others, and his fellow soldiers raised a sudden burst of loud cheering. The lovely light of the moon’s beautiful face lit up the evening and in the delightful festivities the whole precinct rang with a song in praise of victory.”
- General view of sanctuary, Olympia
- Cella from E, Olympia, Temple of Hera, Olympia, Temple of Hera
- Cella from W, Olympia, Temple of Hera.
Ancient Greek Olympic Games and Women
Hesiod Theogony (ll. 429)
“Good is she(Hecate) also when men contend at the games, for there too the goddess is with them and profits them: and he who by might and strength gets the victory wins the rich prize easily with joy, and brings glory to his parents.”
Pausanias, 5.7.1, states: “As for the Olympic games, the most learned
antiquaries of Elis say that Cronus was the first king of heaven, and that
in his honor a temple was built in Olympia by the men of that age, who were
named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted
the guardianship of her son to the Dactyls of Ida, who are the same as those
called Curetes. They came from Cretan Ida–Heracles, Paeonaeus, Epimedes,
Iasius and Idas.  Heracles, being the eldest,
matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner
with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that
they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been
introduced into Greece by Heracles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men
living beyond the home of the North Wind. ”
In the book “Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion” by Jane Ellen
Harrison there is a chapter on the ancient Olympic games by F. M. Cornford.
He thinks the origin of the Olympic games is much older than what was thought
by Pausanius. And he thinks women were very important in the founding of the
Olympics. Before the events described by Pausanius the calendar was set by
the moon. There was a need to select a moon-bride because in the early times
women were more important for religious ceremonies. Originally Cornford
felt this was an annual affair. It was decided to use a footrace to determine
who would become the moon-bride. After a while, as the sun became more
important, it was decided to use a similar foot race to choose a
sun-bridegroom for the moon-bride. He believes that the Olympic festival
was originally similar to the Laconian Karnia. That festival was held
annually but every four years an especially spendid festival was held. The
young man who won was decked out in garlands and a skin so as to be the
‘muming representative of the daimon’ who embodied the luck of the year.
Girls running in the Herarea to determine the Moon-maiden.
The Herarea was the first to separate off from this ancient festival. “This festival was held every fourth year. A college called the Sixteen Women wove a robe for Hera and held the games. The race was run between virgin girls who ran in order of age, the youngest first and the eldest last. The course was what is now the olympic stadium less about one-sixth of its length. Since the Herarea was held perhaps 2 years away from the male games at Olympia it is conceivable that the facilities at Olympia were used by the women. To the winner was given a crown of olives and a share of the cow sacrificed to Hera. The winners were able to dedicate statues of themselves. The girl-runner in the Vatican is probably one of these. On a stump beside the girl is a palm branch, a symbol of victory. There is also a Spartan statue of a girl running. On that statue the hairs are left hanging down, while her tunic reaches a little above the knee and her right shoulder is bare, as far as the breast. When the Olympics were founded its dates had to accomodate the dates of the Herarea.
This development relates to Hera and hero. A hera is a feminine hero.
The Herarea selects the girl hera who is worthy to receive the hero that is
selected by the Olympics. The Olympics started as a form of hero worship that
provides a hero of both sexes.
The union of these was thought to provide the most beneficial cosmic result.
That Hera was queen of the heavens seems to suggest that marriage has cosmic
implications. In the early
days of the Olympics both the hero and his bride were selected by a footrace.
Later other events were added and the bride was isolated from the hero in her
Herakles is often mentioned as starting the olympics but he is just an example
of a hero. Pelops also serves as an example of the hero while his bride,
Hippodamia, is an example of the hera or moon-maiden. Hera became the bride of
the ultimate hero Zeus. And so the Olympics became a religious festival for
The Olympics were held in Olympia in the northwest
Peloponessus in southern Greece from 776 BCE until they were
prohibited by the Romans in 394 AD. They consisted of a
chariot race, a boxing match, wrestling, a footrace, a sword duel,
and archery. The archeological
investigation of Olympia stimulated the modern Olympic games
which began in Athens in 1896. All the buildings in ancient
Olympia were for religious worship or for athletic games.
Mainly men participated, because it was a religious festival for men.
Proper women were not allowed as spectators. It was said that women who were
caught would be thrown off a cliff. But no one ever was. Even so there were
women who participated. Of course many of the men were followed by their
female companions, the hetaerae. Other men did not want to cross their wives
so they snuck them in. Finally there were the women who actually competed.
In the 3rd Century Cynisca, the daughter of the King of Sparta, won several
victories in the chariot races. Other women followed her. She
bred her own horses and was the first woman in recorded history to do so.
In the Electra of Sophocles it is mentioned that Orestes participated in games similar to the Olympics. This would have been about 1175 BCE, well before the ancient Olympics line 693
“Having gone to the shrine which is Greece’s common glory in order to compete for Delphi’s prizes and having heard the herald’s loud summons to the foot-race, the first contest,  he entered the lists, a brilliant form, a wonder in the eyes of all there. When he had finished the race at the point where it began, he went out with the glorious honor of victory. To say the most with the least words, I do not know the man whose deeds and triumphs have matched his.  But this one thing you must know: in all the contests that the judges announced, he carried away the prize, and men deemed him happy as often as the herald proclaimed him an Argive, by name Orestes, son of  Agamemnon, who once marshalled Greece’s famous expedition.”
The women had their own festivals which sometimes excluded the men. The Herea involved a footrace. More common were festivals involved with dancing and singing in choruses. There may have even been beauty contests such as the Judgement of Paris. Minos may have used a beauty contest to select the victims that were sent to the Minotaur. The women were not as literate as the men so their activities are not as well recorded.
The developments that took place in Greek sport between Homeric times
and the 5th century BC included: Athletic contests established as important religious events even before the Trojan war, by the time of Homer the Olympics were established. Within the next 250 years other athletic events were established and the performing in the nude was established. At first only running was included but as time went on other events are established. The idea that these events were politically neutral was also established. Wars and battles were stopped to accomodate some of the games.
Ancient Olympic Ceremonies
The ceremonies began with the official oath that was taken by the
athletes at the altar of Horkios Zeus, in the Bouleuterion, swearing that
they would compete with honour and respect the rules.
The words to the oath the athletes had to take: It was the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath, upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training. An oath is also taken by those who examine the boys, or the foals entering for races, that they will decide fairly and without taking bribes, and that they will keep secret what they learn about a candidate, whether accepted or not. (Pausanias 5.24.9ff)
Other special ceremonies took place during the Olympics
- Select official citizens of the region of Elis, accompanied by a
brilliant retinue of the nobility of Elis, set out for all directions of the
land, to proclaim that the rituals for the ceremonials of the Olympic Games
- Onlookers came from the distant confines of the Greek world, and the then
known world was almost only Hellenic, if we except the peoples of the East.
- The Olympic Games started their long history with an event consisting of
a short distance sprint for the lighting of the flame which would be used for
the sacrifice to the God!
- The prize was called the “Athlon” and was a head-wreath of cotinus, that
is to say a branch of wild olive that was growing next to the opisthodomus of
the temple of Zeus in the sacred Altis.
- There were contests for trumpeters and heralds.
During the Olympics a temporary community was set up for the visitors and participants. Some indication of the situation can be gathered from the following:
“Again, on going to Olympia, he tried to rival Cimon in his banquets and booths and other brilliant appointments, so that he displeased the Hellenes. For Cimon was young and of a great house, and they thought they must allow him in such extravagances; but Themistocles had not yet become famous, and was thought to be seeking to elevate himself unduly without adequate means, and so was charged with ostentation.” Plut. Them. 5.3
Ancient Olympic Training
Formal education in ancient Greece may have begun at Olympia. When the decision to run the Olympics nude was made the need for a place to prepare for the Olympics by removing clothing became evident. Other preparations were recognized and a gymnasium was built. This word means the place of nudity. Other preparations involved training that could be quite punitive as the trainers are often shown with a switch for punishing athletes. The following suggests that the training period might be as long as 10 months: Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.24.9; “Beside this image (Statue of Zeus) it is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar’s flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training.”
Athletes usually spent some time before the Olympics at Olympia, There they were involved with strict rituals. One such practice was described by Plato as follows: Plato, Laws, 8.839e: “Do we not know by report about Iccus of Tarentum, because of his contests at Olympia and elsewhere,—[840a] how, spurred on by ambition and skill, and possessing courage combined with temperance in his soul, during all the period of his training (as the story goes) he never touched a woman, nor yet a boy? And the same story is told about Crison and Astylus and Diopompus and very many others.”
Olympic Games for Women
Olympia, the site of the men’s olympics, provided
an opportunity for female athletes. Every four years the Sixteen Women and
other married women organized The Heraea Games for maiden competitors.
Pausanias indicates these games consisted of footraces, and the maidens
competed against other maidens of the same age. The maiden athletes competed
in the Olympic stadium but it was shortened for them by about one-sixth of
its length The Heraea Games did not have the prestige of the men’s Olympic
competition, but the Greeks still regarded them as a serious athletic event.
The victors were well honored. Pausanias says “To the winning maidens they
give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may
also dedicate statues with their names inscribed on them” (Pausanias, 5.16.3).
Pausanias also states (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.16.2): “The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them.”
A bronze statue which fits the description of these girls exists at the British museum: click here
The Ancient Greeks had many religious festivals for only one sex.
They liked to think that men and women had different roles in life and that
they were not meant to compete. The fact that the men performed naked was
not a reason. In the myths Atalanta was able to compete with men both in running and wrestling. The women of ancient Sparta did participate in athletic training. There was some indication that the women participated in their own festival, the Herarea at Olympia, but this was not well documented. Eventually women did participate
in the chariot races with the men.
In the Description of Greece 5.6.7 Pausanias states:
“As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.
 She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena.”
The time of Classical Greece was a time of radical change in society
but it was not a time when women gained any rights. What they got was a
system of law in which they received some protection, but only in reference
to the rights of their husbands or other male relatives. Women were able to
participate in sports because it was a practice in the past. Society at this
time was very much bound by tradition and ritual. What was different about the
Greeks was that their rituals seemed so much more productive than those of
other societies. Women did obtain a release from the taboos of other societies. Though they secluded themselves they obtained freedom from rituals that
restricted their lives and activities in other societies.
Plato on Athletic Competitions for Women
Plato wrote that women should be involved in athletic competitions. He felt that women should be trained to defend the country and he reasoned that athletic competitions would support this. The following quotes support his ideas:
Plato, Laws, 7.804d: “For females, too, my law will lay down the same regulations as for men, and training of an identical kind. I will unhesitatingly affirm that neither riding nor gymnastics, which are proper for men, are improper for women. I believe the old tales I have heard, and I know now of my own observation, that there are practically countless myriads of women called Sauromatides, in the district of Pontus, upon whom equally with men is imposed the duty of handling bows and other weapons, as well as horses, and who practice it equally. In addition to this I allege the following argument. Since this state of things can exist, I affirm that the practice which at present prevails in our districts is a most irrational one—namely, that men and women should not all follow the same pursuits with one accord and with all their might. For thus from the same taxation and trouble there arises and exists half a State only instead of a whole one, in nearly every instance;”
Plato, Laws, 8.833c: “In the case of females, we shall ordain races of a furlong, a quarter-mile, a half-mile, and a three-quarters for girls under the age of puberty, who shall be stripped, and shall race on the course itself; and girls over thirteen shall continue to take part until married, up to the age of twenty at most, or at least eighteen; but these, when they come forward and compete in these races, must be clad in decent apparel.”
Pictures of Ancient Women Athletes
- Woman training athlete, Louvre G 457
- Women swimming, Louvre F 203
- Atalanta wrestling Peleus, Munich 596
- Bronze figure of a running girl, London, The British Museum.
- A Heraria Spartan woman and a sculpture for a victress around 460 BCE, Vatican Museum.
In the Description of Greece 5.7.7 Pausanias tells the story of Herakles and the victor wreath:
“ Heracles, being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Heracles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of the North Wind.”
Pictures of the wreath that was worn by the victors?
Answer: Click on each of the following links:
- a radiate crown, with vertical spikes, Harvard 1960.344
- two vertical spikes and a central upright with a tiny picture of a runner on it, Harvard 1960.344
- wreath hangs, Boston 03.821
- wreath on hunter, Louvre CA 3482
- white wreaths, Louvre K 518
- red wreath, Louvre S 3853
- Golden wreath with ivy leaves, ΧΡ 1058. End of 4th c. B.C. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- Myrtle wreath with berries
Gold. 4th c. BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- Gold jewels from a grave, 5th. c. BC. Necklace with loop in loop chain and snake head terminals and pendant. Ring with gorgoneion and lion heads. Olive-wreath. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Famous Women Athletes in Ancient Greece
Some of the more famous woman athletes during the archaic and classical
- Atalanta — Apollodorus, Library 1.8 — “Now the men who assembled to hunt the boar were these6:— Meleager, son of Oeneus; Dryas, son of Ares; these came from Calydon; Idas and Lynceus, sons of Aphareus, from Messene; Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus and Leda, from Lacedaemon; Theseus, son of Aegeus, from Athens; Admetus, son of Pheres, from Pherae; Ancaeus and Cepheus, sons of Lycurgus, from Arcadia; Jason, son of Aeson, from Iolcus; Iphicles, son of Amphitryon, from Thebes; Pirithous, son of Ixion, from Larissa; Peleus, son of Aeacus, from Phthia; Telamon, son of Aeacus, from Salamis; Eurytion, son of Actor, from Phthia; Atalanta, daughter of Schoeneus, from Arcadia; Amphiaraus, son of Oicles, from Argos. With them came also the sons of Thestius. And when they were assembled, Oeneus entertained them for nine days; but on the tenth, when Cepheus and Ancaeus and some others disdained to go hunting with a woman, Meleager compelled them to follow the chase with her, for he desired to have a child also by Atalanta, though he had to wife Cleopatra, daughter of Idas and Marpessa. When they surrounded the boar, Hyleus and Ancaeus were killed by the brute, and Peleus struck down Eurytion undesignedly with a javelin. But Atalanta was the first to shoot the boar in the back with an arrow, and Amphiaraus was the next to shoot it in the eye; but Meleager killed it by a stab in the flank, and on receiving the skin gave it to Atalanta. Nevertheless the sons of Thestius, thinking scorn that a woman should get the prize in the face of men, took the skin from her, alleging that it belonged to them by right of birth if Meleager did not choose to take it.  But Meleager in a rage slew the sons of Thestius and gave the skin to Atalanta. However, from grief at the slaughter of her brothers Althaea kindled the brand, and Meleager immediately expired.”
- Cynisca — Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.8 — “Archidamus had also a daughter, whose name was Cynisca; she was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Cynisca other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she.” 3.15 “At Plane-tree Grove (in Sparta) there is also a hero-shrine of Cynisca, daughter of Archidamus king of the Spartans. She was the first woman to breed horses, and the first to win a chariot race at Olympia. Xenophon, Agesilaus 9 “but persuaded his sister Cynisca to breed chariot horses, and showed by her victory that such a stud marks the owner as a person of wealth, but not necessarily of merit.”
- Belistiche — Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.8 Afterwards they added races for chariots and pairs of foals, and for single foals with rider. It is said that the victors proclaimed were: for the chariot and pair, Belistiche, a woman from the seaboard of Macedonia; for the ridden race, Tlepolemus of Lycia. Tlepolemus, they say, won at the hundred and thirty-first Festival, and Belistiche at the third before this..
- Callipateira — Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.6 – -“As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.
 She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena.
Rules of Sports
- Chariot Races – The owners of the horses were declared the winners.
- Wrestling – No weight limits
- boxing – No weight limits
- pankration – No weight limits; punching, kicking, choking, finger
breaking, and blows to the genitals were allowed; only biting and eye
gouging were prohibited.
- Foot races – False starting in a race brought whipping; longer races
required the runner to make an 180 degree turn around a post.
- Hoplitodromos – a footrace requiring the runners to wear helmets, greaves,
and a shield.
- Javelin – When throwing for distance the javelin had to fall within an
area defined on three sides, and the throw was invalid if it fell outside
- General – Lying, bribing, and cheating were heavily fined; all hostilities
would cease; all Greeks could participate except women and slaves and the
very young; once admitted participants could not resign or withdraw; any
athlete who was left over without an opponent had the right to compete with
the winner of the second round; those who had committed crimes or had robbed
a temple were also excluded from the games.
There were judges who had the power to punish rule breakers. In
the following images the figure with the long stick may be a judge. He is
ready to administer punishment as soon a a rule is broken.
- one discus thrower and two figures, Philadelphia MS403
- two boxers and two figures, Philadelphia MS403
Boxing in Ancient Greece
Boxing was a combat event in which competitors wore leather straps
to protect their hands. They fought without a break until one gave in or
could not go on. The gloves were more to protect the hands of the boxer
than to protect the opponent. Boxing was added in the 23rd Olympiad in
“Pyx” (πύξ , with the fist, from Indo-European ‘pēu- : pəu- : pū̆-‘, ‘to hit; sharp’) is the Greek word for boxing.
Theogenes (about 480 BCE):
The ancient historians slipped up and called Theogenes’ father
Timosthenes instead of Timoxenus. The statue of Theogenes at Thasos fell
on an enemy, was cast into the sea and recovered by fishermen and restored
to alleviate a famine. As a result he was worshipped as a hero. Theogenes
is said to have won 1300 of 1400 times in the olympics and in other similar
contests as a boxer and a pancratiast. He even won once in the long race
at Phthia. He wanted to win a prize in the homeland of Achilles, the swiftest
of heroes. Theogenes was unbeaten in boxing for nearly 22 years. This
information is from the book by Golden.
Click hereRoman copy of Greek original attributed to Apollonius. Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy, supposedly of Theogenes.
Pictures of leather thongs used for ancient greek boxing:
- boxer, Toledo 1961.26
- boxer, Toledo 1961.26
- boxer, Toledo 1961.26
- boxer, lower half, Harvard 1925.30.124
- boxer, Toledo 1961.26
Rules of ancient Greece’s boxing:
: There seem to have been few rules. Boxing allowed contestants to
wrap their hands to protect them but they got no breaks. The victory was
declared when one contestant could do nothing more.
Ancient boxers wore nothing for clothes. The ancient Athletes performed in
pictures of a man and woman boxer.
Footraces in Ancient Greece
The Olympic program included the 200 m foot race and the 400 m foot race,
and the long footrace.
Women had their own festival where they competed in foot races.
The first Olympics was a footrace run in 776 BCE.
Pausanias, Description of Greece,
5.16.1 “Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women,
and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races
for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the
youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest
of the maidens. They run in the following way:  their hair hangs down, a
tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as
far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their
games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth
of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion
of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names
inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the
presidents of the games, married women.  The games of the maidens too are
traced back to ancient times;…”
Chariot races in Ancient Greece
A chariot is a two-wheeled cart drawn by one or more horses. The driver stands in the cart. Chariots were made out of wood, leather, bone, ivory, bronze, copper, or iron.
Chariots were a street vehicle, but they raced them in special stadiums called a hippodrome. As long as there were chariots there were chariot races. They became part of the Olympics in 680 BCE. Chariots were raced during the Trojan war and before. In the ancient Olympics there was a 4-horse chariot race and a 2-horse chariot race. A four hourse chariot race is called a quadriga race. This was the most spectacular event at the Olympics. This was an aristocratic event used to compete for status by wealthy patrons. These races were run in a
As to the history of the chariot race, Oemomaus was the kin of Pisa, son of Alxion and Harpina, and the husband of Sterope. He offered the hand of his daughter Hippodamia to the
victor in a chariotrace. He then raced the suitors and cut off the heads of all the suitors he defeated. Hippodamia loved Pelops and when Pelops came to race, she convinced Myrtilus, her father’s charioteer to betray her father. Oenomaus was dragged to death by his own horses horses. Pelops deposed him and became king. Pelops was the son of Tantalus and the founder of a dynasty with a porpoise as a totem. The Peloponesus is named for him. He was one of the first to hold games in honor of Zeus. A number of myths are associated with him, but the most relevant seems to be the one that involved a chariot race to win his wife. See:
Pelops was the grandfather of Agamemnon and so his chariot race happened before the Trojan war. The records of the ancient olympics start in 776 BCE with only running races. The four-horse chariot race was added in 680 BCE and the two-horse race was added in 408 BCE. A quadriga is a four-horse chariot. A biga is a two horse chariot.
Images of Ancient Chariots
Ancient chariot races were limited by the fact that on the course
the racers were required to turn at a post. Under these circumstances even
three would be a lot and a dozen would be silly.
The only event that women were allowed to enter in the olympics
was the chariot races, and it is not clear whether they were allowed to
drive. Nor is it clear what the drivers wore.
Films or pictures showing women driving in chariot races:
- Ladies in a chariot, Wall painting, “Mykenaean ladies” in a chariot hunt from the palace of Tyrinth, 13th century BC.
- The Greek Age of Bronze — Chariots
- Mycenaean Chariot krater
- Nike is driving a chariot, Louvre N 3408
- Athena drives a chariot, Toledo 1956.69
In the Description of Greece 3.8.1 Pausanias states:
“Archidamus had also a daughter, whose name was Cynisca; she was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Cynisca other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she.”
For a reference on chariot racing Click on the Menu Directory below and
click on Bibliography. The book by Mark Golden has this information.
Clothing, or lack of it in the Ancient Olympics
They wore in the Olympics very little. The Olympics were held in the heat
of the summer. For safety men performed in the nude. Women wore a simple
tunic. Nudity of men was a tradition that was maintained because the Greeks
thought it made the sports safer. It also obviously reduced certain kinds of
cheating. In the event of a conflict naked participants are easier to control
because they had no weapons hidden in their clothes.
The judges wore clothes and the spectators wore clothes. At first
the trainers wore clothes, but later they did not.
During the Heraea, the olympics for women, the women performed
in tunics. The only event that women were allowed to enter in the olympics
was the chariot races, and it is not clear whether they were allowed to
drive. Nor is it clear what the drivers wore. Women in Sparta were
encouraged to perform their athletics in the nude so they would attract
a husband who would get them pregnant. The tradition is that they appeared
nude at beauty contests such as the Judgement of Paris.
Athletes performed in the nude during the classical period for the last
The reason for performing in the nude is lost in myth, but it became
customary. A number of good reasons can be given.
But performing in the nude provided an identity for the Greeks since no one else
The Greeks liked Athletic types of competition while other countries
did not. The fact that they performed in the nude also served to identify
the Greeks as a unique culture.
At first they did not perform in the nude, but later they decided
that the men should perform in the nude. When the women performed at Olympia
in the Heraea they wore a tunic.
The word gymnasium translates as a place where men exercise in the nude, so it does not
indicate a specific facility. The fundamental structures used by Greek athletes in training were the practice
rack, bath house, and wrestling school. Formal competition took place in a stadium, a great public arena, sited
where the one constructed for the 1896 Olympics now stands. reference
Relation of Ancient Olympics to Modern Olympics.
The idea of the modern Olympics came from the archeological
discoveries at Olympia during the 19th century, but the Olympics in ancient
times was more local. The idea was to have a sports event that would
substitute for war. It did not work because the worst wars ever were in the
20th century. But the world likes the idea of the Olympics, so we still have
it. The ancient Greeks had torch races, which may have given the idea of
lighting the torch at the modern olympics. In ancient times the winner
light the torch on an altar.
The marathon race is named after a famous run duning the Persian
wars to announce the victory at Marathon in 490 BCE. This was 286 years
after the start of the ancient Olympics. The first marathon race was run
in 1894 at the first modern olympic games.
The modern marathon race is based on the fact that Pheidippides,
a professional messenger,
ran from Athens to Marathon to join the battle there, then he ran back to
Athens with the words “Greetings, we win!” and then dropped dead. The length
of the marathon is the distance he ran from Marathon to Athens. Just before
the battle he is supposed to have run to Sparta and back to Marathon to
request the help of the Spartan army. There was no marathon in the ancient
Citius,Altius,Fortius is Latin for “Faster,Higher,Braver”. This
might have related to the later olympics, but not the ancient Greek. Baron de
Coubertin borrowed the motto from Father Henri Martin Dideon,
the headmaster of Arcueil College in Paris. Father Dideon used
the motto to describe the great achievements of the athletes
at his school. Coubertin felt it could be used to describe the
goals of great athletes all over the World. According to most accounts, the
rings were adopted by Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (founder of the modern Olympic Movement) in 1913 after he saw
a similar design on an artifact from ancient Greece.
Games Ancient Greeks Played
The games of the Olympics were individual competitions. They did play
team or group games in other contexts.
Especially at Sparta there were team sports involving a ball. There were also
board games illustrated as follows:
- Achilles and Ajax, Berlin V.I. 3199
- Achilles and Ajax, Malibu 86.AE.81
- A game of ephisdremos, RISD 25.089, (Pollux IX, 119): “…they put down a stone and throw at it from a distance with balls or pebbles. The one who fails to overturn the stone carries the other, having his eyes blindfolded by the rider, until, if he does not go astray, he reaches the stone, which is called the dioros.”
- Achilles and Ajax, Toledo 1963.26
In the Odyssey there is this quote (Book IV) that is informative:
“Meanwhile, in front of Odysseus’ palace, the Suitors in their usual free and
easy way were amusing themselves with quoits and javelin-throwing on the level
ground where we have seen them at their sports before.”
The Olympic program included the following competitions: 200 m foot race,
400 m foot race, long foot race, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, 4-horse
chariot race, pankration, a race in armour, mule car race, mares race,
2-horse chariot race, trumpeters, heralds.
The pentathlon (πενταέθλιον) consisted of five separate parts: ἅλμα (jump), ποδωκείην (footrace), δίσκον (discus), ἄκοντα (javelin), πάλην (wrestling). The word ‘penthatlon’ itself means 5 prizes.
In the Odyssey Nausica takes her maids and servants out to wash clothes.
While the clothes are drying in the sun “When they had done dinner they threw
off the veils that covered their heads and began to play at ball, while
Nausicaa sang for them. (Book VI)
One has to wonder if Ariadne is supervising a sporting event in the
Iliad: “Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once
made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths
and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another’s
wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths
well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were
crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold
that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly
in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting
at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will
run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another,
and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was
a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers
went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up
with his tune.” (Book XVIII)
It is in such a context that archeology has determined that the sport
of bull leaping took place.
Web sites about the ancient Olympic games:
- 64.61-78 The Ancient Olympics
ANCIENT OLYMPIC VICTORS (in Greek)
- Brief History of the Olympic Games
- Winning at Olympia
- Woff, Richard, “Ancient Greek Olympics”, Oxford University Press, September
2000, ISBN: 0195215818.
- Middleton, Haydn, “Ancient Olympic Games”, Heinemann Library, October 1999,
The Politics of the Olympics
- Ancient Olympics
- The politics of the Olympics
- Modern political science
- Masters in political science
- History and modern life