Ancient History & Civilisation


Religion failed to unify Greece, but athletics—periodically—succeeded. Men went to Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea not so much to honor the gods—for these could be honored anywhere—as to witness the heroic contests of chosen athletes, and the ecumenical assemblage of varied Greeks. Alexander, who could see Greece from without, considered Olympia the capital of the Greek world.

Here under the rubric of athletics we find the real religion of the Greeks—the worship of health, beauty, and strength. “To be in health,” said Simonides, “is the best thing for man; the next best, to be of form and nature beautiful; the third, to enjoy wealth gotten without fraud; and the fourth, to be in youth’s bloom among friends.”27a “There is no greater glory for a man as long as he lives,” said the Odyssey,28 “than that which he wins by his own hands and feet.” Perhaps it was necessary for an aristocratic people, living among slaves more numerous than themselves and frequently called upon to defend their soil against more populous nations, to keep in good condition. Ancient war depended upon physical vigor and skill, and these were the original aim of the contests that filled Hellas with the noise of their fame. We must not think of the average Greek as a student and lover of Aeschylus or Plato; rather, like the typical Briton or American, he was interested in sport, and his favored athletes were his earthly gods.

Greek games were private, local, municipal, and Panhellenic. Even the fragmentary remains of antiquity reveal an interesting range of sports. A relief in the Athens Museum shows on one side a wrestling match, on another a hockey game.29 Swimming, bareback riding, throwing or dodging missiles while mounted, were not so much sports as general accomplishments of all citizens. Hunting became a sport when it ceased to be a necessity. Ball games were as varied then as now, and as popular; at Sparta the termsballplayer and youth were synonyms. Special rooms were built in the palaestra for games of ball; these rooms were called sphairisteria, and the teachers were sphairistai. On another relief we see men bouncing a ball against the floor or the wall, and striking it back with the flat of the hand;30 we do not know whether the players did this in turn as in modern handball. One ball game resembled Canadian lacrosse, being a form of hockey played with racquets. Pollux, writing in the second century of our era, describes it in almost modern terms:

Certain youths, divided into two equal groups, leave in a level place—which they have prepared and measured—a ball made of leather, about the size of an apple. They rush at it, as if it were a prize lying between them, from their fixed starting-points. Each of them has in his right hand a racquet (rhabdon) . . . ending in a sort of flat bend whose center is woven with gut strings . . . plaited like a net. Each side strives to be the first to drive the ball to the opposite end of the ground from that allotted to them.31

The same author pictures a game in which one team tries to throw a ball over or through an opposed group, “until one side drives the other back over their goal line.” Antiphanes, in an imperfect fragment from the fourth century B.C., describes a “star”: “When he got the ball he delighted to give it to one player while dodging another; he knocked it away from one and urged on another with noisy cries. Outside, a long pass, beyond him, overhead, a short pass. . . .”32

From these private sports came local and incidental games, as after the death of a hero like Patroclus, or the successful issue of some great enterprise, like the march of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand to the sea. Then came municipal games, in which the contestants represented various localities and groups within one city-state. Almost but not quite international were the quadrennial Panathenaic games, established by Peisistratus in 566; here the entries were mostly from Attica, but outsiders were welcomed. Besides the usual athletic events there were chariot races, a torch race, a rowing race, musical competitions for voice, harp, lyre, and flute, dances, and recitations, chiefly from Homer. Each of the ten divisions of Attica was represented by twenty-four men chosen for their health, vigor, and good looks; and a prize was awarded to the most impressive twenty-four for “fine manhood.”33

Since athletics were necessary for war, and yet would die without competitions, the cities of Greece, to provide the highest stimulus, arranged Panhellenic games. The oldest of these were organized as a regular quadrennial event at Olympia in 776 B.C.—the first definite date in Greek history. Originally confined to Eleans, within a century they were drawing entries from all Greece; by 476 the list of victors ranged from Sinope to Marseilles. The feast of Zeus became an international holyday; a truce was proclaimed to all wars in Greece for the month of the festival, and fines were levied by the Eleans upon any Greek state in whose territory a traveler to the games suffered molestation. Philip of Macedon humbly paid a fine because some of his soldiers had robbed an Athenian en route to Olympia.

We picture the pilgrims and athletes starting out from distant cities, a month ahead of time, to come together at the games. It was a fair as well as a festival; the plain was covered not only with the tents that sheltered the visitors from the July heat, but with the booths where a thousand concessionaires exposed for sale everything from wine and fruit to horses and statuary, while acrobats and conjurors performed their tricks for the crowd. Some juggled balls in the air, others performed marvels of agility and skill, others ate fire or swallowed swords: modes of amusement, like forms of superstition, enjoy a reverend antiquity. Famous orators like Gorgias, famous sophists like Hippias, perhaps famous writers like Herodotus, delivered addresses or recitations from the porticoes of the temple of Zeus. It was a special holiday for men, since married women were not allowed to attend the festival; these had their own games at the feast of Hera. Menander summed up such a scene in five words: “crowd, market, acrobats, amusements, thieves.”34

Only freeborn Greeks were allowed to compete in the Olympic games. The athletes (from athlos, a contest) were selected by local and municipal elimination trials, after which they submitted for ten months to rigorous training under professional paidotribai(literally, youth rubbers) andgymnastai. Arrived at Olympia, they were examined by the officials, and took an oath to observe all the rules. Irregularities were rare; we hear of Eupolis bribing other boxers to lose to him,35 but the penalty and dishonor attached to such offenses were discouragingly great. When everything was ready the athletes were led into the stadium; as they entered, a herald announced their names and the cities that had entered them. All the contestants, whatever their age or rank, were naked; occasionally a girdle might be worn at the loins.36 Of the stadium itself nothing remains but the narrow stone slabs toed by the runners at the starting point. The 45,000 spectators kept their places in the stadium all day long, suffering from insects, heat, and thirst; hats were forbidden, the water was bad, and flies and mosquitoes infested the place as they do today. Sacrifices were offered at frequent intervals to Zeus Averter of Flies.37

The most important events were grouped together as the pentathlon, or five contests. To promote all-around development in the athlete each entry in any of these events was required to compete in all of them; to secure the victory it was necessary to win three contests out of the five. The first was a broad jump; the athlete held weights like dumbbells in his hands, and leaped from a standing start. Ancient writers assure us that some jumpers spanned fifty feet;38 but it is not necessary to believe everything that we read. The second event was throwing the discus, a circular plate of metal or stone weighing about twelve pounds; the best throws are said to have covered a hundred feet.39 The third contest was in hurling the javelin or spear, with the aid of a leather thong attached to the center of the shaft. The fourth and principal event of the group was the stadium sprint—i.e., for the length of the stadium, usually some two hundred yards. The fifth contest was wrestling. It was a highly popular form of competition in Greece, for the very name palaistra was taken from it, and many a story was told of its champions.

Boxing was an ancient game, almost visibly handed down from Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece. The boxers practiced with punching balls hung on a level with the head and filled with fig seeds, meal, or sand. In the classic age of Greece (i.e., the fifth and fourth centuries), they wore “soft gloves” of oxhide dressed with fat and reaching almost to the elbow. Blows were confined to the head, but there was no rule against hitting a man who was down. There were no rests or rounds; the boxers fought till one surrendered or succumbed. They were not classified by weight; any man of any weight might enter the lists. Hence weight was an asset, and boxing degenerated in Greece from a competition in skill into a contest in brawn.

In the course of time, as brutality increased, boxing and wrestling were combined into a new contest called the pankration, or game of all powers. In this everything but biting and eye-gouging was permitted, even to a kick in the stomach.40 Three heroes whose names have come down to us won by breaking the fingers of their opponents;41 another struck so ferociously with straight extended fingers and strong sharp nails that he pierced the flesh of his adversary and dragged out his bowels.42 Milo of Crotona was a more amiable pugilist. He had developed his strength, we are told, by carrying a calf every day of its life until it was a full-grown bull. People loved him for his tricks: he would hold a pomegranate so fast in his fist that no one could get it from him, and yet the fruit was uninjured; he would stand on an oiled quoit and resist all efforts to dislodge him; he would tie a cord around his forehead and burst the cord by holding his breath and so forcing blood to his head. In the end he was destroyed by his virtues. “For he chanced,” says Pausanias, “on a withered tree, into which some wedges had been driven to separate the wood, and he took it into his head to keep the wood apart with his hands. But the wedges slipped out, he was imprisoned in the tree, and became a prey to the wolves.”43

In addition to the pentathlon sprint, there were other foot races at the games. One was for four hundred yards, another for twenty-four stadia, or 2⅔ miles; a third was an armed race, in which each runner carried a heavy shield. We have no knowledge of the records made in these races; the stadium differed in length in different cities, and the Greeks had no instruments for measuring small intervals of time. Stories tell of a Greek runner who could outdistance a hare; of another who raced a horse from Coronea to Thebes (some twenty miles) and beat it; and of how Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta—150 miles—in two days44 and, at the cost of his life, brought to Athens the news of the victory at Marathon, twentyfour miles away. But there were no “marathon races” in Greece.

In the plain below the stadium Olympia built a special hippodrome for horse races. Women as well as men might enter their horses, and, as now, the prize went to the owner and not to the jockey, though the horse was sometimes rewarded with a statue.45 The culminating events of the games were the chariot races, with two or four horses running abreast. Often ten four-horse chariots competed together; and as each had to negotiate twentythree turns around the posts at the ends of the course, accidents were the chief thrill of the game; in one race with forty starters a single chariot finished. We may imagine the tense excitement of the spectators at these contests, their wordy arguments about their favorites, their emotional abandonment as the survivors rounded the last turn.

When the toils of five days were over the victors received their rewards. Each bound a woolen fillet about his head, and upon this the judges placed a crown of wild olive, while a herald announced the name and city of the winner. This laurel wreath was the only prize given at the Olympic games, and yet it was the most eagerly contested distinction in Greece. So important were the games that not even the Persian invasion stopped them; and while a handful of Greeks withstood Xerxes’ army at Thermopylae the customary thousands watched Theagenes of Thasos, on the very day of the battle, win the pancratiast’s crown. “Good heavens!” exclaimed a Persian to his general; “what manner of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight?—men who contend with one another not for money but for honor!”46 He, or the Greek inventor of the tale, did the Greeks too much credit, and not merely because the Greeks should on that day have been at Thermopylae rather than at Olympia. Though the direct prize at the games was little, the indirect rewards were great. Many cities voted substantial sums to the victors on their return from their triumphs; some cities made them generals; and the crowd idolized them so openly that jealous philosophers complained.47 Poets like Simonides and Pindar were engaged by the victor or his patrons to write odes in his honor, which were sung by choruses of boys in the procession that welcomed him home; sculptors were paid to perpetuate him in bronze or stone; and sometimes he was given free sustenance in the city hall. We may judge the cost of this item when we learn, on questionable authority, that Milo ate a fouryear-old heifer, and Theagenes an ox, in a day.48

The sixth century saw the peak of the splendor and popularity of athletics in Greece. In 582 the Amphictyonic League established the Pythian games in honor of Apollo at Delphi; in the same year the Isthmian games were instituted at Corinth in honor of Poseidon; six years later the Nemean games were inaugurated to celebrate the Nemean Zeus; and all three occasions became Panhellenic festivals. Together with the Olympic games they formed a periodos, or cycle, and the great ambition of a Greek athlete was to win the crown at all of them. In the Pythian games contests in music and poetry were added to the physical competitions; and indeed such musical tilts had been celebrated at Delphi long before the establishment of the athletic games. The original event was a hymn in honor of Apollo’s victory over the Delphic python; in 582 contests were added in singing, and in playing the lyre and the flute. Similar musical contests were held at Corinth, Nemea, Delos, and elsewhere; for the Greeks believed that by frequent public competitions they could stimulate not only the ability of the performer but the taste of the public as well. The principle was applied to almost every art—to pottery, poetry, sculpture, painting, choral singing, oratory, and drama.49 In this way and others the games had a profound influence upon art and literature, and even upon the writing of history; for the chief method of reckoning time, in later Greek historiography, was by Olympiads, designated by the name of the victor in the one-stadium foot race. The physical perfection of the all-around athlete in the sixth century generated that ideal of statuary which reached its fullness in Myron and Polycleitus. The nude contests and games in the palaestra and at the festivals gave the sculptor unequaled opportunities to study the human body in every natural form and pose; the nation unwittingly became models to its artists, and Greek athletics united with Greek religion to generate Greek art.

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