A spectator’s guide to the Ancient Olympic Games
Ancient Olympic Games expert Paul Christesen reveals what life would have been like for the spectators at Olympia. From taking advantage of the Olympic truce to hearing the latest works from the famous historian Herodotus and enjoying a giant, 24-hour BBQ, it is easy to see why the Games were a key date in the diary for Greeks everywhere.
The Olympic Games were a huge deal for the Ancient Greeks. They drew spectators and attendees from all over the far-flung empire, and were the undoubted highlight of the social calendar.
“One of the things that made you Greek was playing sports and going to the Olympics,” Paul Christesen, professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, USA, said.
“Most ancient cultures are geographically compact. If you think about the Egyptians, they always lived on a small stretch of the Nile, but the Greeks were very weird in that from an early period they were highly geographically dispersed, so that even by 600BC there were Greeks living in what is now France, Spain, Italy, Libya, Turkey, Russia.
“So a big question they spent a lot of time worrying about was ‘what makes you Greek?’. That is part of the reason they took the Olympics so seriously – it is a fundamental cultural marker for them.”
As a result, Greeks travelled from all over the Mediterranean basin to attend the Games and reassert their identity. The numbers are staggering. Scholars estimate that perhaps more than 50,000 travelled to Olympia for a single Games during the height of their popularity in the second century AD. Given that at no point were there more than four million Greeks all told across the Empire, it is a significant percentage.
The first task was to get to Olympia and for many this involved a considerable journey across dangerous territory. Helpfully, there was an Olympic truce.
“The truce meant that in the run-up to and during the Olympics, Greek states all agreed to let anyone who wanted to go to the Olympics to pass through,” Christesen explained. “So for example, if State A was in-between State B and the Olympics, and State A and B were at war, during the Olympics you would allow people who were normally your enemies to pass through your state to get to Olympia.”
The truce, however, did not mean that the fighting stopped. Indeed, on one occasion it was far too close for comfort.
“There was at least one instance when during the Olympics they had a battle in Olympia itself, in the religious sanctuary in 364 (BC),” Christesen said. The conflict involved the Eleans beating back the Arkadians after the latter had attempted to win control of the site.
Once people had made it safely to Olympia they, understandably, tended to stay for the whole five days of the Games. The place became a bustling bazar with friends, family and associates eating, drinking, gossiping and doing business together. With such a concentrated gathering of Greeks, coming from all over what is now Europe, Olympia naturally became the place to be every four years.
“For example, Herodotus, the very famous Greek historian, went to Olympia and read some of his new history work, standing on the back porch of one of the temples,” said Christesen.
“It was a grand show.”
Although it was a show exclusively for men. Well, it probably was. Christesen explained that there is some debate as to whether unmarried women fell under the female ban, revealing “no one really knows the answer to that one”.
There was certainly one woman who was not only permitted to attend but was one of the very few of the 40,000-plus spectators to get a seat: the Priestess of Demeter. Again, arguments have raged as to the reasons why the representative of this Goddess of agriculture was afforded such treatment.
For Christesen the answer is simple.
“Later versions of the stadium appear to have been built over what was a sanctuary for Demeter,” he said. “So the priestess sat in the place where her sanctuary used to be. It probably didn’t signify anything specific between Demeter and the Olympic Games other than the fact they happened to build the stadium where her sanctuary had been.”
Coincidence it may have been, but this does give a taste of just how important religion was. Sport may have been the glue that held the Games together, but religious activity was its very foundation.
“The central part of the Games was a huge sacrifice to Zeus, the patron deity of the sanctuary,” Christesen said.
“The sacrifice came on the middle of the third day and was timed to coincide with the full moon. The people who ran the Games, the Eleans, arranged the sacrifice of 100 cows.”
If it sounds like there was a huge, messy BBQ, it’s because that is exactly what happened.
“Greeks didn’t get to eat very much meat because it was so expensive so the way Greek religion worked was that you sacrificed the animal and you burned some of it on the altar but you kept most of it for yourself and barbequed it,” Christesen added.
Full, reassured of their national identity and no doubt hatching a new business plan or two, the spectators would have started their long journeys home, reinvigorated for the following four years.