The Olympics was about much more than honoring Zeus or the winners of the games. It was an organized effort to help the Greeks get to know each other better, perhaps inspire them to work together at peace and war.
By Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D.
For more than a thousand years, the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia was at the center of Greek life and civilization. This is where every four years the Olympics took place. The Olympics was the greatest Panhellenic athletic and religious celebration. Greek men and the best athletes from mainland Greece and from the entire Mediterranean went to Olympia, sometimes as many as 40,000 individuals.
They camped near the sanctuary of Zeus. Its monuments included numerous temples and thousands of statues of gods, heroes, and athletes. The visitors anxiously awaited the five-day athletic competition and ceremonies exalting Zeus.
Olympia and the Olympics
Olympia and the Olympics were magnets for victorious poleis (city-states) and ambitious politicians. They funded treasuries or small but luxurious homes for their permanent presence in Olympia. Their treasuries displayed statues and gifts honoring Zeus or other gods and heroes.
Pausanias, a Greek historian of the second century, visited Olympia. By that time, Olympia and the Olympics were more than nine hundred years old.
Pausanias left us an inestimable account of what he saw. He said the Greek superhero and son of Zeus, Herakles, founded the Olympics. He advised future athletes to forget the temptation of money and focus their arete (virtue, courage, and daring) on winning an Olympic victory solely by the speed of their feet and the health of their strong bodies (Guide to Greece 5.7.6 and 21.4).
In the midst of ruins
My most recent visit to Olympia was in the summer of 2018. Suddenly, I found myself in the midst of ruins. I had seen those ruins before. I will say more about them later on. But this time, the building and statue fragments and stones and a few restored marble columns touched me profoundly.
I could and did reconstruct in my mind the wrecked temples. I could even see in my mind’s eye the games and heard the acclamations and laughter of the crowd watching the winners. The story of Pausanias, however, was all over my excited mind.
The Olympics, an antidote to war
The Olympics was about much more than honoring Zeus or the winners of the games. It was an organized effort to help the Greeks get to know each other better and perhaps even inspire them to work together at peace and war.
The Persians invaded Greece in 480 BCE. Macedonia, Thrace, and Boeotia under the leadership of Thebes joined Persia and fought against Athens and Sparta and the rest of the Greeks.
The Olympics was not entirely removed from war, however. Soldiers honored their famous dead with athletic games. Achilles, in the Trojan War, sponsored those games to honor his dead friend, Patroklos.
But like the Iliad of Homer, the Olympics was the Greek antidote to war. Greek city-states fought each other often enough. The ideal of the Olympics, and other Panhellenic games, was, if not to eliminate civil war, to at least bring it under control.
Greeks did not want war to wreck their dreams of forming a better commonwealth, perhaps even uniting their 1,500 or so states into a political Hellas.
The Olympics was an effort to build a Panhellenic commonwealth, a united Hellas under democratic governance. The Olympics was building better and nobler human beings. It was the Greeks’ struggle for arête.
The Olympics was so fundamental to the Greek character that, as I said, it lasted for more than a millennium. Even when the Persians were burning Athens in 480 BCE, the Olympics went on. Hostility between states ceased during a period before, during, and after the games. States rarely violated the sacred Olympics truce.
That’s why the Olympics was a philosophical, athletic, religious, and political way and means to end war among the Greeks.
Moreover, the Olympics was a gorgeous entertainment, a national Panhellenic love fest. The Athenian rhetorician Isokrates, 436-338 BCE, put it this way:
All Greeks admire and love the festival at Olympia. The Olympics give the Greeks an opportunity to display education, wealth and strength of body and training. The athletes are admired, and the cities of the victors become renowned. The victory of athletes in the Olympic games would honor Athens in the eyes of the whole of Greece (On the Team of Horses 32).
Seven centuries later, in the second century of our era, the writer Lucian explained:
It’s a pleasure being at the Olympics: sitting in the middle of the crowd watching the talent of athletes and their physical beauty, amazing conditioning and great skill and irresistible force and daring and pride and unbeatable determination and indescribable passion for victory. It’s almost impossible to stop praising and cheering and applauding (Anacharsis 9-14).
British scholar claims Olympics mirrored war
However, the British scholar, Judith Barringer, professor of Greek art and archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, sees the Olympics in slightly different colors.
In her new book, Olympia: A Cultural History (Princeton University Press, 2021), she says both Zeus and his worship at Olympia and the Olympics, and the actual athletic performances at the Olympics mirrored war. She saw “bellicose” behavior behind the throw of the discuss, javelin, and foot races, as well as the horse races, wrestling, boxing, and armed races.
No doubt, the military connection was never absent from athletics in the ancient or modern world. A strong man is definitely a potential soldier. War, after all, is killing the enemy.
Barringer admits that the Olympic games did not have team sports. This absence of team sports makes it difficult to connect the Olympics to hoplite warfare, which depends on team action.
Xenophon, a student of Socrates and a military leader, praised farming for raising food and soldiers. In the same fashion, all Panhellenic celebrations, and athletic games, including those at Olympia, were taking place in a culture in which war was never that far removed from life.
The Hellenic vision of the Olympics was peace and fraternity. The thousands of Greeks attending the Olympics had travelled long distances to see each other. And what better way to celebrate their common culture than expressing their immense pleasure with shouts and applauding the arete of victorious athletes?
The Greeks started their political experiment in the gymnasion-palaistra school of each state where they trained both the body and the mind of the young.
Barringer is focusing on Olympia, its origins, and monuments. However, her timely book has useful insights enriching our knowledge of Olympia and the Olympics. She praises the contributions of German archaeologists who have been digging at Olympia and writing about Olympia and the Olympics since 1875.
Achieving everlasting glory at the ancient Olympics
“Victors in the Olympic games enjoyed the extraordinary honor of being able to erect statues of themselves within the Altis, that is, to stand among images of mythological heroes and gods,” she wrote. “Here, one could achieve everlasting kleos (glory), something denied to average mortals.”
For a thousand years, Greek athletes competed in the nude for victory-kleos and perfection.
Barringer says the Olympia sanctuary was “dazzling, overwhelming, magical, and awe-inspiring” and Olympia and the Olympic games were an “extraordinary spectacle.”
I agree. Yet, Olympia was also a sacred ground for all Greeks. Not merely athletes, but poets, artists, philosophers, and politicians made the Olympics a festival of Greek civilization. Olympia during the Olympics was the place to be and to be seen.
Herodotos, the fifth-century BCE Greek father of history, read his history of the Persians wars at the Olympics. Olympia was full of temples and treasuries of states as far away from mainland Greece as Byzantium in the East and Cyrene in Libya.
There were also thousands of statues in Olympia, the statue of Zeus being by far the most spectacular. This statue, built by the Athenian sculptor, Pheidias, in 430 BCE, was in the temple of Zeus. The statue was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—both a masterpiece of art and an icon of Panhellenic piety. Homer described Zeus as the lord of lightning, the sky god, the almighty, and most glorious of the blessed gods.
Pheidias’ statue was the Zeus of Homer. The seated chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus was twelve meters high. Zeus was holding the goddess Nike (victory) on his right arm. The statue of Nike was about two meters high: the Olympics was clearly about the celebration of victory.
The violent end of Olympia and the Olympics
Barringer ends her book with a brief chapter on the end of Olympia and the Olympics. The Christian emperor, Theodosios, made the worship of the gods illegal in 393 of our era. This official anathema of Hellenic culture lighted the fires of church fanaticism that, literally, consumed Olympia, the Olympics, other Panhellenic games, and civilization in Greece. Practically nothing standing remained standing. Earthquakes and floods completed the destruction.
Yet, to my shock, Barringer said the Christians who inhabited Olympia in the fourth century formed a “vibrant community.” I wonder why she would honor the very barbarians who wiped out the greatest center of Hellenic civilization.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., is a historian and environmental theorist. He is the author of hundreds of articles and seven books, including “The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise” (Universal Publishers, 2021).