Ancient Olympic Games

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Neck amphora around 510-500 BC Chr.
The right boxer goes down and gives up by hand and fingers the sign to give up. His opponent continues to penetrate him and is therefore hit by the referee with a long whip.

The ancient Olympic Games were a major sporting event in ancient times and part of the Panhellenic Games . They took place every four years after the end of an Olympiad , each summer. The venue was the Sacred Grove of Olympia in the Elis region on the Peloponnese peninsula .

According to the official calendar, the Olympic Games (also called the Elish Olympics ) were held from 776 BC. Held until AD 393. However , competitions in Olympia can only be archaeologically proven from around 700 BC. Chr. Apparently, even after the sanctuary was officially closed in AD 393, they continued into the 6th century, albeit on a modest scale.

The ancient tradition was followed by the introduction of the modern Olympic Games in 1894, on the initiative of Pierre de Coubertin .


According to the traditional ancient calendar, the first official Olympic Games of the ancient world took place in 776 BC. Instead of. According to late ancient traditions, there were already sports competitions in the Olympics before that, but the historicity of the Olympic Games in the 8th century BC. There are strong doubts. Although there was in Olympia since the 11th century BC A cult operation, but athletic competitions can only be held for about 700 BC at the earliest. Archaeological evidence. Only in the early 6th century BC The originally local competitions gained national importance. A first list of winners, the basis of which is unknown, was made by Hippias von Elis towards the end of the 5th century BC. Manufactured.

In 776 BC It is said that the games of the kings Iphitus of Elis , Cleosthenes of Pisa and Lycurgus of Sparta were regulated by an agreement. These rulers, who competed for precedence in Olympia, guaranteed the sacred truce ( Ekecheiria ) that prevailed during the time of the Games to ensure safe arrival and departure for all involved. The ceasefire only applied to athletes who wanted to travel to the games. The holy places of Olympia were not allowed to be entered in arms anyway, which also guaranteed a safe stay. Since then, the games have taken place every four years in August and have been religious festivals with an extensive accompanying program.

There are different opinions about the genesis of the games. Greek myths declared partly Heracles , partly Pelops to be their founders. On the gable of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia the chariot race was depicted in which Pelops - after which the Peloponnese peninsula is named - defeated and killed King Oinomaos by deceit. Allegedly, Pelops set up the games to purge himself of the blood guilt of the king's death.


The Olympia Games were the oldest of the sports festivals in ancient Greece. They achieved the greatest importance and also survived the longest. The Panhellenic Games also included the Pythian Games held every four years in Delphi in honor of Apollo , the Nemean Games held every two years in honor of Zeus at Nemea and Argos, and at the same time the Isthmian Games in honor of Poseidon of Corinth . The Athenians, on the other hand, never succeeded in including the Panathenaic Games near Athens in the round of "sacred games".

Sport and cult, consecration and competition were combined at the venue. The ancient Olympic Games were of incomparable importance, culturally and politically. They served as a political forum, as the people as well as diplomats and political representatives from all parts of the Greek world came together. After the Persian Wars , the eternally quarreling Greeks came to the conclusion that Olympia should become the symbol of their domestic unity, with an oracle and a court of arbitration.

Not to be underestimated is the organizational task of the officials in Olympia themselves, who were responsible for the smooth running of the ancient major event. People of all classes and professions used the days as a social forum and for economic reasons. In addition to the competitions, there were also theatrical performances and conversations between stalls with a folk festival character, such as performances by trumpeters and jugglers. The common people lived in simple tent cities.



In the actual competitions ( agons ), unmarried women and free men were allowed to watch and only the latter were allowed to compete, who were full citizens and without blood guilt , of honest birth and not guilty of any crime. The priestess of Demeter was also allowed to attend the games in the stands of the judges ( Hellanodiken ). Married women and unfree women were not allowed to participate as competitors or spectators. Failure to comply with this ban could result in the death penalty.

Nevertheless, women could also be honored as Olympic champions, since in the chariot races it was not the charioteer but the racing team owner who was awarded the victory honor. In this way, Kyniska from Sparta became a two-time Olympic champion. All other women had their own competitions known as Heraia that took place every four years between the Olympic Games. The winners were also wreathed with olive branches and were allowed to consecrate their statue in the temple of Hera after these games .

In the early days of the Olympic Games, the competitors were only particularly sporty free men, but later mainly professional athletes from more affluent backgrounds who could afford the long training times without any financial problems.

Competition judges

The competition judges , Hellanodiken , checked the eligibility of the athletes ( athletes ) and monitored compliance with hygiene , training and of course compliance with the competition rules in Olympia. At the beginning of the games, she and the athletes were sworn in. The allocation of the athletes (and horses) into age groups - there was no birth certificate - they made on the basis of visual inspection. If they violated the rules, they had the right to order corporal punishment. Early starters in the running disciplines were also threatened with this punishment, which was carried out by the “whip bearers”.

In the competitions, neither times nor distances were measured, because the only thing that counted was being first.

Penalties for rule violations

For the participants in the cult games, strict rules applied to which they were sworn at the beginning. In the event of violations, the following penalties were applied: Either the participant was immediately excluded from further competitions and sent to his hometown in dishonor, or at the expense of the offender, statues of Zeus were made and placed at the entrance to the stadium, on whose pedestals the name and place of origin of the person punished were made were immortalized. These statues are called Zanes (plural for Zeus) and today's visitors can view the bases of these statues; In total, however, only 16 such statues have been erected over the centuries. If necessary, a public flogging was carried out by slaves. This happened very rarely, however, as corporal punishments (other than the death penalty) were only applied to slaves.

From today's perspective it was strange that an athlete who won by breaking the rules was punished but kept the title and laurel wreath.

The clothing ban in gymnastic competitions

The gymnical competitions ( gymnical agone ) include those sports of antiquity in which the athletes competed naked ( gymnos = naked). These were lightweight and heavy events including the pentathlon . These competitions were held in the stadium , east of the Altis .

From the 95th Olympic Games 400 BC. Not only were all athletes obliged to compete in the nude, the arrangement was also extended to the coaches. The reason was that at the 94th Olympic Games in 404 BC. Chr. Kallipatira had crept in as a trainer. When her son won, she jumped over the barrier and exposed herself. Due to the merits of her father, her brothers and her son, who were all Olympic champions, she was not punished for it.


Ancient Olympia consisted of the Altis (sacred grove) and the immediately adjacent sports facilities and was an estimated 30 hectares in size. The Spartans acted as the protective power of the games , while the Eleans were responsible for the organization.


A training camp was set up in Elis ten months before the start of the competitions . The athletes must have obtained this at least 30 days before the start of the games. In Olympia there were also training rooms, pools, hostels and a library for the athletes. Even a special sports nutrition for track and field athletes was invented back then. It consisted of barley bread, wheat porridge and dried fruits, among other things.

Sporty program

The Olympic Stadium today

For a long time, the only sport there was a race over the distance of the stadium (192.27 meters). The winner lit the fire on the altar in front of the Temple of Zeus - this was considered a special honor. Within the 456 BC Completed temple was from 438 BC. Created Zeus statue of Phidias - one of the seven ancient wonders of the world .

Due to the larger number of competitions, the games were extended from one to five days over the centuries, which ultimately resulted in the following sequence:

The games always began two days before the second or third full moon after the summer solstice - i.e. in August or September of our monthly bill - on the first day with a sacrificial ceremony. The athletes and referees took an oath that they would respect the peace of the games and the rules of competition. Then the competitions began.

  • In the afternoon of the first day, the boys' competitions in running, wrestling and fistfighting took place.
  • On the second day there were races and chariot races. In addition, the pentathlon, which was the highlight of the games, was played.
  • On the third day, after the sacrifice of a bull, further running competitions were held, first the long-distance run, then the simple short-distance run and finally the double run.
  • On the fourth day the athletes fought for victory in the disciplines of wrestling, boxing, pankration and gun barreling.
  • On the last day there was a procession of the victors to the temple of Zeus and victory celebrations.

Honoring the winner

The winners were honored with a palm branch, a headband and a wreath of branches from the kotinos kallistephanos (literally “olive tree of beautiful wreaths”). This wild olive tree stood near the temple of Zeus. They were then allowed to take the headband and head wreath home with them. In their hometown they were then celebrated as heroes. They were privileged through tax exemptions, monetary bonuses, gifts, civil rights, and grand funerals.

In contrast to the modern Olympic Games, there was no honor for the second and third placed . Only the best athlete was celebrated. It is reported by some athletes that they would rather die than finish second in the Olympics.

Aristotle made a list of the winners of the competitions, which was a special honor.


Running competitions

Runner at the Panathenaic Games (vase, c. 530 BC). Running depictions from Olympia are not known.

Running ( dromos ) is the oldest discipline. In the first 13 Olympiads, the stadium run was the only competition, only after 15 Olympiads were other disciplines added to the running competitions. All runs were carried out barefoot and started with the high start , the low start was still unknown. False starts are said to have been punished with stick blows.

The running track in the stadium was 192.28 m long, measured between the grooves on the start and finish thresholds; Usually, the Greek length of a stadium was 600 feet, which is why the Olympic foot is assumed to be 32.04 cm long.

The lanes ran straight ahead over the entire length of the stadium. During the competitions in the direction of Zeus Altar, d. H. started towards the Altis. There were no circular tracks around a central field in ancient times - in the double run, every athlete had to turn around a pole on his track halfway through the distance. For the long-distance run, a pole was probably put at the beginning and the end of the track, around which all participants had to turn (pendulum run).

Gun barrel


  • 776 BC - stadion ( stadium run ): short-distance run over a stadium (192.28 m)
  • 724 BC - diaulos (double run): short distance run of double length (approx. 385 m)
  • 720 BC - dolichos : long-distance run over 20 or 24 stadiums (approx. 3845 m or 4614 m)
  • 520 BC - hoplitodromos (hoplite run): weapon run over two stadiums (approx. 385 m)

The participants in the gun run originally wore the complete equipment of a hoplite , but later they no longer had to put on spears and greaves, only helmets and shields were required.


The ancient pentathlon ( pentathlon ) was a combination of five competitions held in one afternoon. The ancient Pentathlon was first held in 708 BC. Held.

These were:

How the winner of the Pentathlon was determined is not clear. It is most likely, however, that an athlete had to drop out if a competitor was better placed than him in three disciplines. The Pentathlon could already be over when a participant had won the first three disciplines. If the decision was not made until the wrestling match, some participants were already eliminated.

Greek jumping weights

There is disagreement on whether the weights that athletes carried in some disciplines should make them difficult. According to studies by the Sport University Cologne and the Manchester Metropolitan University , the jumping weights for the long jump ( Halteres ) were used to achieve a greater distance with the help of the special jumping technique. The weights were jerked forward when jumping from a standing position and probably pushed back just before landing. The long jump was probably carried out in five individual jumps in a row, so that the only historically documented width of around 16 meters is also possible for today's athletes.

Heavy athletics

For heavy events which owned wrestling ( pale ), the fist fight ( pygme ) and Pankration ( pankration ). With pankration everything was allowed except for biting and drilling in the eyes. Fighting continued until an opponent gave up, was knocked out or died. The ancient wrestling match was the forerunner of today's Greco-Roman wrestling , the ancient fistfight the forerunner of today's boxing and the ancient all- fighting the forerunner of today's mixed martial arts .


  • 708 BC Chr. - pale : men's wrestling match
  • 688 BC BC - Pygme : men's fistfight
  • 648 BC Chr. - pankration : All-fight of men
  • 632 BC Chr. - pale : wrestling match of boys
  • 616 BC BC - pygme : fistfight of the boys
  • 200 BC Chr. - pankration : All-fight of the boys

Equestrian competitions

Pseudo-Panathenaic price amphora, approx. 500 BC Chr .: chariot race with a team of four (Munich, antique collections)

The equestrian competitions (hipster agone) were held in the hippodrome next to the Altis . We rode without a saddle and stirrups . The teams in the chariot races were mostly driven by slaves , but also women. Most of the time it was the “gentleman” or the racing team owner who earned the victory fame, Bilistiche as a woman was an exception. The racing stable owners were mostly aristocrats . Equestrian sport was expensive, and this is still the case today.


  • 680 BC - Tethrippon : four-team over 12 laps (approx. 13,843 m)
  • 648 BC - Horse race over 2 laps (approx. 2307 m)
  • 500 to 444 BC BC - apene : two horses with mules
  • 496 to 444 BC Chr. - calpe : Mare race over 8 laps (approx. 9229 m)
  • 408 BC BC - synoris : chariot race for two horses
  • 384 BC - Four team with foals over 8 laps (approx. 9229 m)
  • 268 BC - Two-team with foals over 3 laps (approx. 3641 m)
  • 256 BC - Foal race over one lap (approx. 1154 m)

The lap numbers are based on the assumption that the running track of the hippodrome minus the starting device was just under 600 meters long until the turn, so that one lap was 1154 m long (six stadiums of 192.27 m each). This seems logical due to the smooth lap numbers, but it is controversial.

Decline of the games

Political conflicts within Greece and the influence of the Roman Empire on ancient Greece from the 2nd century BC BC also affected the Olympic Games. In the year 80 BC After sacking Olympia and Delphi to finance his wars , the Roman dictator Sulla had the games held in Rome . Emperor Nero , on the other hand, had the idea of ​​postponing the time of the game so that it would fit better into his travel plan: he visited Greece in 66 AD and on this occasion took part in all four Panhellenic competitions. Other Roman emperors later gave a new boost by building new buildings and an irrigation system.

Probably for the last time the Olympic Games of antiquity were held in 393 AD, before the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had all pagan ceremonies banned in 394, which also included these Games. How effective this ban was is controversial. For a long time it seemed to be clear that the games would not be played at least after 426 AD, as a fire completely destroyed the temple of Zeus that year. However, recently archaeological research has provided evidence that competitions were still held in Olympia in the 6th century - albeit on a modest scale. Invasions by Goths and Avars , but above all an incursion by the Slavs soon after 580, finally put an end to ancient Olympia.

Floods of the Kladeos , landslides of the Kronos Hill and earthquakes are the reason why the ancient venue was not rediscovered until 1766, before German excavations began in 1875, which quickly led to the popularization of Olympia all over Europe. The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896 .

Presidents of the Games

Although this post did not exist, there were still two presidents of the Olympic Games. On the one hand there was a Rhodian named M. Cocceius Timasarchus around 200 BC. On the other hand, it was Herod Agrippa I. Timasarchus is believed to have made a corresponding donation for this, from Herod it has been handed down. The reason for Herod's donation was that - due to the murder of Julius Caesar and the spread of the Roman civil wars in the direction of Greece - not only was the financing of the games no longer guaranteed, but the number of participants also decreased significantly. It was only thanks to Herod's generous donation in 12 AD that the games could be resumed as usual.

Famous athletes

Antique list of Olympic champions of the 75th to 78th and 81st to 83rd Olympic Games (480–468 and 456–448 BC)
Video: Ancient Olympians

There were also celebrated sports stars in antiquity: athletes who gained money and influence through their fame and whose sporting achievements were legendary.



  • Chionis of Sparta : Winner in long jump, triple jump, running competitions ( stadium , diaulos )
  • Kyniska from Sparta : first traditional female Olympic champion, won two horse races ( tethrippon )



Other cities


  • Emperor Nero (charioteer of a ten-horse carriage): overthrown, but declared victor

See also


Individual evidence

  1. Ulrich Sinn : Olympia. In: The New Pauly (DNP). Volume 2, Metzler, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-476-01472-X , Sp. 1175 f. (and 1183).
  2. Plutarch , Numa 1, 4.
  3. MI Finley, HW Pleket: The Olympic Games of Antiquity. Wunderlich, Tübingen, 1976, ISBN 3-8052-0263-6 , p. 118.
  4. MI Finley, HW Pleket: The Olympic Games of Antiquity. Wunderlich, Tübingen, 1976, ISBN 3-8052-0263-6 , p. 95.
  5. MI Finley, HW Pleket: The Olympic Games of Antiquity. Wunderlich, Tübingen, 1976, ISBN 3-8052-0263-6 , p. 57.
  6. Review: Ancient Olympians put to the test ( memento of March 9, 2012 in the Internet Archive ). W for knowledge on: of July 21, 2004
  7. a b Ancient long jumpers swung weights . Article on SpiegelOnline from November 14, 2002
  8. ^ Ancient long jump with weight ( Memento from January 12, 2014 in the Internet Archive ). Article on: from November 14, 2002
  9. The Pentathlon - The Ancient Pentathlon (PDF; 132 kB). In: Forum Archaeologiae, journal for classical archeology. 42 / III / 2007. p. 6.
  10. a b c d e f after Werner Rudolph: Olympic martial arts in antiquity. Fistfight, wrestling and pankration in the Greek National Festival. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1965, p. 2.
  11. Manfred Lämmer : A propaganda campaign by King Herod in Olympia. In: Perspectives in Sports Science. Yearbook of the German Sport University Cologne 1972 (= Cologne contributions to sport science. No. 1), pp. 160–173; MI Finlex, HW Pleket: The Ancient Olympic Games. Wunderlich, Tübingen, 1976, ISBN 3-8052-0263-6 , p. 161.

Web links

Commons : Category: Ancient Sports  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files