Category Archives: Olympic Games

Mythbusting Ancient Rome: did Christians ban the ancient Olympics?



File 20180219 75974 1norarm.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A Greek amphora showing athletes, 4th century B.C.
©Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, University of Roehampton

Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.

The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?

Imperial intervention?

Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:

No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.

Marble fragment depicting animal sacrifice, Rome, 2nd century AD. Now in the Louvre.
Wikimedia Commons.

Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.

The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.

The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):

Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.

Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.

Economic stringencies

Coin of Theodosius I.
Wikimedia

What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.

The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.

Let the games continue

Statue at Le Parc Olympique, Lausanne of the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.
Wikimedia Commons

The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.

De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:

It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.

De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.

Cover of the official report of 1896 Athens Summer Olympics.
Wikimedia Commons

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.

The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.

Ending with a whimper not a bang

Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.

The ConversationBy the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.

Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Roman History, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics, University of Roehampton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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History of the Olympics



Cheating, bribery and scandal: how the ancient Greeks did the Olympic Games


Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

Is cheating at the Olympic Games a symptom of modernity? Do recent scandals involving athletes signal the decline of the Olympic idea?

While in antiquity instances of bribery remained the exception – and were heavily punished – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that attempts to manipulate the outcome of the competitions are as old as the Games themselves.

Take the example of Damonikos of Elis. One father of a young and promising athlete bribed the father of his son’s opponent to ensure his offspring a victory in wrestling. Both fathers were found out and fined.

Or consider the case of the Athenian Kallipos, who bribed his opponents to secure victory in the pentathlon. He, too, was caught out and a heavy fine was imposed on him and on those who had accepted the bribe.

Athens, however, refused to pay and even boycotted the Games. It took the intervention of the Delphic Oracle to resolve the situation: Delphi announced that no more oracles would be delivered to the Athenians until the they had paid up.

Such attempts to influence the outcome of the Games confirm that the competitive streak ran strongly through ancient Greek culture. In a world where few believed in an afterlife, this-worldly glory mattered immensely. And what better opportunity to show off than competing with others before an audience from all over the Greek world?

From 776BCE on, the Greeks gathered every four years to celebrate the Olympic Games and compete in a number of disciplines, including the foot race, boxing and various equestrian skills. The Games became part of an elaborate festival circuit, which also featured competitions in trumpet-playing and the recitation of poetry. Even beauty contests – for men! – are attested, albeit not at Olympia itself.

Scandal in the sanctuary

The ancient Games were celebrated not in a city called Olympia but at the sanctuary of Olympic Zeus on the western Peloponnese. They were organised by the city of Elis, which tended the site and provided the hellanodikai (judges) every four years to oversee the proper conduct of the Games.

This British Museum model from 1980 shows the site of Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games, as it looked around 100 BC (on a scale of 1:200).
British Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The competitions were part of a lavish festival to honour the most powerful of the Greek gods and featured sacrifices, processions and dedications. Yet the religious setting did not necessarily ensure a more solemn and respectful attitude on the part of the participants. While most of the athletes stuck to the rules, some were prepared to do whatever it took to secure victory.

The Alexandrian boxer Apollonius arrived at the Games too late and was banned from competing. He claimed that bad weather had made it impossible for him to arrive on time. This was a straight lie: it turned out that Apollonius was late because he had secured himself a nice payout at some other Games.

What happened next was even more outrageous. In the words of the author Pausanias:

In these circumstances the Eleans shut out from the games Apollonius with any other boxer who came after the prescribed time, and let the crown go to Heracleides without a contest. Whereupon Apollonius put on his gloves for a fight, rushed at Heracleides and began to pummel him, though he had already put the wild olive on his head and had taken refuge with the umpires. For this light-headed folly he was to pay dearly.

As in the modern world, who was allowed to compete was crucial; in the ancient world, this meant (for most of the history of the Games) exclusively free Greek males. That was the theory, at least. In practice, there were times the citizens of a particular city were excluded from the Games for misconduct. This is why a Boeotian man once claimed to be from Sparta.

Women were not allowed even to visit the sanctuary during the Olympic Games, let alone compete. They had their own Games, the so-called Heraia. Once a young athlete’s mother managed to sneak in by masquerading as his male trainer. When her son secured the victory, she got overly excited and blew her cover.

Pankration scene: the pankriatiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent’s eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. Detail from an Attic red-figure kylix. By Foundry Painter
Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Even the judges were not beyond reproach. In the equestrian disciplines, the owner of the winning horse took victory. A certain Troilos was able to win two contests over which he presided as judge. He apparently did not find this problematic: a bronze plaque boasts of his achievements to the rest of the Greek world.

The Eleans subsequently changed the rules, and judges’ horses were no longer allowed to compete.

Fines and prizes

At Olympia, competitors found to be cheating had to pay a hefty fine. The sanctuary featured a row of statues of Zeus – the so-called Zanes – that were financed by these fines and put on display for all to see. Visiting in the second century AD, Pausanias was still able to tell who had financed which statue and for what reason.

Even in the ancient world, it seems, cheating didn’t pay.

So what was at stake? The winner took all. Coming second or third did not rate and brought no public recognition. The winning athlete at Olympia received a crown of olive branches – at Delphi, fresh celery.

If this seems hardly worth the fuss, more lavish rewards waited at home in the form of cash, free meals and numerous public honours. Some winners also received life-size statues erected at Olympia or in their home town, or both.

Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (AD 37-68).
Shutterstock

The possibility of exploiting the Games for political ends and the opportunities for personal aggrandisement were not lost on the ancients: Emperor Nero moved the Games from AD 65 to AD 67 so that he could enter the competitions in chariot racing – which he did, with a ten-horse team.

During the race, the overly keen emperor fell from his chariot and was unable to finish. Nevertheless, Nero was awarded the crown. The officials simply argued that had the accident not happened, the Roman emperor would surely have won.

Nero’s Olympic “achievements” were later removed from the public records and the Games of AD 76 declared null and void. The intervention had been too obvious, particularly after it emerged that Nero had paid the judges a hefty bribe and also awarded them Roman citizenship.

Cheating, bribery and scandal, it seems, were part of the Games right from the start – as were attempts to prevent them. They are not a sign of the decline of the Olympic idea in the modern era, but part of human nature.

For better or worse, it seems, the absolute will to succeed can be absolute indeed and in antiquity just as today ambition cuts both ways, bringing out the best and the worst in people.

The Conversation

Julia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Origin of the Olympics



Article: A Brief History of Olympic Defectors


The Olympic Games are coming to a close once again. The link below is to an article that has a brief history of Olympic defectors, which generally occurred during the Cold War era.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/136869


Article: Crazy Stories from the Olympics


The link below is to an article reporting on some of the more strange things that have happened at the Olympics over the years.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/136316.


Article: The Ancient Olympic Games


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Olympic Games – very interesting read.

For more visit:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120727-2012-olympics-opening-ceremony-ancient-london-world-summer-games/


Article: Notable Medalists in Olympic Art Competitions


The link below is to an article that looks at 11 medalists in Olympic Games Art Competitions, in a further look at Olympic Games History.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/135775


Article: Memorable Moments from Past Opening Olympic Games Ceremonies


The link below is to an article that looks back at memorable moments in past Olympic Games opening ceremonies.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/135551


Article: Olympic Games Art Competitions


The link below is to the final article on a series of articles about art competitions in the Olympic Games.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/135596


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