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THE OLYMPICS: Ancient Versus Modern

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Author Topic: THE OLYMPICS: Ancient Versus Modern  (Read 1084 times)
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« on: July 10, 2008, 06:50:53 pm »

Chariot race ©

                                                  The Olympics: Ancient versus Modern

By Dr Stephen Instone

Today's Olympic Games are based on what took place at Olympia, in Greece, nearly three millennia ago.

What were the ancient Olympics like, and how different were they from those of modern times?


Traditionally it has always been said that the Games started at Olympia in 776 BC, about the time
that Homer was born.

But for several centuries before that date Olympia had been a cult site for the worship of Zeus,
a numinous location away from human dwellings, overlooked by a hill, with the sacred River Alph
flowing through it.

What was it that caused people to change from honouring Zeus solely with dedicatory offerings, to honouring him through athletics? Several factors seem to have been involved. One is the rise of the Greek polis, or city-state. As city-states in different locations grew, each wanted a means of asserting its supremacy, so would send representatives to Olympia to become supreme in physical competition.

                               'The Games were an attractive means of getting men fit. '

Connected with this is the development of military training.

The Games were an attractive means of getting men fit. Another factor is the traditional Greek view that the gods championed a winner, so by establishing a competition aimed at producing supreme winners, they were thereby asserting the power and influence on humans of the supreme god, Zeus.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2008, 06:54:00 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2008, 06:58:44 pm »

A winner being presented
with tokens of victory ©

Earliest races

For the first 13 Olympics there was only one event, the stadion race , which was a running race up one length of the stadium. How long this race was is a matter for conjecture, as the ancient stadium, 192 meters long, visible at Olympia now, did not exist then.

In 724 BC a longer, there-and-back race, the diaulos, was introduced, followed four years later by the long-distance race, the dolichos, a race of perhaps 12 laps. The emphasis on running in the early years of the Olympics may reflect the perceived basic requirements for a fit soldier.

'The emphasis on running in the early years of the Olympics may reflect the perceived basic

requirements for a fit soldier.'

Boxing, wrestling, and the pancration (the 'all-power' race, combining all types of physical attack) soon followed, along with the pentathlon, and horse-and-chariot racing. A race while wearing armour was introduced in 520 BC, and even a mule race (in 500 BC, but it was not generally popular).

So the changing shape of the modern Olympic programme is not without precedent, though the ancient Greeks would perhaps have balked at the sight of some of our modern 'sports'.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2008, 07:02:41 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2008, 07:07:33 pm »

Religion and politics

Religion pervaded the ancient Olympics.

Zeus was thought to look down on the competitors, favouring some and denying victory to others.

'You could spur on a man with natural talent to strive towards great glory with the help of the gods'

 says Pindar in a victory-ode.

If an athlete was fined for cheating or bribery (human nature stays much the same over a few millennia), the money exacted was used to make a cult statue of Zeus.

A grand sacrifice of 100 oxen was made to Zeus during the Games, and Zeus the Apomuios, or 'averter of flies', was invoked to keep the sacrificial meat fly-free.

Olympia was home to one of Greece's great oracles, an oracle to Zeus, with an altar to him consisting
of the bonfire-heap created by burnt sacrificial offerings. As the offerings were burnt, they were examined by a priest, who pronounced an oracle - an enigmatic and often ambiguous prediction of the future - according to his interpretation of what he saw. Athletes consulted the oracle to learn what their chances in the Games were.

The Greeks tried to keep some aspects of politics out of the Olympics, but their efforts met then, as such efforts do now, with limited success. The Olympic truce was meant to lead to a cessation of hostilities throughout Greece, to allow competitors to travel and participate safely, but it was not always observed.

                               'A victorious athlete brought great honour to his home city.'

The great historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, tells how in 420 BC the Spartans violated
the truce by attacking a fort and dispatching hoplites, and they were therefore banned from the Games.
But Lichas, a prominent Spartan, thought of a way round the ban - he entered the chariot race as a Boeotian. When his true nationality was discovered, however, he was given a public flogging at Olympia.

A victorious athlete brought great honour to his home city.

The sixth-century Athenian statesman Solon promoted athletics by rewarding Athenian victors at the Games financially - an Olympic victor would receive 500 drachmae (for comparison, a sheep was worth one drachma). Thucydides represents the maverick Athenian leader Alcibiades as trying to drum up political support in 415 BC by boasting of his earlier successes in the Olympic Games.

And it is clear from the victory odes of Pindar and Bacchylides that the Sicilian tyrants in the fifth century aimed to strengthen their grip on affairs by competing in the equestrian events at the Games, and by commissioning famous poets to compose and publicly perform odes celebrating their victories.
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« Reply #3 on: July 10, 2008, 07:14:51 pm »

Nakedness and women

                                     'Sow naked, plough naked, harvest naked',

the poet Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer) advises.

He might have added 'compete in the Games naked', for that is usually understood to be the
standard practice among the ancient Greeks.

Some dispute this, for although the visual evidence for it - the painted decorations on vases -
generally shows athletes performing naked, all sorts of other people (eg soldiers departing for
war, which they would presumably have done clothed) are also shown unclad.

Also, some vases do show runners and boxers wearing loin-cloths, and Thucydides says that
athletes stopped wearing such garments only shortly before his time. Another argument is that
it must have been impractical to compete naked. On balance, however, it is generally thought
probable that male athletes were naked when competing at the Games.

'Women did not participate at the main Olympic festival.'

Women did not participate at the main Olympic festival. They had their own Games, in honour
of Hera, where the sole event was a run of five-sixths of the length of the stadium - which
would have preserved in male opinion the inferior status of women. Whether women could even
watch the festival is disputed.

Unmarried virgins, not soiled by sex or motherhood and thus maintaining the religious purity
of the occasion, probably could. Festivals (and, for example, funerals) were among the limited
occasions when women, especially virgins, or parthenoi, had a public role.

At the Games unmarried girls, besides helping with the running of the festival, may have taken
the opportunity to find a fit future husband.

As Pindar wrote, about a victor in the Greek colony of Cyrene -

                        'When they saw you many times victorious in the Games of Athene,

            each of the maidens was speechless as they prayed you might be her husband or son.'
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« Reply #4 on: July 10, 2008, 07:19:42 pm »

Boxing contest ©

Great athletes

Milo of Croton, in southern Italy, would come high on anyone's list of greats.

He was Olympic champion in the men's wrestling six times in the sixth century, besides winning once in the
Olympic boy's wrestling, and gaining seven victories in the Pythian Games. He is said to have carried his own
statue, or even a bull, into the Olympic arena, and to have performed party tricks such as holding a pomo-
granate without squashing it and getting people to pry open his hand - nobody could.

                   'He was Olympic champion in the men's wrestling six times in the sixth century, ...

                                     and gaining seven victories in the Pythian Games.'

Then there is Leonidas of Rhodes, who, in the second century BC won all three running events at four
consecutive Olympics.

Another great Rhodian athlete was Diagoras, who in the fifth century BC won at all four of the major Games (Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian). His three sons and two of his grandsons were also Olympic champions.

Superhuman heavyweights were regarded with special awe.

Cleomedes, a fifth-century Olympic boxing champion, killed an opponent at the Olympics, was disqualified, went
mad and smashed up a school.

Not a recipe for special reverence, you might think.

But the Greeks regularly explained abnormal feats and states of mind by saying that something
divine, or a god, had entered whoever was affected in this way, and Cleomedes ended up
receiving semi-divine honours as a hero.
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« Reply #5 on: July 10, 2008, 07:28:05 pm »

Long-distance runner ©

Athletics fans and haters

Not all Greeks admired athletes.

                                      'It isn't right to judge strength as better than good wisdom',

writes Xenophanes (sixth to fifth century BC). Just because someone has won an Olympic victory, he says, they won't improve the city.

The tragedian Euripides expressed similar sentiments in his play Autolycus, now only surviving in fragments. In it he describes how athletes are slaves to their stomachs, but they can't look after themselves, and although they glisten like statues when in their prime, become like tattered old
carpets in old age.

Galen, physician and polymath of the first century AD, also attacked athletics as unnatural and excessive. He thought that athletes eat too much, sleep too much and put their bodies through
too much.

But in the end the detractors of athletics lost out to the sympathisers.

The person who most idealised the Olympics was Pindar, from Thebes, midway between Delphi and Athens. Pindar composed odes for victors at the Olympic and other Games in the fifth century BC, comparing their achievements to those of the great heroes of the past - such as Heracles or Achilles - thus raising them to an almost divine level.

Galen, physician and polymath of the first century AD, also attacked athletics as

                                                    'unnatural and excessive.'

He thought that, though mortals, their superhuman feats of strength had temporarily elevated them
to another realm and given them a taste of incomparable bliss.

                             'For the rest of his life the victor enjoys a honey-sweet calm'

he writes.

For Pindar, the Olympics stood out among the Games -

'Water is best; gold like fire that is burning during the night is conspicuous outshining great wealth;

but if, my heart, you desire song to celebrate the Games, look no further than the sun for another

radiant star hotter in the empty day-time sky, nor let us proclaim a contest better than Olympia.'

Contrived poetry - let's hope he continues to be right
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« Reply #6 on: July 11, 2008, 01:00:39 am »

Good stuff, Bianca!  The ancient Olympics weren't commcercialized like you see them these days.
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« Reply #7 on: July 14, 2008, 09:51:57 pm »

                           Horse Racecourse In Ancient Olympia Discovered After 1600 Years

(July 14, 2008)

— The site of the ancient hippodrome course in Olympia, where the emperor Nero competed for Olympian laurels, has been discovered. The hippodrome was discovered in Olympia by a research
team that included Professor Norbert Müller (a sports historian from Mainz), Dr Christian Wacker (a sports archaeologist from Cologne) and PD Dr Reinhard Senff (chief excavator of the German Archaeological Institute - DAI.)

"This discovery is an archaeological sensation," commented Norbert Müller of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. The research project extended over several weeks before being completed in the middle of May 2008.

Prior to this, the hippodrome had only been known from written sources. Archaeologists had failed to locate its actual site. This is surprising, as German archaeologists have been continuously excavating the site of where the ancient olympiad was held since 1875; this research has become a tradition and innumerable archaeologists, historians, and sports historians from all over the world have been involved in trying to solve this secret for over a hundred years.

Pausanias, a travel writer of the ancient world, described this course for horse races, its starting mechanisms, turning points and altars in much detail in the 2nd century AD: "If you climb over the stand of the stadion along the side where the hellanodikai are seated, you reach a terrain, where the horse races and the starting mechanism for the horses are located. The starting mechanism has the form of the prow of a ship, with the tip pointing to the race-track. Along the side where the prow touches the column of Agnaptos, it is broad. At the farthest tip of the prow there is placed a bronze dolphin on a pole (11) Both sides of the starting mechanism are more than 400 feet long and there are starting gates incorporated in them.

These starting gates are assigned by lot to the competitors in the horse races. A cable is stretched out as starting barrier before the chariots or the ridden horses. An altar of unbaked brick, plastered on the outside, is constructed every Olympiad in the centre of the prow. (12) On the altar there is an eagle with outstretched wings. The race director operates a device inside the altar. When it is put into motion, the eagle flies up, so that it is visible for the spectators, and the dolphin falls to the ground. (13) The first cables to fall down are those on both sides of the column of Agnaptos and the horses in these positions leave first.

They now draw level with those who have drawn the lot for the second place and the starting ropes are lowered here; this procedure continues until all the horses are level in a row at the tip of the prow. At this point the drivers can begin to demonstrate their skills and the speed of their horses. (14) It was Kleoitas who invented the starting device and he was so proud of his invention that his statue in Athens bears the following inscription: "The first inventor of the starting mechanism for horses at Olympia made me: Kleoitas, son of Aristokles." It is said that a certain Aristeides modified this invention. (15) "The racecourse has one side longer than the other, and on the longer side, which is an earthen bank, there can be found, at the passage through the bank, Taraxippos, the Horse-Frightener." (Pausanias VI 20.10-15)

Another - previously unheeded - written source from the 11th century AD goes so far as to state the size and dimensions of the enclosure: "The olympiad has a course for horse races that [has a length of] 8 stadia. Each of the long sides is 3 stadia and 1 plethron long, while the width to the starting gates measures 1 stadion and 4 plethra, [a total of] 4800 feet. Near the Taraxippos, behind which - so it is said - there is concealed an ancient hero, the horses run around a turning post; the finishing point of the race, however, is the pillar of Hippodameia. Among the horses, those in the foal category run a distance of 6 stadia, while those in the adult category run 12 stadia; chariots with a pair of foals travel three times around the circuit and those with adult horses eight times; chariots with four foals complete a total of eight circuits, while those with four adult horses complete 12 circuits." (Tabula Heroniana II, Fol. 27f.)

To date, it had been assumed that nothing of the hippodrome had survived, as the area described by Pausanias to the east of the sanctuary of Olympia has been flooded by the Alfeios River since ancient times and has become covered with silt. In modern plans and descriptions it is usually stated quite simply that "nothing remains of the hippodrome due to flooding in medieval times".

This served as an additional incentive for the German researchers: Using modern geophysical methods, they systematically searched the area for the first time. The experts Armin Grubert (Mainz) and Christian Hübner (Freiburg), who specialize in the use of geomagnetic and georadar techniques, were able to map soil disturbances such as water courses, ditches, and walls. Conspicuous, rectilinear structures were indeed discovered along a stretch of almost 1200 meters. The researchers believe this to be the racecourse, which ran parallel to the stadium. Structural remains identified as the temple of Demeter that is known to have been sited near the hippodrome were discovered in the northern part of the area investigated in the spring of 2007.

Of particular interest is the fact that at the halfway point of the northern access to the starting-gates - where Pausanias describes entering the hippodrome - there is a circular arrangement with a diameter of about 10 meters, clearly marked in the ancient soil layer, which could be the remains of the sacred structure described here by the ancient writer. The actual starting-gates, with boxes for up to 24 teams of horses, are most probably located under a gigantic pile of earth excavated by the archaeologists investigating the temple area since 1875.

The investigation of the area east of the sanctuary of Olympia, only made possible by the research funds provided by the Institute of Sports Science of the University of Mainz and the International Riding Association, has produced the first concrete indications of the location of the racecourse and its geographical dimensions.. Ten students were on hand to assist the sports historian Professor Norbert Müller, who is an authority on Olympia. "The DAI, with its branch in Athens, has done sports history a great service through its contribution," said Müller. "The project could become a new attraction for the sports world, similar to the excavation of the ancient Olympic stadium 50 years ago."
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« Reply #8 on: July 14, 2008, 09:54:11 pm »

The area east of the sanctuary of Olympia had not been the subject of archaeological investigation before, although the ancient written sources show that this must have been the site of the largest construction, in area terms, built to host competitions. According to Pausanias, the hippodrome lay south of the now researched and reconstructed stadium, and must now be several meters below the current level. It is only here, between the adjoining hills on the other side of the road to Arcadia in the north and the bed of the Alfeios River in the south (which has since been straightened) that the topology is suitable for the accommodation of a racecourse with a length of more than one kilometer.

Nevertheless, the geological and geographical conditions are not favorable. On the one hand, intensive agricultural use has produced stark changes to the historical geography, and, on the other hand, the course of the Alfeios River, which once meandered through the plain, has changed several times over the centuries. The landscape in this area has changed so much that it is nearly impossible to reconstruct its appearance in ancient times. It is known today that the level of the river in medieval times was about 9 meters higher than in ancient times, but that about 7 meters of the deposited material has since been eroded and carried away by the river. This means that the ancient remains to the east of the sanctuary lie about 2 meters below the current level.

The racecourse described in such detail by Pausanias (Book VI 20.10-15) was located at this level. According to this author, the teams lined up in the shape of a prow of a ship in starting-gates in front of a hall; the starting signal was a brass eagle that was raised and lowered by means of a hoisting mechanism, while a dolphin figure moved in front of the drivers. There was space for spectators along a wall on the southern side and along the adjoining hills to the north, but it seems that there were no stone stands similar to those of the great circuses in Rome or Carthage.

Various reconstructions have been based on Pausanias' description, with the racecourse usually assumed to be twice as wide as the starting-gates. However, it was only after a hand-written medieval document from the 11th century was correctly reinterpreted by J. Ebert in 1989 that the actual appearance and dimensions of the hippodrome became apparent. The complex had a length of 1052 meters and a width of 64 meters, not including the earth walls built for the spectators. The starting-gates stretched the full width of the racecourse.

Modern geomagnetic methods were used by a team of German scientists in April/May 2008 to explore the accessible terrain at the level described above. Two different physics-based techniques were used. Geomagnetic mapping of archaeological structures involves the accurate, high-resolution recording of the tiny magnetic anomalies in the earth's magnetic field that these cause. Such anomalies are usually caused by the presence of foundations, large stone objects or burnt layers. This technique was used in combination with georadar, a ground penetrating form of radar. In this electromagnetic technique, short impulses that each last only a few nanoseconds are radiated into the ground. These are reflected by the margins of different layers and by objects. A combination of the two methods can be used to detect anomalies and even to determine at what depth they are located in the ground. This makes it possible to determine within which layer (modern, medieval, ancient) the identified anomalies are probably located.

An area of 10.5 hectares was finecombed with geomagnetic mapping techniques, while georadar was used to investigate an area of 3.6 hectares. It was not always possible to penetrate the thick layers of fine sand, while the remains of decades of agriculture in the form of fences, channels and concrete structures also made results difficult to interpret.

Nevertheless, some significant finds were made. It appears that there was never extensive construction on the site. The innumerable channels extending to the northern perimeter of the area once defined the edges of terraces or water drainage conduits. The Alfeios River would have repeatedly flooded the entire area up to the foot of the hills. As the ancient level is approximately 2 meters below the current level, however, any remains will have been protected to some extent. This means that the parallel anomalies (ditches, walls, earthworks) identified along a length of almost 200 meters must represent the remains of the ancient hippodrome.

The hippodrome was thus sited parallel to the stadium and ended where there is a distinctive bend in the modern road at its eastern turning point. Approximately half-way along the northern access route to the starting-gates - where Pausanias entered the hippodrome - a circular stone formation with a diameter of about 10 metres was found in a layer dating from ancient times. Some remains that were most probably once buildings located on a terrace have been discovered near the road on the northern side of the hippodrome. As remains of a temple of Demeter have been discovered by Greek archaeologists in the immediate vicinity underneath the modern road, it now seems likely that this was the location described by Pausanias.

Hence, without any need for excavation, modern geomagnetic techniques have given us the first clear indications of the site of the hippodrome east of the sanctuary of Olympia. This means that archaeological and sports-historical research has come a little closer to solving one of the last great mysteries of Olympia.


Adapted from materials provided by

Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz,
via AlphaGalileo.
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