Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ancient Olympic Games

Olympic Games - Wrestling
The Olympic games are thought to have started sometime around 778BC as a celebration in honor of Zeus, the god of thunders and ruler over the human kind. The event took place every four years and, it was the only opportunity to see the Spartan generals near the Athenian politicians going along with philosophers all over Greece. For just a few days the Hellenic world would forget about all their feuds and embrace sports as their common language.

The Sacred Truce was an understanding between Hellenic tribes to stop all wars during the Olympic games and to allow free passage to pilgrims on their way to Olympia. Nothing was above the Sacred Truce. That is why even Philip II, Alexander the Great's father, well known for his temper agreed to pay a huge fine for disturbing the pilgrims that were considered to be sacred. Also, that is why King Leonidas was left alone with only 300 of his men to withstand the Persian invasion.

Olympic Games - Chariot Race
Greeks being of a very competitive nature, winners were not reworded with wealth as you might expect but with a simple olive wreath. What they would win though is social status. A winner at the Olympic games would obtain the right (socially speaking)  to merry a rich woman, he would be invited to feasts, get free meals or lodging. He would be the now days equivalent of a TV star. People would look up to him and everything he would touch would turn to gold (not literally of course - King Midas is another story)

At these events,  women were not allowed to participate or even to watch  but that doesn't mean that they did not come to the event. Pompous carriages, fatuous dresses and sparkling jewelry, they would do anything to impress. As Indro Montanelli says in his book " The History of the Greeks", women came there to be seen rather then to see. Around the close gates of the arena there was the today's equivalent of a Luna Park. From taverns to jugglers, from boutiques to street vendors you would find anything you could think of.

Regarding the women not being allowed in the arena...Well, there was one  exception. A mother who disguised herself as a man in order to see her son fight in the ring of the sports arena. Her happiness  gave her away though when her son won the olive wreath and she was taken away in order to be killed since that was an offense punishable by death. The story says that Hercules himself appeared to defend her since she was descendent from his family. She was not executed but as a result of this incident all spectators from the arena had to attend the events naked. That way there would be no chance of disguise. Simple problem, simple solution:) 
Stadium Entrance Olympia

The ancient Olympic games came to an end in 393 AD through a decree of Emperor Theodosios I. Since the Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion they tried to discourage and later even outlawed any form of pagan ceremony. And since the Olympic games were mainly a religious event being dedicated to Zeus it has been abolished. Olympia fell into decline and what was left of it was destroyed by the Romans in 486 AD through a decree given by Theodosios II.

An interesting thing that, I believe, is worth mentioning before the end is that the Marathon was never part of the ancient Olympic games. It comes from the battle of Marathon (490BC) in which the Greeks have won against the Persians. Pheidippides who was a courier by profession ran more than 40km from Marathon to Athens to bring the news of victory. Νικωμεν (nikomen - meaning "we won") was his last word. After that he collapsed and died. The was the first one to run the Marathon but he was also the only Marathon winner who did not enjoy the spoils of victory.

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