The end of the Olympic games

P027Just like the date of the first Olympics, the date of the last Olympics is disputed. Two Byzantine authors wrote, several centuries after it happened, that the Olympics came to their eind in the reign of Theodosius. They disagree on which Theodosius, though. Therefore, one can find today different dates for the end of the Olympics in handbooks: some claim that the Olympics were abolished by Theodosius I in AD 393, but others connect the abolition to his grandson Theodosius II, and usually place it in AD 426.

Both proposals are unconvincing, as they assume that the cause of the end must have been an imperial abolition. In the fourth and fifth century AD, Christian emperor indeed tried to ban pagan sacrifices and superstition. That the athletic contests fell prey to this anti-pagan policy is not written in the sources, however, they just tell when the games came to an end.

Recent research has demonstrated that pagan sacrifices disappeared already in the 340ís from the ceremonial of games. The connection between sport and religion was hence broken. The emperors even promoted the contests, as, just like other games, they were very good for their popularity. The main causes for the end of Greek athletics can be found in the economy and the mentality. Cities, who organized the games, had an increasing smaller income of their own, and could therefore hardly pay for the contests. Moreover, people started to see sports and the fame that could be won at the games in a more negative light. In late antiquity, both pagans and Christians started to think of training your body for a contest as an act of vanity.

A lot of contests across the Mediterranean disappeared in the course of the fourth century AD. The games at Olympia survived longer than most. Archaeological findings and some texts suggest that they survived the fourth century, but perished soon after. In the 420ís or 430ís, the statue of Zeus by Pheidias was transported to Constantinople. Around the same time the contest must have come to its end. Only one contest survived about a century longer, namely the local Olympic games of the metropolitan city of Antioch in Syria. The final edition of this contest took place in AD 520.

© KU Leuven, 2012