Athletic contests throughout antiquity

Sport was a part of Greek culture from very early on. The earliest period is not well-known, though – not even the beginning of the Olympic games is clear. The beginning of the first millennium BC is called the ‘Dark Ages’: archaeological remains from this period are scarse, written texts non-existent. This makes it hard to determine the historical reality of the time. We do know, however, that in stories originating in the oral traditions of this time, such as the Iliad by Homer, sports contests already figure, often as part of funerals, for example the funerary games for Patroklos.

After the Dark Ages followed the so-called Archaic Period. For the secenth and sixth century BC, we have more sources, such as vase paintings and early inscriptions on stone discovered during excavations. In this period, it became common in Greece to organize competitions in important sanctuaries. The participants were men from the higher classes, who had enough time and income to train and travel. A champion such as Milon traveled from Kroton in Italy to Greece to compete there in several top contests.

This evolution continued in the Classical Period (the fifth and fourth century BC). The Olympic games, the Pythian games, the Isthmian games and the Nemean games had by now become the four most prestigious contests. Besides these four, there were at least a dozen of other competitions, like the Panathenaia at Athens or the games for Hera in Argos. From this period, we know many sports champions, who often figured in legendary stories, such as Poulydamas or Theagenes.

In the late fourth century, Alexander the Great conquered a large part of the East, namely Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt. While before, Greek was spoken and athletics practiced only along the coasts of Asia Minor, the Greek language and customs gradually spread over a much larger region from the third century BC on (the Hellenistic period) through the many Greek immigrants. Some of Alexander’s successors, e.g. the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt, even promoted the introduction of Greek sport. The organisers of competitions in these new Greek regions wanted them to be as important as the traditional contests and therefore gave them the title ‘equal to the Olympic games’.

By the end of the first century BC, the Romans ruled this enormous Greek-speaking area. The new rulers did not make the Greeks live according to the Roman way, but tolerated the traditional way of life, including the contests. The Roman emperors even introduced new contests, such as the Capitolian or the Actian games, and stimulated the Greek cities to organized their own games. For this reason, there were never as many athletic contests as in the Roman imperial age; there were hundreds of them. To organize such a large contest circuit smoothly, there was an international athletic guild.

Most of these contests disappeared in the course of the fourth century AD. The end of the Olympic games in the early fifth century meant the end of more than a millennium of Olympic history. In 1896 they were revived, however, in the form of modern Olympic games.


RED: fifth century BC
YELLOW: third century BC
GREEN: third century AD

© KU Leuven, 2012