Latin For You

Teaching and translating ancient Latin since 1986

Ancient Olympic Fact of the Day 2014 - Archive

Sun Feb 23:  This final entry in our little series has come awfully quickly.  Congrats to Russia for winning the overall medal haul and good on Canada for third overall with 9 or 10 gold, depending on how this hockey game goes against Sweden.  This may seem backwards, but I realized that there is one aspect of the ancient Olympics that is both foreign and familiar - pre-event selection.  Every athlete had to be at Olympia one month before the start and they trained in fornt of the judges (Hellanodikoi).  The judges then determined who was worthy of competing at the Olympics.  This is very similar to today's Olympic standard which is applied to all sports.  The one difference is that they did not have statistics to create an objective standard.  Instead, it was up to the subjective judgement of the judges who was up to scratch.  In one late Olympics (221 AD) there was a wrestler, Aelius Helix, who was a candidate and whom the judges wanted to bar.  He was clearly too good to preclude so the judges decided not that wrestling would not be contested that Olympic Games.

Sat Feb 22:  This the penultimate day of the Winter Olympics and here in Canada we're feeling very pleased.  Both curling gold and huge come-from-behind win to take the Women's Ice Hockey gold.  No connection, but I do want to mention the penalties for ebing naughty.  The Olympic organizers had three ways to punish those who cheated or otherwise broke the rules.  The most immediate was beating.  If someone gouged eyes or bit in pankration, an official would hit them with a stick until they stopped.  Another was a fine.  An individual athlete or an entire city could be fined.  If an athlete could not pay the fine, his city had to pay and, if they did not, they would be barred from the games, until they did pay.  One other form of restitution was the erection of Zanes, statues of Zeus placed within the sacred precinct of Olympia. 

Fri Feb 21:  We have seen the medals to winners handed in different ways to the Olympics.  Sometime right after the event, sometimes at the end of the day, with the medalists of all events that day.  In the ancient Olympics, everyone received their medals on the last day of the games.  When you won, you were awarded a palm frond (about 4-5 feet long) and this you bore with great pride from then until the last day.  On the last day at the award ceremonies you gave your palm to the official and he placed your victory crown on your head - for the Olympics, a crown of olive branches made from the sacred olive grove in the precinct of Olympian Zeus (laurel crowns were awarded at the games held in honour of Apollo, the Pythian Games).  When all of the crowns had been presented, their was a banquet (made from the 100 oxen which were sacrificed to Zeus on Day 3).

Thurs Feb 20:  There have been a number of Olympic champions who were famous in their own right, before ever they stepped out to accept their Olympic crown, but the top two have to have been the Roman emperors Tiberius and Nero.  Tiberius won the chariot race in 17AD, just three years after becoming Augustus's successor.  This is easily overlooked by the 'performance' of Nero.  Nero always was one for a remarkable show and the Olympics in 67AD did not disappoint.  First, those Olympics were rescheduled to acccommodate the emperor's schedule (math will tell you they should have been held in 65AD).  Then, he won an unprecedented (and unequalled) 6 crowns in 6 different events, including acting, singing, and the 10-horse chariot race.  In the last of these, he fell off his chariot and did not complete the race, but was awarded the crown by the judges because "If he had not fallen, he would have won."  In 69AD, after Nero's fall and death, the Olympic organizers stripped him of his victories and declared the 67 games null and void.

Wed Feb 19:  One difference between the modern and ancient OLympics was the lenght of the eventToday they spand over 2 weeks and one of the important considerations is to get 3 weekends in for your 16 days.  In the 'old days' the gams started out as a one day affair; after all, just one event.  Undoubtedly as events were added, so were days added to the festival to accommodate.  When the games had found their equilibrium in the 6th century BC, the Olympics were a 5 day affair.  But how did they decide when to hold the Olympics?  As near as we can figure, it was the during the first full moon after the summer solstice, so usually in early July (but they could be as early as June 22 and as late as July 18.  The middle day of the ancient Olympics was thre full moon and that was when there was the formal sacrifice to Zeus.  So the event actually started 2 days before that and ended two after.

Tues Feb 18:  Here is a good argument for genetics.  Diagoras of Rhodes was an Olympic champion himself and had three sons, all of whom were champions.  In 448 BC his eldest son won in boxing and his middle son won in pankration.  To celebrate they carried their dear old dad on their shoulders around the precinct at Olympia.  This moment was considered the highest peak of human joy.  In fact, Diagoras is said to have died on the spot.  His daughter had a son of her as well as a nephew who were also Olympic champions!  When she snuck into the sacred precinct as a trainer so she could witness her son's triumph, she was revealed and brought before the Hellanodikoi (judges) and faced execution for violating the rule that forbade women.  It was argued that, if any woman were allowed in the sacred precinct, it was the daughter, sister, mother and aunt of Olympic champions.  The judges were suitably impressed and stayed execution, but only because of the woman's Olympic pedigree.  They did not change the rule and, in fact, instituted a new law that trainers were required to be nude as well as their athletes.  The first example of gender-testing!Mon Feb 17:  On this day, I'd like to mention the rewards of Olympic success and, in particular, having poetry written about you, by one of the greatest lyric poets of all time.  Pindar was regularly commissioned to write poems in honour of Olympic champions.  Here is an example: Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth.  But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia . . . Come, take the Dorian lyre down from its peg, if the splendor of Pisa and of Pherenicus placed your mind under the influence of sweetest thoughts, when that horse ran swiftly beside the Alpheus, not needing to be spurred on in the race, and brought victory to his master, the King of Syracuse who delights in horses.

Sun Feb 16:  One of the biggest topics around the modern Olympics is the costs of the event.  The state-of-the-art facilities that the host city is required to build and now the security costs are covered by sponsors, ticket sales, media fees and government funding.  Did Elis, the host city of all the ancient Olympic festivals, have similar costs and ways to pay for them?  Yes to both.  Since Olympia was the permanent site of the Olympics, they didn't have to build new venues each time.  However new facilities were added over time: gyms, training areas, etc.  They were built by wealthy individuals (and named after them).  But there was still the cost of staffing and running the festival itself as well as preparing the site.  This was paid for by fines imposed on those who cheated or otherwise broke the rules (e.g., the Spartans were fined the equivalent of $10,000,000 for violating the Olympic Truce), by donations from wealthy individuals and cities (usually as a votive offering for victory), and by the participants and spectators themselves (all of whom would have required food and other necessities for at least the 5 days and as long as a month).

Sat Feb 15:  Some ancient Olympic athletes got into trouble despite their success and even because of it.  The most infamous was Astylos of Croton.  He won the stade (200m) and diaulos (400m) in the same Olympics and then repeated the double twice.  So, why the infamy?  Astylos won his first double in 488BC representing his home city of Croton.  By the next Olympiad he had switched his allegiance and was competing for Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse.  He won both events again and that did not sit well in his birth place.  In fact, they were so angry, they pulled down the statue they had erected in his honour and turned his former home into a prison (just to rub it in).  Even his family renounced him.  A similar fate befell Sotades of Crete.  He won the dolichos for Crete in 384BC, but was bribed by Ephesus to compete (and win) for them in 380BC.  Crete exiled Sotades for his troubles.

Fri Feb 14:  Theagenes of Thasos is at the centre of a very curious anecdote.  He was a very successful Olympic champion in wrestling and had a statue put up in his home town.  One of his unsuccessful and, evidently, bitter rivals used to take a whip and beat the statue every night.  One night the statue tipped over, crushed and killed its beater.  The dead man's family sued the statue in court and the court rules that the statue be thrown into the sea.  Later on, the island of Thasos was suffering a drought and famine.  They went to the Delphic Oracle who advised them to recall all exiles.  This they did, but the drought continued.  About the same time they realized that the statue was one of the exile, some fishermen pulled the statue out of the sea on their nets.  It was brought back into the town and the drought was soon over.

Thurs Feb 13:  Yesterday was all about what you couldn't do at the ancient Olympics.  Today is more positive.  How are the modern Olympics like the ancient games?  Well, there were a number of events which we would all recognize today, starting with the grand-daddy of them all, the 200m.  There was also the 400m (diaulos), the 5,000m (dolichos), wrestling, boxing, discus, long-jump and pentathlon.  They may not have presented medals, but they did present an olive leaf crown to the champions.  Like the medals, they did not tremendous intrinsic value, but they were priceless nonetheless and honour of being an Olympic champion was huge.  Like today, athletes were often 'sponsored' (by patrons of their home city) and they received rich rewards if they won.  An Olympic victor might receive a pension for life from his home city, have a statue erected in his honour, or even have an ode written about him (we'll save Pindar for another day).  There was also an Olympic oath taken not just by athletes and judges, but also by the close family of the athlete, who swore that the athlete had been in training for the previous 10 months.

Wed Feb 12:  There are a number of surprising differences between the ancient and modern Olympics. Here are just a few of those differences (tomorrow we'll look at the similarities).  The ancient Greek Olympics did not allow women, non-Greeks or non-citizens to participate in the Olympics and women were not even allowed within the sacred precinct of Olympia during the games (more on that one later).  The ancient Olympics also did not have any team sports, any aquatic sports (despite the fact that almost all Greek cities were coastal), nor any winter sports (not surprising there - not much snow in Greece).  They also did not award medals, did not give out any prizes for 2nd or 3rd, and did not keep statistics or records.  They did have a sacrifice to Zeus in the middle of the games of 100 oxen and a banquet at the end of the games (when they ate the oxen).  They also did keep a list of the Olympic champions for centuries.  Most important, they inspired millennia of people, both ancient and modern.

Tues Feb 11: There have been some incredible Olympic champions in both the ancient and modern games.  Milo of Croton (modern Crotone, Calabria) won 6 Olympic titles in wrestling.  He won his first in 540 BC in the youth category and then won 5 straight from 536-520 BC.  It took a fellow Crotonian(?) to defeat him and his tactic was to avoid the powerful Milo's grasp and try to tire him out.  Milo according to tradition died a mildly bizarre and hubristic death.  Coming upon a tree which had a wedge in its trunk, removed the wedge with his bare hands, but in the process got his hand caught in the tree trunk.  He was trapped there and was unable to defend himself against a pack of wolves who killed him.

Mon Feb 10: Canadians finishing 1st, 2nd, and 4th in the Men's moguls is a perfect introduction to a similar feat which was accomplished by one individual.  In 420 BC the Athenian general and leader Alcibiades wanted to show how powerful and brilliant he was.  So he entered 7 chariots into the tethrippon (4-horse chariot).  That's 7 drivers and 28 horses who were trained for 10 months.  When the 90th Olympiad ran the 4-horse chariot race, Alcibiades had his chariots place 1st, 2nd and 4th.  He celebrated by inviting everyone attending the event to his pavilion for dinner.  At the time of his victory Alcibiades was only 30 years old.

Sun Feb 9: Canadian sisters winning gold and silver bring to mind a couple of good stories from the ancient Olympics.  The one that leaps highest is the place of women during the celebration of the ancient Games - as far away as possible.  Women were not allowed anywhere within the sacred precinct during the games, the penalty being death.  But that did not prevent a woman from becoming an Olympic champion.  In 396 BC the Spartan princess, Cynisca, was the owner of the first place tethrippon (4-horse chariot).  Not only did the Olympics feature several horse and chariot races, but it was the owner, not the driver or rider, who won the olive crown.  And it was no fluke or 'one of'.  Cynisca repeated the feat at the following Games in 392 BC.  So the first female Olympic champion was also the first female repeat champion.

Sat Feb 8: The first gold medals have been won and awarded at Sochi - cheers to Norway, Netherlands, USA and, of course, CANADA.  It seems a good time to talk about the first recorded Olympic champion.  I say 'first recorded' because there were Olympic champions before 776 BC and I say 'champion' because they did not hand out gold medals at ancient Olympia.(more on that another day).  In 776 BC a cook named Coroibos from the nearby city of Elis won the one and only event of those Olympics - the Stadion (200m running race).  In the Olympic festival decades before and after there was the only one athletic event.  The winner of the stadion race won the right to light the sacred Olympic cauldron.  So, in the earliest days of the Olympics the torch relay and lighting did not usher in the beginning of the games; the games were the lead up to the torch lighting.

Fri Feb 7:  On opening ceremonies day we should have an opening ceremonies themed fact.  The ancient Olympics were purely an athletic event (other ancient festivals might also include drama, singing, poetry, etc.).  The Olympics did have one non-athletic event and that was contested on the opening day - a competition for heralds and trumpeters (first run in 396 BC).  This event actually had a purpose.  The winners would serve as the official herald and trumpeter for the rest of the games.  They would trumpet in the athletes for each event and announce them to the crowd.  The most successful Olympian was Herodoros of Megara, who won 10 successive events (328-292BC) as a trumpeter.  He also used his skill on the battlefield.  He blew two trumpets so loudly that he inspired the troops of Demetrios Poliorketes to defeat the town of Argos.

The Sochi Winter Olympics have started today (although the official Opening Ceremonies aren't until Friday).  Here you will find the Ancient Olympic Fact of the Day.  The hard part for me is choosing what to include when there are 17 days and over 1,000 years of Ancient Olympics.  Today I'll give everyone a little background:

The Ancient Olympics were likely a local festival from their start in about the 12th century BC down to 884 BC.  In that year Iphitos, King of Elis re-organized the games at the suggestion of the Delphic Oracle (to help promote Greek unity and prosperity).  It was over 100 years before they started to record the names of Olympic champions in 776 BC.  That is why the traditional start year of the Olympics is given as 776 BC.

The games celebrated in 776 had only one event - the Stadion running race (about 200m) - and it was over 50 years before they added a second event.  Over the centuries events were added and removed from the schedule, but the Olympics at their longest were a 5 day event.  Some of the basic Conditions of the Ancient Olympics were:

+ Participation was restricted to Greek-speaking, free-born, men who had been in training for the 10 months immediately preceding the games.

+ The Olympics were held in the same place every time - the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia.  The costs of running the games were covered by contributions of competitors, gifts to Zeus by victors, fines against those who broke the rules, and the spontaneous generosity of athletes and/or patrons.

+ There was a 10-month truce before the Olympics to allow safe passage to the venue.

By the way, at their heart, the Ancient Olympic Games were always a religious ceremony.  Remembering that will help understand some of the stories we see.