Ancient Olympics Had "Spectacular" Opening Ceremony, Pagan Partying
Greek games rife with prostitution, sacrifices, —and legendary athleticism.
Photograph from Ace Stock Limited/Alamy
Updated July 27, 2012
As if raw athleticism weren't enough, the ancient Olympics were the "total pagan entertainment package," kicked off with an opening ceremony as memorable in its way as anything in 2012 London, says Tony Perrotet, author of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
A "Woodstock of antiquity" followed, with nonexistent sanitation, pervasive prostitution, broken bones, animal sacrifice, and even doping. Also sports.
The historian spoke with National Geographic News before the 2004 Athens Olympics. His accounts remain illuminating today, as the Olympic torch—a modern invention, by the way—ignites the London games.
(See Olympic opening ceremony pictures from Beijing 2008.)
The Olympic Games were held every four years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394, making them the longest-running recurring event in antiquity. What was the secret of the games' longevity?
It was the sheer spectacle of it. Sports [were] one part of a grand, all-consuming extravaganza. It was first and foremost a religious event, held on the most sacred spot in the ancient world. It had this incredible aura of tradition and sanctity.
Today's Olympics is a vast, secular event, but it doesn't have the religious element of the ancient Olympics, where sacrifices and rituals would take up as much time as the sports. And there were all these peripheral things that came with the festival: the artistic happenings, new writers, new painters, new sculptors. There were fire-eaters, palm readers, and prostitutes.
This was the total pagan entertainment package.
Today the Olympics are celebrated for their noble ideals of competition, friendship and culture. Do we find those ideals in the ancient games?
We have a very sentimental attitude toward the ancient games. But this romanticized image with gentlemanly behavior and chivalry was largely devised by Victorian scholars in the 19th century.
Perhaps the most inspiring ancient ideal was the moratorium on war during the games, a sacred truce that allowed travelers to safely get to the games. But the ancient Greeks were not as idealistic as to try to stop all wars. They just didn't want anything that interfered with the operation of the games. If you wanted to have a war in Sicily, the truce wouldn't stop you at all.
There were times when the truce fell apart. In 364 B.C. the regular organizers lost control of the games, because they had become involved in politics. To get revenge, they attacked the games' new organizers in the middle of a wrestling match. They had this pitched battle going on inside the sanctuary, with archers up on the temples.
The fans took it in stride. They stopped watching the wrestling match and instead watched the battle, applauding as if these were opposing teams at a sports match.
What is the origin of the games?
This has been lost in the mist of time. The ancient Greeks had many mythological reasons for why they were held, but no one knows for sure.
The games were dedicated to [the god] Zeus. There were athletic games all over Greece, but because of the sanctity of Zeus, the Olympics quickly became revered. The first games had just a single foot race, which was won by the cook Koroibos.
What was the opening ceremony like?
It was just as spectacular as it is today, the athletes filing into the temple, where they had to give their oath before a terrifying statue of Zeus wielding these thunderbolts. They had to swear over this bloody slice of boar's flesh that they would obey the rules of the game and use no unfair means to gain victory.
The judges were concerned that athletes would use performance-enhancing potions. But even more popular was placing curses on your opponents. There are stories of athletes veering off course [or] not being able to make it out of the starting blocks.
Then there is corruption, which enters the games around fourth century B.C., when the boxer Eupolus gets caught bribing his opponents to throw matches. He's fined a massive amount. But it happens again and again.
Emperor Nero comes to the Games and wins the chariot race, even though he falls out of the chariot. That was the low ebb, really. Having said that, the Olympics were considered the cleanest of the athletic games.
How did the athletes prepare themselves for the Games?
They had to appear at the [nearby] city of Elis a month before the games. This was the first Olympic village. There, they had to submit to a grueling training regime designed to weed out those who weren't up to Olympic standards.
While there was no shame in dropping out before the games, athletes who dropped out during the actual games were humiliated. There is a story of one huge wrestler showing up for training. As soon as he took his clothes off, all the other athletes dropped out because they all knew they couldn't beat this guy.
Were the athletes on any special diets?
Some of the dietary fads in antiquity were probably no more logical than what we see today. The traditional diets were very simple: olives, bread, feta cheese, and a reasonable amount of meat. But one wrestler went on an all-fig diet. Doctors would tell athletes they shouldn't eat pork that had been raised on certain berries.
There were a lot of performance-enhancing potions floating around. Lizard's flesh, eaten a certain way, for example, became magic.
Why did the athletes compete in the nude?
The truth is that no one knows. According to one story, it began when a runner lost his loincloth and tripped on it. Everyone took off his loincloth after that. But ancient historians have traced it back to initiation rites—young men walking around naked and sort of entering manhood.
We know how fundamental nudity was to Greek culture. It really appealed to the exhibitionism and the vanity of the Greeks. Only barbarians were afraid to show their bodies. The nude athletes would parade like peacocks up and down the stadium. Poets would write in a shaky hand these wonderful odes to the bodies of the young men, their skin the color of fired clay.
But other cultures, like the Persians and the Egyptians, looked at these Greek men oiling one another down and writhing in the mud, and found it very strange. They believed it promoted sexual degeneracy.
Was homosexuality accepted?
The Greeks would not have understood the word. Sexual acts between two grown men would have been considered entirely shocking. But pederasty was inherent to the Greek gymnasium culture, and you had all these men mentoring pre-pubescent boys. It was socially accepted and considered part of a boy's education, but it wasn't discussed openly.
Of course, women did not compete in the Olympics.
That's right. Married [women] weren't even allowed into the stands, though young women and virgins were allowed in. Fathers brought their daughters to the games hoping they would get married to one of the champions.
Prostitution was rampant. Women were brought in from all over the Mediterranean. It's been said that a prostitute could make as much as money in five days during the Olympics as she would in the rest of the year.
But there was a special sporting event for women.
Yes, it was kind of a second string of the festival. The [women's] games were held at Olympia and dedicated to Zeus's consort Hera. The young women ran in short tunics with their right breast exposed as an homage to the Amazon warrior women, a race of female super warriors that was believed to have cauterized their right breasts so as not to impede their javelin throwing.
In Sparta there were women wrestling. There's a great story of a Roman senator traveling from afar to see these Spartan women, who were legendarily beautiful and muscular. He got so excited that he jumped in the ring. We don't have any records of whether he won or lost, but we have to assume that he enjoyed himself.
How popular were the male athletes?
They were as close as you could get to being a demigod in the mortal world. You would gain incredible prestige and wealth from an Olympic victory. You never had to work again.
Officially, the winner was given an olive wreath. But your home city would give you piles of money, honors like front seats at the theater, lifetime pensions, vats of olive oil, maybe even priesthood. Your name would be passed down from generation to generation. You became part of the very fabric of history.
Why did this sports mania take place in Greece and not elsewhere?
For two reasons, I think. First, Greece has this gorgeous environment. It was a land of the great outdoors, with beautiful Mediterranean weather. You could go swimming or hiking in the mountains. You have to have decent weather if you're going to be running around naked all day.
That converges with this incredible competitiveness that the Greeks have. For whatever reason, the Greeks would just compete about everything. There are hilarious stories of travelers meeting in inns and having eating races. It was inevitable that they would have these formal sporting events.
But sports were just one part of what you've called the Woodstock of antiquity. What was it like for the spectators?
To be a spectator at the Olympic Games was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. It makes modern sports fans seem like a pretty flaky bunch. First of all, if you came from Athens, you had to walk 210 miles [340 kilometers] to get to the site.
Olympia is in the middle of nowhere. It's a beautiful place, very idyllic. But it's basically a collection of three temples and a running track, with one inn reserved for the wealthy.
The organizers had it pretty easy in ancient times. They only had to chase a few sheep and cattle off the running track and temples. Everyone just turned up and had to look after himself. If you're rich, you put up a tent and you had servants. But the rank-and-file spectators plunked down anywhere.
In the high summer it was incredibly hot. The two rivers that converge at Olympia dried up. Nobody could wash. There was no drinking water, and people collapsed from heat stroke.
There was no sanitation, so the odors were quite pungent. Once you got into the stadium, there were no seats, only grassy banks. The word stadium comes from the Greek stadion, which means "a place to stand." But it was an incredible atmosphere with an amazing sense of tradition. People were standing on the very hill where Zeus wrestled his father [according to legend].
How many people showed up?
There were an estimated 40,000 spectators, and probably as many hangers-on, like vendors, writers, artists, prostitutes, and their shepherds.
What about some of the most famous names of the time?
Plato was a great wrestling fan. He showed up at the games incognito and stayed in makeshift barracks. He used to invite people to come and see him in Athens after the games. They would go there and realize he was the most famous man in Greece. Sophocles was a great handball fan.
Almost all Greek intellectuals were sports fans, and the games [were] also a great literary event. Herodotus debuted his famous history at the Olympics.
Did the games make any money?
The local farmers and producers certainly made a lot of money, but not the organizers. They didn't charge for entrance. They were aristocrats who weren't in it for the money but for the prestige of organizing the most important events in ancient Greece.
There must have been a lot of boozing.
Yes, you find the first sports bars in ancient Greece. Normally the Greeks didn't get terribly drunk. But this was like five days of living it up. People didn't sleep much at all. Students would organize these symposia that turned into drunken orgies.
Despite this debauchery, the Games had a spiritually profound meaning.
The sanctuary of Zeus was the most sacred place in the ancient world. The gods paid as much attention to the sports results as mortals. Athletes offered sacrifices nonstop to the gods, and the gods were even meant to have competed in the Olympics at an early stage.
They didn't have some of the things that we associate with the games today, like the torch relay.
The torch thing was really devised for the 1936 Nazi games. Hitler was fascinated with the ancient Greek world. He had all these theories that Spartans were this Aryan super race. Carl Diem, a sidekick of his, came up with this idea of carrying the torch from Olympia to Berlin.
But the torch and the opening ceremony transcended those rather sordid origins, and it became this wonderful tradition.
What about the Olympic flame?
Every sanctuary had its eternal flame. As a symbol, fire has been an important part of ancient Greek culture.
Let's talk about the actual sports. The chariot race was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event. Why?
It was the most aristocratic event. It was also very violent. It was the Indianapolis 500 of antiquity. If you've seen the Charlton Heston version of Ben Hur, it gives you a very good idea of the nail-biting tension that was invoked by this event.
It was very dangerous, with crashes between chariots and chariots veering off the course and into the audience. They would go 12 laps around the stadium.
The tight corners were the most dangerous part. There were usually 40 chariots in the race. In one race, with 21 chariots starting, only 1 finished. That gives you an idea of just how dangerous this race was.
Running was the oldest event, but what about the marathon?
The ancient games didn't actually have a marathon. The three-mile [five-kilometer] dolichos was the longest running event in the early ancient games.
The marathon is a Victorian invention, based on a story about the Battle of Marathon. A courier, Philippides, who fought in the battle, dashed from the battlefield to bring news of the Greek victory to Athens. Once there, he collapsed and died.
The 26.3-mile [42.3-kilometer] distance from Marathon to Athens is the length of the modern marathon races around the world.
Even these three-mile [five-kilometer] races must have been pretty tough. Athletes certainly didn't have scientifically designed Nikes and Reeboks at the time.
I ran in Olympia, and it's definitely hard on your feet. At the games they put a layer of sand over the running track to soften it, but it was still very rough. The ancient Greeks just had harder feet. When you're running around with no shoes all your life, they become like a hobbit's, probably.
One unusual thing was that there was no oval running track. Everyone was running back and forth on this straight running track that looks like an airstrip. They had turning posts at the ends. You would go around with a group, which offered plenty of opportunities to accidentally trip people.
Today the decathlon is considered one of the most prestigious events and a true test of an athlete's greatness. How was the pentathlon looked upon in ancient Greece?
They started out with the discus, which was followed by the long jump, which was considered the most aesthetically pleasing, which was a big deal to the Greeks. Athletes jumped from a standing start, and it was done to flute music. Then there was the javelin event, followed by a sprint and a wrestling match.
The guys who were best at the pentathlon wouldn't be the best at the specialty events, but people would admire their versatility and great skill.
Some of the other events were very violent.
The combat events on the fourth day were very popular with the rank and file. The wrestling was similar to today's Greco-Roman wrestling. But the boxing was more exotic. Guys pummeled each other to the head using their fists with leather thongs wrapped around them. Body blows were actually forbidden. There were no rounds and no weight restrictions.
There are vivid tales of people's faces being pummeled to a bloody pulp. One boxer didn't want to give his opponent the satisfaction of knocking out his teeth, so he swallowed them all.
The third combat sport, the pankretion, is the most exotic to us. The only thing banned was eye gouging. Anything else goes. Bone breaking was common. One guy became known as "Mr. Digits," because he would break his opponent's fingers. Strangulation was encouraged.
To win, the other person had to submit, so you really had to knock the person out. And you're doing this in the nude, so people are going for the groin. It would have been an extremely uncomfortable event.
There were no team sports.
No, the Greeks were very individualistic. Athletes represented themselves first and their city-state second. There was no second place in the ancient games, no Victorian ideals of a handshake and gentlemanly slap on the back for a game well played. If you lost, you'd scamper home through the back streets. Your mother wouldn't even talk to you.
How would these athletes have performed against today's elite?
That's hard to say, because the Greeks didn't share our obsession with keeping records. They didn't have stopwatches. It was very much the winner of the moment.
Remember, the gene pool was much smaller in ancient Greece, a few million people. Now the athletes are chosen from billions of people around the world. I think the ancient Greeks would probably have a pretty rough time. Maybe they'd do well in events like wrestling. God knows they knew a few tricks.
Why did the ancient games end in A.D. 394?
They end when the Christian emperor Theodosius I bans all pagan festivals. The Christians hated the Olympic Games—the celebration of the human body, these guys running around naked, drinking, fornicating, the whole bit.
The end came as an incredible shock to the psyche of the ancient Greeks. They assumed quite logically that the games would go on forever.