Olympics and History of the Ancient Greek Games Part 2

About the olympics and history of the ancient Greek games, information on the sports as practice for war in Greece.


The pancratium was a quite different contest: a fight-to-the-finish battle combining boxing and wrestling. Only eye-gouging and biting were prohibited. A winner was proclaimed when either of the contestants lay unconscious or one held up his hand in defeat. Any infractions of the rules were punished by fines, disqualification, banishment, or a whack by a stout stick. The judges (one in the beginning and later up to 10) were, by all accounts, fair and impartial.

The original inspiration behind the games seems to have been religious, although other historians believe that they were intended to keep soldiers in practice for war. Others think they were always largely secular. Until the last 400 years of the ancient games, all of the contestants had to take an oath that they were freeborn Greek citizens, and that they (and their close relatives) were under no suspicion of criminal offense or sacrilege. Athletes participated in a ritual with priests at the beginning of the games, sacrificing a pig to Zeus and a black ram to Pelops.

For the period surrounding the duration of the games (one day in early years, up to 5 days in later games) a one-month truce was declared throughout Greece where no fighting was permitted among the city-states. Everyone who wished to attend the games was guaranteed safe passage. Evidently, the truce was strictly enforced, especially around Olympia. Spectators and contestants were required to leave off their armaments before entering the games. The period of truce, unfortunately, has not been preserved in the modern revival of the games.

Married women were not allowed to compete or watch. Virgins, however, participated in a separate series of games which, according to legend, Hippodamia began in gratitude to Hera for her marriage to Pelops; these games were probably older than the actual Olympic games. If a woman appeared as a spectator at the Olympic games, the penalty was to be thrown off a nearby cliff. One woman, Pherenice of Rhodes, from an illustrious family of Olympic victors, braved the games. Her son, Pisidores, had been training with his father for a boxing event, but at her husband's death, Pherenice oversaw his training. On the day of the contest, she disguised herself as a trainer and eagerly watched her son's struggle. When he won, she rushed out to embrace him, and her robe slipped, exposing her as a woman. Because she came from a great athletic family, the judge spared her life--provided she didn't show up again. Later, women were allowed to be spectators, to enter chariots in the races, and, eventually, to compete in the chariot races.

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