August 02, 2016, BY Paula Cogan Myers

Professor Janet Jones, classics & ancient Mediterranean studies

Q: What is the origin of the ancient Olympic Games?

A: The ancient Olympic Games were held in late summer every four years in honor of Zeus at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia as both a religious and an athletic festival. Only Greek males were allowed to participate. The traditional date for the founding of the ancient Games is 776 B.C., and there are various myths about their origin.

According to one story, the Games were founded by Heracles, who built the stadium to mark the completion of his labors and established the first events. Another myth held that the Games originated from a treacherous chariot race for the hand of a beautiful princess - it was this event that was recorded in the sculpture on the façade of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Q: What types of events were held? 

A: The events at the ancient Olympics related to the military training that most Greek males would have undergone in preparation to serve in the army of their city-state, but the Greeks saw athletic competition as an important aspect of religious practice as well. In this way, the Games may have been tied back to funeral games of earlier periods, like those portrayed by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which events similar to the Olympics were held to honor the deceased.

Ancient Olympic events included foot races, one taking place in full armor; as well as wrestling, boxing, chariot races and the pentathlon, which consisted of jumping, javelin, discus, wrestling and a footrace. There was also the pankration, a violent combination of wrestling and boxing.

Q: What significance did participation have for the athletes, and for Greece's cultural and historical identity?

A: As a culture, ancient Greeks were highly competitive and constantly at war with each other over limited resources, but they observed the "Olympic truce" that allowed athletes and spectators to travel to the games unhindered. Greece was comprised of independent city-states, each of which had its own political and economic system, so people identified themselves first as citizens of their city-state — for example, as "Athenians" or "Thebans" or "Corinthians" — and second as "Greeks." The Games provided a rare opportunity to come together in peace, which gave them an occasion to worship their common gods and celebrate their common culture without the struggle and division of conflict.

The prize for victory at the Games was a simple olive wreath or branch, but Olympic champions were renowned throughout Greece and especially in their home city-states, where they were often rewarded with small fortunes, revered throughout their lives and honored as heroes after their death.

Read more answers about the Olympics here.