Primary History

Ancient Greeks: The Olympic Games

  • The Olympic Games

    The Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago in Olympia, in southwest Greece. The Games were part of a religious festival. The Greek Olympics, thought to have begun in 776 BC, inspired the modern Olympic Games (begun in 1896) The Games were held in honour of Zeus, king of the gods, and were staged every four years at Olympia, a valley near a city called Elis. People from all over the Greek world came to watch and take part.

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  • The statue of Zeus

    Visitors to Olympia stared in wonder as they entered the great Temple of Zeus. Inside was a huge statue of the king of the gods, sitting on a throne. People called it one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The statue was covered in gold and ivory, and was six times bigger than a man. It was built about 435 BC, and no one who made the trip to Olympia missed seeing it. You can read what the writer Pausanias wrote about it in the Writings section.

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  • What was the Sacred Truce?

    The city-states of Greece were often at war. This made travel between them dangerous. So messengers sent out from Elis announced a 'sacred truce' (peace) lasting one month before the Games began. This meant people could travel to Olympia in safety. The Olympic Games were more important than wars because they were a religious festival. The messengers went all over the Greek world, as the map shows.

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  • Events at the Games

    At the first one-day Olympic Games, the only event was a short sprint from one end of the stadium to the other. Gradually more events were added to make four days of competitions. They included wrestling, boxing, long jump, throwing the javelin and discus, and chariot racing. In the pentathlon, there were five events: running, wrestling, javelin, discus and long jump. One of the toughest events was the race for hoplites, men wearing armour and carrying shields.

    Winners were given a wreath of leaves, and a hero's welcome back home. Winners might marry rich women, enjoy free meals, invitations to parties, and the best seats in the theatre.

    The running track was much wider than a modern one. Twenty people could run at once.

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  • Spectators

    About 50,000 people could sit in the stadium. Away from the arena, most spectators had to find somewhere to pitch their tents or sleep rough, but important visitors and athletes had hotel rooms. It was hot and overcrowded, and the water supply was poor, at first not even a proper drinking fountain. This didn't stop people coming though!

    The Games ended with a feast. Lots of oxen were roasted in a giant barbecue. Traders came to do business, entertainers such as jugglers and acrobats performed, and politicians made speeches to the crowds.

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  • The nastiest event?

    Probably the pankration or all-in wrestling was the nastiest event. There were hardly any rules. Biting and poking people's eyes were officially banned, but some competitors did both! While it does not seem very sporting to us, all-in wrestling was very popular. Boxing was tough too. The fighters wore leather gloves and a boxer was allowed to go on hitting his opponent even after he'd knocked him to the ground!

    However, cheating was punished. Anyone caught cheating, trying to bribe an athlete for instance, had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, as a punishment.

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  • Women at Olympia

    Only men, boys and unmarried girls were allowed to attend the Olympic Games. Married women were not allowed into the Olympic Games. Any women caught sneaking in were punished! Women could own horses in the chariot race though.

    Unmarried women had their own festival at Olympia every four years. This was the Heraia, held in honour of Hera, wife of Zeus. Women could compete in running races, though only unmarried girls took part. Winners were awarded crowns of sacred olive branches, the same as men. As a rule Greek women did not go in for sport, unless they were Spartans.

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Fun Facts
  • The famous wrestler Milo was said to train by carrying a calf every day. As the calf grew heavier, his muscles got stronger.

  • Horse races involved lots of falling-off, because Greek riders had no stirrups. It was easier to drive a chariot.

  • At the first recorded Games in 776 BC, a man named Coroebus won the stadion or foot race.

  • The Olympic Games included competitions for trumpeters.

  • The Pankration allowed any moves, even strangling your opponent!

  • All the competitors at the Olympic Games were naked, except for perhaps a coating of oil.

  • Big sunhats were banned, because they blocked other spectators' view.

  • Quote from someone who saw the fight: "Once a wrestler broke his opponent's fingers at the beginning of the fight. He won."

  • One mother was so keen to see her son compete that she broke the no-women rule, and got in disguised as a man!

  • The running track was 183 m (200 yards) long. The Greeks called this measurement a stade - from which we get the word "stadium".

  • An athlete called Exinetos won the short sprint at two Olympics in a row. Back at home in Sicily he was met by 300 chariots each pulled by a pair of white horses.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.