For the second day in a row, this #ThrowbackThursday is a little bit less ancient than what we usually talk about about when it comes to Greek sightseeing: this time fourteen years ago, it was an exciting time for Athens, as we were right smack in the middle of hosting the 2004 Olympics! Along with Paris and London, Athens is one of three cities that have hosted the Summer Olympics more than once, I thought I’d take a little look at the Greek history of this ancient spectacle.
Of course, the ancient Olympics weren’t in Athens—they were in Olympia—but Athens, and just about every other important region during ancient times, had their own set of games every few years or so. Historians and other enthusiasts of everything ancient and Greek refer to these as the “Panhellenic Games,” an important name because while nowadays you might be inclined to think of Greece as geographically and culturally homogeneous (still far from the truth!), the ancient Athenians might as well have been Canadian to the ancient Spartans, so these events were super important to the whole Greek world for purposes of culture, religion, diplomacy, and even keeping track of what year it was. Let’s go through each of these games and learn a little something new about Greece:
- The original Olympic Games were the oldest and most important of the four year cycle. These Olympics were dedicated to Zeus, and were at first a super important religious event as much as anything else. The whole point of the modern Olympics—representing your country—is based on each city-state in ancient times sending people to “win for Zeus,” so to speak, which would have been worthy of enormous celebration. Even war was put on hold for the Olympics, and some have even speculated that the proto-nationalism of the ancient Olympics may have been contrived as a kind of substitute for war. Ancient Olympia today is a huge and remarkably well-preserved site, which should tell you something about what these games meant to those ancient Greeks.
- The second event of the four year “Olympic cycle” would have been the Nemean Games, which were held at—you guessed it—ancient Nemea, a place primarily known in ancient times for being the place where Hercules killed the mythical lion with claws as sharp as swords and a hide impervious to all known weapons, and in modern times for producing excellent wine which may make you feel like you’re impervious to all known weapons. The stadion of ancient Nemea where many of the events were held, was only discovered recently and is quite excellently preserved. The Nemean Games were also dedicated to Zeus and weren’t quite as big or monumental as its Olympic counterpart, and they were held every two years, the year before and after the Olympics. A revival of the Nemean Games still happens in the stadion every four years in modern times! If that’s up your alley, ask us about it when you come visit and we’ll see if they line up!
- The Isthmian Games, dedicated to Poseidon, were held the same year as the Nemean Games. The modern word isthmus actually comes from the Greek word for “neck,” which is how the ancients referred to the narrow stretch of land separating Attica from the Peloponnese, where in those days there was a city very creatively called Isthmia. The Temple of Poseidon at Isthmia was only discovered in the 1950s, and is believed to be almost three thousand years old. The Isthmian Games were supposedly founded by King Sisyphus of Corinth, who certainly knows a thing or two about perseverance and feats of strength. Like the Nemean Games, these were held every two years, and as a result of Isthmia’s geographic importance, a ton of ruins and relics were left behind for us to see.
- Finally, there were the Pythian Games, which were sacred to Apollo and held at Delphi, his most sacred place. Like the Olympics, these were a little bit more special than the previous two and were only held once every four years. Given that they were dedicated to Apollo, you might not be surprised to learn that these games were more than athletic challenges: they included music and poetry competitions as well, which actually came around before there were chariot races, wrestling matches, etc. You might start to notice a pattern here: one of the reasons there’s so much to see and do at Delphi today is that they were able to undertake a lot of big, fancy, construction projects thanks in part to the fame and revenue brought in by hosting these games every four years. If only it still worked that way!
We may never know exactly who the LeBron James of ancient Greece was, but it’s definitely cool to know that he probably existed, and that athletic competitions transcending war, politics, and all the things that give us a headache on a daily basis have been a part of us almost as long as civilization itself.