101 on the Ancient Olympic Games

When Were They First Held?

Discus Thrower at the British Museum - Photo by Alun Salt at Flickr
Discus Thrower at the British Museum - Photo by Alun Salt at Flickr. Alun Salt

Ancient Greece Timeline > Archaic Age > Olympics

When Was the First Set of Olympic Games?

Like so much of ancient history, the origins of the Olympic Games are shrouded in myth and legend (see: Games, Rituals, and Warfare). The Greeks dated events from the first Olympiad (the four-year period between games) in 776 B.C. -- two decades before the legendary founding of Rome, so the founding of Rome can be dated "Ol.

6.3" or the third year of the 6th Olympiad, which is 753 B.C.*

For more on the topic, see "origins" section and references below.

When Did the Games Stop?

The games lasted for about 10 centuries. In A.D. 391 the Emperor Theodosius I ended the games.

Earthquakes in 522 and 526 and natural disasters, Theodosius II, Slav invaders, Venetians, and Turks all contributed to destroying the monuments at the site.

Frequency of the Games

The Ancient Greeks held the Olympics every 4 years starting near the summer solstice. This 4-year period was known as an "Olympiad" and was used as a reference point for dating events throughout Greece. Greek poleis (city-states) had their own calendars, with different names for the months, so the Olympiad provided a measure of uniformity. Pausanias, travel writer of the second century A.D, writes about the impossible chronology of a victory in an early footrace by reference to the relevant Olympiads:

[6.3.8] The statue of Oebotas was set up by the Achaeans by the command of the Delphic Apollo in the eightieth Olympiad [433 B.C.], but Oebotas won his victory in the footrace at the sixth Festival [749 B.C.]. How, therefore, could Oebotas have taken part in the Greek victory at Plataea [479 B.C.]?
Pausanias translation

Location of the Olympics

Olympia, a district of Elis, in Southern Greece [see Bb on the map], gave its name to the games.

A Religious Occasion

The Olympics were a religious event for the Greeks. A temple on the site of Olympia, which was dedicated to Zeus, held a gold and ivory statue of the king of the gods. By the greatest Greek sculptor, Pheidias, it stood 42-feet high and was one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World.

The Olympic games were basically just for men: Matrons were forbidden to attend the Games; however, the presence of the priestess of Demeter was required.

It was sacrilege to commit a crime, including accepting payment, corruption, and invasion during the games.

The Rewards of Victory

An Olympic victor was crowned with an olive wreath (laurel wreath was the award for another set of Panhellenic games, the Pythian games at Delphi) and had his name inscribed in the official Olympic records. Some victors were fed for the rest of their lives by their city-states (poleis), although they were never actually paid. They were considered heroes who conferred honor upon their hometowns.

According to [URL = sunsite.nus.sg/olympics/comments/wiencke.html#cheat ] Emeritus Classics Professor Matthew Wiencke, when a cheating competitor was caught, he was disqualified.

In addition, the cheating athlete, his trainer, and possibly his city-state were fined -- heavily.


Potential participants in the Olympics included all free Greek men, except certain felons, and barbarians, during the Classical Period. By the Hellenistic Period, professional athletes competed. Married women were not allowed to enter the stadium during the games and might be killed if they tried. A priestess of Demeter was present, however. There may have been a separate race for women at Olympia.

Main Sports

The ancient Olympic sporting events were:

  • Boxing
  • Discus (part of Pentathlon)
  • Equestrian Events
  • Javelin (part of Pentathlon)
  • Jumping
  • Pankration
  • Pentathlon
  • Running
  • Wrestling

Some events, like mule-cart racing, loosely, a part of the equestrian events, were added and then not too much later, removed.

[5.9.1] IX. Certain contests, too, have been dropped at Olympia, the Eleans resolving to discontinue them. The pentathlum for boys was instituted at the thirty-eighth Festival; but after Eutelidas of Lace-daemon had received the wild olive for it, the Eleans disapproved of boys entering for this competition. The races for mule-carts, and the trotting-race, were instituted respectively at the seventieth Festival and the seventy-first, but were both abolished by proclamation at the eighty-fourth. When they were first instituted, Thersius of Thessaly won the race for mule-carts, while Pataecus, an Achaean from Dyme, won the trotting-race.
Pausanias - Jones translation 2d century A.D. geographer.


One Olympic origins story is connected with the tragedy-ridden House of Atreus. Pelops held the games after he won the hand of his bride, Hippodamia, by competing in a rigged chariot race against her father, King Oinomaos of Pisa.


Dartmouth's Olympics site [formerly at minbar.cs.dartmouth.edu/greecom/olympics/anecdote.php], "Olympic Anecdotes", says "the truce [ekecheiria] was, in effect, an interim of civic and military neutrality in honor of Zeus, the supreme judge and arbiter and source of wisdom...." The Olympic sacred truce or ekecheiria wasn't, however, a truce in the sense we usually think.

Tremendous Importance

Representatives of each polis (city-state) could attend the ancient Olympics and hope to win a victory that would confer great personal and civic honor.

So great was the honor that cities considered Olympic victors to be heroes and sometimes fed them for the rest of their lives. The festivals were also important religious occasions and the site was more a sanctuary to Zeus than a city proper. In addition to competitors and their trainers, poets, who wrote victory odes for the winners, attended the games.

5-Question Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

References and Further Reading:

  • Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, by Donald G. Kyle
  • The Ancient Olympics - Bibliography
  • "The Modern Olympic Games and Their Model in Antiquity," by Louis Callebat; International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 555-566.
  • Athletic Events in Prehistory - Foundation of the Hellenic World

*"The Alban King-List in Dionysius I, 70-71: A Numerical Analysis," by Roland A. Laroche (Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 31, H. 1 (1st Qtr., 1982), pp. 112-120) lists a date in s different Olympiad and a converted-to-modern chronology date two years off, but as the article points out, part of that is a preference for significant numbers. Laroche writes:

" Dionysius, following Cato, states (I, 9,4) that Romulus founded Rome 16 generations after the fall of Troy. Allowing 27 years for a generation, as Dionysius generally does, it is a question of 432 years as he later states (I, 71,5) and according to his reckoning (loc. cit.) Rome was founded in the 1st year of the 7th Olympiad (751; cf. the mystical associations of 7)."

"Early Roman Chronology and the Calendar," by Van L.

Johnson (The Classical Journal , Vol. 64, No. 5 (Feb., 1969) , pp. 203-207) writes that Atticus and Varro posit 753 B.C. but that other ancient writers suggest other dates, although all are wrong.