Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Olympic Games

  1. Where did the Olympic games come from?
  2. Why were they held at Olympia?
  3. Were there other contests like the Olympics?
  4. Who could compete in the Olympics?
  5. Were women allowed at the Olympics?
  6. How were the athletes trained?
  7. What prizes did Olympic victors get?
  8. Who were the Olympic judges?
  9. What was the penalty for cheating?
  10. Where did the marathon come from?
  11. When did the ancient games begin and when did they end?

Were women allowed at the Olympics?

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Shoulder: horseman and woman on right
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Not only were women not permitted to compete personally, married women were also barred from attending the games, under penalty of death. (Maidens were allowed to attend.)

Pausanias tells the story of Callipateira, who broke this rule to see her son at the Games:

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Side B: scene at center:athletes and spectators
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the University Museums, University of Mississippi

"She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena." (Pausanias 5.6.8ff.)

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Side A lower panel: woman pursued by Poseidon
Photograph by Brooke Hammerle, courtesy of the Museum of Art, RISD, Providence, RI

Athletic competitions for women did exist in ancient Greece. The most famous was a maidens' footrace in honor of the goddess Hera, which was held at the Olympic stadium. There were 3 separate races for girls, teenagers, and young women.

The length of their racecourse was shorter than the men's track; 5/6 of a stade (about 160 m.) instead of a full stade (about 192 m.). The winners received olive crowns just like Olympic victors.

To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

This exhibit is a subset of materials from the Perseus Project database and is copyrighted. Please send us your comments.