The Greek city-states and the religious festival

One difference between the ancient and modern Olympic Games is that the ancient games were played within the context of a religious festival. The Games were held in honor of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and a sacrifice of 100 oxen was made to the god on the middle day of the festival. Athletes prayed to the gods for victory, and made gifts of animals, produce, or small cakes, in thanks for their successes.

According to legend, the altar of Zeus stood on a spot struck by a thunderbolt, which had been hurled by the god from his throne high atop Mount Olympus, where the gods assembled. Some coins from Elis had a thunderbolt design on the reverse, in honor of this legend.

Dewing 1860, silver stater, minted at Elis
Reverse: Thunderbolt
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Dewing Numismatic Foundation

Over time, the Games flourished, and Olympia became a central site for the worship of Zeus. Individuals and communities donated buildings, statues, altars and other dedications to the god. The most spectacular sight at Olympia was the gold and ivory cult statue of Zeus enthroned, which was made by the sculptor Pheidias and placed inside the temple. The statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and stood over 42 feet high. A spiral staircase took visitors to an upper floor of the temple, for a better view of the statue.

Olympia,Temple of Zeus
Reconstruction elevation of the statue of Zeus by Pheidias
copyright C.H. Smith 1990, based on F. Adler (artist)
in W. Dörpfeld 1935a, plate 22

People who were not Greek could not compete in the Games, but Greek athletes traveled hundreds of miles, from colonies of the Greek city-states. These colonies were as far away as modern-day Spain, Italy, Libya, Egypt, Ukraine, and Turkey.

A city-state, called a polis, was a typical Greek settlement, with a fortified city and a defensible citadel at the center of a territory, which might include other villages. The polis of Attica was made up of Athens and its environs, for example, and the Acropolis was its fortress. The Greek city-states began to establish colonies from the mid-8th century on.

After the 2nd century A.D., the Roman empire brought even more competitors to the Olympic Games, but regional differences always gave the Olympics an international flavor.

...the glory of the temple persisted...on account both of the festal assembly and of the Olympian Games, in which the prize was a crown and which were regarded as sacred, the greatest games in the world. The temple was adorned by its numerous offerings, which were dedicated there from all parts of Greece.  Strabo, Geography , 8.3.30

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.