Spectators at the Games

The Olympic festival brought huge numbers of visitors to Olympia. Most people slept outside, under the stars, although the wealthy and members of official delegations erected elaborate tents and pavillions. Merchants, craftsmen, and food vendors arrived to sell their wares. The busy schedule included religious ceremonies, including sacrifices; speeches by well-known philosophers; poetry recitals; parades; banquets; and victory celebrations.

Philadelphia MS2445, Attic red figure kylix
Side A: lyre player in center, singing
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The wealthy attempted to outdo each other in lavish displays. The Syracusan tyrant Dionysius sent several expensive four-horse chariot teams, beautifully decorated tents, and professional actors to recite poetry he himself had written. At first, people gawked with admiration, and when the reciters started, the listeners were enchanted by the pleasing voices. But when they observed how poor Dionysius' verses were, they began to laugh scornfully, and some people even dared to rifle the tents.

Other political figures were more warmly welcomed by the crowds, just as we like to spot celebrities at sporting events today.

...When the next Olympic festival was celebrated, and [the famous Athenian leader] Themistocles entered the stadium, the audience neglected the contestants all day long to gaze on him, and pointed him out with admiring applause to visiting strangers, so that he too was delighted, and confessed to his friends that he was now reaping in full measure the harvest of his toils in behalf of Hellas.  Plutarch,Themistocles , 17.2

Athens, City Walls: Section of the fortification walls built by Themistocles
Photograph courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Saul S. Weinberg Collection

To read more about these topics, see Further Resources.

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