previous next

The Olympic Games of Zeus and Hera

Excellence (arete ) as a competitive value for male Greek aristocrats showed up clearly in the Olympic Games, a religious festival associated with a large sanctuary of Zeus, king of the gods of the Greeks. The sanctuary was located at Olympia1, in the northwestern Peloponnese (the large peninsula that forms southern Greece), where the games were held every four years beginning in 776 B.C. During these great celebrations the aristocratic men of the age competed in running events and wrestling2 as individuals, not as national representatives on teams, as in the modern Olympic Games. The emphasis on physical prowess and fitness, competition, and public recognition by other men corresponded to the ideal of Greek masculine identity as it developed in this period. In a rare departure from the ancient Mediterranean tradition against public nakedness, Greek athletes competed without clothing (hence the word gymnasium3, from the Greek word meaning “naked,” gymnos ). Other competitions such as horse and chariot racing4 were added to the Olympic Games later, but the principal event remained a sprint of about two hundred yards called the stadion 5 (hence our word “stadium”). Winners originally received no financial prizes, only a garland made from wild olive leaves6, but the prestige of victory could bring other rewards as well. In later Greek athletic competitions prizes of value were often awarded. Admission was free to men; married women were not allowed to attend7, on pain of death, but women had their own separate festival at Olympia on a different date in honor of Zeus' wife, Hera. Although less is known about the games of Hera8, literary sources report that unmarried young women competed on the Olympic track in a foot race five-sixths as long as the men's stadion. In later times, international games including the Olympics were dominated by professional athletes, who made good livings from appearance fees and prizes won at various games held all over Greece. The most famous of them all was Milo9, from Croton, in southern Italy. Winner of the Olympic wrestling crown six times beginning in 536 B.C., he was renowned for showy stunts such as holding his breath until his blood expanded his veins so much that they would snap a cord tied around his head.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: