Olympic Games cancelled due to wars, countries barred from participating, boycotts, political protests, a terrorist attack – these are but few of the things that mar modern Olympics. Some shake their heads claiming that such things would never happen in antiquity, when the Olympiad was sacred and Olympic truces were respected by all. But is this fact or myth?
19th century classicism
The claim that ancient Olympics were peaceful and that truce was maintained by all is just one of the myths that were established during the 19th century, a time when neoclassicism was all the rage – a fashion of revival (and idealization) of the classical tradition. It is no coincidence that the first modern Olympics took place in that very century.
Saying that the Olympic truce was an unbreakable rule in antiquity, flies in the face of historic truth. Not only does it ignore important breaches of the truce, but it also presents Olympia as a place where peace was promoted; in short, it is closer to historic fiction than fact.
Olympics and the truce in antiquity
The Olympic Games in antiquity were just one of the aspects of the celebrations in honor of Olympic Zeus, the father of gods and mortals. Every four years, on the second full moon after the summer solstice, heralds from Olympia travelled the length and breadth of Greece carrying the message that the Olympic truce had begun and the games were about to take place.
The truce was essentially a religious command whose aim was to protect the sanctuary where the Games would take place. The latter ought to be inviolable from military activities which carried with them the danger of religious impurity; obviously, manslaughter was one such activity. The truce also served to protect the athletes, judges and spectators who would travel to Olympia and back, so that they would be safe if they had to go through enemy territory or through an area where war was taking place. The truce did not command that all wars be stopped, nor did this happen.
Olympia, wars and military trophies
Undoubtedly, the pan-Hellenic character of the celebrations in honor of Olympic Zeus, their popularity, the gathering of people from all corners of the Greek-speaking world, all served to enhance the common religious and cultural identity of the Greeks.
However, one must not forget that Olympia was one of the main localities that served to promote and advertise military successes, precisely because of its pan-Hellenic appeal. City-states tried to enhance their status by dedicating to the sanctuary monumental works of art. There are several examples, like the golden shield, dedicated to the Temple of Zeus by the Spartans, on the occasion of their victory in Tanagra in 457. Besides, the Temple itself was built using one tenth of the spoils gathered by the city of Elis after their victory over the neighboring city of Pissa, an outcome which ensured their control of the Sanctuary.
The Nike (Victory) of Paeonius, was dedicated by the Messenians and Naupactians on the occasion of the victory of their ally, Athens, over their bitter enemy, the Spartans, in Sphakteria. The Philippeion, was dedicated by Philip II of Macedon, after his victory in Chaeronea over the allied Athenians and Thebans (338 BCE).
The sanctuary was decorated with hundreds, perhaps thousands of arms (dedicated by individuals or states), many of them carrying inscriptions. Most were arranged as trophies around the stadium.
Among them was the helmet of Miltiades, as well as Persian helmets that had been donated by the Athenians after the Persian wars.
The Oracle of Olympia
Few seem to recall today that Olympia was famous for its Oracle too, which specialized in military matters. Several of its “seers” were employed by the armies of various states and accompanied them in their military expeditions interpreting the omens before a battle. One example I’ve already mentioned was the adviser of the Phoceans in their battle against Thessaly.
Striving to control the Sanctuary
There was no International Olympic Committee in antiquity; the Games were organized by whichever state had control over the sanctuary. As the Sanctuary of Zeus lay between the city-states of Elis and Pissa, it was often the bone of contention between the two cities. Organizing the Games offered several benefits for the organizer, both political and financial, so the two cities fought often and bitterly over it. Pissans claimed that they were the first to organize the Games, while the Eleans, did their utmost to disprove the allegation.
A disputed breach
In 421 BCE, Spartans occupied Lepreo, a small town on the border between Elis and Sparta. Obviously, to the Eleans this constituted an act of aggression. The next year, the Games were to take place. The truce was proclaimed as usual and the Eleans decided that the continued presence of the Spartans in Lepreon constituted a breach of the truce. The Spartans argued that they had occupied the place before the truce was proclaimed, and refused to budge. The Eleans imposed a heavy fine for the breach, which the Spartans, indignant, refused to pay. Then the Eleans used their ultimate weapon: they barred every Spartan citizen from the celebration: the Spartans could not take part in the Games, nor even watch.
The threat of Spartan reprisals, in the form of an invasion, was highly probable so the sanctuary was heavily guarded by Elean troops as well as others from the allied city-states of Athens, Argos and Mantineia. The Spartans did not attack and the games took place as usual, with the exception of one incident:
A prominent Spartan, called Leichas, decided to crash the Games, taking part in the chariot race as a Theban. When his chariot won and it became known that a Spartan was its owner, it was considered a breach of the rules. The penalty was corporal punishment, which Leichas received, despite being quite old, before being escorted out of the sanctuary. The victory was inscribed to the city of Thebes.
The Spartan invasion
The Spartans invaded the sanctuary a few years later, in 399 BCE. In the bitter fight that followed, the Eleans defended their city by any means possible, even placing archers on the roofs. The writer Pausanias mentions that a few centuries later, when the temple of Hera was being repaired, workmen discovered a skeleton on the temple’s roof; it was assumed that it must have been one of the city’s defenders who had been killed during that battle.
Battle in the Sanctuary
In 364, Arcadia brokered an alliance with the cities of Argos and Messene. The allied forces invaded the area of Elis, took over the Sanctuary and organized the Olympics with the assistance of the city of Pissa. During the Games, the Eleans attacked and the battle which followed was fought in the Sanctuary itself. The allied defenders made makeshift cover for themselves using poles from the spectators’ tents.
Undoubtedly, the power to exclude states or individuals from the Games gave political status and power to the city which had control of the site. This was true not only for Olympia, but also for all other sanctuaries where games of pan-Hellenic appeal took place. These were the Pythian Games in Delphi, the Isthmian Games in Korinth and the Nemean Games in Nemea. Naturally, this power was coveted by all neighboring city-states, leading to frequent clashes. Here I will only mention one characteristic example:
In 390 BCE, the city of Argos attacked and occupied the city of Corinth. This happened before the Isthmian Games were to take place, so the occupying forces took it upon themselves to organize them. However, during the sacrifice that marked the beginning of the festival, word came that the troops of Agesilaus, the Spartan king, were approaching; this was enough to make the organizers run. Agesilaus promptly arrived and completed the sacrifice, helping the Corinthians oversee the games. However, after he departed, the Argives occupied the sanctuary once again and held the games for a second time. Xenophon, the historian, remarked “that year there were athletes who had won twice and others who had twice been defeated.”
Sacrifice scene image source: http://www.hellenicgods.org/burntofferings