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Charles Morris

The Olympic Games

The recent activity of athletic sports in this country is in a large sense a regrowth from the ancient devotion to outdoor exercises. In this direction Greece, as also in its republican institutions, served as a model for the United States. The close relations between the athletics of ancient and modern times was gracefully called to attention by the reproduction of the Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, for which purpose the long abandoned and ruined Stadion, or foot-race course, of that city was restored, and races and other athletic events were conducted on the ground made classic by the Athenian athletes, and within a marble-seated amphitheatre in which the plaudits of Athens in its days of glory might in fancy still be heard.

These modern games, however, differ in character from those of the past, and are attended with none of the deeply religious sentiment which attached to the latter. The games of ancient Greece were national in character, were looked upon as occasions of the highest importance, and were invested with a solemnity largely due to their ancient institution and long-continued observance. Their purpose was not alone friendly rivalry, as in modern times, but was largely that of preparation for war, bodily activity and endurance being highly essential in the hand to hand conflicts of the ancient world. They were designed to cultivate courage and create a martial spirit, to promote contempt for pain and fearlessness in danger, to develop patriotism and public spirit, and in every way to prepare the contestants for the wars which were, unhappily, far too common in ancient Greece.

Each city had its costly edifices devoted to this purpose. The Stadion at Athens, within whose restored walls the modern games took place, was about six hundred and fifty feet long and one hundred and twenty-five wide, the race-course itself being six hundred Greek feet—a trifle shorter than English feet—in length. Other cities were similarly provided, and gymnastic exercises were absolute requirements of the youth of Greece,—particularly so in the case of Sparta, in which city athletic exercises formed almost the sole occupation of the male population.


The Modern Olympic Games in the Stadium.

But the Olympic Games meant more than this. They were not national, but international festivals, at whose celebration gathered multitudes from all the countries of Greece, those who desired being free to come to and depart from Olympia, however fiercely war might be raging between the leading nations of the land. When the Olympic Games began is not known. Their origin lay far back in the shadows of time. Several peoples of Greece claimed to have instituted such games, but those which in later times became famous were held at Olympia, a town of the small country of Elis, in the Peloponnesian peninsula. Here, in the fertile valley of the Alpheus, shut in by the Messenian hills and by Mount Cronion, was erected the ancient Stadion, and in its vicinity stood a great gymnasium, a palęstra (for wrestling and boxing exercises), a hippodrome (for the later chariot races), a council hall, and several temples, notably that of the Olympian Zeus, where the victors received the olive wreaths which were the highly valued prizes for the contests.

This temple held the famous colossal statue of Zeus, the noblest production of Greek art, and looked upon as one of the wonders of the world. It was the work of Phidias, the greatest of Grecian sculptors, and was a seated statue of gold and ivory, over forty feet in height. The throne of the king of the gods was mostly of ebony and ivory, inlaid with precious stones, and richly sculptured in relief. In the figure, the flesh was of ivory, the drapery of gold richly adorned with flowers and figures in enamel. The right hand of the god held aloft a figure of victory, the left hand rested on a sceptre, on which an eagle was perched, while an olive wreath crowned the head. On the countenance dwelt a calm and serious majesty which it needed the genius of a Phidias to produce, and which the visitors to the temple beheld with awe.

The Olympic festival, whose date of origin, as has been said, is unknown, was revived in the year 884 B.C. and continued until the year 394 A.D. , when it was finally abolished, only to be revived at the city of Athens fifteen hundred years later. The games were celebrated after the completion of every fourth year, this four year period being called an "Olympiad," and used as the basis of the chronology of Greece, the first Olympiad dating from the revival of the games in 884 B.C.

These games at first lasted but a single day, but were extended until they occupied five days. Of these the first day was devoted to sacrifices, the three following days to the contests, and the last day to sacrifices, processions, and banquets. For a long period single foot-races satisfied the desires of the Eleans and their visitors. Then the double foot-race was added. Wrestling and other athletic exercises were introduced In the eighth century before Christ. Then followed boxing. This was a brutal and dangerous exercise, the combatants' hands being bound with heavy leather thongs which were made more rigid by pieces of metal. The four-horse chariot-race came later; afterwards the pancratium (wrestling and boxing, without the leaded thongs); boys' races and wrestling and boxing matches; foot-races in a full suit of armor; and in the fifth century, two-horse chariot-races. Nero, in the year 68 A.D. , introduced musical contests, and the games were finally abolished by Theodosius, the Christian emperor, in the year 394 A.D.

Olympia was not a city or town. It was simply a plain in the district of Pisatis. But it was so surrounded with magnificent temples and other structures, so adorned with statues, and so abundantly provided with the edifices necessary to the games, that it in time grew into a locality of remarkable architectural beauty and grandeur. Here was the sacred grove of Altis, where grew the wild olive which furnished the wreaths for the victors, a simple olive wreath forming the ordinary prize of victory; in the four great games the victor was presented with a palm branch, which he carried in his right hand. Near this grove was the Hippodrome, where the chariot-races took place. The great Stadion stood outside the temple enclosure, where lay the most advantageous stretch of ground.

The training required for participants in these sacred games was severe. No one was allowed to take part unless he had trained in the gymnasium for ten months in advance. No criminal, nor person with any blood impurity, could compete, a mere pimple on the body being sufficient to rule a man out. In short, only perfect and completely trained specimens of manhood were admitted to the lists, while the fathers and relatives of a contestant were required to swear that they would use no artifice or unfair means to aid their relative to a victory. The greatest care was also taken to select judges whose character was above even the possibility of bribery.

Women were not permitted to appear at the games, and whoever disobeyed this law was to be thrown from a rock. On certain occasions, however, their presence was permitted, and there were a series of games and races in which young girls took part. In time it became the custom to diversify the games with dramas, and to exhibit the works of artists, while poets recited their latest odes, and other writers read their works. Here Herodotus read his famous history to the vast assemblage.

Victory in these contests was esteemed the highest of honors. When the victor was crowned, the heralds loudly proclaimed his name, with those of his father and his city or native land. He was also privileged to erect a statue in honor of his triumph at a particular place in the sacred Altis. This was done by many of the richer victors, while the winners in the chariot-races often had not only their own figures, but those of their chariots and horses. reproduced in bronze.

In addition to the Olympic, Greece possessed other games, which, like the former, were of great popularity, and attracted crowds from all parts of the country. The principal among these were the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games, though there were various others of less importance. Of them all, however, the Olympic games were much the oldest and most venerated, and in the laws of Solon every Athenian who won an Olympic prize was given the large reward of five hundred drachmas, while an Isthmian prize brought but one hundred drachmas.

On several occasions the Olympic games became occasions of great historical interest. One of these was the ninetieth Olympiad, of 420 B.C. , which took place during the peace between Athens and Sparta,—in the Peloponnesian war Athens having been excluded from the two preceding ones. It was supposed that the impoverishment of Athens would prevent her from appearing with any splendor at this festival, but that city astonished Greece by her ample show of golden ewers, censers, etc., in the sacrifice and procession, while in the chariot-races Alcibiades far distanced all competitors. One well-equipped chariot and four usually satisfied the thirst for display of a rich Greek, but he appeared with no less than seven, while his horses were of so superior power that one of his chariots won a first, another a second, and another a fourth prize, and he had the honor of being twice crowned with olive. In the banquet with which he celebrated his triumph he surpassed the richest of his competitors by the richness and splendor of the display.

On the occasion of the one hundred and fourth Olympiad, war existing between Arcadia and Elis, a combat took place in the sacred ground itself, an unholy struggle which dishonored the sanctuary of Panhellenic brotherhood, and caused the great temple of Zeus to be turned into a fortress against the assailants. During this war the Arcadians plundered the treasures of these holy temples, as those of the temple at Delphi were plundered at a later date.

Another occasion of interest in the Olympic games occurred in the ninety-ninth Olympiad, when Dionysius, the tyrant of Sicily, sent his legation to the sacrifice, dressed in the richest garments, abundantly furnished with gold and silver plate, and lodged in splendid tents. Several chariots contended for him in the races, while a number of trained reciters and chorists were sent to exhibit his poetical compositions before those who would listen to them. His chariots were magnificent, his horses of the rarest excellence, the delivery of his poems eloquently performed; but among those present were many of the sufferers by his tyranny, and the display ended in the plundering of his gold and purple tent, and the disgraceful lack of success of his chariots, some of which were overturned and broken to pieces. As for the poems, they were received with a ridicule which caused the deepest humiliation and shame to their proud composer.


The Theatre of Bacchus, Athens.

The people of Greece, and particularly those of Athens, did not, however, restrict their public enjoyments to athletic exercises. Abundant provision for intellectual enjoyment was afforded. They were not readers. Books were beyond the reach of the multitude. But the loss was largely made up to them by the public recitals of poetry and history, the speeches of the great orators, and in particular the dramatic performances, which were annually exhibited before all the citizens of Athens who chose to attend.

The stage on which these dramas were performed, at first a mere platform, then a wooden edifice, became finally a splendid theatre, wrought in the sloping side of the Acropolis, and presenting a vast semicircle of seats, cut into the solid rock, rising tier above tier, and capable of accommodating thirty thousand spectators. At first no charge was made for admission, and when, later, the crowd became so great that a charge had to be made, every citizen of Athens who desired to attend, and could not afford to pay, was presented from the public treasury with the price of one of the less desirable seats.

Annually, at the festivals of Dionysus, or Bacchus, and particularly at the great Dionysia, held at the end of March and beginning of April, great tragic contests were held, lasting for two days, during which the immense theatre was filled with crowds of eager spectators. A play seldom lasted more than an hour and a half, but three on the same general subject, called a trilogy, were often presented in succession, and were frequently followed by a comic piece from the same poet. That the actors might be heard by the vast open-air audiences, some means of increasing the power of the voice was employed, while masks were worn to increase the apparent size of the head, and thick-soled shoes to add to the height.

The chorus was a distinctive feature of these dramas,—tragedies and comedies alike. As there were never more than three actors upon the stage, the chorus—twelve to fifteen in number—represented other characters, and often took part in the action of the play, though their duty was usually to diversify the movement of the play by hymns and dirges, appropriate dances, and the music of flutes. For centuries these dramatic representations continued at Athens, and formed the basis of those which proved so attractive to Roman audiences, and which in turn became the foundation-stones of the modern drama.