THE Greeks were very fond of athletic games. The greatest of these were held once every four years at a place called Olympia.
How early these games began to be celebrated nobody knows. They had fallen out of use for some time when Iphitus, a friend of Lycurgus and king of Elis, gave them a new start. From that time on for hundreds of years they were very popular.
They began on the day of the first full moon after the 21st of June. Four days were given to the games; on the fifth day there were processions, sacrifices, and banquets in honor of those who had won the prizes.
All wars were stopped for the whole month in which the games took place. It was to be a time of peace and pleasure for everybody.
No Barbarian, or slave, or man who had broken the laws, could take part. The Greeks called all foreigners, Barbarians. Women were not allowed even to see the games. If any woman did so, she was thrown from the top of a high rock. Women, however, could send chariots to the races, and sometimes won a prize.
There were twenty-four different events, divided among the four days. Eighteen were for men, six for boys.
First was a foot race, second a double foot race twice around the ring, third a still longer race. The fourth event was wrestling, the fifth was the pentathlon, which included a long jump, a foot race, throwing the quoit, throwing the spear, and wrestling. Sixth came boxing, seventh a chariot race for four horses, eighth the pancratium, which was boxing and wrestling, ninth a horse race, tenth and eleventh a foot race and wrestling for boys. The twelfth was the pentathlon for boys. Then there were chariot races with mules, with two horses, with four colts, with two colts, a foot race of heavy-armed soldiers, and pancratium, or boxing and wrestling, for boys.
Sometimes there were only two judges, sometimes eight, or ten, or even twelve. It was their duty to see that all the laws of the games were kept and to give the prizes. They wore purple robes and had reserved seats in the best place. They took solemn oath to be just and fair.
In foot races, running, leaping, boxing, and wrestling, the poorest citizens could take part as freely as the richest. But every one who entered had spent ten months in careful training, and faithfully promised to do everything fairly and to use no tricks or deceptions.
Owners of chariots were not obliged to drive, but could hire men for that purpose. Alcibiades once sent seven chariots and won three prizes.
The prizes were only wreaths of wild olive, cut from a sacred tree that grew near by. Palm branches were also placed in the hands of the victors.
When a man or a boy won a prize, his name, the name of his father and of his country were called out by heralds. He was invited to the great banquet given by the people of Elis to the winners. He was considered to have honored his city, and when he went home a procession met him, and songs in praise of him were sung.
A statue of him was carved from stone and set up in the highest place at Olympia. This was not a city, but a spot full of temples and altars to the gods and statues of the victors in the games.
People journeyed to these exhibitions from all parts of Greece and from many foreign lands. Deputies were sent from different cities, each of whom tried to dress more splendidly and to make a finer display than his neighbor.
A great deal of business was done in buying and selling. All kinds of goods could be bought there, and it was like a huge fair.
Painters showed their pictures, and poets and historians read their works before the crowd. This helped to educate the people, who had not many books, and who would rather listen than read for themselves.
Those were times of great enjoyment, and the Greeks took much pleasure in them. The year of the games and the three following years were called an Olympiad, and time was measured by them. Events were said to have happened in the fifth, or twentieth, or fiftieth, or any other Olympiad.
Other games like these were held in different parts of Greece at various times, but none of them were so splendid or so interesting as the Olympic games.