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The Ancient Olympics
by CTCWeb Editors

Hippolochus begat me . . . and he sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers. - Homer, Iliad 6.207

The Rules

Like the modern Olympics, strict rules and regulations governed the ancient Olympics. The Eleans were accomplished promoters and sought to make the Olympic games a positive experience for all participants, athletes, and spectators. Consequently, the ekecheiria, or truce, was the most important rule. Originally initiated by three kings, Iphitos of Elis, Kleosthenes of Pisa, and Lykourgos of Sparta, for the period of one month, the Eleans extended the ekecheiria to three months. During the truce, participants from warring city-states could presumably pass through the territory of their enemy without jeopardy. To add to the positive atmosphere, no armies could enter Elis, and the death penalty was suspended.

Violating the truce cost the guilty party dearly. In book five of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes an incident in 420 BCE when the Eleans fined the Spartans 200,000 drachmai for attacking Fort Phyrcus and for sending heavy infantry into Lepreum during the truce. The Spartans denied the charges and refused to pay the fine. As a result, the Spartans were prohibited from participating in and sacrificing at the games that year.

Any Greek could participate in the Panhellenic Olympics. The geographic range of participants stretched from Sicily to the Black Sea. According to Olympic rules, slaves and barbaroi, non-Greeks, could not compete at the games. In addition, any man who had committed a crime or stolen from a temple was barred from participation. Married women could not enter the Olympic stadium or attend the games, although young girls (virgins) and the priestess of Demeter Chamyne were welcomed. According to Pausanias, punishment for a woman attending the Olympics was to be thrown off mount Typaeum. One woman, Kallipateira, defied the rule by disguising herself as a trainer so she could watch her son compete. She had trained him following her husband’s death. Kallipateira was so elated when her son won that she jumped over the barrier that enclosed the trainers’ area and lost her clothing. Her identity revealed, Kallipateira faced certain death. Happily, because her father, three brothers, nephew, and son were Olympic victors, the officials pardoned her in honor of her victorious family.

The athletes themselves were bound by more specific rules of participation and conduct. Every athlete participating in the games had to arrive in Elis at least one month prior to the start of the games and remain in Elis to train under the watchful eye of the Elean judges until the games began. Unlike in the modern games, in which Olympic trials determine who competes in Olympic competition, the month prior to the start of the ancient games served as a weeding-out period in which the judges selected who would and would not participate, based on each aspirant’s level of training. During this period, the judges also divided athletes into age groups.

Once admitted, athletes could not withdraw from competition. Every athlete had to participate unless he was an ephedros, an athlete with an ephedreia, a bye, waiting to compete. The Hellanodikai, literally "judges of Greeks," or officials, imposed fines or corporal punishment on athletes who did not follow the rules. They were assisted by a special police force called the alytarches. The rabdouchoi, rod-bearers, and mastigophoroi, scourge-bearers, carried out the punishments. If an athlete could not pay a fine, his hometown paid it for him.

The Games << Table of Contents >> The Schedule


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Inside Connection

Complementary Resources

CTCWeb Resources
Sport & Daily Life in the Roman World

The Life and Labors of Hercules

Netshot: Homer's Iliad

Roots of English: an Etymological Dictionary

The Roman Gladiator

Knowledge Builders
Dress & Costume, Zeus, Colonization, Homer's Iliad & Odyssey, and more.

Teachers' Companions
Dress & Costume, Zeus, Colonization, Homer's Iliad & Odyssey, and more.

Other Resources
The Ancient Olympic Games Virtual Museum

The Ancient Olympics

An Olympic Games Primer

The Olympics Through Time

The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

Global Glossary Terms
- ekecheiria
- Thucydides
- Demeter
- spondophoroi
- Kallipateira

- ephedros
- Hellanodikai
- alytarches
- rabdouchoi
- mastigophoroi

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