Sex, sport, and sacrifice: reconstructing the ancient Olympics

Forget London 2012. What about Olympia in 388 BC? Archaeologist Neil Faulkner has just published a new book that attempts to reconstruct the lived experience of the ancient games. So what were they really like?


Would a modern visitor to the ancient Olympics find much that was familiar, or would he (sic: no women allowed) be phased by culture shock?

In the Olympic Stadium, there were no stands and no shade: you sat on a grassy bank under the searing heat of the midsummer sun. Naked athletes competed in foot-races, the pentathlon, horse- and chariot-races, and three combat sports – wrestling, boxing, and the almost no-holds-barred pankration, the crowd’s favourite, because there were virtually no rules and it was all blood and pain.

Half the Olympic programme was given over to religious ritual: processions, hymn-singing, incense-burning, gory animal sacrifice, and strange incantations by exotically attired priests.

The Olympic site was not just a sports stadium; it was part-sanctuary, part-art gallery, and part-heritage trail. In the Temple’s inner sanctum, behind a dazzling colonnaded façade, sat a colossal gold-and-ivory (‘chryselephantine’) statue of Zeus, divine master-of-ceremonies.

The Philippeion, an Ionic circular monument built in the Olympic Sanctuary to celebrate Phillip II of Macedon’s victory in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

Outside was a mountainous heap of solidified ash: an altar formed of a thousand sacrifices, the ash from which had been turned into paste and slapped onto the sides, creating an edifice that looked like some sort of gigantic grey blancmange. All around were shrines, altars, and statues, forming a forest of venerable objects.

Fringe events included philosophy lectures, poetry readings, and sundry charlatans and cranks offering to predict the future. The nightlife was yet more exotic. No-one got any sleep, as parties went on through the small hours, and hundreds of prostitutes, men and boys, were busy touting their services until dawn.

The Olympic Village was a vast, tented encampment, with inadequate water-supplies, heaps of stinking refuse, and huge, open, improvised latrines. The air was alive with millions of flies, mosquitoes, and wasps. By the end, no-one had washed properly for a week, and you could smell the Games a mile away.

Or so it must have been.

Historical imagination

It is an interesting exercise for an archaeologist, using a mix of literary, artistic, and material evidence, to try to reconstruct the entire lived experience of a past event like the ancient Olympics. Usually, we restrict our interpretive hypotheses to matters for which direct evidence is available. We write about building techniques but not sexual practices, about trade links but not table manners, about toothache (when we have the skulls) but not typhoid (which does not infect bone).

Even when we use historical titbits to inform archaeological data, we are left with yawning gaps. The ancient writers tell us much more about wars and laws than they ever do about childcare, race relations, or lavatorial arrangements. We have to trawl through the small print for the occasional anthropological nugget, such as the fact that you could tell from the smell of his fart what the man in front had for dinner last night (grilled sprats) when serving as a rower in an Athenian trireme. (It’s there in Aristophanes, believe me.)

So the only way to fill the gaps is to use what R G Collingwood called ‘the historical imagination’. What he had particularly in mind was the problem of human motivation. We often know what people did, but we can never know for sure why they did it. Even when they seem to tell us, we cannot guarantee their veracity; they may have reasons to conceal the truth. The historian must ‘imagine’ what is happening inside the heads of historical actors if he or she is to explain why things happened in the way they did.

The Boxer of the Baths is a life-size bronze of Hellenistic date, depicting a champion boxer, bruised and battered, after a contest.

But this does not exhaust the realm of historical imagination. For antiquity – let alone prehistory – much of the very fabric of everyday social life is invisible. Where archaeology is our primary source, we are dependent on the vagaries and accidents of material-culture survival. Ceramic survives, but the woodwork has gone. We find broken pots, but rarely any complete. We have lots of stone reliefs, but not a single easel painting. Virtually all our statues have lost their paint. And so on.

Writing a guidebook

Because I wanted to show what it was really like to go to the ancient Olympics, I needed lots of historical imagination to fill the gaps. I also needed to indulge a somewhat disreputable willingness to plunder the comparative evidence – using what we know generally about ancient Greece to reconstruct what might have happened specifically at the Olympics, and using what we know about the Olympics in one period to reconstruct what might have been going on at another.

We know a lot, for example, about what the ancient Athenians ate and drank, about their meal-times, and table manners; whereas we know very little about these matters at the Olympics. To imagine that eating at the ancient Olympics was in many ways similar to eating in the ancient city of Athens is quite a leap.

Equally problematic is the assumption that dishes described by the 4th century BC Sicilian gourmand Archestratos of Gela can be taken as evidence for what might have been eaten at the beginning of the century at Olympia. It is perhaps like comparing the food eaten in an upmarket West End restaurant in 2012 with that eaten at a Liverpool football match in 1952.

An artist’s reconstruction of what the 4th century BC Olympic site might have looked like.

But there is no other way to attempt a rounded reconstruction of past experience. And I deliberately chose a literary device that would force me to do this: I set myself the task of writing a tourist guidebook – a sort of 388 BC edition of the Rough Guide to the Olympics. I wanted readers to imagine themselves as actually being there, and this seemed to be the most direct way to achieve that. (The book is written, therefore, in the present tense.)

The archaeology of Olympic sites

Not the least of the challenges was the need for careful reconstruction of the built environment and the manipulated landscape setting.

In archaeological terms, modern Olympic sites are easy. Whatever happens before or after, there is only one Olympic ‘phase’ of the site, whose structures and spaces embody a specific set of identities and values.

The ancient Olympic site is much harder to read, for it is a palimpsest representing more than a millennium of religious and athletic activity. That we know a great deal about this palimpsest is down to the obsessive interest in the site shown by generations of Classical scholars.

Olympia, forgotten during the Middle Ages, was rediscovered in 1766 by the English antiquarian Richard Chandler. It first saw excavation – by a French team in a six-week season – in 1829. But large-scale excavation occurred only with the great campaign of Professor Ernst Curtius between 1875 and 1881, when much of the ancient site was uncovered. The work was funded by the German government, with Wilhelm I, first Kaiser of the newly unified country, having heard Curtius lecture on Olympia way back in 1852.

At the time, high-profile engagement with the Classical past was a feature of international rivalry. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, antagonism between France and Germany was at a peak. The prompt publication of annual excavation reports acted as both inspiration and spur to an aristocratic Frenchman with an antiquarian bent, one Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

‘Germany’, he wrote, ‘has brought to light the remains of Olympia; why should France not succeed in reviving its ancient glory?’ The modern Olympics – beginning with the Athens Games of 1896 – were spawned by a strange mix of archaeology and nationalism.

Olympia revisited

The excavations of 1875 to 1881 (and later) permit a fair measure of accuracy in the dating of major structures. We can begin to visualise the Olympic site in different periods.

Most of the buildings on the western and southern sides of the Sanctuary, for example, are Hellenistic and Roman additions. As far as we can tell, this was largely open ground in 388 BC.

A plan of the Olympic site showing the buildings present in the early 4th century BC.

These additions represent the changing political and social realities of the ancient world. Just as the Stratford complex of the 2012 Olympics can be read as a monument to its age, so too the steady accretion of buildings at ancient Olympia. Take, for example, that supremely vulgar assertion of raw imperial power, the Philippeion (see the title image, p.46).

Erected under Philip II and Alexander the Great – so in the late 4th century BC – it is a circular tholos-type temple built to house statues of the royal dynasty of Macedonia, the recent conquerors of Greece, and newly self-proclaimed champions of Hellenism. Placed within the Sanctuary, close to the archaic Temple of Hera, it represents the brash intrusion of a new world order – upstart royal power appropriating the culture of Old Greece and Olympian Zeus.

But as we scrape off the monuments of foreign warlords to reveal a picture of the site in 388 BC, great holes appear. Even if there were no earlier buildings, Olympia was never a wilderness: the open spaces around the Sanctuary, including the humps and bumps of Stadium and Hippodrome, were used, if for nothing else, as pasture by local farmers.

But for one month every four years, there was much more. During the great festival itself, the whole landscape must have filled with temporary structures, camping pitches, fast-food stalls, drink stands, carts, tethered animals, heaps of refuse, open-air latrines, and heaving, jostling, sweating crowds of people. Invisible to archaeology, this living ‘social landscape’ must be re-imagined if we are to capture what it was really like to go to the ancient Olympics.

The Olympic Village

For a week, the flood-plain of the River Alpheios, dried out by the summer sun, became a vast improvised campsite, something like Glastonbury without the mud or the plastic tents. Most people probably slept in the open. Some may have constructed rude shelters from whatever was available, or strung out a simple awning brought with them for the purpose.

The rich, on the other hand, came with elaborate ‘hospitality’ tents and a retinue of slaves to serve them. As well as sacrificial feasting – especially on the evening of the third day, when 100 oxen were sacrificed to Zeus, and there may have been a small portion of meat for everyone – the gilded elite would throw parties (symposia) for friends and associates.

Sometimes, perhaps in honour of a chariot victory, the entertaining might have been lavish enough for hundreds, even thousands, to partake. The largesse of the rich Athenian playboy and politician Alkibiades in 416 BC was long remembered. It seems likely that all his fellow-countrymen present at the festival on the occasion may have got an invitation.

But even without an invite to a posh party, there was never a dull moment in the Olympic Village. The cultural fringe included everything from high-brow philosophy lectures and poetry readings through to one-obol-a-pop fortune-telling.

And there was the sex. Citizen-women did not attend the Games, but the place was packed with ‘barbarian’ prostitutes, exotically and scantily attired, and ranging in price (and accomplishment, one assumes) from top-of-the-range hetairai to cheap behind-the-tent pornai.

That was just the women. Ancient Greek men were bisexual. Many attended with their male lovers. Others would hope to make fresh conquests. Those disappointed could always buy the services of a boy-prostitute (kinaidos). Lyre-players were considered especially desirable, though the prettiest could cost a year’s wages for an average worker.

The Sports Complex

Evidence for the Hippodrome – where the three equestrian events were held on the morning of the second day of the festival – is sparse, since banks and tracks have long since been washed away in winter flooding of the River Alpheios. Evidence for the Stadium – which seems to have hosted all other events, the four foot-races, the pentathlon, and the three combat sports – is better, but still somewhat obscured by substantial remodelling during the 4th century BC.

Originally, athletes ran from a starting-line at the eastern end of the track and raced towards the Temple and Altar of Zeus, finishing within the holy precincts of the Sanctuary. Subsequent relocation pushed the Stadium north-eastwards, probably to accommodate a growing clutter of statues and altars inside the Sanctuary, and to increase the scale of the seating banks as the popularity of the Games grew.

Even then, space was at a premium. Perhaps 40,000 could have crowded onto the banks, standing under the searing summer sun to catch glimpses of the action amid the bobbing heads and waving arms.

The Sanctuary

The Olympic Sanctuary was something like Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, and the British Museum rolled into one. On the northern edge, in the shadow of the Hill of Chronos, lay the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Rhea (Hera’s mother), and the Altar of Gaia (Hera’s granny): a sort of precinct of the earth-mothers’ union.

The vaulted passageway leading from the Sanctuary to the Stadium at Olympia.

Originally, it seems, Olympia had developed as the centre of an agricultural fertility cult focused on female deities. Later – in a pattern replicated at other Greek religious sites – the old fertility goddesses were displaced by new power gods.

But religious dread precluded either a sudden coup or total dispossession. Rather, over time, the weight of ritual shifted in keeping with changing social priorities. Anxiety about the harvest paled beside new preoccupations with politics, city-state rivalry, and the hazards of war.

So by 388 BC, the greatest temple of all was that of Zeus, one of the largest in the Greek world, an edifice plastered and painted a shimmering white to look like marble, and functioning as a gallery for some of the finest art to be seen anywhere: on one pediment, the myth of Pelops, the chariot-racing hero credited with founding the Olympics; on the other, the fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, representing civilisation and barbarism; on 12 sculpted metopes inside the porches, the Labours of Herakles, role-model champion wrestler, and another hero with a rival claim to being Olympic founder.

The temples towered over the Sanctuary, but there was much more: a row of treasuries packed with antiques and objets d’art; statues of famous athletes standing over proud dedications; triumphal monuments erected by the city-states, one a towering pillar surmounted by a life-size Winged Victory; a sprawling clutter of miniature altars, shrines, and votives; a sacred olive-tree, from which Olympic champions’ crowns were cut; an earth tumulus where the remains of Pelops were supposed to lie; and a Prytaneion (committee room), where the sacred flame of Hestia burned.

A visit to Olympia in 388 BC would have been an extraordinary mixture of discomfort and sleeplessness, sweltering heat and claustrophobic crowds, sex-fest and religious spectacle, a celebration of Hellenic culture and identity, and, above all, a chance to see the superstars of ancient Greek sport giving their all.

At this great distance, working with a few fragments of a complex jigsaw of human experience, we have to work hard to reconstruct it.

Sporting legend: Milon the Wrestler

Following victory in the boys’ wrestling at Olympia in 536 BC, Milon of Kroton (in Calabria, southern Italy) had one of the most illustrious careers in Greek sporting history. He won 30 victories on the Panhellenic circuit, including five olive crowns at Olympia.

On at least one occasion, such was Milon’s reputation that no opponent would face him, and he therefore won the Olympic title ‘without touching the dust’. Embarrassingly, he slipped on his way to collect the crown, and the crowd joked that he should not win since he had fallen down all by himself. Milon shouted back that it was not the third fall, only the first, and challenged anyone to throw him the other times.

Milon was finally defeated at his sixth attempt at the Olympic title in 512 BC, when, at the age of 40, he faced a young exponent, from his own city of Kroton, of the new ‘high-handed’ technique, which minimised the advantage conferred by Milon’s legendary size and strength. Despite him having lost, the crowd raised the Olympic veteran onto its shoulders and cheered Milon around the Stadium.

Milon is said to have carried his own statue into the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, to have borne a four-year-old bull around the Stadium on his shoulders, and to have stood on a greased discus and challenged anyone to rush at him and try to knock him off. His appetite was prodigious – he would consume 20lbs of meat, 20lbs of bread, and eight quarts of wine at a sitting.

He always boasted of his prowess: he is, for example, said to have entered battle against the neighbouring city of Sybaris in 510 BC wearing not only his Olympic crowns, but also dressed as the mythic wrestling hero Herakles, with lion-skin cloak and wooden club.

Milon’s brawn was formidable, but lack of brain may have been the death of him. They say he was killed by wild beasts. While walking in the countryside of his native Kroton, he happened upon a dried-up tree trunk into which wedges had been driven ready to split it. Milon decided to attempt the feat with his bare hands, but the wedges sprang out, the wood closed on his fingers, and he was held trapped, eventually to be gnawed to death by a pack of wolves.

Neil Faulkner’s book, A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics, is published by Yale University Press and costs £14.99.