Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Olympian Games

There was one thing in which the Greeks were united, and that was the games, already referred to, in which no one who was not a Greek could take part. The most famous were held at Olympia in Elis. Through all the changes in the different states these had been continued, and they were regarded as being so sacred that, no matter how fiercely two Greek tribes might be fighting, they always had a truce during the time of the Olympian games and the days allowed for going and returning. No Greek who could afford to make the journey would think of losing a celebration of the games; and the roads leading to Olympia must have been a wonderfully interesting sight for a week or two before and after the midsummer days on which the festival was held.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Imagine the first day of the celebration! The different states had all sent representatives, and these men wore their richest garments and rode in the handsomest chariots that could be obtained. The Greeks enjoyed processions so much that there can hardly fail to have been a parade of these, and after it there was almost certainly a solemn sacrifice to Zeus. Then came the important work of making sure that those who wished to engage in the games had a right to do so. Not only the athletes, but the umpires and trainers, had to swear that they were free-born Greeks of unmixed blood, and that they would obey the rules of the games. Even with this oath, they had also to prove their citizenship, and the athletes had to show that they had followed the rules of diet and training required. All this would occupy one day from morning till night. The following days—three and perhaps more—were given to the contests. There were racing, wrestling, boxing, leaping, throwing of quoits, and hurling of javelins. Last of all were the famous races of four-horse chariots. When the moment had come there was a loud blast on the trumpets, the barriers fell, and the horses darted forward, while the crowd shouted and cheer in the wildest excitement.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The fifth day was given up to the victors. A boy was sent the sacred grove to cut with a golden knife branches from a wild olive tree. These were made into wreaths, which were presented to the successful men. It was the proudest moment of a man's life when the herald called his name, his father's name, and that of his native city, and he stepped forward to receive his crown. The crowds shouted their applause, and he forgot the long, weary months of training and thought only of the fame that he had won.

The olive wreath with all that it stood for was reward enough, but there were many more honors awaiting its happy wearer. He usually made a sacrifice to Zeus, and in this all his countrymen who were present were glad to join, for he had brought glory to their country. While the sacrifice was burning, they marched around the altar in a splendid procession, singing choruses of praise to the gods to the music of the flute and the cithara. This was only the beginning, for the sacrifice was followed by numerous banquets. The city that presided at the games gave feasts to the victors, and the victors gave feasts to their friends. Even this was not all, for often a statue in honor of the successful man was set up at Olympia, and maybe another at his own home. Even the return of a victor to his native city was a splendid sight. He was dressed in a rich purple robe, and brought to his home in a chariot drawn by four white horses. His friends and relatives followed him, all in their holiday garments; and then came a crowd, singing and cheering and shouting at the top of their voices. When they had come to the walls, the procession stopped. "What need of walls of defense for a city that has such men as he?" the people cried; and then a piece of the city wall was torn down and the four white horses pranced over the ruins. Of course banquets followed, and often a generous gift of gold and silver. The philosophers of the day sometimes reminded the citizens that these victors in the games were of small value to the state. "They are of no use in peace," declared the wise men, "for not their minds but their bodies have been trained; and they are of no use in war, for their training is so one-sided that they soon break down if they attempt military service." Nevertheless, the worship of the athlete continued. In some places he dined every day at the expense of the city, an all the rest of his life had a front seat reserved for him in the theatre. His name was carefully inscribed on the register that was kept at Olympia, and he was honored as long as he lived.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


The Greeks had so much regard for these games that they dated events from them, counting the year of a celebration an Olympiads the following three years as an "Olympiad." For instance 776 B.C. they called the first year of the first Olympiad; 770 B.C. the third year of the second Olympiad.

Foot race at Olympic games


For more than a thousand years these games were continued without a break. Their influence upon Greek life can hardly be rated too highly. They affected commerce, for where so many thousand people were gathered together, there must have been a vast amount of buying and selling. They affected art, for at the games the sculptor could find the finest of living models. They affected the manners of the people, their regard for religious rites, and also their interest in literature and oratory; for at most of the games contests in these lines also were held. The Greeks never became united into one nation, but the games did much to make them feel that they had interests in common, and that if a tribe called in the aid of a foreigner against another tribe, it was in some degree a traitor to the country.


During the time of the Olympian games a truce was always held. No one not of pure Greek blood was allowed to contend. There were many kinds of contests. The victor was crowned with an olive wreath. There were sacrifices and banquets in his honor, and often statues of him were erected.

His return to his home was a splendid sight.

The philosophers claimed that the victors were of small value to the state, but the highest honors continued to be shown them.

The Greeks dated events from the games, counting every four years as an Olympiad.

The games affected commerce, art, manners, regard for religious rites, and interest in literature and oratory. They made the Greeks feel that they had something in common.

Suggestions For Written Work

A boy describes a day at the games.

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