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The Panhellenic Games
of Ancient Greece

The Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece

29 April 2020

Have you ever wondered how did the Olympic Games come to be? The Ancient Olympic Games, held in Olympia, Greece, were one of the four Panhellenic Games in Ancient Greece. There were many athletic Games in Ancient Greece across the Mediterranean Sea, all of them connected with religious feasts. But four of them transcended local borders and their reputation traveled across the Greek world, becoming ‘Panhellenic’ (meaning “all-Greeks”). Let’s find out more about them!

Image after introtext
A section of the stone starting line at Olympia, which has a groove for each foot - Credit: Jamesscottbrown / [CC BY 3.0]

1. The Games

Sports competitions in Ancient Greece were countless and could be found in every corner of the Mediterranean, where the Greek civilization flourished. Every city-state would host a sports competition along with their religious holidays, making sure to honor their Gods and raise their prestige, political and ideological, and income at the same time. Those Sacred Games have been one of the most important institutions in Ancient Greece, with their impact being visible to the whole Greek world across time. All four of the Panhellenic Games offered the same prize for the winners: a simple wreath of the sacred tree of the respective patron God.

Three runners featured on an Attic black-figured Panathenaic prize amphora, 332-333 BC

Olympic Games

The ancient Olympic Games were taking place in the sanctuary of Olympia, in honor of Zeus, king of the Olympian Gods. There are many traditions and mythological stories about the creation of the Olympic Games. One of them attributes the establishment of the Games to Hercules, one of Zeus’ demigod sons and the most famous Greek hero; another to Pelops, the King that gave his name to Peloponnese; and another to Zeus himself. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and were held every 4 years after that. At first, they consisted of only one contest, the race (Stadio). Steadily, more and more contests were added like the pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, chariot race, pankration and others. The prize for the victors was a wreath of oleaster (wild olive). One month before the start of the Games, the coordinators would proclaim the sacred truce. Wars would cease during that period, to allow athletes and spectators to travel to Olympia for the Games. The Olympic Games were, without a doubt, the most important Sacred Games of Ancient Greece and their reputation spread quickly throughout the Greek world. Soon, the Olympics became the symbol of Panhellenic unity. As time went on, Olympia's political position and importance expanded. From a simple place of worship, it evolved into a sanctuary full of elaborate temples, with thousands of people traveling there to worship Zeus and be part of the prestigious Games. The Olympiad was one of the ways the Ancient Greeks measured time, using the year of each Olympic Games as a starting point. The institution of the Olympic Games lasted for more than 1000 years, until in 394 AD, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals. The Games were revived in 1896 and the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, after about 14 centuries.

Hint! Today, Ancient Olympia is one of the most famous archeological sites in Greece and it is even possible to run on its ancient stadium! Please contact us for more details if you wish to take a trip to Olympia or have a guided tour of the site.

The palaestra of Olympia, a place devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes

Pythian Games

The Pythian Games were being held in Delphi, in honor of the Olympian God Apollo, the god of light, music, dance and prophecy. According to the mythological explanation of its creation, Apollo saw Delphi as the perfect spot for the establishment of his sanctuary. However, older Gods were presiding there and a legendary snake, named Python. The Olympian fought against the serpent and won. This is how he got the name Pythian, his priestess Pythia and his Sacred Games Pythian. Like the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games were held every 4 years. The official start date of these Panhellenic Games was the age of 582 BC. At first, there were only musical contests but later sports and horsing competitions were added. The prize for the victors was a laurel wreath. The festival was held at the end of August and lasted for about 6-7 days. The preparations for the Sacred Games would start 6 months earlier, with the 9 citizens of Delphi (‘theoroi’) traveling across the world to announce the starting date of the Pythian. At the same time, the Sacred Truce would start, which lasted for a year. No conflicts or armed robberies were allowed during that period, to protect the 9 citizens of Delphi and the people that would travel to the sanctuary of Apollo for the event. Any city-state that broke the truce would be immediately banned from the Pythian Games and the Oracle of Apollo. Kings, princes and rulers across the Mediterranean world would travel for months to arrive at Delphi and take part in the great festivities of August. Delphi was indeed the ‘Omphalos’, the center of the world, a political, societal and cultural center of the civilized world of antiquity.

Hint! Visiting Delphi today is one of the most popular day trips from Athens. You can join a private Delphi tour with an expert licensed guide and discover the ancient rituals you had to pass before asking for an oracle from Apollo and the preparations for the Pythian Games!

Isthmian Games

The Isthmian Games were held in the Isthmus of Corinth, in honor of the Olympian God of the Seas, Poseidon. The establishment of these Panhellenic Games was attributed to three different myths by the ancients. One wanted god Poseidon himself to be the creator of the Isthmian Games, the other declared the Athenian hero Theseus as the founder and the last one attributed the origin of the festival to Sisyphus, the legendary King of Corinth. The first official games were held in 582 BC and were taking place every 2 years, during Spring. There were contests like race and horsing competitions, and something similar to rowing. The prize for the victors was a wreath made of pine tree leaves. There were also musical, poetic and painting competitions. Corinth's geographical location and wealth contributed to the sanctuary becoming a major religious center and the Isthmian Games gaining Panhellenic status.

Hint! Today, the site is hardly visible since most of it was destroyed. It is located only a few hundred meters from the Corinth Canal, so it is still worth a visit if you are passing by to enter the Peloponnese region.

The Canal of Corinth

Nemean Games 

The Nemean Games were held in Nemea, in honor of Zeus. According to the oldest founding myth, the Games were founded by the seven Kings of Argos in commemoration of the death of a baby called Opheltes. Another myth wants Hercules to be the founder of these Panhellenic Games, after defeating the Nemean Lion. The most likely start date of the Nemean Games is 573 BC and they were taking place every 2 years, like the Isthmian Games, in July or August. The contests included competitions like race, boxing, pentathlon, pankration, wrestling, chariot race and others. The prize for the victors was a wreath of wild celery. It is of interest that during the later years of the festival women were also allowed to compete in the games. Today, there is a movement to try and revive the Nemean Games in the modern world. The Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games is working towards that end and are organizing every 4 years the modern Nemean Games at their birthplace. The modern games are open to all people, not just elite athletes, and include ancient athletic competitions.

Hint! The stadium and the colossal Temple of Zeus can be visited today and makes for a perfect day trip from Athens. The Nemea region produces some of the most famous Greek wines and you can combine the cultural trip with a wine tasting experience in one of the estates in the area. We will be happy to create a bespoke travel itinerary for Nemea and arrange a guided trip for you. Please contact us for more details.

Entrance tunnel from where the athletes entered to the stadium of Nemea

2. The Participants

The Panhellenic Games were closely linked to the religious festivals of the ancients, who also included sacrifices to their gods and honored their dead. This is why they are also known as Sacred Games. Participating in the games was not regarded as a profession but it was considered a great honor to win the Games. The victors were considered local heroes, bringing pride to their town or village. Athletes were also called fighters. Every fighter had their opponent, the competitor. There were also people in charge of supervising and coordinating the games that were called Ellanodikes. And so the games began!

Pankration scene: the pankriatiast on the right tries to gouge his opponent's eye; the umpire is about to strike him for this foul. Detail from an Attic red-figure kylix c. 490-480 BC

3. The Stadiums

The venues of the Panhellenic Games did not look much different than today. Each Game had its stadium (Stadio). Ancient Greeks used the stadium as a measuring distance, so it became equivalent to the building where spectators watched sporting events. Initially, the stadiums were simple, sometimes built near slopes to give viewers a clear view of the events. However, from the beginning of the 5th century BC, stadiums started to become more elaborate. First, artificial embankments (slopes) were added and later stone or marble docks (seats) for more comfort. Today, thanks to the archaeological excavations, we can admire these magnificent stadiums. Travelers can visit the stadium of the Olympic Games in Olympia, the one of the Isthmian Games in Delphi, the Nemean Games’ in Ancient Nemea and the Isthmian’s in Isthmus of Corinth. An ancient stadium that is still used today for events is the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which is also accessible. It is the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble and someone can feel like a spectator or an athlete of the Ancient Games just by walking on it.

The stadium of the Pythian Games in Delphi

4. The Sports

Representatives of each Greek city-state or town accompanied the athletes who went to compete. The sports in the four Panhellenic Games were almost the same. This was because they all copied the contests of the Olympic Games and were steadily adopting small changes or innovations according to the peculiarities of each festival. The most important sports were the race, pentathlon, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, wrestling, boxing, pankration and horse races. It is interesting to note that some of those sports were gymnikoi (meaning ‘nudist’). The athletes were competing completely naked. Rumor has it that:

The Greeks initially participated in the races covered, wearing cloths around their waists. Later, however, someone threw his cover away and won! So, considering it good luck, others followed him, and the institution of all naked races was established. The races were then called gymnikoi - which is where modern "gymnastics" comes from.

However, the real explanation must be closer to what the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote. According to him, competing naked was a show of civility in the face of the barbarism displayed by Greece’s enemy of the East, Persia. To Thucydides and many other later writers and artists, the athletic body was a symbol of Greek civilization, freedom, superiority and, most importantly, control.


5. The Victors

The victors of the Panhellenic Games did not receive any monetary rewards. The only reward for the victors was a wreath, made from the sacred tree of each god. For the Olympic Games it was a wreath of oleaster (wild olive); for the Pythian Games a laurel wreath; for the Isthmian Games a wreath made from pine tree leaves; and for the Nemean Games a wreath of wild celery. Besides that, the victors were gaining fame and were well-respected and honored by their respective lands. Poets like Pindaros dedicated poems to victors of the Games and sculptors carved their statues. To gain that fame and honor, even the archontes (the men with the means and power) and kings would enter the competitions in order to claim a wreath! But winning at the contests was not easier than it is today. According to the words of Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher:

“So you wish to conquer in the Olympic Games, my friend? And I, too... But first mark the conditions and the consequences. You will have to put yourself under discipline; to eat by rule, to avoid cakes and sweetmeats; to take exercise at the appointed hour whether you like it or not, in cold and heat; to abstain from cold drinks and wine at your will. Then, in the conflict itself you are likely enough to dislocate your wrist or twist your ankle, to swallow a great deal of dust, to be severely thrashed, and after all of these things, to be defeated.”

If you wish to discover more about Ancient Greek culture and institutions, you can visit our Blog. When planning a trip to Delphi, home to the Isthmian Games, make sure to read our 10 things to do in Delphi, to get valuable insights about the home of Apollo. You are welcome to contact us and let our local expert team create a travel itinerary tailored to your interests and schedule.

* Main photo: The "Discobolus" is a copy of a Greek statue c. 5th century BC. It represents an ancient Olympic discus thrower - Credit: After Myron [CC BY-SA-4.0]

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