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The Historical and Cultural Significance of Olympia

by August 11, 2021

Written by Titus, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Olympia was Greek a sanctuary site located in the western Peloponnese dedicated to one of the most important Greek deities, Zeus. The cultural significance of Olympia was far-reaching, being a place of great significance to the Greeks for generations and modern society today.
Modern Olympic Games are the continuation of the ancient Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia between 776 BCE to 393 CE. In the beginning, the games were just a local festival honoring the god Zeus. They soon became so popular that the entire Greek world united to hold the games every four years. This didn’t happen overnight, however — it took centuries for the games to become so established in Greek culture.
The city-states of Greece would send their finest men to take part in games, just like every country in the world today sends their best men and women to the modern Olympic Games. The difference is that the ancient Olympic Games were also a religious event: they were held to honor the god Zeus. Today’s Olympic Games, in contrast, are secular. Another difference is that the ancient Olympic Games were exclusively at one site, while today, they are held all around the world.
Statue of Zeus in Olympia
The ancient world, especially in ancient Greece, valued the physical prowess of men. Spartan warriors were famous for their tough military training and incomparable physical strength and resilience. The games, in this sense, were highly compatible with the Greek warrior-like culture. Men were eager to prove their mettle and cities were proud of their achievements. The Olympic Games were the manifestation of the Greek culture and in many ways encompassed its values. The Roman empire may have been the fiercest war machine of antiquity, but its men were still not as strong and physically capable as their Greek peers. The Roman empire also had games, but the Olympic Games had become an important part of the culture hundreds of years before the Romans held gladiatorial games and events.
The ancient Olympic Games lasted a short five days, but the participants would arrive months before to train. Wrestling matches, chariot and horse racing, disc and javelin throwing, long jump, and running were all part of the highly-anticipated event. The games would start after the high priestess of Olympia lit the Olympic flame. The temples of Zeus and Hera were all crowded during the event as offerings and ceremonies were held to ask favor from the gods.
Chariot Racing at Olympic Games
The ancient Olympics had several very interesting elements. For one, the Olympic competitors performed in the nude and only males were allowed to participate and spectate. The only woman allowed to witness the games was the high priestess of the temple of Demeter. Another interesting aspect was that spectators sat in the open ground or on the surrounding mountains to watch the games, instead of a dedicated seating area.
The event was more than just a religious event or sports activity. In fact, it served many purposes, being an important part of Greek diplomacy, trade, and business. Even wars would stop for a few days during the event, as both sides sent in their best men to participate. Heads of the states or envoys would also gather during the games and important diplomatic developments took place at the site. Even business and trade dealings took place during the event as people from all over Greece gathered together.
In 393 AD, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games in an effort to Christianize the region. As the Latin and Greek worlds changed, practices that honored pagan gods gradually fell away. Theodosius I prohibited the games and they remained lost to history until quite recently. The modern Olympic Games started in 1896 and have since been held in different parts of the world. Today’s Olympics do not carry on the Greek legacy in religious terms, but they do carry on in the spirit of the ancient athletic event.

The Truth About Roman Gladiators (and How They Live On)

by May 5, 2021

Written by Jacek Czarnecki, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom 
Fearless warriors battling each other to the death while providing entertainment to a blood-thirsty audience: that’s how most people envision the Roman gladiators. However, this image is shaped more by film than historical reality. 
The first gladiator games took place in 264 BCE, although the origins go back much further, possibly to Campania, where they were found in the funeral processions of aristocrats. There, fights were organized to ease the passage of the deceased relative into the afterlife and at the same time display wealth and power of the family organizing the event, since they paid for everything. 
Once gladiator fights became a more mainstream form of entertainment, they took place in whatever large public space there was available, but with time they found their home in amphitheaters. These amphitheaters started out wooden, but eventually became more fancy—the first stone amphitheater appeared in Pompey in 55 BCE. Due to their high cost, not all cities had amphitheaters, so in many small towns and cities fights were watched in alternative spaces, such as the Forum, theaters (especially in Greek cities), and in general, in large open spaces. 
Roman amphitheater, Hierapolis
Eventually, amphitheaters became synonymous with gladiators and proliferated to the point that by 3rd century there were over 200 of them throughout the empire. The most famous and grandiose of them all was Rome’s Colosseum, containing some 45,000 seats and an additional 5,000 places for the standing spectators. 
Although the price of admission was high for most Romans, free tickets were regularly available courtesy of the emperor, senators, or sponsors of the entertainment (this boosted their popularity with the people).
However, free goodies did not stop there – spectators had an opportunity for various other gratis items, including meat from slaughtered animals in the arena. This might sound strange today, but in some ways it is very similar to our modern notion of entertainment. How many listeners call radio stations on a daily basis hoping to win free tickets to upcoming events? And how many further hope to participate in some half-time games or drawings, craving to get prizes and goodies for the evening?
Today, our expectation of prizes are different, but this goes both ways — ancient Romans would certainly not appreciate winning a stuffed animal! Also like today, concession stands with what we would consider fast food were usually present at these events (if you were lucky enough to actually set foot inside the Colosseum).
The Roman Colosseum
The Colosseum, Rome (CC BY-SA 2.5 )
The morning program was followed by lunchtime executions in various forms, such as crucifixion or death by wild animals (introduced as a new sentence in 167 BCE by Aemilius Paullus). Although it is important to note that usually criminals and slaves would be tortured in these events, Roman citizens would have a swifter death by the sword – another barbaric practice many assume is limited to the ancient world. The reality is, public executions existed until rather recently, ending in America and France as late as the 1930s. Some countries, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and North Korea, still have public executions.
Finally, in the afternoon came the long-awaited gladiator fights. Just like today’s main events, which have opening acts that build anticipation and excitement, so did the Romans. There were mock fighters called paegniarii who used sticks and whips, as well as lusorii who used wooden weapons.
At last came the main event of the day: the gladiators themselves. People had been waiting days in anticipation, as attractive advertisements of future fights were posted all over the city on walls and beside main roads.
To keep interest high, the names of newly participating gladiators were added daily just before the event – an important form of advertising, as many spectators had their own lineup of gladiators they wanted to see perform live. It was similar to what many concerts venues do today by announcing guest performers only a few days prior to the event. 
Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872, Phoenix Art Museum
Gladiator fights, and sports in general, seem to have been widely-celebrated events in ancient Rome. In fact, at one point, a gladiatorial contest between the city of Pomeii and Nuceria resulted in a riot between the spectators, causing Emperor Nero to close the amphitheater in Pompeii for ten years as punishment. A soccer fan living in England in the 1970s would certainly not find this bizarre at all — even today, various soccer clubs are occasionally punished for the behavior of their fans. 
The city of Rome boasted four chariot racing teams named after their team colors, each with its own fan club. Sporting competitions were full of energy in the ancient Roman world. Athletes were so popular that they were portrayed on various objects including motifs in art, mosaics, and clay lamps.
The Gladiator Mosaic, Roman, first half of the 4th century
Gladiators were so popular that even some emperors and other elites volunteered to fight as gladiators, resulting in various laws to prevent the situation from getting out of control. Gladiators had an unusual position in society. Despite being at the bottom of the social hierarchy — many of them were slaves, criminals, deserters of army, or captured prisoners —they symbolized Roman virtues of masculinity, bravery, and fearlessness in the face of death. It was as if by fighting and putting their life on the line, they could redeem their honor and be restored to society. They inspired  courage and were even believed to be sex symbols for female spectators. 
Some gladiators were able to live long enough to buy their freedom, yet many of those who did decided to return to the arena. Free gladiators were very popular. Those who earned freedom had lots of experience and were expected to put on a good performance. Gladiators who volunteered were considered a novelty. Another special treat were female gladiators. There is considerable debate over when they first appeared and in general there is little information about them. 
A 2,000-year old bronze statue, possibly a female gladiator standing in a victory pose, image credit: Photo by Alfonso Manas, University of Granada
For all the excitement generated by the gladiators, the Roman authorities nonetheless understood the dangers of this form of entertainment. They would not forget the rebellion of Spartucus in which a Thracian became a gladiator and escaped with fifty or so other gladiators in 73 BCE. Under his command, they fought off several Roman armies successfully for two years, until finally being defeated. Survivors were crucified along the Appian Way, one of the most famous roads leading to Rome. 
Following the incident, control over gladiatorial training schools was tightened and discipline was severe; for instance, in Pompeii the prison at gladiatorial barracks was so low that it was only possible to sit or lay down in it. In Rome, there were four training schools and all were run by the imperial court. Independent managers over gladiatorial schools could still be found outside the city, however.
Contrary to the popular belief and movie representations, each match was not fought to the death—in fact, most were not. Fights to the death usually came advertised and had official permission, implying they were not standard fare. Even though the life of a gladiator was dangerous, many lived to retire while others were able to acquire substantial wealth. 
The Gladiators, by José Moreno Carbonero, 1882
For instance, a gladiator named Publius Ostorius fought no less than fifty-one fights, which is comparable to modern day boxers at retirement, such as Mike Tyson, who retired after fifty-eight fights. Training standards were extremely difficult and the general idea behind the match was to conquer the opponent using skill, not necessarily killing them.
This is not to say it was in any way less dangerous, because serious wounding or even death was possible. In training, gladiators were taught to stab rather than slash with a weapon, which was more deadly. Thus, even if the point was not to kill, the possibility of doing so was fairly high. If injured, however, gladiators had access to some of the best doctors in the Roman Empire. 
The Gladiator’s Wife, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1884
It is important to note that many gladiators were trained for years at the school’s expense. Hence, a good, experienced gladiator was an expensive investment. Gladiators were typically leased. If seriously injured or killed, the leases were converted to sales which were far more expensive, in some cases as high as fifty times the lease price. Since the gladiator could no longer be returned or fight, this was a way for those leasing them out to cover the potential loss of profit.
Gladiators’ worth ranged from 3,000 sesterces to as much as 12,000-15,000. Star gladiators could receive up to 100,000 sesterces, which was an incredibly high figure compared to the annual salary of average Romans. For instance, during the reign of Emperor Augustus, an ordinary soldier’s average income was 256 sesterces, while a senator would receive about 38,000 sesterces. 
Thus, it would not make much sense to have them fight to the death. Gladiators usually fought until one signaled defeat or surrendered. In some cases fights ended in a draw, if they were equally matched. Officials known as summa rudis carried long rods (most likely to signal from a safer distance) and oversaw the fight. Many historians think they determined when combat was to be stopped even if the gladiator did not submit, like modern-day referees in the boxing ring. 
When the match was over, the summa rudis occasionally let the editor make the final decision; he, in turn, would sometime yield it to the people, letting the crowd make the decision over life and death. In very rare cases, the victors themselves were able to decide the fate.
However, given the immense value of gladiators, matches to the death were not something done on a regular basis, or at least with regular gladiators. There were exemptions, such as people specifically condemned to death through gladiatorial fights. Such a fate might have been assigned to cattle-raiders, for example. They were housed and fed in poor conditions, had little training or armor, and were pitted to fight each other. 
It is also worth pointing out that in many cases gladiators did not want to kill or seriously injure another because some of them lived and trained together, and elder gladiators, having more experience and discipline, would coach the younger ones. Those gladiators that did aim at killing the opponent or did not act in the standard behavior were looked down upon by others and in some cases, might have been killed in matches themselves out of revenge.
Gladiator Camp by Paris Bordone, c. 1560, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Gladiators also formed their own unions and had regular meetings. All this speaks to a complex social system beyond a simple recreation of opponents fighting till one or the other was killed, as is often portrayed in cinema. 
Gladiators also considered it dishonorable to be opposing an inferior opponent. Thus, they were matched with opponents of similar skill but with different armament type. There were various types of gladiators, for example: murmillones (these wore a large visored helmet, carried a large rectangular shield, and fought with a short stabbing sword), hoplomachs (these wore a visored helmet, fought with a long spear as well as a short dagger or sword, and were protected by a small shield), thraeces (these wore visored helmet with wide brim, carried a short rectangular shield and fought with a short sword whose blade was curved or kinked), or secutores, (these wore an egg-shaped helmet with round eye-holes, carried a large rectangular shield, and a stabbing sword). The crowd especially liked a left-handed gladiator, which is an interesting phenomena. Left-handed boxers are popular to this day and are often very successful, such as Manny Pacquiao. 
Gladiatorial fights slowly faded out of Roman life, although it took some time. Emperor Constantine I issued an edict in 326 CE abolishing the fights, however it seems it was generally not enforced. His son, Constantius II, in 357 CE forbade soldiers and officials in Rome from taking part in them personally, and just few years later Valentinian I prohibited Christians from being forcibly sent to gladiatorial schools. Even though the fights persisted for many years later, final abolition seemed in place by 681 CE. 
Roman Gladiators with Wooden Swords, by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, 1635-39
 A lot of time has passed since in then. Today, we imagine these ancient warriors and those who cheered them on. We ask how brutal and heartless they must have been. Yet to them, gladiatorial fights provided an escape from everyday life, from their worries and problems.
The same thing drives our own entertainment: MMA fights have been growing in popularity worldwide since the early 1990s, while boxing has come a long way since the bare-knuckle fights of the 18th and 19th centuries. In a mere hundred year span (from 1900 to 2000) 1,358 deaths were recorded directly linked to boxing matches. That is roughly thirteen deaths per year. Other sports, such as football, are also very dangerous, with occasional deaths and concussions now being linked to long-term health problems. Nevertheless, every hit, every knockout is what fascinates us.
Today’s world brings us slow-motion replays, frame-by-frame analysis and a flood of social media clicks – the more shocking and deadly, the more views and coverage. The arena has remained a junction of fame, admiration, danger and death. 
In the Roman world, Emperor Augustus and his successors considered gladiator fights a good form of propaganda for unity of the empire. Aren’t American Super Bowl matches an interesting comparison? Does its opening ceremonies, national anthem, military plane flybys, fireworks, and halftime show serve a similar purpose, whether by design or not? 
The world has changed a lot since the days of ancient Rome, but our inner urge for adrenaline — whether as a spectator or participant — is not much different from those who lived 2,000 years ago.  
Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.
Cagniart, Pierre. “The Philosopher and the Gladiator.” The Classical World, Vol. 93, No. 6 (Jul. – Aug., 2000), pp. 607-618.
Carter, Michael J. “Bloodbath: Artemidorus, Αποτομοσ Combat, and Ps.-Quintilian’s “The Gladiator”.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 193 (2015), pp. 39-52. 
Carter, M.J. “Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 102, No. 2 (Dec. – Jan., 2006/2007), pp. 97-114. 
Concannon, Cavan W. “Not for an Olive Wreath, but Our Lives”: Gladiators, Athletes, and Early Christian Bodies,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 133, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 193-214. 
Curry, Andrew. “The Gladiator Diet,” Archaeology, Vol. 61, No. 6 (November/December 2008), pp. 28-30. 
Grant, Michael. Gladiators: The Bloody Truth. New York: Penguin Books, 1967. 
Mathisen, Ralph W. Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations: From Prehistory to 640 CE, 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
McCullough, Anna. “Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact,” The Classical World, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Winter,2008): pp. 197-209. 
McManus, Barbara F. “Arena: Gladiatorial Games,” The College of New Rochelle,
Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. 
Svinth, Joseph R. “Death Under the Spotlight: The Manuel Velazquez Collection, 2011” October 2011. 
University of California, “Roman Empire 14 CE, income distribution –GPIH,”
Voiland, Adam. “The Eight-Thousanders,” Dec. 16, 2013, 
Winks, Robin W. and Susan P. Mattern-Parkes, The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

All You NEED to Know About the Ancient Olympics

by August 5, 2020

Written by Divya Gupta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The first Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Around 280 participants from 13 nations competed in 43 sporting games. Since 1994, the famous Game has been held separately as the Winter and Summer Olympics every two years.

But did you know these modern games are inspired by the ancient Olympics in Greece which originated around 3000 years ago! From the 8th century B.C. until the 4th century A.D. these Games were held every four years, between July and September, during the religious festival honoring Zeus.

The Origin of the Olympics

The first ancient Olympic games were held in 776 BC in Olympia, on the first full moon after the summer solstice (around mid-July). The ancient town of Olympia was named after Mount Olympos, though it is nowhere near it. Mount Olympos is the highest mountain in Greece, and in Greek mythology, it was considered as being home to the gods and goddesses, and the Sanctuary of Zeus.


Ruins of the palaestra at Olympia, Greece.

The ancient Olympic game began as a regional religious event and reached the heights of national importance when the Greek empire spread in the 5th century B.C. What was once a friendly and fun-loving event, became a matter of colonial pride!

The winner of the first Olympic Games was Koroibos, a cook hailing from the town of Elis who won the only game, stade (origin of the word stadium). Stade was a 192-meter-long footrace that continued to be the only sport for 13 Olympic festivals.

Olympic Games

Sporting activities were an integral part of Greek education. The athletes would start preparing at an early age by professional trainers who helped them develop muscles, regulated their diet, and taught them sporting techniques.

There were many other sporting competitions, but the Olympics remained the most prestigious one. After 13 successful games, two more races were added: the diaulos (around 400-metres race) and the dolichos (a 1500-meters race). In 708 B.C. the very famous pentathlon (a race with five events: a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin throws, and wrestling match) was introduced. Many other games were added through the years like boxing in 688 B.C., chariot racing in 680 B.C., and pankration in 648 B.C.

boxing and wrestling area

Space where Olympians would practice boxing and wrestling at the paleastra of Olympia.

The famous Nudist Tell Tale

Legend has it that the athletes would run naked during the competition. Women were prohibited from participating or spectating the games, although young girls were allowed in the crowds. During one of the games, Kallipateira sneaked in to watch her son, Peisirodos, play.

She had trained him rigorously and, after seeing him win, the mother couldn’t contain her excitement and celebrated a bit too much while loosening her clothes. The secret was out! She revealed her sex and soon received a death penalty. But she managed to escape the punishment because her family was home to great Olympic victors. Since then, every athlete had to undergo the training and participate in the events without wearing any clothes!

Olympic Rules and Regulations

Greeks took these games pretty seriously. Every athlete had to report to the events one month before the games and had to declare that they have been training for a minimum of ten months. Non-Greeks, lawbreakers, slaves, and murderers were prohibited from participating. Many cities, including Sparta in 420 B.C., were excluded from the games too.

greek wrestlers

A relief from a funerary kouros base depicting two Greek wrestlers, one of the sports at such events as the Olympic Games at Olympia. c. 510 BCE. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The Hellanodikai judges from Elis were trained specially to organize the event. They had the power to disqualify and punish participants who infringed the law. On the breaching of any rules, the athlete or the city he represented had to pay hefty fines.

The Participants and Olympic Champions

The Hellanodikai judges crowned winners with a wreath made of olive leaves and branches, as a sign of victory. Olive was significant to Olympia because it was planted by Hercules himself. In chariot races, the owners received these olive leaves while the charioteer was gifted a red ribbon to be worn on the upper arm or head. Victors were highly regarded and would often be welcomed to their hometowns with a grand ceremony. Large celebrations were organized in honor of their victory. Olympic winners were considered real heroes and received glory, fame, and historical immortality.


Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora. Currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amongst the famous Olympic champions are Kroton, from southern Italy, and Leonidas of Rhodes. Literary tales also fabricate the story of Roman Emperor, Nero, who would win every game he competed in! The first woman to win a game was Kyniska in 392 B.C. Women were not allowed to participate but they could own a horse and hold a title on its win.

It is speculated that almost 45,000 people would attend these famous games. Food vendors, musicians, and artists would all come together to entertain people. Masses would extend their support with boisterous activities and hooting. No wars were allowed during the period and people would excitedly gather to celebrate the prestigious event.

End of The Ancient Olympics

Around the mid-2nd century, the Roman Empire conquered Greece and eventually the standard and quality of the games fell. In 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius banned all ‘pagan’ festivals including the famous Olympics. The ancient game lasted for nearly 12 centuries with 293 successful Olympiads before coming to an end.



Fitness Tips from Ancient Greece

by January 3, 2020

Written by M. Reed Myers, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

If you are like most people, you probably wonder what life would be like if you had the body of a Greek god.  You wonder what doors would open for you if you had the kind of physique that only a Praxiteles would be fit to sculpt.

Wonder no more, dear reader.  This article presents fitness concepts derived from the best of classical Greek sculpture, pottery, and literature, adapted for us all-too-human moderns.

Read on: adventure and heroic stature await you.

Sing. O muse, and bid your listeners consult with Asclepius before beginning any of these programs.

Think and Thrive

The gymnasia were at the center of ancient Greek physical education.  Based on the word-root gymno, meaning “naked,” physical exercise at the gymnasium was done mostly in the nude, under the gaze of gymnastes, or coaches.  Because the student’s body was completely observable, the coach could accurately diagnose physical limitations and develop an individualized training plan.

Archaeologists have excavated gymnasia in such sites as Athens, Delphi, Epidarus, Eretria, Olympia, and even Priene in the Greek islands.  By the 5th century BC, the gymnasia offered more than just physical training.  Students also received basic physical therapy, listened to lectures, watched dramatic presentations, and listened to poetic recitations. All these elements reinforced the overarching Greek culture, with a heavy emphasis on honoring the Olympian gods and semi-divine heroes.

A major problem with this system, of course, was its exclusion of women.  Although Spartan women were somewhat freer, no woman in ancient Greece could exercise the same rights and freedoms as their male peers.  This is not the case with these exercises.  They are designed to exercise the major muscle groups and can be of benefit to either gender.

A common motif in Greek black-figure pottery was the depiction of male figures performing various exercises common to the gymnasium.  Think and Thrive is a workout that builds on these art motifs to create a balanced, healthy physique with lower body, core, and upper body elements.  As you progress from one exercise to the next, maintain a steady pace.  Regarding exercise intensity, you should be able to speak in short sentences, but not dramatic monologues.


Pompeii gymnasium, from the top of the stadium wall. Author: Haiduc CC BY-SA 3.0

You will need a large open field, preferably with an oval or circular track at the perimeter, a frisbee or other throwing disk, and a weighted object you can grasp with both hands (like a kettle bell).  At one side of the field, place your throwing disk, on the other side of the field place your kettle bell or other weight.

Strophe: if you are exercising by yourself and have access to audiobooks, listen to a major section of any of the following: the Iliad, Works and Days, or any of the myths of Theseus or Heracles.  While listening, jog at a moderate pace around the perimeter of the field and ponder the crucial lessons you are hearing.  If you do not have access to audiobooks, ask an exercise partner to chant the section aloud to you, while you jog in a smaller circle around your partner.

Antistrophe: Six sets of the following exercises.

Hurl like Hektor: Hold your flying disk in both hands, with arms extended.  With your feet shoulder-width apart, and your weight balanced on both feet, slowly rotate your upper body from right to left, until you reach 100.  Throughout, tighten your core and abdomen (as though you were bracing to receive a punch). When you reach 100 rotations, throw your flying disc across the field toward your kettle bell or other weight.

Run like Atalanta: While your flying disc is in the air, sprint as quickly as you can after it.  Pick it up on the run and sprint with it back to your starting point.  Bonus points if you are able to catch it on the fly!

foot race

Panathenaic amphora, a victory prize from ca. 530 BC depicting a foot race, attributed 
to the painter Euphiletos. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Row like Jason: Before you regain your breath after your sprint, drop your flying disk and lift your kettlebell or other weight.  Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and the weight resting across your thighs.  Tighten your abdomen again, pull your shoulders back, lift your chest and keep your lower back in its natural curve.  Keeping the weight close to your body, pull upwards while extending your elbows.  Lift the weight until it is just under your chin.  Slowly lower the weight back to full extension.  Breathe in and out throughout the exercise.  For the basic exercise, do one repetition for each of the 12 labors of Heracles.  For advanced exercise do one repetition in honor of each of the argonauts.

Epode: listen to your selection once again while jogging around the perimeter.  Think about the implications of the lesson for your community and for all the Greeks.  This workout can be done 3 – 4 times per week, with rest days interspersed.  Alternate upper body exercises could include shoulder shrugs rather than upright rows or bicep curl to shoulder press.

The Heraean Games

Greek physical fitness was initially based on the principle that civic survival depended on having physically strong, resilient citizen soldiers.  The epitome of this perspective was Sparta.

As the readers of Classical Wisdom know, Sparta’s political relevance in Greece depended on its ability to produce highly disciplined warriors who could simultaneously subdue its helot slaves and intimidate its political rivals.

It is said that when Philip II of Macedon was expanding his control over Greece in 346 BC, he sent an imperious demand to the Spartans, demanding their submission: “If I bring my forces into your land, I will ravage your homesteads, massacre your people, and destroy your city.”. The Spartans are said to have warned him off with one word: “If.”

It is worth remembering that this apocryphal encounter would have taken place about a generation after Sparta’s forces were soundly defeated by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC).  Sparta’s diminished reputation alone was still strong enough to unnerve Philip.

One of the surprises in Spartan society was the unique status of elite women.  Physical health was considered absolutely vital for the growing girl, because her health affected her ability to bear children for the Spartan state.  Towards this end, girls were well fed, were encouraged to exercise, play sports, and to stay physically active throughout life.  While Spartan married women did not take part in foot races, they were encouraged to dance and stay physically active.

spartan woman

A bronze statue, likely of a Spartan woman. c. 500 BCE. (British Museum, London)

For this workout, you will need an oval track and sandbag or other weighted sack with handles.  Fill it with a weight that challenges you to complete the exercises.  This work out is named in honor of the Heraean races, a pan-hellenic race for unmarried Greek women.  Although the Heraean games were specifically for females, this work out can be used by either gender.

Strophe: Place your sandbag at the starting point on the track.  Then, slowly jog one lap around the open field for each of the kings of Sparta.  Then, proceed to forward lunges, to emulate the Spartan running girl statue: hold for 30 seconds per leg.  One set for each king.  Then, split stretch, as low as you can go; lean forward and hold for 30 seconds.  Then, a forward bend stretch for 30 seconds to look down upon the helots.

Antistrophe: for helots, 3 sets; for maidens, 4 sets; for matrons, 5 sets.

Run 1 lap around the track.

Carrying your shield or on it: Placing your feet approximately shoulder width apart, bend forward and hold your sandbag with your arms fully extended and knees slightly bent. Keep your back in its natural curve. As you tighten your core, lift the sandbag with both arms until it almost touches your chest, then slowly lower it. Repeat the lift 8 times. That’s one set.

Run another lap around the field.

At your command: Lift the sandbag across your shoulders, feet shoulder width apart. Hold the sandbag tight against your upper shoulders but not pressing on your neck. Bend forward until your upper body is parallel to the ground. Do this eight times. That’s one set.

Roman Versus Greek Art

The Discobolus Lancellotti and a fragmentary statue of the Lancellotti type, Roman copies

No further laps, Sparta has only 2 kings

Uplifting the Spartan warriors: keeping the sandbag on your shoulders, drop into a basic squat, your thighs parallel to the ground. Rise to standing. Do this eight times. That’s one set.

Epode: To cool down, jog around the track twice more. Reflect on the fact that there are eight helots for every one Spartan. This workout can be done 2-3 times per week.

The Himantes of Heaven

No discussion of ancient Greek fitness is complete without mentioning the great sporting/religious festivals of the Classical era.  These included the Olympic games, Pythian games, Nemean games, and Isthmian games.  Of these, the premier event was the Olympics.

The first Olympics were held around 776 BC and initially consisted of religious festivities to honor Zeus.  As Pausanias notes, the games gradually expanded over time to include foot races, horse races, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a type of mixed martial art), chariot races, and the ancient pentathlon (running, jumping, wrestling, and throwing the javelin and discus).  Eventually boys were allowed to compete for junior championships in several of the sports.

Among the combat sports, boxing (pygmachia) was perhaps the most celebrated.  Major Greek heroes like Theseus, Heracles, and Achilles either boxed or encouraged boxing matches.  Even gods got into the sport.

In the Imagenes, Philostratus the Elder recounts the tale of Phorbas, a barbarian king, who controlled a river crossing along the sacred way to Delphi.  He challenged all travelers to athletic events and, being a superb athlete, bested them.  While they were exhausted, he would kill them and display their heads to terrify other travelers.   Apollo, in disguise, came upon Phorbas and in the ensuing boxing match, knocked the wicked bandit out with a single punch, like a bolt of fire from the heavens.


Leonard Gaulthier (1561-1641) , Apollo defeats Phorbas in a boxing match, 1615

For this work out, you will need no special equipment at the basic level.  If you have them, you can incorporate weighted wristbands or light hand weights.  Properly thrown, punching provides exercise for the muscles of the legs, hips, sides, back, chest, shoulders and arms.  If you breathe out when you punch and reflexively tighten your core, you also strengthen your abdominals and obliques.


Position your body in a fighting stance, that is: turned slightly away from your opponent, the wicked Phorbas. Keep your body weight evenly divided between your front and back leg, and lift onto the balls of your feet.  Keep your elbows close to your body.

During the entire strophe, keep your fists up, protecting your face.  The boxing gloves so frequently represented in Greek art and literature were the himantes.  These were strips of ox hide wrapped around the wrists and knuckles of the boxer. They protected the wrist and knuckles, but also gashed and lacerated the opponent.  Apollo’s himantes are more beautiful than garlands, says Philostratus, but when he struck Phorbas’s head, a fountain of blood gushed forth.  So, keep your fists up.

Bounce gently on the balls of your feet and at random, quickly take a shuffle step in any direction while keeping your fighting stance.  You can throw gentle punches if desired, but your focus is on moving quickly and frequently.  Try to move forwards, backwards, right and left randomly.  If you have an exercise partner, you can ask him or her to randomly call out directions.  Bounce and move for 1 minute for each year between Olympics.


Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora. Currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


During this section of the workout, you will continue to rapidly move while in fighting stance, but you will also throw punches.  If you have not done a boxing workout before, you may want to consult with a gymnastes for coaching.

Assume the fighting stance, and bounce on the balls of your feet.  Throw 10 quick, light punches with your nondominant fist.  Keep gently bouncing on the balls of your feet.  You may find yourself rising slightly and leaning forward as you throw your punches.  If so, move quickly back into balanced stance.  After these 10 jabs, bounce and bounce and reverse your stance (so now your dominant hand is forward), throw 10 jabs with your dominant hand.

Bounce back into your original stance (with nondominant hand forward), now throw punch combinations: a fast, light punch with your front first; then, engaging your body, throw a punch with your dominant hand.  Do 20 of this combination.

For the next set, now throw 30 quick jabs with your nondominant fist, then bounce and reverse your stance and throw 30 jabs with your dominant hand.

For the final set, bounce back into your original fighting stance (with nondominant hand forward).  Throw 40 punch combinations:  a jab with your forward fist, followed by a dominant hand punch that engages the entire body.

Epode:  As with all the other workouts in this article, cool down with a slow jog.  Jog for at least one minute for each of the four ancient Greek games.

at rest

Boxer resting after contest (bronze sculpture, 300–200 BCE).

The ancient Greeks well understood the importance of maintaining a healthy mind and a healthy body.  And in part, exercises like these were part of the process.

Also importantly, those who lived in the classical world were more physically active than most of us today.  Just a simple consideration of how we travel on land from point A to point B confirms it: getting anywhere for most Greeks meant walking; for too many of us today, it means either taking a car or a bus.

To fully incorporate classical fitness into your modern life, look for everyday opportunities to develop muscle power.  Look for boulders lying about that you can roll up hill. If you happen to have a young calf at home, lift it every day.  As it grows, you too will develop legendary strength.

With these and other workouts based on classical Greece, you too will be the envy of Narcissus or Helen, without their nemeses.  And after a hard workout, pour yourself a tall krater of room temperature wine.  You earned it.

Roman Chariot Racing: a Sport for Fanatics

by June 5, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Nowadays folks use fast cars and designer handbags to flaunt their wealth. Back in the ancient Greek world, however, owning horses was the ultimate status symbol. This tradition continued during the Roman Empire and indeed, anyone who partook in equine activities was immediately assumed to belong to the elite. Chariot racing was no exception… And while the rich got the bragging rights, it was the drivers, the horses and even the fans that took the risk.

Chariot Racing’s Unknown Origins

Chariot racing was a popular sport for centuries, enjoyed under various governments and leaders throughout the ancient world. Its exact origins, however, are unknown.

We know that the sport existed in the Mycenaean world because of artistic evidence on pottery. Meanwhile, the first literacy reference to a chariot race is in Homer’s Iliad, at the funeral games of Patroclus.

Chariot race on pottery

Chariot racing on a black-figure hydria from Attica, ca. 510 BC

According to one legend mentioned by Pindar, a chariot race was said to be the event that founded the Olympic Games. The story goes that King Oenomaus challenged suitors for his daughter Hippodamia to a race. He was defeated by Pelops, who then went on to found the Games in honor of his victory.

However, the sport was actually added in 680 BC and included both four-horse (tethrippon, Greek: τέθριππον) and two-horse (synoris, Greek: συνωρὶς) chariot races, which were essentially the same aside from the number of horses. The tethrippon was considered the most dangerous event at the ancient games and was held in the hippodrome.

While the Romans probably borrowed chariot racing (as well as the racing tracks) from the Etruscans, who themselves borrowed it from the Greeks, Roman legend tells another story. The myth says that chariot racing was used by Romulus just after he founded Rome in 753 BC as a way to distract the Sabine men.

Charioteer of Delphi

The Charioteer of Delphi, one of the most famous statues surviving from Ancient Greece

Chariot Racing’s Characteristics

Some scholars prefer to differentiate between sport, athletics and spectacle. Chariot racing is considered a spectacle because it is essentially a public performance with an audience.

It’s important to remember that chariot racing was extremely dangerous for both the driver and the horses. Driving a racing chariot required strength, skill and courage, and was rarely done by the owner of the chariot, who was not even obligated to attend to the races. Instead, the driver was usually the owner’s family member or slave. The money won by the driver went directly to the owner of the chariot, although wining could put the charioteer in a different social stratum. In fact, drivers could become celebrities just for surviving. Based on this, we can deduce that life expectancy was not very high.

Chariot Racing Sculpture

Chariot race of Cupids; ancient Roman sarcophagus in the Museo Archeologico (Naples). Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

Chariot Racing’s Teams and Fans

The most exciting part of the race for the audience was the turns at the end of hippodrome, which were dangerous, even deadly. The spectators (which, unlike other activities at the time, also included women) were invited to vocalize their support or disfavor at times. The group solidarity, as well as the resulting factional violence, was probably not so different from modern soccer or football.

According to Tertullian, an early Christian author from Tunisia, there were originally only two teams: Red and White, sacred to summer and winter, respectively. These were eventually doubled, the additional colors being Blue and Green. Each team could have up to three chariots each in a race.

White Team Player

A white charioteer; part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear

The Blues and the Greens gradually became the most prestigious factions, supported by emperors and the populace alike. Records indicate that on numerous occasions, Blue against Green clashes would break out during the races. The surviving literature rarely mentions the Reds and Whites, although their continued activity is documented in inscriptions and in curse tablets.

Entertainment for Big Audiences

During the Roman period chariot races commonly took place in a circus. The main center, known as Circus Maximus, measured 2,037 ft. in length and 387 ft. in width and could sit 250,000 people. It was the earliest circus in the city of Rome.

Circus Maximus

The plan of the Circus Maximus

Unlike Greek chariot races, which had 12 laps, a Roman chariot race consisted of only seven turns around the circus. Once the raced started, chariots could move forward no matter what, including purposefully causing extreme crashes, called naufragia. The goal was to weaken the enemy, then beat him.

The design of the chariots was simple: wooden carts with two wheels and an open back. They also used the same style of carts that were used during wars. Unlike other contemporary entertainment activities, the charioteers were always dressed, probably for safety reasons. They wore helmets and sleeved garments that were probably white, according to paintings of the time. Roman drivers wrapped the reins round their waist, while the Greeks used to hold the reins in their hands.

Chariot racing

A chariot race during the reign of Trajan. After the painting by Ulpiano Checa, by Granger

Famous Charioteers

Throughout the history of the sport there were a few very famous drivers who achieved a level of celebrity status unparalleled even today. One such celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won over 2000 races before being killed in a collision at the meta when he was about 27 years old.

The most famous of all, however, was Gaius Appuleius Diocles who won 1,462 out of 4,257 races. At the age of 42, Diocles retired after a 24-year career and his winnings reportedly totaled 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion). This makes him the highest paid sports star in all of history.

Famous Charioteer

Gaius Appuleius Diocles (104 – after 146) was a Roman charioteer, who became one of the most celebrated athletes in ancient history.

The horses could also become celebrities, but their life expectancy was low. Just like fantasy baseball players today, the Romans kept detailed statistics of the names, breeds, and pedigrees of famous horses.

Chariot Racing’s Decline

Chariot racing faded in importance after the fall of Rome. Some records indicate that Nika riots marked the start of its decline. Eventually emperors banned specific sports, including the Olympic games and public entertainment on Sundays, as a way to suppress paganism.

Another important factor was money. With the fall of the Roman Empire, there was no money to invest and no people to entertain.

Red Team winner

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team

While Chariot racing no longer exists in any of its ancient shape or form today, the same culture of fiercely dedicated sport worship, and violence, can be seen today… Fans scream out at trained athletes who compete for honor, status and, of course, money. It shows that perhaps, deep down, the craving for sport entertainment hasn’t evolved that dramatically over time.

5 Top Ancient Greek Olympians

by February 19, 2014

By Ben Potter

In a our world where are mainstream sporting heroes are millionaires, prima donnas, sex-offenders, and drug-cheats, the Olympics, can provide countries the world over with real sporting icons, icons worthy of that over- and misused term ‘role-model’.

However, the glory that our gold-medallists enjoy nowadays pales into insignificance when compared to that of the ancient winners.

ancient-sports-starsThis was because the games were only open to those from the Greek-speaking world. Moreover, there were merely a handful, rather than hundreds, of events, and it would have been quite likely that the victors would have returned to their pre-fame lives after the games – there were no sponsorship deals on offer then!

That’s not to say the winners of the Ancient Olympics didn’t enjoy their fair share of recompense. While they were rarely entitled to anything by law, the proud polis would often honor their returning hero with money, food and other such perks.

So, who were these noble competitors who fought to be the greatest physical specimens of The Greatest Civilization? Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we?

1. Coroebus of Elis – the first

A humble cook who grew up near the sanctuary of Olympia, Coroebus was the first man whom we can definitely say was an ‘Olympic champion’. He won the only event at the very first recorded Games in 776 BC – the stadion (which was an approximately 200 meters run).

2. Leonidas of Rhodes – the most prolific

Leonidas was the most successful Olympian ever.

Ever! And I’m including the modern Olympics in that.

Leonidas won the stadion, diaulos (circa.400 meters) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos carrying 59lbs of armour) at each of the 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC games.

These twelve individual first-place finishes (the last of which he achieved at age 36) narrowly surpasses the 11 golds of Michael Phelps. It should be noted that while Phelps did technically win more golds overall, some of those were in relays… and none while wearing battle armour.

3. Diagoras of Rhodes – the happiest

Diagoras of Rhodes VictorRhodes’ second favourite son, Diagoras, was considered not only the happiest Olympian, but the happiest man in the world!

Descended from heroic royalty, Diagoras won the Olympic boxing crown twice. As if this weren’t enough to raise a smile, his eldest son twice triumphed in the brutal pankration. On the second occasion, in 448 BC, Diagoras’ second son simultaneously triumphed in the boxing.

Hoist aloft on the shoulders of his progeny, a wag in the crowd called out “Die, Diagoras; you will not also ascend to Olympus”. The humour of which was probably only appreciated later, as Diagoras promptly dropped dead on the spot.

4. Astylos of Croton – the saddest

A runner of great renown, Astylos was a highly controversial figure.

The reason being that, after bringing honour to Croton in the games of 488 BC, he turned-coat and, in 484 BC and 480 BC, decided to run for the rival Sicilian city of Syracuse.

His statue in Croton was destroyed, his disgraced family disowned him and his former lodgings were thought unworthy of a free man and were transformed into a prison.

The greatest sprinter of the 480s died a lonely exile, far from his family and friends.

5. Milo of Croton – the most impressive

Unlike Astylos, Milo was someone of whom Croton could really be proud.

Milo of CrotonMilo won five Olympic wrestling crowns consecutively between 536 – 520 BC.

Amazingly, these gongs may not represent the greatest achievements of Milo’s life.

He was said to have led a successful military assault against Sybaris in 510 BC and to have saved the life of Pythagoras (yes, THAT Pythagoras) by holding up the roof of a collapsing building. Consequently, he was given the mathematician’s daughter’s hand in marriage.

Less important, but no less impressive, are his alleged feats of strength and appetite.

He was said to have carried a bull on his shoulders before killing, cooking and eating the entire beast. Though this was perhaps excessive, his normal daily diet was 20 lbs of meat and 20 lbs of bread all washed down with 12 bottles of wine.

And completely uselessly, though again impressively, he was able to burst a headband simply by swelling the veins on his temple.

Death of Milo of CrotonAs so often happens with a unbelievable life, Milo suffered a unbelievable death, he was eaten alive by wolves because his hands were stuck in a tree trunk.

There is something deeply impressive and stirring about the achievements of all these citizens. They pushed their bodies to the extremes for the guarantee of no more corporeal gain than a crown of olive leaves.

However, like gallant generals, evocative poets and quixotic politicians, what they were truly yearning for was neither gold or even praise, but immortality. And although such a thing cannot realistically be attained by any man in any field, the fact that their names ring clear and true 2800 years after the event means their ‘athl’, their labours and suffering, cannot be said to have been in vain.