Perspectives Sports

The Ancient Olympics and Other Athletic Games

Highlights from The Met collection illustrate the many athletic games held in ancient Greece, featuring celebrity athletes, grand prizes, and the mythical origins of the first Olympics.

Jul 23, 2021

This vase depicts a group of men racing in a crowd

The ancient Olympic Games, held every four years at Olympia in honor of the god Zeus, were celebrated for over a millennium and serve as the inspiration for the modern competition. Surviving inscriptions and literary sources list the names of about eight hundred ancient Olympic champions; the first recorded victor was Koroibos of Elis, who won the stadion (footrace) in 776 B.C. By the sixth century B.C., Panhellenic games—from pan (all) and hellenikos (Greek)—were also held at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia and attracted athletes from all over the Greek world. Many local festivals, including the Panathenaia in Athens, were modeled on these four games.

Each Panhellenic festival was marked by a truce, or ekecheiria, which literally means “holding of hands.” Inscribed on a bronze diskos displayed at Olympia, the truce not only allowed athletes and fans to travel safely, but also provided a common basis for peace among the Greeks. Today’s Olympics continue this spirit in the form of a resolution adopted by the United Nations entitled “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.”

Mythical history of the games

A bronze vessel decorated with images of gods

Bronze balsamarium decorated with lion-skins and herms, late 1st–early 2nd century A.D. Roman, mid-Imperial. Bronze, 3 in. (7.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John J. Medveckis in honor of Emily Rafferty and in celebration of the Museum's 150th Anniversary, 2021 (2021.19.2)

The decoration on this bronze balsamarium—an oil flask used by athletes to clean their skin—evokes the Olympic games’ mythical origins. Statues of Herakles (Hercules in Latin) and the god Hermes, depicted on the left and right respectively as herms  (pillars surmounted by busts) covered with lion skins, were traditionally set up in the gymnasium where athletes trained.

Evidently according to myth, many Greek gods and heroes competed in the first games at Olympia: Zeus wrestled his father, Kronos, for the throne; Apollo outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing; and Herakles, often credited with founding the Olympic games, won victories in wrestling and the pankration, a no-holds-barred combat sport.

Greek athletes looked to their heroic predecessors for inspiration. Milo of Croton, a famed wrestler from antiquity, styled himself after Herakles, even wearing the hero’s trademark lion skin to complement his six Olympic wreaths. The Athenian boxing champion Dioxippos was renowned for defeating a fully equipped Macedonian soldier while “dressed” as a victorious athlete—in the nude, with his body oiled, crowned with a victory wreath—and armed as Herakles, carrying only a club. And the legendary boxer Diagoras of Rhodes was proclaimed the son of Hermes for his “super-human” athletic achievements.

Events and training

A terracotta vessel depicting two men wrestling

Terracotta skyphos (deep drinking cup), ca. 500 B.C. Greek, Attic. Attributed to the Theseus painter. Terracotta, 6 ½ × 9 in. (16.2 × 22.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.1021.49)

The ancient games featured many competitions that still take place in the modern Olympics, such as foot races, jumping, discus throwing, javelin throwing, wrestling, the pentathlon (a combination of the previous five events), and boxing. As today, athletes specialized in certain events and worked intensively with professional trainers.

The ancient Greeks competed in a brutal full-contact combat sport similar to mixed martial arts called the pankration, a combination of wrestling, boxing, and kicking but with virtually no rules—only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. This skyphos shows a trainer closely supervising this life-threatening competition. Some fighters boasted nicknames reflecting their signature combat technique. Sostratos, a fighter from the city of Sikyon, was known as “Fingertips” because he would break his opponent’s fingers at the start of a match. It’s no wonder the Greeks became experts in sports medicine!

A terracotta vessel depicting two men shadowboxing while another plays the flute

Terracotta pelike (wine jar), ca. 510 B.C. Greek, Attic. Attributed to the Acheloös painter. Terracotta, 13 ¼ in. (33.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1949 (49.11.1)

The ancient Greeks believed that music improved coordination and movement, whether for dancing or military drills or even manual labor. So, in addition to personal trainers, professional musicians also played an important role in athletic games. The man on this pelike plays an aulos (a double pipe). He accompanies two boxers stepping lively and shadowboxing in synchronization.

One boxing champion named Melankomas of Caria went down in history for his unique fighting technique—he managed to defeat his opponents without ever dealing a blow, or ever being hit himself. Because of his exceptional condition and endurance, he was able to hold up his arms in defense until his opponent eventually became exhausted and submitted.

Ancient games at Athens

A terracotta vase depicting a chariot race on one side and the goddess Athena on the other

Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Greek, Attic. Attributed to the Leagros group. Terracotta, 25 in. (63.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.286.80)

Athens, the venue for the first modern Olympics in 1896, also held athletic games in antiquity. Every four years at the end of the month Hekatombaion (early August), the Athenians gathered to celebrate the Greater Panathenaia—an extended and more elaborate version of the city’s most important annual festival, held in honor of its patron deity, Athena. This event became one of the most important festivals of international competition outside the Panhellenic games.

The Greater Panathenaia involved traditional athletic, musical, and equestrian competitions, such as the horse race depicted on this prize amphora. However, it also entailed an eclectic program of more unusual events, including contests in male beauty, dancing in armor, a chariot-mounting and dismounting race (while the chariot was in motion!), and torch- and boat-races.

A terracotta vase depicting a chariot race on one side and the goddess Athena on the other

Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Greek, Attic. Terracotta, 24 ½ in. (62.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Fletcher Fund, 1956 (56.171.4)

Victors in the Panathenaic games were awarded olive oil harvested from the sacred groves of Athena. The oil was presented in an amphora that held nearly forty liters and was typically illustrated with the winner’s event. On the opposite side of each vase was the games’ official emblem: the goddess Athena, fully armed, striding between two columns. An inscription running along one of the columns identified each vessel as one “of the prizes from Athens.”

This amphora was the prize for a four-horse chariot race, the most prestigious event in the games and the grand finale of the program. According to tradition, Erechtheus, the legendary first king of Athens, introduced the contest and is even credited with the invention of the quadriga (four-horse chariot). As many as 140 amphorae, and the valuable oil they contained, were awarded to the winner of this race—more than for any other competition in the games.

Prizes for the games

Two bronze vases

Left: Bronze hydria (water jar), mid-5th century B.C. Greek, Argive. Bronze, 20 ¼ in. (51.41 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1926 (26.50). Right: Bronze hydria (water jar), early 4th century B.C. Greek. Bronze, 19 × 18 ¼ in. (48.3 × 46.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1957 (57.11.12)

There were no medals in the ancient games, but victory prizes were an important part of Greek athletic competitions; the word “athletics” is even derived from athlon, meaning “prize.” These awards varied depending on the host city, and often included monetary prizes and valuable objects, such as bronze vessels.

We know from the inscription on the hydria on the left that it was awarded at games held for the goddess Hera at her sanctuary in Argos. Before the mid-third century B.C., these games were called the Hekatomboia (a festival with the sacrifice of one hundred oxen), and attracted participants from all over Greece.

The hydria on the right has two inscriptions on the lip. One gives the name of the presiding official, Kalliar, and the other indicates that the contestants dedicated the prize to Herakles, for whom the games were held. This inscription implies that the hydria was given collectively to the hero because there was no individual winner.

A large marble slab with images of prizes

Marble relief fragment depicting athletic prizes, 2nd century A.D. Roman. Marble, 12 ¾ × 26 ½ in. (32.5 × 67.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1959 (59.11.19)

This fragment from a Roman relief represents the standard prizes awarded at four venues in Greece: an amphora of olive oil from the Panathenaic games at Athens, a pine wreath from Isthmia, a bronze shield from Argos, and a celery wreath from the games at Nemea. Symbolic wreaths made from sacred trees or plants, including the olive wreath from Olympia, were just as prestigious as more expensive awards.

The athletic games established in ancient Greece flourished under the Roman Empire. Many Greek cities continued to host them, and competitors—such as the winner from Rhamnous who commissioned this relief—gained fame and fortune from victories in games across Greece. Some athletes became astronomically wealthy. The career winnings of Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Roman chariot racer in the second century A.D., were estimated at 36 million sesterces—enough to pay the salary of the entire Roman army for over two months.

From ancient to modern

A black and white photo of an Ancient Greek stadium

Opening of the 1896 Olympics at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece. Public-domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In A.D. 393 the Roman emperor Theodosius I issued an edict banning the ancient games as pagan festivals. The last reported victor at the Olympic games was Zopyros, a boxer from Athens, in A.D. 385. Yet inscriptions and literary sources confirm that athletic games continued into the early fifth century at prestigious venues, including Olympia and Athens.

Nearly a millennium and a half later, the Olympics returned, reviving the ancient spirit of competition and community on a global scale. Appropriately, the opening ceremony for the first modern Olympics took place in Athens in the Panathenaic Stadium, originally constructed in the fourth century B.C., which had been restored for the occasion.

Marquee: Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (detail), ca. 530 B.C. Greek, Attic. Attributed to the Euphiletos painter. Terracotta, 24 ½ in. (62.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1914 (14.130.12)

About the contributors

Assistant Curator, Greek and Roman Art