Olympic Games in the Roman Empire

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The ancient Olympic Games (Ancient Greek: τὰ Ὀλύμπια – ta Olympia) were a series of athletic competitions among representatives of various city-states of ancient Greece. They were held in honor of Zeus, and the Greeks gave them a mythological origin. Historical records indicate that they began in 776 BC in Olympia. They continued to be celebrated when Greece came under Roman rule, until the emperor Theodosius I suppressed them in 394 AD as part of the campaign to impose Christianity as the state religion of Rome. The games were usually held every four years, or Olympiad, which became a unit of time in historical chronologies.

The Roman Empire was in many ways the heyday of the ancient Olympic festival. The prominence it enjoyed was part of a wider pattern of the flourishing of Greek culture, and especially Greek athletics, under Roman rule. Nearly every Greek city had its own athletic festival, and prominent athletes were international stars, travelling far and wide across the Mediterranean world in pursuit of successive victories. The gymnasium continued to be one of the key institutions of higher education for young men in Greek cities. The Greek art and literature of the Roman Empire return again and again to the subject of athletic competition and training, idealising it and satirising it. Olympia was at the heart of those developments: It was supported by successive emperors; and it continued to draw athletes and spectators from across the Roman world.

From 776 BC, when the Olympic Games were first established by the Greeks, until the 4th century BC this sacred institution managed to remain unaffected by historical circumstance, but after the death of Alexander the Great, the prestige of the Olympic Games began to fade. The Romans, who had already taken over Greece in 146 BC, were considered to be Greek descendants and were allowed to take part in all of the national sports events. That’s when the first professional athletes made their appearance. We now know that they had formed their own trade unions and held considerable political power. They were paid to take part in the most significant sporting events (Olympia, Pithia, Nemea, Isthmia etc) and they literally offered their services to the city that was willing to pay the most money, trading on victories and defeats in the exact same fashion.

The institution of the Olympic Games had taken a very severe blow because it used to be a competition that relied exclusively on the efforts of amateur athletes. The appearance of the professionals raised the standards so high that amateurs no longer stood a chance. Sports competitions had become a professional affair and all Greek citizens could do now was attend. That’s what brought on the decline that soon followed. The prestige of the temple of Olympia after long years of honorable religious, cultural and political activities was now tarnished.

During the Mithridatic Wars, L. Cornelius Sulla sacked the sanctuary and moved the 175th Olympiad to Rome (80 BC). For the next few years the Olympic Games were diminished to a local sports event.

But after these years of decline, the Olympic Games had a second heyday during the Roman Empire. After the political and social conditions went back to normal during the reign of Emperor Augustus, the temple of Olympia, and the Olympic Games, started flourishing again - both financially and culturally. There are records of M. Vipsanius Agrippa, the Emperor’s general and son-in-law, visiting the area while extended restoration works were carried out at the sanctuary that was to play such an important part in the newfound international appeal of the Games. The chariot races that were once banned were now back in the Olympic schedule with several members of the imperial family taking part, e.g. Emperor Tiberius, who won the 194th Olympiad (4 BC).

According to the numerous pedestals and inscriptions bearing the names of members of the imperial family, Olympia continued to enjoy the emperors’ favor, even when Augustus’s successors ascended the throne. Tiberius’s adoptive son Germanicus continued in the same fashion, winning the chariot races in the 199th Olympiad (17 BC). Unfortunately not all Roman interest in the Olympic Games had positive results. Emperor Nero’s morbid love of Greece resulted in a chronological disruption, something that had never happened before. The 211th Olympiad not only took place two years too late but it also included a musical contest and a chariot race with ten-horse chariots, so that Nero could obtain all of six victories and become the most successful Olympic champion of all time, even though historical sources revealed that his voice was horribly off key. After he passed away that particular Olympiad was stricken off record and was thereafter referred to as the Unolympiad.

About three centuries later the Olympic Games came to an end. Varasdates, an Armenian prince, who won the boxing championships in 385 AD, was the last known Olympic champion. The last Olympic Games took place in 393 AD. The following year they were abolished by Theodore the Great, while the gold and ivory statue of Zeus made by Phidias was transported to Constantinople. In 420 AD the temple of Zeus was burned down, following the orders of Theodosius II and Olympia was deserted. The sanctuary was finally wiped out in two earthquakes, one in 522 and one in 551 AD.

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