Go team, yay! Kick the wicket through the end zone and score a home run! We’re number one! Yeah, I’m not much of a sports guy, admittedly. The Greeks and Romans on the other hand? They loved a good contest—whenever they weren’t killing each other in some war; probably why the Olympic Games are held every 4 years. It’s a tradition we continue today, yet another inheritance, right down to the stadiums.
Let’s start with the Olympic Games. They were established in 776 BC as a festival to the gods. All the various city-states of Greece competed, and winners had their names (and cities) memorialized. We still have ancient Olympic winner lists, which shows how important this was. The games were originally a foot race, boxing, wrestling, and pankration, which is sort of like Mixed Martial Arts. The games were a time of peace for an otherwise constantly warring area—so of course 3 out of 4 games involved two men beating the tar out of each other. They continued until 394 AD, officially, until they were shut down by this guy, for being violent and “unchristian”. They weren’t started up again until 1894, and now we all get to anticipate who will win the next gold medal in curling.
Gladiators. This is a fan favorite. Gladiator games started around the 2nd century BC, as part of funeral celebrations—hey, this is ancient Rome, everything is a party, and nothing says “party” like a blood sport. Suck it, Dothraki weddings. In typical Roman fashion of bigger being better (Texas is a poser state), wealthy aristocrats upped the ante to put on more and more gladiator shows. Eventually, combats for a single event grew into the hundreds. And they were EXPENSIVE. Between training, living expenses, and other expenses, gladiators were a serious investment to the extent that politically adventurous Romans might take out loans simply to pay for a lavish event. Gladiators are the rock stars of the ancient world; many became ludicrously well paid and famous, and retired in opulence. By the Roman Empire, only emperors themselves had the wealth to put on gladiator games, and they became part of any good ruler’s “bread and circuses” program to placate the masses. Gladiator games were so embedded in the political process, it was even made illegal for anyone but the Emperor to throw them. Despite their legendary nature and fame, gladiator combat eventually waned in popularity, and under the Emperor Theodosius, they were banned.
When people think of ancient sports, the Olympic Games and gladiators are usually the two everyone knows. The ancients had others though, so here’s a quick rundown. Heading back to Greece, there were the Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian games, held in similar cycles as the Olympics. They were also similar in scope, being Pan-Hellenic or “all Greek” games as part of a religious celebration honoring the gods. These were not as famous or large scale as the Olympic Games, and just like the modern games, the host city tended to end up getting pretty beat to crap. These games fell out of existence a bit earlier than the Olympic Games as a result.
Back in Rome we can talk about the most popular sporting event, chariot racing. Chariots started before gladiators and lasted significantly longer. The Romans absolutely LOVED their chariot races, and the size of the Circus Maximus at Rome is testament. Teams were divided into different colors, and fans were insanely loyal, to the extent that teams ended up with significant political and social power. In Rome, the big races had all the excitement of the World Cup, Super bowl, and National Spelling Bee rolled into one. Just like today, having your team win (or lose) could make you a little crazy, and riots were common. The most famous violent riot occurred in 532 AD, when the Emperor Justinian decided to use a chariot race as a solution for a politically volatile issue. Unsurprisingly, things went sideways. Some 30,000 people were killed as a result, because that’s just how the Romans partied. Riots like that turned people off from chariot racing though, and by the seventh century, interest declined, eventually replaced by jousting and other forms of medieval entertainment.
Between MMA, football, NASCAR, and the like, we still see some of the same types of sports activities. Don’t believe me? The college football season is getting underway. Try not to think about this
next time you’re sitting in one of these.
Human nature just doesn’t change that much over the centuries.
PanHellenic Games overview.
Panathenaic Games. Yes, Athens had their own games.
Pausanias’ description of the Games.
Ancient Olympic winners.