The World of Heart of Fire – Part II – 776 B.C. – The Historical Beginnings of the Olympic Games

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In the last post we looked at the mythological origins of the Olympic Games.

In part two, we are going to take a brief look at the Olympic Games as history remembers them, but that too is a hazy undertaking.

Most historians agree that the first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. and ran for almost twelve centuries until they were banished as a pagan practice by the Christian, Roman emperor, Theodosius I in c. A.D. 394.

When the games began in the eighth century, the city-states of Greece were on the rise, and so it was inevitable that politics would enter into the Games early on. Olympia was actually fought over, and an example of this was the ongoing argument between Elis and Pisa, an argument in which Sparta eventually became involved.

Control of Olympia passed back and forth between Elis and Pisa, but the Eleans eventually won out. Nevertheless, the Olympic Games were a place where city-states met and declared their strength, their grievances, and their alliances.

Artist impression of Ancient Olympia

Artist impression of Ancient Olympia

Despite the occasional rancour and politicizing of the Games, the Olympiad remained a sincere religious ritual overseen by the Gods themselves and in honour of Olympian Zeus.

There were other ‘crown games’, as they were known. These included the Pythian Games in honour of Apollo at Delphi, the Nemean Games in at Nemea, and the Isthmian Games in honour of Poseidon at ancient Isthmia, near Corinth.

Many men competed in all of the crown games, but the Olympiad was the greatest and most revered of these games. A victory there made a man all but immortal.

Modern IOC symbol for Olympic Truce - the tradition continues!

Modern IOC symbol for Olympic Truce – the tradition continues!

When the Olympic Games were declared, the entire Greek world was supposed to come to a standstill during a peace known as the Sacred Truce, or Ekecheiria, which means a ‘laying down of arms.’

To violate the peace of the Sacred or Olympic Truce, was to dishonour the Gods and risk their anger.

This would have been difficult during a time such as the Peloponnesian War when the city states were at each other’s throats and tearing their world apart. It is no surprise that Olympic competition could turn deadly, but more on that later.

Greek hoplite battle

Greek hoplite battle

Only freeborn, Greek men were permitted to compete in the Olympiad, and at first, it was mainly men from the Peloponnese, as evidenced by the high number of Arkadians on the early victor lists.

Women, as mentioned in the previous post, were only permitted within the sanctuary during the Games of Hera, the Heraia, the first officially recorded one of which took place in the sixth century B.C.

The banishment of women from the Games, it is said, began around 720 B.C. when men began to compete in the nude rather than loin cloths.

Initially, the Olympic Games took place over a single day, and the only event was the stade race. This was a sprint of about 200 meters, which was the length of the stadium at Olympia, said to have been measured after the steps of Herakles himself.

So, the original Olympic event was the two-hundred meter sprint!

Ancient greek runners

Ancient greek runners

Over time, as Greek colonies began to spread across the Mediterranean world, and the Games grew in popularity, Greeks from outside of the Peloponnese, much farther afield, began to travel to Olympia to compete. More days, and more events were added to the games until we arrive at the year in which Heart of Fire takes place – 396 B.C.

This was a brutal period in Greece’s history. All of the city states were bitter and reeling from the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 B.C.), and they were still having at each other, even in the midst of a supposed peace, called the Peace of Nicias.

Sparta and Athens were at the forefront of the aggressions, as were Thebes, Corinth, Argos and others. The Olympiad of 396 B.C. has certainly been an interesting and complex period to write about. We’ll explore the politics of the period more in the next post.

Greek Colonies of Mediterranean (in blue)

Greek Colonies of Mediterranean (in blue)

By the time of the 396 B.C. Olympiad, the Games were five days long, rather than the original one, and had many more events. Here is the most agreed-upon order of events:

Day 1 – This was the day for the equestrian events, including bareback horse races, the two-horse chariot race, the Synoris, and the marquee event, the Tethrippon, or four-horse chariot race.

Chariot racing in the ancient Olympics

Chariot racing in the ancient Olympics

Day 2 – This was the day for the Pentathlon which was an event that tested the best, all-around, warriors, It included a stade race of 200 meters, standing long jump with the use of weights called halteres, the discus, the javelin or akontismos where throws could soar over 100 meters, and lastly wrestling.

Javelin thrower

Javelin thrower

Day 3 – The third day was reserved for the foot races. By 396 B.C., these included the stade race (200 meters), the diaulos (400 meters), and the dolichos (a long distance race that could be anywhere from 2,400 to 5000 meters). About twenty runners competed at a time, having chosen lots to determine their heat. They stood on the starting line of the stadium and waited until the judge yelled “Apite!”

Runners

Runners

Day 4 – This was the day of the fighting events, and make no mistake, these were brutal. Men died. These included the wrestling, boxing, and the no-holds-barred Pankration.

Pankration

Pankration

Day 5 – The last event of the ancient Olympics is one that has faded away into the pages of history, but which has its origin, some believe, in the foundation myth of Daktylos Herakles, mentioned before, and the armoured Daktyloi who were charged with protecting the baby Zeus on Mt. Ida in Crete in the age of Kronos. This final event was a hoplite race, a sprint for men dressed in full hoplite armour and each running with one the twenty sacred shields that were stored in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. This was known as the Hoplitodromos, and in Heart of Fire, we get to experience this unique and almost forgotten Olympic event.

The Hoplite Race

The Hoplite Race

So, there you have it! Those are the events of the ancient Olympic Games. Much has changed, though it is fantastic to think that some of the Olympic events we have today started so very long ago.

But sport was only a part of the ancient Olympics. It’s important to remember that overall, this was a major religious ritual that commanded respect from all Greeks, despite the politics of the day.

In Part III of The World of Heart of Fire, we are going to look at the importance of athletics in Ancient Greece and delve a bit more into the political atmosphere of the year 396 B.C.

Thank you for reading, and see you next week.

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Writing an Ancient Boxing Scene

Hellenistic bronze boxer from Rome shows wounds and lascerations to the fighter's face

This week I thought I would share a little something about my research for, and writing of, my upcoming book Heart of Fire.

As mentioned in the last post, I’m getting close to the end of this book, and it’s going to be fantastic. I can feel it in my bones.

I wanted to touch on a particular scene that I wrote last week.

Without giving anything away, the scene in question is a climactic boxing match set during the Olympics of 396 B.C.

Now, I’ve written more fight scenes than I can count in my stories, some very realistic, others fantastical, some ugly, some inspiring. Most of the time they have been fought with weapons.

However, boxing is a more visceral sport, especially ancient Greek boxing.

I knew I needed to make this fight count, to put the reader ‘ringside’ so that she/he can taste the sweat and blood, and feel the impact of every hit.

I’m not a boxer, and though I’ve taken part in some martial arts, I had to admit that I had no idea how a man, or his body, would react during an ancient Greek boxing match.

You see, ancient boxing was not like modern boxing.

Himantes - from Hellenistic bronze of a boxer

Himantes – from Hellenistic bronze of a boxer

First of all, the ancient Greeks did not cover their fists with soft gloves. Instead, they used something called himantes. These were thick strips of leather, rawhide, or sometimes lead, that were fastened to a fighter’s fists with linen or leather straps. The fingers were not covered, but left free to grab, to poke and jab, as well as punch.

In modern boxing, there are basically four punches: the direct or straight punch, the upper cut, the jab, and the hook. Combinations of these are used variously.

ancient Greek boxers

In contrast, ancient boxing included many more types of hits, including slaps, hammer punches, backhands, chops, pokes, elbows, swipes and many more.

Truthfully, ancient boxing was more like Wing Chun Kung Fu arm techniques than modern boxing. It differed from the pankration mainly in that there were no holds or grappling, and perhaps fewer intentional bone-breaking moves.

Before writing, I had to dispel with my modern ideas of boxing and what it should look like. Also, there were no ‘rounds’ in ancient boxing. The two fighters went at each other until someone was knocked out, or until one of the fighters surrendered. If neither of those two things happened, and if no one died, a fight could go on all day.

When writing an ancient boxing scene, in addition to being accurate, each fight also has to propel the story forward. I started by looking at some famous movie fights, and what better boxing match to look at than the last bout in Rocky I. Click on the image below to watch the fight scene:

Rocky I - Rocky vs. Apollo Creed

Sure, this seems a bit dated now, but it’s one of the most famous modern boxing scenes in movie history. This showed me how the story can be told without speech, but rather the actors’ bodies, how the strain and struggle tell a story without words. It illustrates the all-important, ancient idea of ponos, the toil and passion of an athlete or warrior.

So, Rocky helped me visualize the storyline of my fight scene, and how it would move the characters forward. Next however, I needed to visualize how ancient boxing might look mechanically.

Of course, I can make some pretty good guesses and get creative – that’s the joy of writing after all – but I wanted to find at least a small demonstration to help it sink in. Luckily, I found a video from the Historical European Martial Arts Coalition (HEMAC) conference in Dijon France, demonstrating the art of ancient Greek boxing.

CLICK HERE to watch the HEMAC demonstration!

This is a short video but I found it very helpful. The men sparring are holding back a little, as it is a demonstration only, but you can easily imagine what it might be like with the rawhide, or lead pieces inserted in the himantes, and the fighters hitting one another full force.

It would be brutal, and oftentimes, quick.

If you’ve seen some of the top 20 boxing knock-out videos on YouTube, you’ll know that with one hit to the head, a massive, strong man can crumple like a rag doll. It’s not pretty.

Take off the modern padded gloves, and substitute them for ancient himantes, and you’ve got yourself a genuine ancient bloodsport.

If you want to learn a bit more about the sorts of injuries that might occur in an ancient boxing match, CLICK HERE to read a fascinating article.

The Diagorids of Rhodes were boxing royalty in Ancient Greece ... as Degeorge, Diagoras porté en triomphe par ses fils, 1814

The Diagorids of Rhodes were boxing royalty in Ancient Greece – painting by Degeorge, Diagoras porté en triomphe par ses fils, 1814

The men who emerged victorious in boxing at the ancient Olympiad trained hard, as if for war, and if they walked off the skamma, the sand, as the victor, they were able to achieve the sort of immortality reserved for demi-gods and heroes.

As the year wears on, and I get closer to releasing Heart of Fire, I’ll share more of the story, including some excerpts.

For now, I’ll press on toward the novel’s finish line, bringing this exciting event of the ancient world to life.

Thank you for reading.

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