In our study of the ancient world, we spent a lot of time on the early Greek Olympics. This popular subject is important for several reasons.
For instance, it reveals the values and culture of the ancient Greeks. Athletes competed in the nude because they valued a fit body. Physical strength and athletic prowess were esteemed for their beauty and accomplishment. Since the Greek city-states often fought with one another as well as with other Mediterranean powerhouses like the Persians, strength and athleticism were, also, essential for the battlefield.
There was only a first-place winner. Everyone else was equally a “loser.” There were no gold medals or cash prizes/endorsements, just a wreath of olive leaves and bragging rights. Most winners were honored and treated well by the citizens of their city-state though.
The Olympics reveals another common thread in the Greek culture: Religion. At Elis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was housed—The Statue of Zeus. It was a 43-foot figure made of ivory and gold, softened by reflected light to create the illusion that it was living. Before, during, and after the games, there were sacrifices and visits to the temples in the area called the Altis. The ancient Greeks believed the games brought the gods pleasure.
Their gender, class, and social prejudices are apparent. Women (especially married ones) were generally not allowed to attend. Only free Greek men could compete—as long as they were not overweight, unfit, or criminals. Slaves rode in the horse events, but the owners received the glory. Rich spectators brought elaborate tents and supplies for entertaining guests while the average person slept in modest tents or outside on the ground. The Olympics were a time when all these classes gathered together to enjoy the same events and rituals.
The following two books on the ancient Olympics are excellent resources for background information or reading aloud.
Olympia: Warrior Athletes of Ancient Greece (ages 8 and up) by David Kennett
Kennett begins with the background on how the games began. According to legend, King Iphitus watched as his country and all of Greece was torn apart by war. He consulted the Oracle at Delphi who told him to host an athletic competition open to all Greeks as a way to bring the people together in a competitive by peaceful activity. Messengers were sent to every city-state. The Greek men flocked to the games to demonstrate their fit, athletic bodies and warfare skills—which all the events were related to. They chose Olympia (Elis) because it was a sacred place and already associated with competitive games. The worship and temple of Zeus is narrated along with a description of the activities that took place on each of the five days of competition. Most pages have numerous drawings illustrating (in color and in black n white) the activities, the architecture, and layout of the area. The men are shown wrestling, boxing, and racing in the nude. A few backsides are shown, but the “private” area is always covered.
The Ancient Greek Olympics (ages 8 and up) by Richard Woff
Woff uses more of a formal approach in The Ancient Greek Olympics. Each area is broken into clearly defined sections for easy reference. The illustrations are primarily from ancient Greek pottery and art interspersed with some photographs and drawings. The ancient art work does not shy away from nudity, but it is not obtrusive. Background on the origins of the games even before King Iphitus as well as the process of getting ready for the games is covered. The bulk of the text is written is short, engaging sections divided up by day. With the exception of Day 1, there are four fascinating pages of text devoted to each day outlining the competitions, religious ceremonies, spectator activities, and interesting accounts. The final pages discuss women as athletes, other ancient competitions, and the conclusion of the original games. The text is written in short sections or paragraphs which make it easy to stop to discuss or to break up into multiple reading sessions.