The Olympic Games
NORTHWEST of Sparta, in the country called Elis and in the city of Olympia, rose a beautiful temple for the worship of Jupiter (or Zeus), the principal god of the Greeks. This temple was said to have been built by Hercules, the great hero from whom, as you remember, all the Heraclidæ claimed to be descended.
According to the legends, Hercules was a son of the god Jupiter, and had ordered that a great festival should be held here every four years in honor of his divine father.
For the purpose of attracting all the neighboring people to the temple at Olympia, Hercules founded many athletic games, such as wrestling, stone and spear throwing, foot, horse, and chariot races, boxing, swimming, and the like.
Hercules himself was present at the first of these festivals, and acted as umpire of the games, rewarding the victors by giving them crowns of wild olive leaves. This custom had been kept up ever since, and the Greek youths considered this simple crown the finest prize which could be given.
As the Spartans were great athletes, they soon took important parts in the Olympic games, won most of the prizes, and claimed the honor of defending the temple at Olympia in all times of danger.
All the people who went to Olympia to witness the games laid some precious offering before the shrines, so that the temple came to be noted for its beauty and wealth. Painters and sculptors, too, further adorned it with samples of their skill, and it soon contained numerous gems of art.
The most precious of all was a statue representing Jupiter, which was the work of the renowned sculptor Phidias. This statue was more than forty feet high; and, while the god himself was carved out of pure white ivory, his hair, beard, and garments were made of gold, and his eyes of the brightest jewels.
The temple and grove were further adorned with a great many statues representing the other gods and all the prize winners, for it was customary to place a life-sized statue of each of them in this beautiful place.
During the celebration of the Olympic games many sacrifices were offered up to the gods, and there were many religious processions in their honor. Poets and artists, as well as athletes, were in the habit of hastening thither on every occasion; for there were contests in poetry and song, and the people were anxious to hear and see all the new works.
Between the games, therefore, the poets recited their poems, the musicians sang their songs, the historians read their histories, and the story-tellers told their choicest tales, to amuse the vast crowd which had come there from all parts of Greece, and even from the shores of Italy and Asia Minor.
As the games were held every four years, the people eagerly looked forward to their coming, and soon began to reckon time by them. It was therefore usual to say that such and such a thing happened in the first, second, or third year of the fifth, tenth, or seventieth Olympiad, as the case might be.
Soon even the historians began to use this way of dating important events; and by counting four years for each Olympiad, as the time between the games was called, we can find out exactly when the chief events in Greek history took place.
Although the Olympic games were probably held many times before this system of counting was begun, and before any good record was kept, we can trace them back to 774 B.C.
For one thousand years after that, the name of each victor was carefully written down; and it was only about three centuries after Christ that the Olympic records ceased. Then the games came to an end, to the sorrow of all the Greeks.
Several attempts have since been made to revive these games; but all proved fruitless until the Greek king arranged to renew them in 1896. In that year a great festival was held, not at Olympia, but in the city of Athens.
Besides some of the old-fashioned Greek games, there were bicycle and hurdle races, shooting matches, and contests in jumping. People from all parts of the world went to see them in as large numbers as they went to Olympia in the olden times.
The victors in the games, who belonged to many different nations, received medals, and wreaths of wild olive and laurel leaves; but the people did not wear crowns of flowers as formerly, nor offer sacrifices to the old gods, for Greece is now a Christian country.