© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated December 6, 1998 
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.


This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.

Sanctuary in the province of Elis in eastern Peloponnese (area 3).
Olympia was not a city proper, but rather a huge sanctuary where the Olympic games were held and that was open only for the duration of these games. The origin of these games was ascribed to Pelops, the son of Tantalus, whose grave could be seen in the sacred precinct of Olympia, the Altis, but, after the arrival of the Dorians, it was reassigned to their favorite hero, Heracles (Pindar's Xth Olympian Ode, str.2, sq.). The first Olympic games of historical times took place in 776 B. C. This date marks the starting point of the common frame of reference used by ancient Greeks to date events based on Olympiads (periods of four years between two consecutive games). The games continued to be held on a regular basis until 393 A. D., when all pagan festivals were banned by a decree of emperor Theodosius.

The Olympic games were held in honor of Zeus every four years in the summer, between July and September depending on the year, under the leadership of the people of the nearby city of Elis. They were the most famous of the four periodic panhellenic festivals with contests held in ancient Greece. The other three panhellenic games were :

Each festival was attended by official representatives (theores) and crowds from all cities of Greece (in his Laws, Plato keeps this tradition as one reason for travels abroad of citizens of his city-to-be : Laws, XII, 950e) and was preceded by a truce allowing them to travel safely to the festival. It included two parts : the religious festival with processions and sacrifices, and the "games" proper, that is, the sports events and, at some of them, musical contests. The winners would receive a crown (of laurel in Delphi, of olive in Olympia, of wild celery at the Isthmian and Nemean games) and be honored as national heroes in their cities. Most of the odes that have come down to us from the Greek poet Pindar, who lived in the first half of the Vth century B. C., were written to celebrate the victory of an athlete at one or another of these games. As a result, they have been grouped according to the games involved : Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean (but see Apology, 36d, for a glimpse of what Socrates thinks of such honors when he suggests that he is the one who should get similar treatment as a "penalty" for his supposed crime ; also Republic, V, 465d ; Laws, V, 729d). To win such a prize, athletes were willing to submit to the most rigorous training (Laws, VIII, 840a-c ; also Laws, VII, 807c).

The Olympic festival lasted 7 days and could be attended by whomever wished to come, including slaves and "barbarians", with the exception of wedded women. The first and last days were dedicated to religious rites and, in between, the sports events lasted five days. There were initialy six of them : sprint track race (stadion, run on a track that was one stadium long, that is about 600 feet, or 180 meters), wrestling (palè) ; boxing (pugmè) ; four-horsed chariot race ; javelin throwing ; discus throwing (see Pindar's Xth Olympian Ode, strophe & antistrophe 4). Later, other events were added : the double-stadium race (diaulè) ; long race ; hoplitic race, in which the runner bore his whole soldier's gear (later limited to the shield) ; pancratium, a mix of boxing and wrestling ; pentathlon, which included jump, discus throwing, javelin throwing, sprint race and wrestling ; single horse racing. Also, special events were included for youngsters : sprint race, wrestling and boxing. The games started with the stadium race, and the name of the winner of that race was used to designate the olympiad. But the most sought-after victory was that in the four-horsed chariot race, the most spectacular event, that ended the games. It is in that event that Alcibiades entered no less than seven teams of horses in 416, winning 1st, 2nd and 3rd place (Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades, 11).
The Olympic games played a key role in giving the Hellenes, split in so many "city-states", a sense of unity and afforded much more than the official religious ceremonies and sports events. In parallel, all sorts of activities were taking place on the site. In the time of Socrates, it provided the Sophists with an opportunity to display their "tricks" or read their latest works in front of huge crowds (see for instance Hippias Minor, 363c-364a and 368b-e, where Hippias, who is a citizen of the host city of Elis, brags about his successes during the games).

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Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated December 6, 1998
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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