“There was a man who thought the journey to Olympia would be too much for him, and Socrates said: ‘What are you afraid of? Don’t you walk around all day in Athens? Don’t you walk home to have lunch? And again for dinner? And again to sleep? Don’t you see that if you string together all the walking you do in five or six days anyway you could easily cover the distance from Athens to Olympia?’”—Xenophon, Memorabilia
Ancient Greek spectators could never be accused of being couch potatoes: They had to be in good shape just to get to the Olympic Games.
Most travelers went on foot, picking their way over rocky trails that curled snake-like through mountains and ravines. Including rest days and stopovers, many people would have allowed two weeks to reach the site of the games at Olympia, located in the Peloponnesus in southwestern Greece, about 200 miles west of Athens. Along the way, ancient travelers passed through a traditional rural world, dotted with temples full of sacred relics, encountering vignettes of eerie piety. According to the second-century A.D. travel writer Pausanias, Olympia was where the aura of divinity was most tangible on earth, and the closer travelers got to their goal, the more the air seemed to glow with a sense of pagan wonder. In this way, the journey was a kind of pilgrimage.
Today, the road from Athens to Olympia, driven by multitudes of rental cars, follows almost exactly the same route as it did 2,500 years ago—although at times it takes a serious leap of imagination to recapture 024the dreamlike atmosphere of ancient times. The initial escape from the Greek capital follows a six-lane highway littered with billboards. But after a few miles, the rural foundation of Greece reasserts itself, and we can at least begin to see some of the same majestic mountain views that greeted groups of rank-and-file Greek spectators as they trudged toward the Olympic Games.
Fans traveling from Athens would have left the city through the Dipylon Gate, kissed their fingertips in homage as they passed the last shrines of the city, and set off past Kerameikos Cemetery, against whose solemn funerary sculptures prostitutes plied their trade at night. From here, they could take one last glance back at the Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon and a giant bronze statue of the goddess Athena. Athens was the largest and richest city in mainland Greece, and was universally regarded as the most artistically graceful in the entire Mediterranean world. Athenians themselves were the Parisians of antiquity—vain, verbose, divisive, energetic, cerebral, brilliant, contradictory and, to non-Athenians, unbearable. Deeply superstitious despite their worship of Reason, they would have made careful sacrifices for a safe journey the day before.
We can picture a group of those ancient travelers, perhaps a dozen friends and family members, walking together. The male travelers would all be wearing linen chitons, the loose, sleeveless tunics made from two squares of white cloth loosely draped over the 025body, leaving one shoulder exposed. These tunics were usually worn to below the knees, but on the road they were hitched up by a belt to make walking easier. The men also wore leather sandals tied up the calves and wide-brimmed hats called pastasoi. The one or two intrepid women in the group would have worn brightly-colored tunics that were ankle-length, with finer hats over their ribbon-adorned hair. Some wore brooches and jewelry, and carried parasols.
Greeks tended to travel light, with only a pouch slung over the shoulder containing a single change of clothes, a short cape (chlamys), some cooking utensils and a woolen blanket for bedding. The better-off travelers would have brought a servant as bearer, or a donkey with panniers for provisions. Wealthy women brought more luggage, with cosmetics boxes and gowns. The truly rich, as we will see, were a different breed, traveling across Greece in luxury safaris.
Thanks to the Olympic Truce—a cease-fire honored throughout the Greek world—travelers enjoyed a degree of safety unheard of elsewhere in the Mediterranean. They weren’t just spectators going to an over-hyped sports meet. They were holy pilgrims, and to interfere with them was an act of sacrilege against Zeus himself. Wars were stalled; feuds were put aside; highwaymen lay low. Even the powerful king Philip of Macedonia (382-336 B.C.), father of Alexander the Great, had to apologize when some of his mercenaries shook down an Athenian traveler on the way to the Olympics.
Most travelers on foot could make 15 miles a day on decent roads. The highway started out well paved from Athens, the route marked by pillars dedicated to Hermes, the patron deity of travelers; called Herms, these pillars showed the god’s face and erect penis. But conditions quickly deteriorated, and the travelers’ pace slowed. To cross the narrow isthmus connecting the peninsula of the Peloponnesus to the rest of Greece, wayfarers had to shuffle in single file on a dangerous, narrow trail along dizzying cliffs. In Greek legend, it was here that a villain named Scyron ordered hapless passersby to wash his feet before giving them a swift kick in the face, sending them plunging down into the turquoise sea. The crumbling ledges and scree made this a nerve-wracking trail; travelers could trip and fall to their deaths, or even be dragged down the cliff by panicking mules. (Only in the second century A.D. did the Roman emperor Hadrian finally improve the route, turning it into a fine highway wide enough for two chariots to pass abreast.)
It was a relief, after a week on the road, to reach Corinth, gateway to the Peloponnesus and a crossroads to the eastern Mediterranean. This beguiling rest stop was renowned for its luxurious marble arcades lined with drinking shops and a temple to Aphrodite that was attended by hundreds of proficient sex workers. Streams of road-weary travelers from Thebes, Argos, Thessaly and Megara converged here for some R-&-R, and were joined by the first contingents of spectators arriving from across the seas.
These international arrivals came from Greek colonies as far away as Spain and the Black Sea. As Plato put it, the Greeks perched around the Mediterranean “like frogs around a pond,” and for a few silver coins, traveling spectators could sleep on the decks of the innumerable Greek merchant ships crisscrossing the seas. The vessels were built for stability rather than speed, gliding close to shore under a single square sail. An ancient cruise was not without its pleasures: Servants would prepare dinner in the galley, and wine would be shared amongst the 026passengers to fuel learned conversation under the stars.
From Corinth, one could hop a boat west to Elis, but most took the ancient highway that wound through the mountains of Arcadia. Today, this road is still one of the loveliest in Greece. Often no more than a single lane, it coils around villages perched on precipices, past quiet waterfalls and over archaic stone bridges. In shady grottos, men in peaked caps play backgammon and sip sweet black coffee outside taverns where sides of lamb are roasted over coals. Orange trees drop their fruit across the byways, and the road is occasionally 027blocked by herds of goats driven by white-bearded Orthodox priests in black robes, who emerge momentarily from their isolated retreats.
For ancient travelers, Arcadia was the folkloric heartland of Greece, ruled by the god Pan, who played his pipes in secret caves and furiously masturbated. They passed enchanted springs where lepers swam to cure themselves, clusters of holy men carried saplings on their backs as part of a chthonic fertility rite, and crowds of women wailed and tore their faces in mourning for the hero Achilles, who had been killed at Troy many centuries before. In the forests were tree stumps roughly carved into statues of the gods and oaks adorned with the horns of sacrificial animals. Wayfarers could pause at remote temples, where for a modest fee priests would show them mythological artifacts like the thighbones of giants (actually dinosaur fossils),a the hides of monstrous Gorgons, and personal artifacts supposedly once belonging to Ulysses or King Agamemnon, all lovingly burnished by torch-light and framed by curtains of purple and gold.
For accommodation in these backwaters, travelers stopped at rural inns called pandokeion (“places that take all comers”)—dark and fetid little boxes with hard, narrow beds, leaky roofs and mosquito-filled ceilings. Even the well-to-do often had no choice but to put up in these grim roadside hovels, whose owners were often associated with disease and ill omens: It was believed that if a sick person dreamed of an innkeeper, he or she would soon die. Female hoteliers were widely regarded as witches, who could turn hapless male travelers into mules or magically string them up to the rafters by their genitals. And the cuisine at these sordid pit-stops was even worse than at the cheapest roadside diner today. Rumors circulated of unlucky ancient travelers finding human flesh and knucklebones in the stews.
In a way, the rough conditions of the journey to Olympia were good preparation for the five days at the festival. When weary travelers finally found themselves gazing upon the green valley of the Alpheus River, they would have been dazzled by the sheer beauty of the sanctuary. They would have made their first tour of the site in a daze, drinking in the illustrious artworks, the sheer color and excitement of the crowd, the stadium they had heard about all their lives.
So long as one was not too finicky about the conditions.
Of course, the rich had it better than the poor. Ambassadors and officials, for example, had reservations at the one luxurious inn in ancient Olympia, the Leonidaion—a sumptuous two-story complex named after Leonidas of Naxos, the visionary philanthropist who built it in the fourth century B.C. These lucky guests could stretch out in one of the 20 suites on each floor—the roomiest, on the corners, were 35 square feet—all with views of a central courtyard garden with flowers, fountains and Doric columns.
Those without a reservation at the inn were sent out into the fields, to the Sacred Precinct of Zeus, a 028walled-off enclave of pagan temples and shrines. The wealthiest travelers arrived in sumptuous convoys attended by teams of horses, grooms and stable boys. Their slaves would have already raced ahead to the sanctuary to pitch silk tents with copious awnings that recreated all the comforts of home—marble tiles and mosaic floors, favorite artworks and cedar dining tables, ivory wash basins and statuettes. These high-society sports fans could dine on plates of beaten gold, drink from crystal goblets and sleep on down pillows, all the while attended by retinues of chefs, secretaries and retainers. The placement of these aristocratic tents around the site required as much diplomacy as seating arrangements at a banquet—some spots being more prestigious than others. The nouveau riche Greeks from Sicily and Asia Minor were particularly flamboyant. In 388 B.C., the tyrant Dionysios I of Syracuse set himself up in an enormous tent of golden silk, with lavish carpets and a team of professional actors to read his poetry. (The extra spending did him little good—he was denounced by orators for his cruelty as a ruler, his poetry was booed by the crowd as doggerel, and his tent was looted by an angry mob.)
In 67 A.D., the emperor Nero descended on Olympia like an occupying general, with a thousand wagons and high-stepping horses shod with silver and bridled with gold. His route was swept clean by outriders gaily clad as Africans, and handsome Greek boys with faces painted white were engaged to dance around the emperor’s carriages. Nero’s banquets at the festival were just as excessive as back home in Rome: Guests were 029served on silver plates studded with diamonds, and they drank out of goblets carved from great chunks of lapis lazuli. His wife brought 500 asses with her on the trip, so that she could bathe in their milk every morning, thus preserving her creamy complexion.
As for the less-exalted spectators, most simply flung their bedding wherever they could, huddling between altars, crowding elegant colonnades, nestling between the statues of illustrious sporting champions. Others rented space in temporary shelters or put up their own tents, sprawling like refugees across the surrounding countryside. The smoke from thousands of cooking fires created a pall of pollution. Crowd control was enforced by local officials with whips. Not for nothing does our word chaos derive from the ancient Greek; with its lack of basic sanitation or facilities and with the rowdy, anarchic throngs it drew, the Olympic festival was the Woodstock of antiquity.
Even Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.) once slept in a makeshift barracks, head to toe with snoring, drunken strangers. Plato made fast friends with his new roommates, sharing simple meals and going to all the contests with them. Only after the Olympics, when the philosopher’s new friends visited him in Athens, did they discover his true identity. “They were amazed at having had such a great man amongst them without recognizing him,” reports the author Aelian (c. 165-230 A.D.) in his Varia Historia. “He had behaved towards them with modesty and simplicity, and had won the confidence of them all without even resorting to philosophical discussions.”
By necessity, the ancient Greek sports fan could not have been too finicky about personal hygiene. The irregular water supply at Olympia was an ongoing problem in the summer. Rain might not have fallen for several months in this corner of southern Greece, making the chalky waters of the Alpheus River undrinkable. The nearby Kladeus River would have receded to a stagnant trickle.
During heat waves, the lack of water could be dangerous. The plane trees of the sacred grove gave little protection from the sun, and shelters turned into ovens during the day. There was no shade at all in the sports arenas, where for religious reasons spectators 052were actually forbidden to wear hats. Not surprisingly, the second-century A.D. writer Lucian reports that spectators at the games would collapse from heat stroke. Some would even expire. Ironically, the philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 620-565 B.C.)—who once wrote that water was nature’s most precious gift—died of dehydration on the Olympic festival meadow.
The organizers did what they could to ease the drought. Wells were sunk at the site—nine have been excavated by archaeologists, their interiors lined with shell-limestone—and local vendors were appointed to bring fresh drinking water on mule-back from a spring 2 miles up in the valley. But this water could not come close to providing for the masses; 40,000 people could fit into the stadium, and historians have estimated that the total crowd, including workers and hangers-on, could easily have reached 70,000.
As for washing, the athletes and VIPs had decent bathhouses; everyone else went dirty. Even before the games began, the air was thick with body odor. This pungent atmosphere was not improved by the thousands of cooking fires lit every morning and night, sending clouds of smoke and billowing ash into spectators’ eyes.
What could the enterprising organizers provide in the way of personal facilities for the hordes? Public sanitation, even in the richest Greek cities, was never a top priority; not until the age of imperial Rome were large-scale sewers developed. At Olympia, the pine forests and the dry river beds to the south and west became mass latrines, with odors wafting intermittently over the proceedings.
During the five days of the games, conditions for spectators would continue to deteriorate. Rotting garbage was dropped into the makeshift wells, including the bones of hundreds of sacrificial animals. Not surprisingly, 053summer fevers ripped through the crowd. Lucian, perhaps with some exaggeration, noted that spectators “would die in droves of the epidemics,” presumably gastroenteritis and diarrhea. The huge numbers of black flies can hardly have helped. The Greeks did not realize that the insects transmitted bacteria, but they knew how maddening the pests were—which is why, before the games, Olympic officials sacrificed at the altar of Zeus Aponymos, “the Averter of Flies,” to minimize infestations. It seems they had some success. Pliny the Elder (23-29 A.D.) reported that after this ritual, the flies began to perish in droves. Aelian says that the swarms voluntarily retired to the opposite bank of the Alpheus River and only returned to Olympia when the festival was over.
And yet, as the attendance figures suggest, none of these miseries could keep ancient sports fans away. The games were sensationally popular, the greatest recurring event in antiquity, held without fail for a mind-boggling run of nearly 1,200 years. For the Greeks, it was considered a great misfortune to die without having been to Olympia. One Athenian baker boasted on his gravestone that he had attended the games 12 times. “By heaven!” raved Apollonius of Tyana, a holy man of the first century A.D. “Nothing in the world of men is so beloved by the Gods.”
What was the secret of the games’ longevity? What kept the hordes coming back, generation after generation? It was a question that the Athenian philosopher and avid sports buff Epictetus pondered late in the first century A.D. He argued that visiting the Olympics was a metaphor for human existence itself. Every day was filled with difficulties and tribulations: unbearable heat, pushy crowds, grime, noise and endless petty annoyances.
“But of course you put up with it all,” he said, “because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”
This essay is adapted from The Naked Olympics by Tony Perrottet, © 2004 by Tony Perrottet. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
“There was a man who thought the journey to Olympia would be too much for him, and Socrates said: ‘What are you afraid of? Don’t you walk around all day in Athens? Don’t you walk home to have lunch? And again for dinner? And again to sleep? Don’t you see that if you string together all the walking you do in five or six days anyway you could easily cover the distance from Athens to Olympia?’”—Xenophon, Memorabilia Ancient Greek spectators could never be accused of being couch potatoes: They had to be in good shape just to get […]