Could women watch the Olympic Games?

I want to address the vexing question of whether women were permitted to watch the Olympic Games.

Certainly there was a women's camp. It contained the women and children of any men who'd seen fit to bring their families, plus a whole lot of hookers, both pornoi (working girls) and hetaerae (high class courtesans). The women's camp was on the opposite side the river from where the Olympics were held, and there was an easy ford so people could cross at will.

It's known for sure that there was a law forbidding married women from watching the Games. If a married woman was caught inside the stadion, or even on the wrong side of the river, while the Games were in progress, then the prescribed penalty was to throw her to her death from Mount Typaion, a cliff-laden area on the road from Elis to Olympia. But I'm not aware of the penalty ever being exacted, and frankly it seems unlikely to me that men are going to off a woman like that.

There was one woman who was caught red handed. Her name was Kallipateira, and she had personally trained her son in athletics. When he competed at Olympia, she disguised herself as a man and sat in the box with the other trainers. When her son won, she got a trifle too excited and was caught out.

They didn't have the heart to exact the penalty, so they let her off. Ever afterwards, the trainers of the athletes were required to attend the Games stark naked, to prevent another woman pulling the same trick.

There was one woman who was required to watch. That was the Priestess of Demeter from the city of Elis. Olympia lay within the boundaries of Elis and the Eleans supplied all the officials. No one fully understands why a priestess of Demeter had to be there, but we know the contests were considered invalid unless the Priestess of Demeter had watched. There was no temple to Demeter at Olympia, which makes it even weirder.

Oddly, the rule forbade only married women. As a result it's become a standard meme on the internet that virgins could watch the Olympics. This is helped by an ancient writer called Pausanias having made some vague statements about seeing virgins at the Games.

Let's think about that. We have a stadion filled with tens of thousands of drunken, sports-crazed men, and scattered in amongst them are a bunch of teenage virgins.

I don't think so!

What is very likely is that fathers brought along unmarried daughters, to matchmake them with eligible bachelors from other cities. But there's no way virgins were in the stadion when the contests were held. It's just a recipe for disaster.

Normally, when I write my mysteries of Classical Greece, I take the most liberal possible interpretation of the status of women consistent with known history. But this is one instance where I'm a rock-solid conservative. The only women watching the Games were the Priestess of Demeter and, maybe, a few of her assistants.

Pelops vs Oinomaos: the first Olympic chariot race

In the middle of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia was a ruined building. The Greeks believed that this was the megaron of King Oinomaos, who was a very ancient king of the dark ages. A megaron was a Greek king's court in prehistoric times. Literally: mega (great) ron (hall).

Beside the megaron was a large burial mound, enclosed within a wall of five sides. This was believed by everyone to be the burial mound of the hero Pelops. The hero-king for whom the Peloponnesian Peninsula is named.

According to legend, King Oinomaos had a daughter, a girl of great beauty, by the name of Hippodamia. Oinomaos had no sons, so whoever married Hippodamia would inherit the rule of the land. (The usual set up).

Needless to say, a great many unsuitable men asked for the hand of the beautiful Hippodamia, so many that it became an irritant. Oinomaos developed a way of discouraging suitors. He challenged them to a chariot race. If Oinomaos won, then he killed the foolish suitor with his bright spear. But if the suitor won, then the suitor would marry the girl and become heir to the kingdom. Many men died in the pursuit of beauty and wealth.

Note that the name of the princess Hippodamia means Horse Tamer.

Then the hero Pelops asked for the hand of Hippodamia.

Luckily for Pelops, Hippodamia fell in love with him. (The usual setup again.) The only problem was, daddy was the best chariot driver around, so Hippodamia bribed her father's charioteer, a man by the name of Myrtilus, to remove the linchpins from the wheels of her father's racing chariot. His reward if he did so would be half the kingdom, and the first night in the bed of Hippodamia.

And so the race was arranged. Pelops surged to the lead. But the chariot of Oinomaos made ground.

Oinomaos raised his spear to slay Pelops as they raced, when at that moment the wheels of his chariot flew off. Oinomaos was dragged to his death.

Pelops married Hippodamia, became King at once, and they all lived happily ever after. Except for Hippodamia's father, who was somewhat dead.

Myrtilus reaped the usual harvest for treachery: Pelops murdered the fellow when he was brazen enough to claim his reward.

This was considered the first Olympic chariot race, though it certainly wasn't at the Olympics, and it was won by cheating and sabotage. The race between the hero and the king was displayed on the outer pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Myrtilus was buried under the taraxippus at the east end of the chariot race arena. It's the reason the Greeks believed there were so many accidents at that turn. The psyche of Myrtilus, who was both murderer and murdered, remained to terrify the horses.

Four horse chariot race: the Formula 1 of the ancient world

The four horse chariot race at the ancient Olympics, and later at the circus maximus in Rome, was the Formula 1 of the ancient world: fast and dangerous.

The chariot races were the first major event on the schedule of the ancient Olympics. The Greeks liked to start things with a bang. Unlike modern races, the chariots did not race in an oval. They went about two turning posts, more like a modern yacht race since everyone had to squeeze around the same post at about the same time. Given the width of four horses, this added to the chaos and the danger.

The turning post at the east end had a special name. It was called taraxippus, the Horse-Terror, because this was where most crashes occurred. The reason for the particular danger was said to be the nearby altar, under which was buried either King Oenomaus or his groom Myrtilus, depending which version of the legend you believed. The fact that at the taraxippus the drivers had to stare into the sun probably helped too.

Crashes were frequently fatal. When the drivers lined up for the race, they would have looked left and right at their fellows, and known that at least a few of them would be dining in Hades that night.

Roman chariot drivers wrapped the reins about their arm or body, so if the chariot disintegrated beneath them then they were dragged. Roman drivers carried a sharp knife to cut the reins, but that of course required being conscious. Greek drivers on the other hand held the reins only by hand and therefore could let go.

I am most indebted to Meghan for saving me from error here. In the original version of this post I had both Roman and Greek drivers wrapping reins, which is totally wrong. I'm very lucky to have such knowledgeable readers. Thanks Meghan!

The Romans put a solid spine down the middle of the track, whereas the Greeks had open area between the turn poles and were exposed to head on collisions. Which didn't necessarily make the Roman track all that much safer. In Ben Hur during the famous chariot race, one chariot bounces off the central spine with disastrous results.

The first official semi-pseudo-mythical chariot race in the Olympic area was between King Oenomaus and his future son-in-law, King Pelops (for whom the Peloponnese is named). This race ended in a negative experience for Oenomaus. Weirdly, and this is how I managed to get it wrong in the original, not that it's an excuse, most accounts of King Oenomaus have him being dragged to death by his horses. Maybe in the early bronze age they wrapped the reins and then the fashion changed? Or maybe, like me, later writers transposed the Roman practice into early Greece?

The location of the Olympic hippodrome is unknown today. The athletics stadion remains but the hippodrome was washed away in a major flood in mediaeval times. My guess is it was to the south, and perhaps slightly to the east, of the stadion. There's a a nice large unoccupied space there that would have been about right.

The chariot was light, barely strong enough to carry a man. There really were four horses hitched in a row.

The chariot race from Ben Hur is relatively accurate, especially the way they race from end to end. Whipping one's opponents was totally within the spirit of things. The modified wheels designed to wreck opponents in the movie would have been cause for instant disqualification, at the Olympics at any rate. And of course, the Olympic race was far more utilitarian than the ornate affairs at the circus maximus.

The starting line as in Ben Hur is totally wrong for the Olympics. The Olympics had the first mechanical starting gate in history, which was designed to make sure everyone had an even start. It was called the Hippaphesis. But I'll save that remarkable device for another post.

And if you think it can't be that wild and dangerous these days, I can't resist adding this clip from the Formula 1 race at Valencia this year.

I watched this race as it happened, and when the car went airborne I was sure I was about to see someone die. But Mark Webber walked away with only a few bruises! The engineers who make these cars could teach the commercial manufacturers a thing or two about how to design for safety by default.

The winner of the chariot race was not the driver, but the owner of the team. Rather like today there is a constructor's championship for the organisation which makes the F1 car which wins the most points. Also like today, owning and running a four horse chariot team was every bit as expensive as modern cars. You had to be the equivalent of a multi-millionaire to even think about entering. Alcibiades, the second cousin of Pericles, in 416BC entered an incredible 7 teams, which would have bankrupted some entire cities. He scored first, second and fourth.

Because the winner was the owner and not the driver, the first woman in history to win at the Olympics in any event was Cynisca, the daughter of King Archidamus of Sparta, who won the chariot race not once, but twice.

What were Ancient Greek tents made of?

Olympia turned into a tent city during the Sacred Games. People came from all over Greece and there was no permanent accommodation, so each city was allocated its own space and hundreds of tents sprang up. One can only imagine what the place looked like after thousands of men trampled the ground for a week. I'm thinking something like Glastonbury during the festival.

Okay, now what were the tents made of? It's a minor detail, but this is the sort of thing I have to get right. This turned into a mercifully quick piece of book research. Probably half of you already know the answer, but I didn't and I can't resist telling.

The obvious answer is canvas, but did the Greeks have canvas?

The answer is yes. In fact, according to the Shorter OED, our word canvas derives from the name of the material the Greeks used to make it: κάνναβις. Let me help you with that word. The kappa at the front is an English k of course, but often written as a Roman c. The two v-like letters in the middle are actually nu and have an n sound. The squiggle at the end is an s. Which gives us the English word: cannabis. Not only is the English cannabis precisely a Greek word, but canvas was made from hemp.

Canvas and cannabis are cognate. Now that I know it, it's obvious, but I never would have guessed.

The pankration

It's a little known fact that the Greeks had a martial art: the pankration.

In fact there were three. Boxing and wrestling are well known to this day, but they were child's play compared to the pankration.

I don't suggest you try playing this at home kids, but here are the complete rules for a pankration contest:

1. No biting.
2. No gouging eyes.
3. You can surrender by raising your arm.
4. If you're unconscious or dead, you lose.

Notice there are no rules against breaking bones, grabbing and twisting where it hurts most, or using choke holds. Two referees circled the contestants with sticks or short whips and beat anyone who broke even these simple rules. In the picture you can see the referees to the outside, one wielding a whip; the contestant on the ground has raised his arm in defeat.

There is a modern martial art movement which calls itself pankration, but needless to say they don't fight according to the ancient rules. It would be grossly illegal!

Choke holds seem to have been a popular way of winning, hence the rule that if someone loses consciousness or dies then it's game over. I'm not kidding about the death part. People regularly died at Olympic level. So regularly that contestants were issued a blanket pardon for murder before the Games began.

One man called Arrhachion won the pankration at three Olympiads in succession! This means Arrhachion was not someone you would wish to annoy. Arrhachion in an important way embodied a Greek ideal which is largely lost to modern society, though some people still naturally retain it, and this is the importance above all else of achieving excellence. Not the pursuit of excellence, but excellence. There are athletes and academics today who, if they come second in a contest, turn around and say, "I lost." Any Classical Greek would have understood that and agreed wholeheartedly. At the ancient Olympics the only prize was for coming first; none of this bronze and silver rubbish. Likewise there was a first prize in choral and dramatic contests and that was it.

Here is how Arrhachion won his third Olympic crown. Keep in mind as you read this, Arrhachion knew what he was doing, and could have raised his arm at any time. We take up the fight with our hero in big trouble:
Arrhachion’s opponent, having already a grip around his waist, thought to kill him and put an arm around his neck to choke off his breath. At the same time he slipped his legs through Arrhachion’s groin and wound his feet inside Arrhachion’s knees, pulling back until the sleep of death began to creep over Arrhachion’s senses.

But Arrhachion was not done yet, for as his opponent began to relax the pressure of his legs, Arrhachion kicked away his own right foot and fell heavily to the left, holding his opponent at the groin with his left knee still holding his opponent’s foot firmly. So violent was the fall that the opponent’s left ankle was wrenched from his socket. The man strangling Arrhachion … signaled with his hand that he gave up.

Thus Arrhachion became a three-time Olympic victor at the moment of his death. His corpse … received the victory crown.