Who were the ancient Greeks?
Women at Olympia
Only men, boys and unmarried girls were allowed to attend the Olympic Games. Married women were barred.
If they were caught sneaking in, they could be thrown off the side of a mountain as punishment!
However, women could still own horses in the chariot races at the Olympics and unmarried women had their own festival at Olympia every four years.
This was called the Heraia and was held in honour of Hera, Zeus’s wife. Winners were awarded crowns of sacred olive branches, the same as men. But in ancient Greece, only Spartan women were really interested in sport.
How did the Olympic Games begin?
The Greeks loved sport and the Olympic Games were the biggest sporting event in the ancient calendar.
The Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago in Olympia, in south west Greece. Every four years, around 50,000 people came from all over the Greek world to watch and take part. The ancient games were also a religious festival, held in honour of Zeus, the king of the gods.
There were no gold, silver and bronze medals. Winners were given a wreath of leaves and a hero’s welcome back home. Athletes competed for the glory of their city and winners were seen as being touched by the gods.
A truce for the sacred games
Before the games began, messengers were sent out to announce a ‘sacred truce’ or a peace. This meant that any wars should be called off so that people could travel safely to Olympia.
The entire games were dedicated to Zeus. Visitors flocked to see the Temple of Zeus. Inside stood a huge gold and ivory statue of the king of the gods himself.
The main event at the Olympics was not a sporting event, but a sacrifice. On the third day of the games, 100 oxen were sacrificed and burnt on the Altar of Zeus.
This altar was not made from stone. Instead it was made from the leftover ash of all the sacrificed oxen. By around 200AD, the mound of ash stood six meters high!
This practice demonstrates the loftiest ideals of Hellenic humanism: peaceful and loyal competition among free and equal men with their only ambition being the symbolic reward of an olive wreath.
The revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, through the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin,
illustrates the lasting nature of the ideals of peace, justice, and progress—the most fragile attributes of human heritage.
The values of fair competition and sacred truce that were established during the ancient Games, remain among humanity’s highest goals.
Consequently, today’s visitors can feel the same spiritual and ideological force that drove athletes thousands of years ago.
The Lighting of the Olympic Flame
Since 1936, the Archaeological Site of Olympia has been the host of the Ceremony of the Lighting of the Olympic Flame for the summer games.
In 1964, the site began to be used for the winter games as well. This special event is open to the public and you can come and see it happen for yourself.
The Olympic Flame is the most powerful symbol of the Olympic movement.
Not only does it represent the virtues of the modern sporting competition, it also holds a link with antiquity
Greece’s great nature!
Hundreds of years ago, most of the country was covered in forest. But over the centuries, the trees were cut down for firewood, lumber and to make room for farms. Today,
forests can be found mainly in the Pindus and Rhodope mountain ranges.
Greece has ten national parks, which help to conserve the country’s natural and historic landmarks.
Marine parks help protect the habitats of two of Europe’s most endangered sea creatures, the loggerhead turtle and the monk seal.
The long coastline and clear waters make Greece an ideal location to spot lots of cool sea life, including starfish, sea anemones, sponges and seahorses. Snorkels at the ready!
Greece is home to lots of fascinating plant life, too. The Greek landscape is covered by maquis, a tangle of thorny shrubs that don’t need a lot of water.
These plants include fragrant herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, and bay and myrtle trees.
Bird watching is also popular in Greece, where geese, ducks and swallows stop over during their migration from Africa to Europe.
The first great civilisation in Greece was the Minoan culture on the island of Crete, around 2000 B.C. In 1450 B.C.,
the Minoans were conquered by the Myceneans from the mainland.
During ancient times, the country was divided into city-states ruled by noblemen. The largest were Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth.
Each state controlled the territory around a single city, and they were often at war with each other.
Athens became the most powerful city-state and in 508 B.C., a new system of rule called democracy was instituted by the people. But during that time, only men were allowed to vote!
The first Olympic Games were held in the southern city of Olympia in 776 B.C. to honour Zeus, the king of the gods.
Only men could compete in the events such as sprinting, long jump, discus, javelin, wrestling and chariot racing.
In the 2nd century B.C., Greece entered into a period of foreign rule which would last for over 2,000 years.
The Romans conquered the Greeks in 146B.C., and 400 years later the country fell under Turkish control. But in 1832, following the Greek Revolution, Greece won independence.
Greece has had a troubled relationship with Turkey over the island of Cyprus, which has a large Greek population.
Cyprus is divided into Greek and Turkish areas, and is monitored by the United Nations to make sure neither country starts a fight over the island.
Facts about Ancient Greece
1. Ancient Greeks lived over 3000 years ago. Their civilisations followed a Dark Age in Greece, which is thought to have ended in 800 B.C.
For the most part, Ancient Greece was divided into several small city-states, each with their own laws, customs, and rulers. However, in the 300s B.C., these small city-states were forced to unite under one ruler:
Alexander the Great. He was the founder of the Ancient Greek Empire, which stretched into Europe, Egypt, and South-West Asia.
2. The Greeks had some strange superstitions about food – some wouldn’t eat beans as they thought they contained the souls of the dead!
3. The Ancient Greeks were descended from the Mycenaeans, who were also the first writers and speakers of ‘Ancient Greek’.
A famous legend tells how, in 1180 B.C., the mighty Mycenaeans conquered the city of Troy – by hiding inside a giant wooden horse! The horse was left outside the city’s walls
and, thinking it a gift, the people of Troy wheeled it inside… only for the sneaky Mycenaean soldiers to creep out and seize the city!
4. Did you know that the Ancient Greeks invented the theatre? They loved watching plays, and most cities had a theatre
– some big enough to hold 15,000 people! Only men and boys were allowed to be actors, and they wore masks,
which showed the audience whether their character was happy or sad. Some of the masks had two sides, so the actor could turn them around to change the mood for each scene.
5. Most Ancient Greeks wore a chiton, which was a long T-shirt made from one large piece of cotton. The poor slaves, however, had to make do with a loincloth (a small strip of cloth wrapped around the waist)!
6. The Ancient Greeks held many festivals in honour of their gods.
To celebrate the god Zeus, for example, the first Greek Olympics were held in the city of Olympia in 776 B.C. and are thought to have inspired our own Olympic Games!
The winners of each event were given a wreath of leaves, and when they returned home, they would be given free meals and the best seats in the theatre!
7. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses were placed inside temples, the most famous of which is the Parthenon.
This temple in Athens was built for the goddess Athena, the protector of the city.
8. Events at the Greek’s Olympics included wrestling, boxing, long jump, javelin, discus and chariot racing. But those taking part in the wrestling event had to be the toughest, as there were hardly any rules – and they had to compete naked. Eek!
9. The Ancient Greeks had lots of stories to help them learn about their world.
The gods featured heavily in these tales, and so did mythological monsters – like Cerberus, a three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld;
Medusa, a slithery sorceress whose look could turn people to stone; and the Cyclops, who had one eye in the middle of its forehead – yikes! These tales are known as Greek mythology
10. The city-states were often at war, but just before the Olympics, a truce would be called so that everyone could travel to Olympia safely