Olympic Games on ancient coins

The Olympic Games have always been the most esteemed athletic event on our planet. Since ancient times they have always been a celebration of wide appeal and significance - and a reminder today that athletics is of one of the greatest gifts the ancient Greeks bestowed upon mankind.

The first Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. They were organized every four years commencing on the first full moon after the summer solstice - that is in July or August. The four-year interval between two consecutive Olympic Games was referred to as an Olympiad and was used as a means of date determination and reference throughout Greece. It is more than noteworthy that all war activities ceased during the Games under the imposed "sacred truce". Towards this end, the area of Elis was declared sacrosanct. Thus, the athletes, their relations and in general anyone whose desire was to enjoy the spectacle the Games offered, could travel to Olympia in safety. The sacred truce was to be strictly kept by all cities and its violation meant disqualification from the Games. The athletes and spectators arrived from every corner of the ancient Greek world including the most distant and remote colonies.

Athletic Events and Coins

The very first Olympic Games of 776 B.C. featured one sole event, that of the one stadium race (a stadium equals to 192,28 m.) but later more events were introduced. Such was the importance of the Games that the ancient Greeks depicted certain events on their coins.

Photo of ancient coin Hoplitodromos Photo of ancient coin Discus Photo of ancient coin Wrestling

Hoplitodromos

The earliest of events was the stadium race but gradually more races were introduced such as the hoplite race (hoplitodromos), which was a 2-4 stadium race and the athlete competed in full copper armour - helmet, shin protection and shield. 25 such shields of the same weight were kept in the temple of Zeus in Olympia and were given to athletes to ensure competition on equal terms.

Discus

The event of discus throwing in the early Olympics did not differ much from that of today. The discus itself was round, with a wide circumference, made initially from stone and later iron, lead or copper. Its diameter was between 17 and 35 centimetres and its weight 1,3 to 6,6 kilograms. The event took place in the stadium, just like today.

Wrestling

Wrestling is one of the most ancient events, also mentioned in Homer, in the "Funeral Games for Patroclos" (Athla epi Patroklo). As an individual event and part of the Pentathlon it made its first appearance in the Olympic Games of 708 B.C. The event took place in the stadium, inside a specially coated square sandpit. There were two distinct versions of the event: the Upright Wrestling (Orthia Pale) which required that the athletes stand up and the winner would be the one who managed to bring his opponent to the ground three times. There was also Ground Wrestling (Kato Pale), which went on until one of the two wrestlers admitted defeat.

Photo of ancient coin Synoris Photo of ancient coin Apene Photo of ancient coin keles Photo of ancient coin keles

Chariot Races

Chariot races used to be one of the most popular events. In the times of Homer the charioteer was the chariot owner as well. However, in the historic times the charioteer was merely the most skilled and experienced to steer the vehicle while the title of the Olympic winner and the accompanying glory was given to the owner. There was various chariot events: "tethrippon" (the chariot is drawn by four horses), "synoris" (the chariot is drawn by two horses), "apene" (the chariot is drawn by two mules), "tethrippon for foals" (the chariot is drawn by four foals) and "synoris for foals" (the chariot is drawn by two foals).

  • Synoris: The chariot is drawn by two horses and is steered by the charioteer, completing twelve laps around the hippodrome. This race was introduced into the Olympics in 408 B.C.
  • Apene: In this type of race, the chariot is drawn by two mules. It first appeared in 500 B.C. but, not being particularly popular, was abolished in 444 B.C.

Horse riding

Horse riding games spanned throughout the ancient times and were aristocratic in character. Naturally, the horse owners were rich and noble families who could indulge in horse breeding. Equestrian events included the following:

  • Keles (race for fully grown horses with rider): This event was introduced into the Olympics in 648 B.C. and consisted of six laps of the hippodrome.
  • Kalpe (race for mares): What distinguished this event from others was that in the final lap the rider would get off the horse and run along with it to the finish line.
  • Race for foals: This event appeared quite later, in 256 B.C.