Olympic Games, the most ancient and famous of the four great national festivals of the Greeks, celebrated once in four years at Olympia. Their origin, like that of the other Hellenic games, was probably connected with the rites paid to some deity, and they gradually expanded into a festival partly religious and partly secular. After being discontinued for a considerable period, the Olympic games were reestablished in the 9th century B. C. by Iphitus, king of Elis, and Lycurgus, who were commanded by the Delphic oracle to revive the festival as a remedy for intestine commotions and for pestilence with which Greece was then afflicted. For more than a century after this the games continued a local festival, frequented chiefly by the neighboring Peloponnesians; but as they grew in importance, spectators came from the more distant states and from the Greek colonies of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Except in two or three instances, the management of the games was in the hands of the Eleans, who appointed certain of their citizens to preside as judges. As the time approached for the celebration of the games, a sacred truce was proclaimed, and during the month in which they took place any armed invasion of the Elean territory was esteemed sacrilege.
At the same time hostilities were suspended throughout Greece. At first the festival was confined to a single day, and consisted of the simple match of runners in the stadium, which was about 600 feet long. In 776 B. C. the Eleans inscribed the name of their countryman Corcebus as victor in the competition of runners, and for nearly 1,000 years afterward we have regular lists of the victors in the foot races, to which in later times the names of those successful in other games were added. This date was subsequently employed by the Greeks as a chronological era, and the Olympiads, as the periods between two celebrations were called, commencing with the year 776 B. C, from which the first is reckoned, have supplied one of the oldest records of continuous time. In the course of time the festival was varied by additional contests, and from the beginning of the 77th Olympiad (472) its duration was extended from one to five days. In the 14th Olympiad (724) the double stadium for runners was introduced, and in the 15th the long course, in which the stadium was traversed a number of times. In the 18th Olympiad (708) wrestling matches were added, and also the complicated, which included leaping, running, throwing the quoit, throwing the javelin, and wrestling.
To gain a victory in the latter contest the competitor was obliged to conquer in each of its five parts. In the 23d Olympiad (688) boxing was introduced, and in the 33d (648) the, which consisted of boxing and wrestling combined, the cestus, or leather thong about the hands and arms, being allowed in the first contest but not in the second. In both games the combatants fought naked. The race with four-horse chariots, for which a special course called the IrnrddpojLiog, about 2,400 ft. in circuit, was set apart, was introduced in the 25th Olympiad (680), and became one of the most popular and celebrated of all the matches; the chariots were obliged to make the circuit 12 times, a distance of over 5 m. In addition to these there were foot races in which the runners wore heavy armor, several kinds of races on horseback, races between chariots drawn by two horses or by mules, wrestling and running matches between boys, and other athletic contests, some of which were speedily abolished. Like all the great national festivals of Greece, the Olympic games included no combats with any kind of weapons. The games were open to persons of all ranks and occupations, the only conditions being that they should. prove a pure Hellenic descent and a good moral character.
After the conquest of Greece by the Romans the latter were allowed to become competitors. In all cases the combatants were obliged to undergo a preparatory training, and to take a solemn oath to contend fairly. Any attempt to bribe a competitor to give the victory to his antagonist was punished by a heavy fine. In the earlier celebrations, as in the Homeric games, the prizes seem to have had some intrinsic value; but after the 7th Olympiad, in which Daicles the Messenian received for his victory in the stadium a wreath from the sacred olive tree near Olympia, this simple reward, with the honor of being proclaimed victor, was considered sufficient. The victor thenceforth became a marked man in his state, upon which as well as upon his family he was considered to have conferred everlasting glory; ovations and many substantial honors awaited him on his return home;.his praises were sung by the most eminent poets; and his statue was often erected at the expense of his fellow citizens in the Altis, or sacred grove of Jupiter at Olympia. No women were allowed to be present at the celebration of the games, under penalty of death, a single exception being made in the case of the priestess of Demeter Cha-myne, to whom a seat was assigned opposite the judges; but women were allowed to enter chariots for the races, and frequently did so.
Many literary works were here first publicly recited, although such recitations were not contests and formed no part of the festival proper; and painters and sculptors found abundant means to dispose of their productions. Many persons were also present as deputies from the various states and colonies, and by the number of their offerings and the splendor of their retinues greatly added to the reputation of the festival. The Olympic games preserved their crowds of visitors and their celebrity for many centuries after the extinction of Greek freedom, but were finally abolished by a decree of the Christian emperor Theodosius, A. D. 394.