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Greek Athlete With Strigil

Greek Athlete With Strigil

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Ancient athletes did something truly shocking with their genitals

Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig via Wikimedia Commos

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Pottery: Greek Kylix with Strigil Athlete

A photograph shows a Greek red-figure kylix on display. The bottom of the cup bears an illustration of a nude Greek athlete scraping his arm with a strigil.


This Greek kylix painting depicts an athlete cleaning himself with a strigil. These tools would be used to scrape foreign substances off the skin, typically before bathing. In Greek culture, athletes would coat themselves with olive oil, which would mingle with sweat and dirt during training. (Palé wrestlers would even purposefully throw dust on their anointed skin for increased grip.) They would use these strigils to scrape off this substance, which would sometimes be saved and congealed for use as a medical salve.

Related Articles

Richter, G. M. (2008). Greek, Etruscan and Roman bronzes. Lindemann Press.

Sansone, D. (1992). Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport. University of California Press.


Roman, Eastern Mediterranean (?)
ca. 1 st -4 th century CE
(Common Era replaces AD, Anno Domini "in the year of our Lord")
Museum purchase (70.248)
Length: 18.2 cm
Additional images may be viewed in Argus

Roman, 1 st c.
Museum purchase
Height: 11.6 cm

Guiding Questions
What do you think these objects might have been used for?

If you were going to use them to help you take a bath, how do you think you might use them? The strigil has “XX” engraved on the inside of the handle. What do you think that might mean?

About the Objects
The flask, which is made of bronze, is similar in shape and use to an ancient pottery type called an aryballos. Both a flask and an aryballos would have held olive oil. The Greeks, Etruscans and Romans used these objects to help cleanse themselves, often after strenuous athletic activity in the gymnasium. In the community baths, they first drizzled the olive oil from the flask or aryballos all over their skin, then used the strigil to scrape off all the oil, sweat, and dirt from their skin.

The Museum’s flask retains one link of a chain still attached to its stopper. The chain was probably much longer and may have been used to attach it to a strigil or a belt, or to hang it on a wall. The strigil has XX engraved on the inside of the handle. We do not know the meaning of this.

About the Culture
In ancient Greece and Rome, bathing was a complex process with multiple steps. The wealthy probably had the baths in their own homes, while the everyday people and slaves would attend the local bathing establishments. If the baths were large enough, men and women had separate areas. If not, men and women had separate times of the day to bathe. They soaked in pools of various temperatures received massages ate food read, visited or did business. They might finish in steam rooms where they would be scraped to remove the oil, sweat, dirt and sand, depending on what activity they had participated in.

Olive oil was an important resource across the ancient Mediterranean. It was used in the baths as we would use soap, as a sunscreen or tanning oil, for medicinal purposes, in lamps with wicks for light, and was used for cooking and as an ingredient in many foods. Olive oil was transported in large jars in ships across the Mediterranean Sea and was often traded for other goods.

The Apoxyomenos is an ancient sculpture depicting a person using a strigil. What else can you tell about this person? You can find a copy of this sculpture in the Museum’s Cast Gallery. (See also Museum resource, Addressing Nudity in Art linked below)

Plaster cast reproduction in the Museum of Art and Archaeology
Roman copy of a Greek original, found in Trastevere, ca. 330 BCE
Museo Pio-Clementino, Rome

What kind of tools do you use in the bath? How do you think they might look to people in the future?

Vatican Apoxyomenos “Scraper” by Lysippus

The Vatican Apoxyomenos is a Roman copy from the 1st century AD after a Greek bronze original from about 330 BC by Lysippus. The Apoxyomenos, which is Greek for the “Scraper” is one of the subjects of ancient Greek votive sculpture.

It is a motif of health and fitness rather than an individual portrait. It represents an athlete, caught in the act of scraping sweat and dust from his body with the small curved instrument that the Greeks called a Strigil.

The term Apoxyomenos comes from the Greek verb meaning to clean oneself.

Lysippus posed his subject in a true contrapposto, with an arm outstretched to create a sense of movement and interest from a range of viewing angles.

The Greek artist has managed to render the movement of the arm, which, with its strong forward movement, creates a space and gives depth to the image.

The most renowned Apoxyomenos in Antiquity was that created by Lysippos, in 330 BCE. He was the court sculptor of Alexander the Great.

The bronze original is lost, but it is famous from its description in Pliny the Elder’s accounts, which relates that the Roman general Agrippa installed the bronze Lysippos’s masterpiece in the Baths of Agrippa that he erected in Rome, around 20 BCE.

Later, the emperor Tiberius became so enamored with the sculpture that he had it moved to his bedroom. However, there was a public uproar in the theatre of:

“Give us back our Apoxyomenos.”

The public uproar shamed the emperor Tiberius into returning the famous statue to the people.

A marble copy of the lost original bronze sculpture is now its great replacement and is exhibited at the Vatican Museums in Rome. It was discovered in 1849 when it was excavated in Trastevere.

The statue is slightly larger than lifesize, is characteristic of the new proportions pioneered by Lysippos, with a slightly smaller head and more prolonged and thinner limbs. The Scraper’s head is only one-eighth of the total length of the body.


A strigil is a tool for the cleansing of the body by scraping off dirt, sweat, and oil that was applied before bathing in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. In these cultures, the strigil was primarily used by men, specifically male athletes.

Strigils were commonly used by individuals who were engaging in vigorous activities, in which they accumulated large amounts of dirt and sweat on their bodies. Wealthy individuals often had slaves to wield the strigils and clean their bodies.

Strigils were not only significant in a practical sense but culturally as well. They are often found in tombs or burials, in some cases, along with a bottle of oil.


Contrapposto is an Italian term that means “counterpoise.” It is used in sculpture to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs in the axial plane.

This artistic technique first invented in Ancient Greece in the early 5th century BCE and is considered a crucial development in the history of Ancient Greek art.

The method was further popularized by sculptors in the Hellenistic and Imperial Roman periods. Michaelangelo’s statue of David is a famous example of contrapposto.


Greek wrestling was known to the ancients as orthe pale ("upright (or erect) wrestling"). [2] Legend says that Theseus of Athens invented wrestling. [3] The wrestler's objective (aim) was to throw his opponent to the ground from a standing position. Holds were restricted to the upper body and pinning an opponent to the ground was unknown. Wrestling on the ground was permitted only in the sports known to the Greeks as kato pale ("ground wrestling") and pankration. [4]

A point was scored for a fall. A fall occurred when a wrestler's back or shoulders touched the ground. Three points were required to win a match. [2] Wrestling was less rough than the pankration and required less space. As a result, it was the most popular sport among Greek athletes. It was an event in the pentathlon (and could be the deciding event) but it was a separate event as well, with the same techniques. Wrestling was mentioned numerous times in Greek literature, especially poetry. [5]

The remains of a papyrus wrestling manual from the 2nd century AD reveal that the Greeks were familiar with headlocks, joint locks, shoulder holds, and other techniques used by modern wrestlers. Because there were no time limits to matches, some would end in draws. A wrestler could submit under a chokehold and "tap out". Wrestlers were sometimes killed in contest, but their opponents were never held responsible for homicide. [6]

Wrestling was taught and practiced in a building called the palaestra. There were many of these wrestling schools across Greece. The first palaestras were built about the 6th century BC. [7] They were privately owned, but by the 5th century BC palaestras were being built at the public expense. [8] Palaestras were built until the end of the Age of the Roman Empire. The ancient Greek scholar Plutarch writes that only wrestling and the pankration were taught and practiced in the palaestra. Boxing and other sports were taught and practiced in gymnasiums. [7]

The palaestra consisted of a square or rectangular yard open to the sky. This yard was used for training and practice. The yard was surrounded by colonnades. [9] During rainy weather, wrestling and the pankration were practiced under the colonnades. Rooms adjoining the colonnades were used for lectures, bathing, dressing and undressing, game playing, socializing, and the storage of equipment and olive oil. Gay sex was rampant in the palaestra, despite official efforts to curb it. [10]

Greek athletes were the few athletes in the ancient world who practiced and competed in the nude. Homer's wrestlers in Iliad wore loincloths, but shortly after the Age of Homer, Greek athletes started to strip. It is not known why. [11] Pausanias says athletes wanted to imitate Orsippos of Megara, a runner who won a footrace at Olympia in 720 BC after losing his loincloth. Dionysios of Halikarnassos and Thucydides credited a Spartan with the custom.

Other legends say that a runner tripped on his loincloth and officials banned it as unsafe. Some say that athletes stripped to prove that they were males, or because they could run better in the nude. Other reasons have been given: athletes stripped for erotic reasons, or for cult reasons, or for good luck, or as a democratic equalizer. Some say they stripped because they were proud of their muscular bodies and their tans.

The Greeks called the penis a "dog". Athletes sometimes used a cord called a "dog leash" to tie off the foreskin of the penis. It is unknown if this custom had sexual or aesthetic meanings. It appears to have been a matter of personal preference. Tying the foreskin is sometimes a subject in vase painting. [12] [13]

The Greek wrestler carried three items to the palaestra: an oil flask, a scraper, and a sponge. The oil flask (aryballos) was a ceramic container with a wide lip and narrow mouth that held a wrestler's daily allotment of olive oil. These containers took a variety of shapes. Some were fashioned to resemble birds, animals, or human body parts such as the head, foot, or penis. Most were simply globes without a resting base. [14]

The scraper (strigil or stlengis) was a tool with a concave blade. It was made of bronze, silver, glass, or iron. It was used to scrape the accumulated olive oil and sweat (gloios) from an athlete's body. The gloios was sold for its alleged medicinal value. It was used to treat inflammations of the joints, the vulva and anus, for genital warts and syphilitic lesions, muscle sprains, and pains. [15] Once the sweat and oil was removed, the wrestler bathed using a sponge (spongos). [16]

Heavy athletes—wrestlers, pankratiasts, and boxers—shared the same buildings, practiced the same exercises, used the same equipment (punching bags), and followed the same high-protein diets of meat. Wrestlers at Olympia once were given light boxing practice as a preparation for competition. [8]

Wrestlers first rubbed their bodies with olive oil to keep sand out of their pores. The wrestler then dusted himself with a fine powder. He sometimes practiced with a partner to learn tactics, but, for the most part, wrestlers simply wrestled. Rhythm was important, so wrestlers practiced and competed to flute music. Unlike boxing and the pankration, wrestling practice was conducted at full bore. Wrestlers kept their hair cut short to avoid giving opponents something to grasp or wore a skullcap to keep their hair in place. [17]

Wrestlers were paired by drawing lots (kleroi). These lots were about the size of a bean and marked with a letter. There were two lots for each letter. The lots were mixed in a pitcher. Each wrestler drew one lot and was paired with the wrestler who drew the same letter. If there was an odd number of wrestlers, the last letter would be marked on only one lot. The wrestler who drew it would not compete in the first round. [18]

A match began in a position known as the "standing together" (systasis). The wrestlers would lean into each other until their foreheads touched. From this position, each would try to throw his opponent to the ground. A wrestler might lunge forward gripping his opponent's shoulders or wrapping his arms around his opponent's torso in a "bear hug". The two might avoid close contact during the initial struggle, with each fighting for a grip on his opponent's legs or arms. Eventually, one would find the grip he needed to throw his opponent. [1] A wrestler might try to grip the hands, wrists, or arms of his opponent and throw him with a sudden twist (akrocheirismos), or come to close quarters and gain a hold on the body. [19]

A match was divided into sections marked by "falls". The wrestlers re-engaged without an interval (break) after a fall. Sports scholars and historians are uncertain about what exactly constituted a fall. They agree however that it involved touching at least the shoulders or the back to the earth. Three falls were a victory and the match was ended. [7]

In Combat Sports in the Ancient World, Michael Poliakoff points out that Greek wrestling was a brutal sport and tolerated some rough tactics. It was less brutal than the other two combat sports—the pankration and boxing—but, while striking was forbidden and finger-breaking was eventually made illegal, some limb-threatening moves, neckholds, and strangleholds were permitted. Wrestling was considered a sport of craft because of its large number of leverages and holds. It was a sport that tested the "martial virtues: cunning, boldness, courage, self-reliance, and perseverance" Poliakoff writes, and the Greeks "expected that an accomplished and educated man would practice and enjoy wrestling as an adult." [20]

The wrestler's objective (aim) was to score a fall on his opponent. Touching the back or shoulders to the ground was a fall. There was no defined wrestling space such as a ring or circle and there was no time limit. Holds were limited to the upper body and foot tripping was permitted. [21]

There were no weight divisions in Greek wrestling the sport was dominated by the large and strong. These men and boys could defeat a smaller but more skilled opponent simply by their size. [22] Three falls were required for a win in formal competition. Five bouts were possible in a match. The ancients never awarded points for successful tactics, as in modern wrestling, and "pinning" or holding an opponent to the earth was unknown. Strangling or choking an opponent in order to force him to concede (admit) defeat was permitted.

Keeping an opponent in a hold from which he could not escape was also a fall, as was stretching a man full length on the ground. A wrestler could drop to one knee, but this was risky. Once two wrestlers fell to the earth together, it was sometimes difficult to determine exactly what was happening, and disputes arose. Throwing an opponent out of the skamma (wrestling pit) was not a fall, but counted as a victory nonetheless.

Three classic moves in Greek wrestling were the "flying mare", the "body hold", and fancy foot trips. In the flying mare, the wrestler would grip his opponent's arm, throw him over his shoulder, and send him to the ground flat on his back. In the body hold, a wrestler would grip his opponent about the waist, lift him in the air, flip him, and drop him head first to the ground. Elaborate foot trips would send a wrestler crashing to the ground, but old school wrestlers who relied on sheer strength scorned fancy foot trips. [3] Punching, kicking, and gouging soft body areas were not allowed. A point was scored if a wrestler tapped out because of a submission hold. It was possible for a match to last for five rounds. [23]

Wrestling was an event in the ancient Olympic Games. It was added to the Olympic program in 708 BC. It was the first competition added to the Olympics that was not a footrace. [4] Boys' wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 632 BC. Wrestlers prayed to Herakles for strength and Hermes for speed. [18] The wrestling competition was held in the stadium, not the Palaestra at Olympia. [6]

Wrestling, boxing, and the pankration (the contact sports), were held on the fourth day of the Olympic festival. There were no weight divisions in Greek wrestling. The sixteen Olympic wrestlers were heavyweights with muscles "the size of boulders" according to one witness. Fans gave wrestlers nicknames that fit their physiques such as "the bear" or "the lion". [24]

The ancient coach Philostratus thought an even temperament and fine physique were important for a wrestler. He liked a wrestler with a straight back, a solid thigh turned outwards, and wrote that "narrow buttocks are weak, fat ones slow, but well-formed buttocks are an asset for everything." [24]

Leontiskos was an Olympic wrestling champion in 456 and 452 BC. Although rules against breaking an opponent's fingers were made in the 6th century BC, Leontiskos won by using just this very tactic. [25] Milo of Croton was another Olympic hero—the only wrestler to win five Olympic championships. He was defeated in his sixth attempt when he was forty. The Olympic wrestler Polydamas was killed when he tried to hold up the roof of a cave during an earthquake. [3]

Wrestlers were praised for their physical beauty. The inscription on the monument to Theognetos of Aegina reads:

Recognize when looking at Theognetos, boy victor
at Olympia, a master of the wrestler's art.
Most beautiful to see, at contest no less blessed
he has crowned the city with his goodly kin.

Jar Depicting Thracian Athlete Found in Grave of Sports Fan of Antiquity

Around 1,800 years ago, an artisan immortalized a Thracian athlete in brass, preserving what appears to be a wrestler’s likeness in the form of a balsamarium, or vessel used to store liquids including oils, balm and perfumes. Several decades later, the jar was buried alongside the remains of a 35- to 40-year-old man in what is now southeastern Bulgaria.

A new study published in the American Journal of Archaeology discusses this “spectacular” artifact in great detail, providing insights on the balsamarium’s origins, subject and place within the wider Thracian culture. (Thrace, an ancient region comprising parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, was under Roman control at the time of the jar’s production.)

As the authors explain, “By providing a detailed description of the balsamarium, the results of its metallographic analysis, and an accurate account of its archaeological context and its date, we hope to clarify some still unsolved problems related to the function and production of such vessels.”

Per Live Science’s Owen Jarus, the ancient jar depicts a goateed man with a bent nose likely broken during a wrestling match and never fully healed. The unidentified athlete boasts a tight-fitting cap made from the skin of a panther or leopard: Its nostrils and half-closed eyes appear on the front side of the accessory, while its sharp teeth, ears, spotted coat and mane are represented by skillfully rendered brasswork details.

The 35- to 40-year-old man likely used the vessel throughout his lifetime (Daniela Agre)

According to the study, the cap alludes to Hercules, a mythological Greek hero who defeated the Nemean lion and other seemingly unconquerable beasts. By including such an “impressive” adornment, the craftsman hinted at the athlete’s similarity to Hercules and, by extension, his “heroic power and courage.”

Archaeologists discovered the wrestler balsamarium while excavating a burial mound in 2015. As the study notes, the site also yielded two pairs of shoes fragments of glass vessels a bronze coin dated to between 198 and 217 A.D. and a strigil, or curved blade used to scrape oil and dirt off one’s skin.

Although scholars disagree on the historic function of balsamaria, the study’s authors point out that the presence of both the vessel and a strigil in a single grave points toward the former’s use as an unguent container associated with exercise and bathing. The jar’s anthropomorphic nature also supports this theory rather than depicting a more typical subject such as Hercules or Dionysus, the balsamarium represents a man easily identified as an athlete on the basis of his crooked nose and intimidating cap.

Lead author Daniela Agre of the National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences tells Live Science’s Jarus that the grave likely belonged to a Thracian aristocrat who “practiced sport in his everyday life, rather than to a professional athlete.”

She adds, “We think that the tumulus”—a 9.8-foot-tall burial mound—“was used as a family necropolis and the deceased was a part of this family.”

Per the study, the individual in question used the balsamarium for as long as 20 to 25 years, wearing it out to such an extent that he had to have the jar’s handle replaced. Upon the man’s death, this prized possession followed him to the grave, where it remained for almost two millennia.

Cult of the 'body beautiful'

If a citizen of ancient Greece visited a modern-day training facility for Olympic athletes, he would likely feel at home. High-protein diets. Personal trainers. Strength training. Seclusion. Like today's competitors, the Greeks followed training regimens - whatever would improve their performance. The difference was that they ran, jumped, threw, or wrestled for the glory of their gods - and to attain the Greek ideal of a beautiful body housing a beautiful mind.

But today's athlete would be startled to learn that not only did the Greeks compete without Adidas endorsements and fancy athletic shoes, they competed without any clothes at all. (But more about that later.)

Such comparisons are just one element that stands out in a smartly timed exhibition "Games for the Gods" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

Many a museumgoer has hurried past displays of ancient Greek vases and statuary in the world's great art institutions with only the vaguest idea of what these represent.

The vases serve as snapshots of life in Greek times, says Christine Kondoleon, a curator of the MFA's exhibition.

These artifacts - which include vividly painted jars, plates, and basins, small metal statuary, and large marble sculpture - point to a society in which athleticism was more than celebrated - it was part of a larger religious ritual that involved the attainment of "arete," or virtue.

The modern Olympics is descended from the most prestigious of the many athletic contests held regularly throughout Greece. These festivals served as proving grounds for Greek-speaking freeborn young men from wealthy families.

Starting about age 12, boys were taught philosophy, music, and athletics at complexes that often included the palaistre (wrestling school) and the gymnasium (derived from the word gymnos, or "naked"). Each boy was paired with an adult male mentor.

In the setting of the gymnasia, where women were excluded, these young men were initiated into their duties and privileges as citizens. The gymnasium provided a context for the nudity that was customary and compulsory. Without clothing, each man was equal in the gods' sight, according to Ms. Kondoleon.

Older men served as coaches and referees. These figures appear in Greek art as fully clothed and wearing beards. The youths, by contrast, are depicted as slim and beardless these boys trained and competed in the nude.

Along with all this male bonding came a closeness between student and mentor that could cross over into pederasty. From what scholars have been able to determine, the Greeks encouraged young men to seek the wisdom and experience of their elders in matters intellectual, physical, and spiritual. It's clear, however, that the Athenians, at least, wanted to prevent after-hours, unsupervised contact between older men and young boys at the gymnasium. They set opening and closing times to be followed by the trainers.

At the same time, the Greeks greatly admired athletes who were able to abstain from any sort of sexual activity, believing that such behavior preserved their vigor.

While other cultures - most notably the Romans' - copied many aspects of the Greek games, they conspicuously dropped the Greek emphasis on nudity and relations with boys.

Among Greek contestants, the only exception to competing naked appears to be the charioteers. (This would seem prudent. Few of us would like to imagine being dragged behind a horse without even our skivvies.)

Humiliation was not unheard of in athletic contests, in which only victory mattered - there was no second or third place. It was believed that the winner was favored by the gods, and so brought honor and glory to his village. Other competitors who failed to measure up returned home in disgrace.

An athlete who cheated, if discovered, paid a fine that was used to make a bronze statue on which his offense was inscribed. The statue was placed on the road to the stadium as a permanent reminder and as a warning to other athletes. (Fans of today's Olympics might be tempted to see this tactic as a useful way to combat the current doping scandals.)

Successful competitors, by contrast, might be awarded anything from a wreath of laurel or olive branches to pots of valuable olive oil. Such pottery was produced at local kilns by artists who drew the figures from memory. Although these painters were not high-born, they must have had remarkable access to the gymnasia, according to John Herrmann, co-curator with Ms. Kondoleon of "Games for the Gods."

A viewer might marvel that the statues in the exhibition display little of the emotion or effort inherent in athletic competition. Not for the Greeks was the image of an athlete grimacing in concentration or pain. Instead, they preferred their heroes wearing serene expressions.

Throughout Greek metropolises, the gymnasium promoted an ideal of Greek masculine character, "the epitome of what it means to be human," says Nancy Evans, assistant professor of the classics at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "The [athletes] became semigods."

As such, the marble or bronze statues that graced gymnasium halls were often idealized versions of famous athletes, placed there to inspire young participants. Today, a similar motivational tool might be a poster of LeBron James tacked up in a YMCA gym.

Over the next two weeks, admiration for these exceptional physical specimens will drive millions of television viewers to tune in to the Athens Games.

One such admirer is photographer John Huet, whose work is displayed in the MFA exhibition as a modern counterpoint to the ancient images. A self-confessed Olympics fanatic, Mr. Huet has been hired to shoot the Athens Games.

"Just about every society puts their strongest, fastest athletes on a pedestal - or on a vase," he says. Huet is awed by the drive these individuals possess, a feeling conveyed in his photos of athletes as sculptured forms of great strength and courage.

"The height of their careers may only last nine seconds," he says. "I want to depict them as heroically as possible."

Today, the heroism of the games is shared equally by women and men. But when the Olympics were first devised, women were denied a role of any kind. While unmarried girls were permitted to compete in footraces and occasionally view the men's contests, married women were banned - on pain of death - from watching, let alone participating in, the competitions.

Kondoleon tells the story of a widow named Kallipateira who wanted so badly to see her son compete that she broke the rules. She disguised herself as a male trainer, and when her son won his match, in excitement she jumped over an enclosure, in the process revealing herself to be a woman. Instead of paying the ultimate penalty, she was let go because the men in her family were all successful wrestlers. "They must have thought she was good breeding stock," Kondoleon says with a wry laugh. (However, after that incident, trainers were required to strip before they entered the stadium.)

Whether male or female, the athletes followed similar grooming rituals that might sound bizarre today. In preparation for competition, they spread olive oil over their bodies, and followed that with a coating of sand or dirt. This served two functions: Because olive trees were associated with the gods, the oil had religious significance it also gave some protection from sun and wind.

After the contests, athletes used a tool called a strigil to scrape off the dirt, oil, and sweat. Artists frequently depicted these ablutions, and much ancient Greek art concerns itself with this cleaning process.

More than two millenniums have passed since Greek athletes competed in honor of Zeus, Athena, or Hermes. The victor's reward could be as fleeting as a wreath of sacred olive branches or as lasting as a poem or statue dedicated to one's memory. But the athlete's struggle to perfect him or her self endures, igniting the spectator's imagination.

Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit' continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Nov. 28. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition 'The Games in Ancient Athens: A Special Presentation to Celebrate the 2004 Olympics,' continues through Oct. 3.

Cynisca and the Heraean Games: The Female Athletes of Ancient Greece

The Heraean Games, held in the Olympic stadium, were instituted as the first athletic competition for women and helped undercut the gendered segregation of Greek society.

Olympic stadium. Credit: jean-Marc Astesana/flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0

Olympic stadium. Credit: Jean-Marc Astesana/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The first recorded instances of the Olympics – inscriptions listing the winners of a foot race held every four years – date the games to 776 BC. According to ancient Greek legend, after Hercules completed his 12 labours, he built a stadium at Olympia to honour Zeus, the king of the gods of ancient Greece and established the custom of holding the games.

Held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, the Ancient Olympics were mega athletic events as well as religious festivals held in honour of Zeus. The various city-states and kingdoms of the Hellenic peninsula sent representatives or ‘champions’ to participate in the games. Athletic events such as foot races, combat sport, equestrian events and a pentathlon (jumping, discuss and javelin throws, foot race, wrestling) featured alongside ritual sacrifices to Zeus and Pelops, the mythical king of Olympia.

Women in classical Greece

Pilgrims travelling to Olympia would pass through warring states without being harmed or molested as they were believed to be under the protection of Zeus. However, these pilgrims would almost always be men, especially during the games. While the Greeks were perhaps the first to establish and promote the concept of democracy, women of those times did not enjoy any legal or political personhood.

In classical Athens, women were considered to be part of the oikos (a term related to the concept of family, family property and the house) headed by a male patriarch. They were excluded from the demos (the mass of the common people who could exercise legal and political rights). Most thinkers of those times supported this gendered segregation. In his book Politics, Aristotle stated that women were “utterly useless and cause more confusion than the enemy”. Women’s roles were restricted to the household and family. No woman ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens and hence women were excluded from Athenian democracy both in principle and in practice.

While women generally took part in public festivities in the Peloponnese states, the Ancient Olympics retained their ban on women, given the religious and political significance of the event. According to the accounts of Greek travel writer Pausanius, the government of Elis, the city where the games were held, decreed that if a woman was caught present at the Olympic Games she would be “cast down from Mount Typaeum into the river flowing below”.

The Heraean Games

The Heraean Games, dedicated to goddess Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods and Zeus’ wife, was the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in the Olympic stadium at Elis. The games, which occurred in the 6th century BC, were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games.

Initially, the Heraean Games only consisted of foot races. The champions of the events were rewarded with olive crowns and meat from the animal sacrificed to Hera. They also got the right to dedicate statues or portraits to Hera – winners would inscribe their names on the columns of Hera’s temple. The only recorded victor of the foot races is the mythical Chloris, Pelops’ niece who was also said to be Zeus’ granddaughter.

Participation in the Heraean Games was restricted to young, unmarried women. The men generally competed nude in the Olympics but the women taking part in the Heraean Games generally wore a chiton, a garment worn by men while doing heavy physical work. Pausanius in his accounts describes their appearance as “their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.”

No one is certain of the origin of the Heraean Games. Pausanius provides two separate theories on the subject. The first theory suggests that Queen Hippodameia was grateful to Hera for her marriage to Pelops and selected 16 women to compete in footraces in Hera’s honour. The other theory suggests that it was the result of diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions between the cities of Elis and Pisa (in western Greece). Sixteen wise, elderly women were chosen from each of the 16 Peloponnese city-states to weave a robe for Hera every four years and to organise the games as symbols of peace. Pausanius wrote:“Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen Women, and the same also hold games called Heraea.”

We cannot ascertain what societal changes led to the Greeks establishing separate games for women or whether the Heraean Games were only a temporary easing of restrictions on women. However, most historians suggest that it could be due to the rise of Roman influence in the Hellenic peninsula. In Rome, daughters of wealthy families freely participated in men’s festivals and athletic competitions.

Spartan women

Unlike the rest of Greece, where women were made to wear long and heavy clothes that concealed their bodies, kept in seclusion and prevented from learning hunting, riding and other physical activities, the women of Sparta wore short dresses, went where they pleased and were encouraged to take part in the same physical activities as their male counterparts. This was, however, only due to the belief that a physically fit woman would produce strong children.

However, Spartan women did enjoy a kind of social status that was inaccessible for women in the rest of classical Greece. Although they were excluded from formal military and political life, they were responsible for running their estates and could even own them. Sarah B. Pomeroy states in Goddess, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, that in the 4th century BC, Spartan women owned approximately 35-40% of all Spartan land and property.

Young Spartan girls received the same education as their male counterparts, rarely married before the age of 20 and possibly even took part in the Gymnopaedia or the ‘Festival of Nude Youths’. Perhaps in it unsurprising that a majority of the participants of the Heraean Games were Spartan women.

The legend of Cynisca, the first woman Olympic champion

Cynisca, born around 440 BC, was the daughter of Archidamus II, the king of Sparta. She was an expert equestrian and aspired to participate in and win at the Olympics. By this time, the Olympics’ rules were slightly relaxed and women were allowed to participate in the equestrian events, but only by training the horses. Cynisca’s brother Agesilaus II actively encouraged this ambition.

There is a lot of speculation over Agesilaus’s motives for encouraging his sister. Some say that he wanted to rekindle the warlike spirit of Spartan society while others think that he wanted to promote the cause for women in general, which is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds given that Spartan men generally held women in much higher esteem than the rest of Greek men did. On the other hand, Athenian historian and soldier, Xenophon suggested that Agesilaus considered chariot-racing to be inferior and unmanly, and, by having a woman win it, sought to undermine and discredit the event.

Whatever Agesilaus’ motive might have been, Cynisca won the four-horse chariot race twice, in 396 as well as 392 BC and in doing so became the first woman champion of the Olympics. She was honoured by having a bronze statue of her chariot and horses, including a charioteer and herself, erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The statue had an inscription declaring that she was “the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown”.

Cynisca’s victory in the Olympics had a tremendous impact on the ancient Greek world and other women subsequently took part in and won the chariot-racing event including Euryleonis, Zeuxo, Timareta, Cassia and Belistiche.

Few records exist of female sportspersons of those times. Unrecognised and unappreciated during their time, figures like Cynisca, Belistiche and the female athletes of the Heraean Games were perhaps the pioneers who made the case for women’s sports. This year’s Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro have the most number of women participants (45%) ever. There is however, a long, long way to go before gender barriers are fully removed in the world of sports and, of course, society at large.

Shirsho Dasgupta is currently a graduate student of english literature at Jadavpur University. An aspiring journalist and semi-regular quizzer, he takes a keen interest in football, politics and philosophy. He tweets at @ShirshoD

Greek athletes relive glorious history at Olympic Museum in Nanjing

Greek athletes at Nanjing 2014 were among the first to visit the newly opened Nanjing Olympic Museum, which pays homage to the birthplace of the Games.

The Nanjing Olympic Museum was officially opened on 17 August by IOC President Thomas Bach and his predecessor, Jacques Rogge, to coincide with the start of the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games.

Located towards the north of the Youth Olympic Village showcases the history of the Olympic movement, from ancient times to a modern era that began with the creation of the IOC in 1894 and the organisation of the Athens Games two years later. In addition to hundreds of artefacts, the museum features giant video screens, a 3D cinema and a multi-sport simulation room.

Athletes at the YOG were able to visit the museum as part of the Nanjing Culture and Education Programme. Among the first to do so was the Greek contingent, who were delighted by what they found.

“I’ve seen a lot of great things in the museum, and the fact that some of them have a direct link to the history and culture of Greece made me feel very proud,” said swimmer Apostolos Christou.

Rower Athina-Maria Angelopoulou was equally impressed. “I’m very happy that my country was the birthplace of the Olympic Games, and I’m proud to be able to continue that tradition,” she said.

Angelopoulou, who earned a silver medal in the women’s single skulls on Xuanwu Lake on 18 August, not only tested out the museum’s rowing simulator, but was also able to watch herself collecting her medal via one of the screens.

“It was fantastic to see that video at the museum. I’m so glad to have won a medal for Greece and to have accomplished all my goals,” she added.

YOG ambassador Filippos Papageorgiou also enjoyed his visit, emphasising the museum’s educational impact. “It’s wonderful to think that the place that we come from was at the origin of the amazing competition that we now know as the Olympic Games,” he said.

“In my opinion, the highlight of the museum is the section that covers the history of the Games – you can really learn a lot from it. It’s a museum for everyone, providing knowledge that can help us to build a better world.”

Watch the video: Top 10 καλύτεροι Έλληνες πολεμιστές όλων των εποχών (June 2022).


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