LLR Books

Te Greeks

By Bob Allison

We are in the month every fourth winter when we spend our evenings watching the Winter Olympics. This is an anomaly because it is a shared cultural experience dating back more than 2,500 years and yet it engrosses a nation that has disavowed the teaching of history in its universities, the very concept of “civilization” let alone the importance of Greece to Western Civilization, and is embroiled on multiple fronts in the issue of amateurism in sports. Putin spends $50 billion of Russia’s national treasure on the Sochi Olympics to change the world’s collective memory of its history, and we race into the future not only ignoring but denying the influence of our past.
Ancient Greek Olympics
About the time of David, King of Israel [1000 B.C.], Greece had fiercely independent and competitive cities. They concocted myths to explain their origins and circumstances which focused on their principal deity, Zeus, who presumably dwelled atop Mount Olympus, a 9,571-foot mountain in the west of the Peloponnesian peninsula, the southern part of Greece. It is Greece’s highest mountain, the summit of which is named Pantheon [“all the gods”].
Religion has always been associated with mountains. [I visualize heaven as the Grand Tetons without mosquitoes.] Church steeples were built as high as they could afford to reach as close to God as possible. The Israelites were prohibited from the “high places” built for pagan idols. [Deut. 12:2] Athletics, religious devotion, and the Olympics were birthed together.
The first regular quadrennial Panhellenic were contests between Greek cities held at Mount Olympus in 776 B.C. The Feast of Zeus became a month-long festival and holy day. The first day 100 oxen were sacrificed and roasted for consumption at a feast the fourth day. Celebrants in a procession to this feast were portrayed in the Parthenon Frieze in the Elgin collection in the British Museum. [I’ve seen them. They were a gift of Lord Elgin who removed them in 1901 under false pretenses. Greece has tried for a century to recover them.]
Only freeborn Greeks were allowed to participate. The athletes [athlos, contest] were selected by local elimination trials after which they submitted for 10 months to rigorous training under a male slave assigned responsibility for the physical training of the young male heir of a household [paidotribai, youth masseur. The slave responsible 24/7 for the boy’s intellectual development was a paidagoogos, guardian, Galatians 3:24-5]. Upon arriving at the venue, they took an oath to abide by the rules. [“If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” 2 Tim.2:5] [2]
Panathenaean Games
In 535 B.C, the games moved to Athens when Peisistratus inaugurated the Panathenaean games in honor of the goddess Athena. “It was 39 feet high, made of wood but draped in gold. The stone on which it stood still exists. Michaelis, in his work on the Parthenon, mentions a raised platform in front of this statue, which the victors in the Panathenaean contests mounted to receive the prizes e.g. golden chaplets and vases of olive oil, from the hand of the goddess, as it were.”[3] Perhaps early on rewards were limited to woven branches of olive trees, but later one rewards increased. Back home, victors were highly esteemed and rewarded by a grateful citizenry. The apostle Paul probably was alluding to this when he wrote to Timothy, the young man for whom he was paidagoogos. [2 Tim.2:5; 4:7-8]

Page 2 of 2 - Though Greek cities warred incessantly, athletes en route to the Olympics were assured safe passage through hostile territory. Competitions were held in athletics, rowing, orations, poetry, art, singing, lyre, and flute. [Winter Olympics came later.] The pentathlon included the standing broad jump, discus, javelin, wrestling, and the 200-yard sprint. [There was no marathon.] Contestants competed in the nude.
Greek games peaked in 582 B.C. Though conquering the world, Alexander couldn’t control himself. By his thirtieth birthday he was given to wine. In 323 B.C. he declared himself god, drank six quarts of wine, then died at age 33. Asked upon his deathbed to whom he left his empire, he answered, “to the strongest.” This non-plan of succession produced the Seleucid Empire run by his sons. In 175 B.C., Antiochus IV financed completion of the Olympieum in Athens marking the official transition of the Olympics from Greece to Rome.
Weakened and still divided in 146 B.C, some parts and cities of Greece united in a League, rebelled against Rome, and were promptly conquered. Athens and Sparta were spared but Corinth was wiped out. Rome conquered Greece but brought their art and culture back. Thereby Greece conquered Rome—passing the Olympics from Athens to Rome.
“Where religion failed to unify Greece, athletics periodically succeeded. The average Greek wasn’t interested in the ancient heroes of philosophy revered by modern man, he was interested in sport and his favored athletes were his earthy gods. The real religion of Greece was the worship of health, beauty, and strength. They went to the mountains of Olympia and Delphi not to honor the gods or seek wisdom but to witness the heroics of chosen athletes.”