Relief from the Sebasteion / Carole Raddato / Flickr
Today’s Olympic games are very different from the Olympic games of ancient Greece. From 776 BC through 393 AD, the Olympic games were used primarily as a religious festival. They were fantastical events and, during one session, even Roman emperor Nero competed. He also played a major role in the Games, introducing new characteristics that are still implemented in today’s events.
The ancient Olympics (before Nero)
The first Olympic games were held primarily as a religious honor to the Greek god Zeus, the father of all gods and goddesses. The Games were held in Olympia, a rural sanctuary site in the western Peloponnesus.
The athletes were all free male citizens from Greece’s city-states, with some coming as far away as Iberia (Spain) and Turkey. Farmhands, soldiers, and royal heirs competed, while women were not allowed to even attend the games.
The first Olympic games began in the year 776 BC. For the first 13 Olympic festivals, the only event was a standard foot race. All athletes competed naked and corporal punishment awaited those who had a false start on the track. There were only two other rules: no biting or gouging your opponents.
Until 724 BC, the Olympic games were held every year. At that point, until 393 AD, the Games were held in Olympia every four years—much like how the Games are organized today. In addition, the Olympics became a hot spot for intellectual debate and learning. Here was where philosophers and teachers took advantage of the abundance of young minds. The Games were a major tourist attraction, much like they are in modern times.
Introducing Emperor Nero
While most emperors typically just watched the sporting events, Nero wasn’t your typical emperor.
The last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he already knew he wanted to participate in the Olympic games. However, emperors were forbidden to compete. In 67 AD, Nero officially changed this rule so he may participate as a competitor while he was on an extended tour of Greece.
He also set about making other changes to the games, which weren’t well-received. The games were sacred and spiritual events and changing anything about them was offensive to their religious practices.
Nero changed the character of the Olympic games, introducing more artistic competitions because he considered himself a poet and performer. These events included lyre-playing, trumpeting, formalized heraldic contests, and acting and singing competitions. He entered, and won, several of these contests. Many people were upset with his participation in the Games, claiming he turned the Olympics into a sacred event to a profane spectacle.
In addition to other changes, Nero ordered for the games to be called “Neronia.” He also required every victor to dedicate their crowns to him, the emperor, which wasn’t well received.
Competing in the chariot races
Nero wasn’t an athlete, he was overweight, and he wasn’t physically trained for the race.
Nero continued to make further offenses by entering a chariot race. Participants were only supposed to use four horses, but Nero arrived with 10 horses. His opponents must have felt that he was boldly demonstrating that he was an emperor and that he “owned the turf.”
Despite the advantage, Nero didn’t compete very well. After all, he wasn’t an athlete, he was overweight, and he wasn’t physically trained for the race. Shortly after the race began, he lost control of his horses while making a turn. He severely injured himself and it nearly resulted in his death.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nero was still the winner of the race. It didn’t seem to matter that he was unable to finish the race due to his extensive injuries.
Cutting his visit short
Nero had intended to spend more time at the Olympics, but his trip to Greece was shortened due to an unexpected plot against his life forming in Rome. Nero had many enemies. The Roman public disapproved of his involvement in the Olympics, and they plotted to kill him upon his return. This might seem drastic, but this was very common in ancient Rome.
Nero was forced to reenter the city in disguise, although it didn’t take long before the people of Rome to recognize him. In order to avoid a painful execution, he chose to commit suicide on June 9, 68 AD.
He chose a trusted advisor, Epaphroditus, to complete the job. He asked him to quietly slit his throat and call it “suicide.” Nero proclaimed, “What an artist dies in me!”
Emperor Nero’s death
After his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty effectively ended. When the Roman public heard the news of his death, they celebrated.
Following his “suicide,” one of Nero’s horsemen entered and saw he was dying. The serviceman attempted to stop the bleeding, but his efforts proved to be unsuccessful. Nero uttered his final words, “Too late! This is fidelity!”
Unsurprisingly, Nero’s name was posthumously removed from the list of Olympic champions. Not that many people wanted to give him his Olympic honor to begin with. They weren’t going to give him a gold medal for, what many considered, cheating his way to a victory.
After his death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty effectively ended. When the Roman public heard the news of his death, they celebrated. They also declared him a public enemy and proclaimed Galba as the new emperor.
However, a popular legend, especially in the eastern provinces, suggested that perhaps Nero wasn’t dead after all. He would one day return to Rome and everyone would suffer once again. He would be upset about what happened to him during the Olympic games, and how he was treated when he returned to Rome. This belief became known as Nero Redivivus Legend.
Modern Olympics after Emperor Nero
After 393 AD, the Olympic games weren’t held for another 1,503 years until 1896. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, a notion presented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. These modern Games brought 14 nations and 241 athletes, and they competed in 43 events. There were more events, which means there was even more fierce competition. Athletes were stronger and ready to win.
While the Olympics have changed drastically since the days of ancient Greece, the goal of the Games is still the same.
The Olympics were more diverse than ever before. It didn’t take long for the Games to add popular sporting events, including archery, badminton, cycling, gymnastics, basketball, rowing, fencing, tennis, skateboarding, volleyball, swimming and diving, golf, and many more. Several of these events are the most popular sporting events in the world.
While the Olympics have changed drastically since the days of ancient Greece, the goal of the Games is still the same. Athletes compete against their peers from around the world to determine who is the best at the breaststroke, balance beam, spiking a volleyball, or jumping over hurdles. Athletes love a good challenge, and the Olympics have always been the place to show off their dynamic skills.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
- Ancient Rome’s most famous gladiators – History 101
Nero was the emperor of Ancient Rome. Learn more about Ancient Rome’s famous gladiators, who were certainly Olympic athletes in their own games.
- 23 things you didn’t know about ancient Rome – History 101
Learn more about ancient Rome and how it was founded.
- July 23, 1996: U.S. women’s gymnastics team wins its first gold medal – History 101
Learn about how the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won its first gold medal, helping define a generation of gymnastics.