War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games

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‘War Minus the Shooting’, is what Orwell in Spivey’s ‘The Ancient Olympics’ states as being what serious sport amounts to.  But, can this be said to be the sole idea behind competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, or did competition amount to more?

Competition at the Olympic Games was not just about ‘war minus the shooting’ especially since one of its key bases was in religion.  By competing, athletes were attempting to become closer to the gods.  Spivey asserts that in Greek Myth all the events that appeared at the Olympic Games during the eighth and seventh centuries BC were first participated in by gods or heroes.[1]  This suggests that by participating in these competitions, the athletes were striving to reach what those gods associated with those events, represented. Spathari explains that the competition and training was essentially an attempt to attain and evolve physical, intellectual and spiritual powers.[2]  In striving to perfect their physical and spiritual wellbeing the Ancient Greeks believed that they would follow the path which led to the divine.

Tampa 86.35. chariot race. Photograph courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Excavators have uncovered evidence of altars in and around the sanctuary of Zeus in the form of ashy deposits, which could be attributed to the seventh and eighth centuries, along with a number of votive offerings.[5]  The Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival and the competition was a way of worshipping the gods: primarily Zeus who came to Olympia in the tenth century with the Eleans.  It is also argued by such as Sansone that “all sport is a ritual sacrifice of bodily energy”[6] suggesting that the competitor and competition at Olympia doubled as both a dedicator and a dedication.

Early competition in the Olympic Games also held associations with the heroic ideal.  Competition at Olympia was in part a means to gain attributes of the heroic ideal as set out by Homer.  Tyrrell assesses that one of the most important aims of competition at the Olympic Games was to become the best of men.[7]  Tyrell’s assessment is backed up by Homer’s statement “always to be best and superior to others”[8] (Iliad VI 208), which was transformed into an idea that became the essence of competition in the Ancient Greek World.  It became a purpose of competition to achieve this superior status amongst your fellow competitors.

Heroic poetry had a very significant role in competition in Ancient Greece and in particular at the Olympic Games.  The competitive ethos within these texts influenced the people’s ideas of what was important in life and how these ideals could be achieved.  This heroic poetry expresses that fame, honour and glory are the most important things to strife for, and this was an idea internalised by ancient Greek society to the extreme.  Competition at events such as the Olympic Games was the only way one could achieve the glory only otherwise gained in war.[9]  In this way the Olympic Games could be viewed as “war minus the shooting,”  but not in the sense which Orwell refers to.  Spivey notes that Homer can be assessed as a great influence on competitive ethos throughout the whole of society due to becoming a “set text for school children, a poet whose lines were widely known and often quoted.”[10]

Tyrrell explains that the ancient Greeks admired and “strove to emulate the values of the Homeric warrior,” [11] chief among these values being his arete, his valour. The Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate the shame culture in Ancient Greece and the Homeric values of honour and fame.  This competitive ethos was internalized from the heroic poetry, and competitions such as at the Olympic Games were a means of achieving what all Greeks desired, kleos (κλέος) and arete (ἀρετή).  Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus demonstrates the quest for kleos (fame/glory) and arete (valour) though athletic competition.[12] When Menelaos and Antiochos are arguing over the prize of second place in the chariot race, essentially they are arguing for their kleos and to retain their arete.  Homer’s account of this event illustrates the importance of these values to Greek society in the ferocity of the arguments of these two characters.[13]

Tyrell asserts that the “study of Greek athletes begins with the warrior’s arete because in many ways his values continued to impel men to pursue through athletics the glory no longer obtainable in war.”[15]  During the eighth and seventh centuries BC the quest for individual honour was forced out of war by the introduction of the hoplite form of fighting.  This suggests that the quest for honour moved to other “competitive areas”[16], among them the athletic contest.

Good strife being born of “a coupling between Zeus and the night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth…nurture desires for wealth and fame.”[18]   Due to the popularity and influence of this idea worded by Hesiod, it can be asserted that competition at the Olympic Games was not only about “war minus the shooting,” but a means to create this good strife.  Spivey assesses that Homer and Hesiod “established and exemplified the principle of positive strife”[19] and promoted contests and challenges as the “necessary trials of all creative endeavour.”[20]

Discobolus (Discus Thrower), Roman copy of 5th C Greek statue from the British Museum

Orwell believed that competition was bound up with “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”[21]  Though in many ways competition in the Olympic Games does reflect the acts of warfare, it was also about friendship and unity of states and a reflection of the individual and society. Eusebius asserts that Iphitus consulted the Delphic oracle and introduced the Olympic festival in response to the concern for wars, and he proclaimed a truce for those involved in the Olympic Games.[22]  Homer in ‘The Odyssey’ demonstrates that rivalry ceased to be hostile and became friendly competition as the character of the Odyssey’s games is the same as that attributed to the Panhellenic games.[23]

An assessment of competition at the Olympic Games suggests that spectators did not just see competitions as mindless violence, but as a reflection of themselves and their emotions.  This idea can be seen clearly in the ancient term ‘Olympiakoi Agones’ (Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες) meaning the ‘Olympic Games’.  Agon which is the Greek word for contest is related to the English word ‘agony’ and is hence a reference to the contest being a reflection of one’s emotions in relation to Olympic competition.

The idea of “war minus the shooting” though is by no means unprecedented in relation to competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh century BC at least. [24]  Spivey states that sport was a “sublimated form of human aggression, a channelling of the biological instinct to fight.”[25]  In other words, though the competition’s main purpose was the quest for honour and glory, the desire for which was the result of the internalisation of competitive ethos from heroic poetry, the platonic essence of athletics was an act of mimicry of fighting.  This relation to the mimicry can be seen in eighth century black figure pottery where the sports illustrated, such as wrestling and hand to hand combat,[26] can be rationalised as a set of drills for “infantry fighting” in later centuries.[27]

From the analysis of the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC we see that competition did not just amount to “War Minus the Shooting.”  Competition was not only the mimicry of war acts but was seen as a religious dedication and was concerned with trying to achieve a status close to the gods and divinity by trying to be the best of men and participating in events associated with the gods. Though later on in the seventh century, competition did reflect many of the acts of warfare, it was first and foremost a quest to gain and retain honour and hence considerably more than “War Minus the Shooting.”


[1] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2005), p.4

[2] Spathari, E., the Greek Spirit of Competition and the Panhellenic Games, in 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.16

[3] Vergil, The Aenied, Penguin Classics (Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight), (Oxford, 2006), Book VI

[4] Ibid., Book VI

[5] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[6] Golden, M., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998), p.17

[7] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[8] Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book VI 208

[9] Tyrell, B., op.cit., p.2

[10] Spivey, op.cit., p.15

[11] Tyrell, op.cit., p.2

[12] Homer, op.cit., Book VI – Presentation of the prizes for the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus

[13] Ibid., Book VI 208

[15] Tyrell op.cit., p.2

[16] Ibid.,  p 8

[18] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

[19] Ibid., p.5

[20] Ibid., p.5

[21] Ibid., p.1

[22] Eusebius, Chronicle, p 193

[23] Homer, Odyssey 8.97-253 – Odysseus in the tenth year after the Trojan war stays with the Phaeacians and participates in athletic contests as a guest of the Phaeacians.

[24] Eusebius chronicle – shows that events that emulated war like activities only start to occur around 708BC with introduction of wrestling and the pentathlon later followed in the early seventh century BC by chariot and boxing competitions.

[25] Spivey, op.cit., p.2

[26] 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.18

[27] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

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If you liked this post you may like to read The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code

2 thoughts on “War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games

    Top Posts 2012 | GraecoMuse said:
    May 2, 2012 at 12:27 am

    [...] War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games [...]

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:50 am

    [...] War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games – 28/01/12 [...]

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