Did the ancient Olympics have an opening ceremony?

The procession from Elis

The answer is yes.

Most modern accounts will tell you that it involved an overnight procession to the Olympic site from the city of Elis (where all the athletes had undergone a month of preliminary training). It followed a route known as the Sacred Road, probably 30 or 40 miles long. The procession seems to have included all athletes and umpires, and presumably lots of fans tagging along. It involved stops for ritual purification with pig’s blood along the way. On arrival in Olympia, the umpires would sort the athletes into age classes–in other words deciding which ones should compete in the boys’ category and which in the men’s–and then the athletes would all swear oaths on slices of wild boar’s flesh in front of the statue of Zeus, promising good conduct.

Some differences

Clearly there are some big differences from what we’re seeing today in London.

Most obviously, this was a religious event. In fact it was just one of many similar such events which took place throughout the five days of the games. These were absolutely standard for ancient festivals–we have lots of evidence for lavish processions winding their way through the streets of ancient cities at festival time, bringing animals to be sacrificed.

Second, even if it was spectacular in its own way, it must have fallen a long way short of the hype attached to opening ceremonies today. Admittedly the sacrifices which came later in the festival would have needed a big investment–especially the great sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus on the third day–and might have been watched by tens of thousands. There were also plenty of opportunities for athletes or delegations from cities to express pride in their own local identities. But the procession from Elis itself must have been pretty cheap and unostentatious, compared with the vast expenditure of today’s ceremony in London. And presumably some parts of it were significant more for participants than spectators: they would have been on their own with only a few onlookers at least for some stretches of the route.

A digression: on television and the modern Olympics

Today’s ceremony is of course vastly expensive, and driven above all by television, designed to attract many millions of viewers. (Here’s the Malaysian team processing in the 2008 games).

There’s a risk of stating the obvious in that claim. But if you want some more in-depth reading on that you could try Television in the Olympics (1995) (eds. de Moragas Spà, Rivenburgh and Larson)–large sections of it are freely available here (or see here for a closely related study).

The book focuses especially on the 1992 games in Barcelona, but I think a lot of it still rings true 20 years later. It involved a team of 25 translators transcribing and translating television commentary from around the world. I was interested especially in chapter 6 and chapter 8. They deal with the way in which different national broadcasters projected very different interpretations of opening ceremonies through their different styles of commentary, and very different views of national identity and national stereotypes. There are lots of commentary extracts from different nations reproduced word for word, some of them breathtakingly crass and patronising, including lots of mockery of ‘funny-looking’ traditional costumes, and one French commentator who refers to badminton (presumably in the context of the entry of the Chinese team) as ‘a charming sport for little old English ladies and robust Chinese proletarians’ (p. 160).

It all shows very vividly how big television events like this can have a powerful influence on the way we view ourselves and the world around us–perhaps all the more powerful for the fact that they appear to be offering just innocent ‘entertainment’. Not surprising, perhaps, but probably easy to forget while you’re watching…

(Here’s the US team, again in 2008).

Some caveats

The ancient Olympics did have an opening ceremony of sorts, then, but it was different in many ways from what we’re used to today.

Having said all of that, it’s worth stressing finally that the evidence for the procession from Elis is surprisingly precarious. In fact it’s infuriatingly difficult to work out what these claims are based on.

If you search online for ‘Elis to Olympia’ or ‘procession from Elis’ or similar terms you will turn up literally hundreds of websites which summarise the procession in more or less the way I have summarised it above. All of them present it as a self-evident fact, without any reference to specific sources. A lot of these sites have clearly lifted summary accounts almost verbatim from other secondary sources. For some reason even scholarly accounts of the procession tend to mention it without giving any references.

Actually when you look more closely it turns out that this is a reconstruction. There’s no single ancient account of the procession. Instead the picture is cobbled together from lots of tiny snippets. Many of these sources are very late (2nd or 3rd century AD, in the case of the ones cited below), and can’t necessarily be taken as evidence for how things were done at the Olympics many centuries before.

Some examples:

Pausanias 5.16.8: Neither the Sixteen Women (i.e. sponsors of the women’s contest of the Heraia, held separately from the men’s games) nor the Hellanodikai (i.e. Olympic umpires) perform any of the rituals they are obliged to perform until they have purified themselves with a pig which is suitable for purification and with water. Their purification takes place at the spring called Piera. You reach the spring of Piera as you go along the plain from Olympia to Elis.

Pausanias 5.25.7: On the same wall are both the offerings of the Agrigentines are two naked statues of Heracles as a boy…The second of these images used to stand at the end of the road that leads from Elis to Olympia, which is called ‘sacred’.

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.43: When the Olympic festival are approaching, the people of Elis train the athletes for thirty days in Elis itself…When they are going to Olympia they talk to the athletes like this: ‘If you have toiled hard enough to be worthy of going to Olympia and have done nothing lazy or dishonourable, go with confidence. But those who have not trained in this way, leave now to wherever you wish.

Conclusion

The bits in bold are the crucial sections. Between them they do seem to support the reconstruction I summarised at the beginning. It’s a perfectly plausible reconstruction. But that surely doesn’t mean we should just accept it without stopping to think about where it comes from, and without stopping to notice how precarious it is–like so many other elements in our understanding of the ancient Olympics…

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