Games of Ancient Greece—The Life and Death of a Greek Athlete

From the Lecture Series: Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome

By John R. Hale, PhD, University of Louisville

Around the year 500 BC, a young man died in the Greek colonial city of Taras. An inscription on the tomb, iota kappa kappa omicron sigma, that suggested that Ikkos was his name. When the tomb was inspected, it became clear that he had participated in the games of Ancient Greece.

Image of long jumpers in ancient greece
Long jumpers in ancient Greece (Image: By Unknown/National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The Belongings of an Athlete

Image of Strigil used to scrape body
Strigils were used by Greeks and Romans to scrape layers of sand and oil from their bodies after exercising. (Image: By Anonymous (Roman Empire) – Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

The young man was laid to rest with items belonging to an athlete who had participated in specific games of Ancient Greece. He had a strigil, which is a small bronze implement for scraping olive oil from your body. The way of getting clean in the Greek and Roman world was not to use soap—a Celtic invention—but to smear yourself with olive oil.

The olive oil would pick up all of your dry, dead skin, your sweat, the dirt, and you would scrape everything off. They were probably much cleaner then than we are when coming out of the shower. Then they were ready to get in a bath and relax in the water.

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There was an unguentarium, a little vial that would have had perfume in it to rub on his body or after the bath. There were the prizes that he had won as an athlete, at least some of them: Three beautiful amphorae from the city of Athens. He had participated in the Games. He might have also been an Olympic athlete during the Olympic year.

Image of Panathenaic Prize Amphora made in circa 530 B.C.
The prizes for the winners were big, beautiful Athenian pots were filled with olive oil. (Image: By Creator:Euphiletos Painter/Public domain)

The prizes for the winners were big, beautiful Athenian pots filled with olive oil, which was worth a lot of money. There was no such thing as the amateur athlete in antiquity. On one side of the pot was Athena, with her shield and spear and helmet, but on the other side were pictures of an event. You would get, as a runner, Panathenaic amphorae showing runners. As a boxer, the Panathenaic amphorae showed boxers. Ikkos had three and they were all different: There was a charioteer, a scene of boxers, and a scene of a double image on a vase that showed discus and long jump.

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The Physique of an Ancient Athlete

What was he? They brought him to a laboratory where physical anthropologists studied his frame. He was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and in perfect condition, both as a specimen in terms of his physique and also the bone preservation. The latter was very good because of the stone chamber he was buried in. If you are buried in the soil, many soils are acid and will eat the bone.

They were able to analyze both the growth of the bone and the muscle attachments. Muscle attachments are the little holes in the bone where a muscle has its end inserted to hold on, and they get bigger and bigger as you work that muscle. You can determine the robusticity of the person from the muscle attachments, as well as the bone itself.

He had an overall robusticity that was remarkable, especially in the legs. He didn’t seem to be a boxer. Boxers tend to build up their upper bodies in the deltoid muscles from continual punching. Greco-Roman boxers held their hands continually at a high level and punched, as we can tell from the vase paintings. Boxing did not seem likely because of the overall development of the body.

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Image of a Discus-thrower, tondo of a kylix by the Kleomelos Painter, Louvre Museum
Discus Thrower (Image: By Kleomelos Painter/Public domain)

The charioteer seemed even less likely. The charioteers themselves were not important athletes. It was the horses that were important, and the owner of the horses who was crowned as the winner. Often the charioteers were boys, like the famous bronze charioteer from Delphi who rode a winning chariot from a tyrant’s entry from Sicily. It didn’t seem likely that this great athlete would have been the charioteer.

That left the discus and long jump. Those two events were part of the ancient pentathlon. That fivefold event called for every part of the body to be well developed. It seemed clear that was this young man’s event—he was a pentathlete.

An Athlete’s Life in Ancient Greece

The interesting question was what kind of a life did he lead? With modern scientific analysis, we can determine diet. He lived in a part of the world where people, even in 500 BC, were obsessed with the health and diet of athletes. In the modern era, we sometimes think we’re a sports-crazy world. We are nothing compared to the ancient Greeks, and to a lesser extent, the ancient Romans, who worshiped—very literally—athletes.

Winning athletes bore on their heads a ribbon that was their prize. They tied it around their brows. The only other people allowed to do that were Gods, heroes, priests, and priestesses. It was a mark of divinity.

If you were a great athlete, somebody would come along, scoop up the scrapings from the body after you cleaned yourself, and sell them on the market as a medicine because it was so valuable—it came from this great athlete. If you won several times at Olympia, you were allowed to have a portrait sculpted of your body that was then located on public display so people could study the musculature and admire you.

He had this perfect body. Thanks to isotope studies of what’s in his bone, we now can look at his diet, because it is very true—you are what you eat. His body was an artifact that he had created by every decision he made about which spring to drink out of, what meal to eat, what exercises to do during the day. All of his habitual positions during the day—did he squat, stand, run frequently—all of these things shaped his body, just as every disease shaped his body.

Every period that a person goes without food as a child leaves a mark on the teeth. Your teeth have little laminations that appear annually, like tree rings. You can pick out over the years—both in the teeth and some of the bones—the marks of the lean years, the famine years, the malnourished years, when the person wasn’t getting enough to eat.

Ikkos had perfect growth, every year. He was never without food. He seemed to have a very specific diet, one associated with an ancient Greek school of scientific, medical, and dietary thought, specific to southern Italy, which recommended a vegetarian diet with occasional jolts of meat. He seems to have been raised to be an athlete, in perfect condition. They compared him to modern athletes’ frames and decided he would have done very well at the modern Olympics if he’d been called upon to compete.

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We have then, in this remarkable athlete from ancient Taras, a witness to the intensity of the fervor that the ancient Greeks felt for their games and their athletes. He was brought up from the cradle to be an athlete, both in the training and in the dietetic regimen—something that they took much more seriously, it would seem, even than we do.

Common Questions About the Games in Ancient Greece

Q: What games were popular among the ancient Greeks?

Popular games in ancient Greece were many of the same played during the Olympic year, such as pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, and discus.

Q: What is considered the oldest sport?

The oldest sport and one of the most popular of the games in ancient Greece is wrestling, or pale as it was called then. It dates back to 3000 BCE and was included in the Olympics in 708 BCE.

Q: Why did the Greeks find the Olympics so important?

A healthy body was vital to the ancient Greeks, as was entertainment, but even more important was perfection. The Olympics provided an arena for all of this in ancient Greece.

Q: What was the most fatal of the ancient Greek games?

The most fatal sport of the games in ancient Greece was Pankration. Pankration was a blend of wrestling and boxing, much like modern Mixed Martial Arts.

This article was updated on November 24, 2020

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