Originally located at www.AbleMedia.com
Created in 2000
Posted here September 28, 2018
The Olympic Truce - Myth and Reality
by Harvey Abrams
Original text © 2000 Harvey Abrams. All rights reserved.
"All wars were canceled or postponed during the Games."L.A. Times, October 18, 1983.
Commentary prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
The notion that the Olympic Games ended wars has been repeated so often in the past that almost everyone believes it - even presidents of the United States. More than one has actually said this. This year the United Nations has even designated the year 2000 as the "Year of the Truce". Thus the general public believes that the ancient Olympic Games promoted peace among the ancient Greeks. People in many other countries also believe that an "Olympic Truce" ended wars. Imagine for a moment - the ancient Greeks stopped their wars in order to go to the Olympic Games. What an incredible phenomenon. Doing this today would be wonderful. The world would be at peace. Why can't 20th century man (and woman) be as bold and idealistic? But, alas, another ideal bites the dust.
I know this Website will receive many letters to the editor in response to "that historian" who knocked the "Olympic Truce." But I want you to read slowly and think carefully about how truth becomes twisted in myth.
It is a modern myth that wars came to an end during the ancient Olympic Games, a myth perpetuated by historians, newspapers, and even politicians. It has been repeated in books and encyclopedias. This is how kids learn about the ancient Olympic Games. It is in print in so many places that the truth has been overwhelmed by the myth.
The idea of an "Olympic Truce" is a modern and idealistic misunderstanding of the ancient Olympic Games and the "sacred truce" known to the Greeks as ekecheiria. It is true that a truce did exist in ancient Greece. But it certainly did not stop their wars!
The ancient Greeks loved to fight and their wars literally consumed them. The victors killed all the men and enslaved all the women and children. The cities were pillaged and destroyed. No truce for a sports event interfered with this kind of conflict. And what of the Persians and other invaders? Did they also observe the Greeks' "truce"? Certainly not. Heads rolled anyway.
Our modern myth has grown through misunderstanding and, trying to put this politely, ignorance. Studying about the ancient Greeks is difficult. Not just the Greeks, but all ancient civilizations are difficult to study and understand. We learn from the ruins unearthed at archeological sites, artworks such as statuary and vase paintings, and even some written records that have survived through the millenniums. But there are no surviving Greek books! There are no papyrus scrolls sitting in museums. What we have today came to us from medieval monks who translated Greek scraps into Latin, which were later translated into French, German, Dutch and British English, which then were translated into American English.
Have you ever played "Message to Garcia"? The message in the end bears no resemblance at all to the original. No written record has ever been found with the rules of the ancient Greek ekecheiria, or truce. Only written references to its violations are recorded. These records say that the truce forbade the taking up of arms, the pursuit of legal disputes and the use of the death penalty. But these rules cannot be interpreted to mean that all wars came to an end.
What did the truce really mean? Now you can sit back and try to become an historian! You guess. You try to make an intelligent guess, of course. You review all the knowledge that historians and archeologists have uncovered through the centuries. You look only at ancient Greek evidence, which is like putting together a puzzle after it has been thrown into a campfire. You recover the ashes and try to put the puzzle back together. You interpret the evidence, and try to find the truth, sort of like a judge or jury.
The modern classical historians who have written the "best" books have interpreted the ancient truce as follows. It meant that the travelers going to the Olympic Games were safe. It meant that the city-state of Elis, the host to the Games, was not to be warred against. It meant that once the athletes and pilgrims arrived, they wouldn't hurt each other, even if they were combatants from warring city-states. The truce protected those who were going to honor Zeus. It didn't protect everyone. Warfare continued but the travelers through warring territories were not harmed.
Most people in the modern world do not understand that the ancient Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival held in honor of the Greek God Zeus. The site of Olympia was sacred territory. Located in the western region of Greece near Mount Olympus, it was a plain between two rivers. All Greeks worshipped Zeus and acknowledged the sacredness of this region. A temple was built there with a huge statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Many other buildings and smaller temples were built there, with statues and plaques all over the place. It was the ancient Greek version of the Vatican, or Muslim's Mecca, or the Jews' Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It was a holy site, not just a sports stadium, although the stadium was there.
The Eleans were the custodians of the sacred site of Olympia. They had adopted a policy of perpetual neutrality, a noble gesture that lasted from 776 BCE to 420 BCE. Then they allied themselves against the threatening Spartans. Outraged, the Spartans threatened an invasion during the Games. A military force was needed to protect the Olympic festival from the invasion, which never came.
The ekecheiria didn't stop the Eleans themselves in 364 BCE, when they battled the Arcadians and Pisatans inside the sacred grove of Olympia during the Games. The truce certainly didn't stop the Macedonians in 312 BCE - who plundered and looted the treasury buildings. The Romans under Sulla, Caligula and Nero also violated the truce by stealing and destroying statuary from Olympia. Certainly the Barbarians didn't respect the truce, such as the Heruli, who invaded Greece in 267 CE. Because of them a defensive fortress wall was built around the altis, the sacred grove where the Temple of Zeus was located.
The ekecheiria was announced by three heralds, called spondophoroi, who traveled from Elis to the various regions of Greece, proclaiming the beginning of the period of truce and announcing the date of the Olympic festival. The truce was assured not by the love of sports or competition, but by the almighty power of Zeus, the common Greek god. The Olympic Games were a religious festival in his honor, not a sports festival for peace. Zeus protected travelers, or so the Greeks believed, and great punishment would (and did) come to those who failed to observe this sacred truce.
In the end, the religious nature of the Olympic Games caused its own destruction. The Roman Emperor Theodosius I had accepted the new religion known as Christianity. In 393 CE (or AD if you prefer) he proclaimed that all pagan festivals throughout the Roman empire, which included Greece, were to be banished forever. And he meant it! He sent a Roman army to Olympia, where they knocked down the buildings and remaining statues so the Greeks couldn't return to use it.
In the next three centuries earthquakes rocked the area and changed the course of the river Alpheus, flooding the entire site. Water and silt covered the sacred grounds of Olympia. The stadium, temples, statues - everything - was covered for a thousand years. In the 1700s a French expedition discovered the ruins but the Greeks kicked them out. In the 1800s the Germans were allowed to excavate and they found most of what we have today - the remnants of an ancient religious festival called the Olympic Games. You can still read their detailed accounts in volumes of books at most great libraries - as long as you can read German. They have never been translated into English.
For over 1100 years, the ancient Greeks gathered at Olympia to honor Zeus with ceremonies that included sports events. Were they idealistic enough to end their wars? Not in a javelin's throw. Can you hear them laughing at us? Listen to their faint mocking sounds - they are calling to us, "Bar Bar." They are teasing us. They are calling us barbarians, their term for "non-Greeks."
The Olympic Games were revived in 1896 by the efforts of a French aristocrat, Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin. Now that's a story for another day! Let me say this for now - in one short century we have cancelled three Olympic celebrations in order to go to war, in 1916, 1940 and 1944. The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympic Games for over 1100 years without a known cancellation. But did they stop their wars? It certainly is an idealistic concept that might be worth imitating, even though it never happened.
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