9. Ancient Greek Tyranny Was Often a First Step Towards Democracy
An ancient Greek tyranny was often a necessary step on the road to democracy, because it removed out of the way the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So they tended to adopt populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.
That is what happened in ancient Athens, whose poorest and most populous region was the Hill district. Its impoverished residents had derived little practical benefit from Solon’s reforms except for a prohibition against their enslavement for debt. Other than that, all that Solon had given them was a meaningless vote. So the people of the Hill invited Peisistratos to make himself tyrant of Athens. With their support, he marched on the city in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made tyrant. The other Athenians saw through the mummery, however, and chased him and his followers out of town.
Peisistratos fled Athens and headed to northern Greece, where he bought silver and gold mines, and got rich off their proceeds. He then invested his wealth in mercenaries, returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and proclaimed himself tyrant. He governed as a champion of the lower classes, and his tyranny was a wild success. Peisistratos suppressed Athens’ rival factions, exiled his aristocratic enemies, and confiscated their land holdings. He broke up the nobility’s large estates into small farms, which he redistributed to his followers, and thus cemented their support for his regime.
The new tyrant adopted a slew of other popular policies. He loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, and standardized the currency. He enforced the laws even handedly, promoted the cultivation of olives and grapes, and encouraged commerce and craftsmen. He also funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia, and promoted theater, culture, and the arts. By way of infrastructure, he built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified the city. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.
Ancient British warrior queen Boudicca (circa 25 – 61 AD) reigned over the Iceni tribe, and sparked and led a massive revolt against the forces of the Roman Empire that had recently conquered Britain. She was born into a tribal royal family, and as a young woman married Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni. Prasutagus ruled his tribe as a nominally independent ally of the Romans, and upon his death in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero.
The assumption was that Nero would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon the deceased tribal king’s family. Instead, the Romans simply seized all of Prasutagus’ assets, and annexed his kingdom. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged, and her two teenaged daughters were assaulted by Roman soldiers. Understandably incensed, she launched a revolt in East Anglia, which quickly spread. In the course of the revolt, Boudicca and her warriors put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch, and killed as many as 70,000 Romans and British collaborators.
Disgruntled Britons rallied to the side of Queen Boudicca by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. They swept out of East Anglia with the Iceni queen at their head on a war chariot, and annihilated a legionary detachment sent to subdue them. They then went on a rampage, in which they burned the ancient predecessors of modern Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators. They tortured and executed their captives in a variety of gruesome ways. Those who fell into their hands were often impaled, flayed, burned alive, or crucified.
Eventually, the Romans rallied, gathered their legions into a powerful force, and marched off to meet Boudicca. When the armies finally met, the Romans were greatly outnumbered, but they were a disciplined force of professional legionaries, pitted against a poorly trained and disorganized enemy. Boudicca led her forces in person and courageously charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but courage was not enough. Discipline and professionalism prevailed, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudicca committed suicide to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.
5. Athletic Events Proliferated in the Ancient World
Athletic scenes can be seen on the walls of many tombs, temples, and palaces of various ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. The Minoans for example really liked gymnastics, and they depicted such events, plus scenes of bull jumpers, boxers, runners, and wrestlers on graceful frescoes. However, those athletic events were usually one-offs, and were mostly for royalty, aristocrats, and the upper classes. The ancient Greek Olympics were the first regularly held athletic competitions, open to all freeborn Greek men. Women could enter chariot races by proxy if they sponsored a team, but could not personally participate.
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC at Olympia, in the city-state of Elis, to honor Zeus. They were one of the four Panhellenic Games, although the most prestigious one. The others were the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in honor of Apollo; the Nemean Games held at Nemea, in honor of Zeus and Heracles; and the Isthmian Games, held in the Isthmus of Corinth, in honor of Poseidon. Olympic Games were held for over a thousand years, with the last recorded competition in 393 AD. However, archaeological evidence indicates that some games might have been held after that date.
The modern Olympic Games are a mega global event – the mega global event – whose only close rival is perhaps soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In the most recent games, the 2020 (or 2021) Tokyo Olympics hosted more than 11,000 athletes from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All of them eager and primed to compete over a seventeen-day stretch for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines. The difference between that and the original Olympics is stark, to say the least.
The variance between the scope and scale of today’s Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze ancient Greek participants and audiences. They simply could not have imagined what their competition would one day become. When the Olympic Games were first inaugurated in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one athletic event: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, which became stadium in Latin, and from which the English word stadium is derived.
3. Ancient Olympic Runners Differed From Modern Ones
The sole athletic event in the early ancient Greeks’ Olympic Games was the stadion. It was named after a building that was big enough to contain 20 competitors, who ran an approximately 200 yard or 180 meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the jump-off blocks to keep a sharp eye out against false starts.
Modern runners take off from a crouch, but ancient Greek sprinters took off from an upright position, with their arms stretched out before them. They were also naked. It is unclear how the original start line was marked, but by the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. In due course, a set of double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis for runners to place their toes and get some leverage to launch themselves at the start of the race.
2. The Ancient Greeks Based Their Calendars on the Olympic Games
Ancient Greek stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race, muscles coiled and ready to take off down the track. Behind and to their sides hovered Olympic Games officials to ensure that nobody left the start line too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which awaited another set of games officials, whose task was to decide the winner – and spot and disqualify any cheaters. If it was too close and the officials determined that it was a tie, there would be a do-over, and the race would be rerun. Finally, the signal to start came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over.
Because the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole competition, those few seconds encapsulated the entirety of the athletic portion of the original Olympic Games. However, it is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do today, but by four-year Olympiads, and the Olympiads were named after the winner. So the winner of the original stadion race literally won a place in the history books.
Because the ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles, the winner of the stadion race – the only competition in the first half century of the Olympic Games – achieved a degree of fame and prestige difficult to grasp today. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to all that happened in the four year cycle of his victory. Something along the lines of: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.
Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion still held pride of place as the Olympic Games’ most prestigious competition, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians today are able to name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first Olympics champion, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Coroebus, who won the stadion in 776 BC.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading