Many of the religious games and festivals held by the Athenians and other Greeks during this period were generally celebrated by athletic contests, dances, and music.
Some of the festivals were celebrated within a single city-state and by only one sex, as in the case of honouring local gods, for example; other festivals, however, were broader in appeal and sometimes were celebrated by all the Greek people.
The greatest of these festivals was comprised of the Olympic Games, which were celebrated in honour of Zeus, chief god of the Greeks.
The festival lasted for five days in late August and was held in every fourth year. The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C., though there were undoubtedly contests prior to that date. The games took place near the village of Elis in Western Greece.
Each fourth year a month-long peace was declared around the time of the games. It required each city-state to cease any fighting with any other city-state and to allow all athletes passage through its territory.
No women were allowed to view or compete in the games, and as was the custom of the day, the athletes competed in the nude.
Generally, the games might be considered the greatest cultural exchange among the various Greeks of that period. The multitudes of people who came to watch the games mingled during the week of competition, and all the athletes were required to spend the last month of training prior to the games in a common training camp with all the other Olympic competitors.
The games originally were held on a field beside a statue of Zeus, and the footraces started at its base. Later, over a period of years, a stadium was constructed. The primary footrace of the games was the stade, which was a race for the length of the long, narrow stadium, or about 180 meters.
Another race was twice that long, while other races of up to five kilometres in length were held in some festivals.
The shortest race was the most important race, however. Starting places were carved into stone for the sprinters, and javelins and later, stone pillars were used to mark the turning points and finishing lines.
Other events in the Olympic Games included the discus throw, the javelin throw the long jump wrestling in several different styles, boxing, the very rough pankration chariot and horse racing, and the pentathlon.
The pentathlon consisted of five events: a short run, the long jump, discus and javelin throws, and wrestling. The manner of determining the winner has not been settled by scholars, though H.A. Harris suggests that it required victory in three of the five events.
The prize for an Olympic victory was simply a wreath or crown of olive leaves. However, the victorious athletes usually were feted by their city-states when they returned home. Triumphal parades were held, and many privileges were given to them, including gifts of money. Often status of the Olympic champions was erected.
There were many other Greek festivals that included athletic competitions. The most prominent ones were the Pythian Games at Delphi, the isthmian festival and the Nemean festival. Evidence is clear that there also were separate athletic competitions for women.
Records indicate that a festival of Hera was held every four years at the Olympic stadium at a time separate from the Olympic Games. In this competition the racing distance for the women was shortened by one-sixth.
Apparently, the women’s competitions were expanding by the first century A.D., for their events are recorded at the other competitions we have mentioned.
Although many of the competitions were at times of religious holiday, Harris suggests that this has little actual religious significance in terms of the origin of the games. He theorizes that the festivals simply allowed convenient leisure time for the competitions.
Over a period of hundreds of years, the interest in the Greek athletic competitions declined. The Olympic Games in particular gradually fell into disrepute as professional athletes began to compete.
The athletes with more money were able to devote more time to training for the games, which gave them an advantage over the athletes who did not have similar training. This professionalism became more prevalent after the Romans conquered the Greeks.
The games were finally abolished by the emperor of the Byzantines, Theodosius I, in A.D. 394. This was partly because Theodosius, as a Christian, considered the games, which were held to honour the Greek gods, to be pagan events, though their corruption by professionalism had also changed the character of the games considerably by then.
The Greek civilization, particularly as represented by the Athenians, was a high point in the history of education. This period marked the first time in Western civilization that the educational process had developed beyond predominantly military or trade designs and needs.
For the first time education had a balanced goal: the development of a “whole” man, a person who was well and equally developed in mind and body, a man who was acceptable to the military needs of his day, but who, unlike the Spartans, could also fulfil the civic or governmental needs of his time.
Philosophy had entered education in this period; for people such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had sought to develop or discover an “ideal” educational process to produce the well-rounded product of education that they belied should be the goal of education.
Such a balanced educational process as the Athenians had was not to be seen again until the Renaissance, and when it did appear, it was a deliberate attempt to copy the newly rediscovered Greeks.
As Greek civilization declined and Roman civilization grew to replace it, much of the glory of its culture was lost to Western civilization. As the power of the Greek people declined, they were conquered by the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great.
When Alexander died around 320 B.C., which empire broke into smaller nations? The Greek civilization went through a process of blending with the civilization of the Middle East over the next two centuries.
The resulting diluted Greek culture was encountered by the Romans as they became powerful in the eastern Mediterranean between 200 and 100 B.C.