XXIX. THE OLYMPIC GAMES.
Northwest of Sparta, in the country called E´lis and in the city of O-lym´pi-a, rose a beautiful temple for the worship of Ju´pi-ter (or Zeus), the principal god of the Greeks. This temple was said to have been built by Hercules, the great hero from whom, as you remember, all the Heraclidæ claimed to be descended.
According to the legends, Hercules was a son of the god Jupiter, and had ordered that a great festival should be held here every four years in honor of his divine father.
For the purpose of attracting all the neighboring people to the temple at Olympia, Hercules founded many athletic games, such as wrestling, stone and spear throwing, foot, horse, and chariot races, boxing, swimming, and the like.
Hercules himself was present at the first of these festivals, and acted as umpire of the games, rewarding the victors by giving them crowns of wild olive leaves. This custom had been kept up ever since, and the Greek youths considered this simple crown the finest prize which could be given.
As the Spartans were great athletes, they soon took important parts in the Olympic games, won most of the prizes, and claimed the honor of defending the temple at Olympia in all times of danger.
All the people who went to Olympia to witness the games laid some precious offering before the shrines, so that the temple came to be noted for its beauty and wealth. Painters and sculptors, too, further adorned it with samples of their skill, and it soon contained numerous gems of art.
The most precious of all was a statue representing Jupiter, which was the work of the renowned sculptor Phid´i-as. This statue was more than forty feet high; and, while the god himself was carved out of pure white ivory, his hair, beard, and garments were made of gold, and his eyes of the brightest jewels.
The temple and grove were further adorned with a great many statues representing the other gods and all the prize winners, for it was customary to place a life-sized statue of each of them in this beautiful place.
During the celebration of the Olympic games many sacrifices were offered up to the gods, and there were many religious processions in their honor. Poets and artists, as well as athletes, were in the habit of hastening thither on every occasion; for there were contests in poetry and song, and the people were anxious to hear and see all the new works.
Between the games, therefore, the poets recited their poems, the musicians sang their songs, the historians read their histories, and the story-tellers told their choicest tales, to amuse the vast crowd which had come there from all parts of Greece, and even from the shores of Italy and Asia Minor.
As the games were held every four years, the people eagerly looked forward to their coming, and soon began to reckon time by them. It was therefore usual to say that such and such a thing happened in the first, second, or third year of the fifth, tenth, or seventieth O-lym´pi-ad, as the case might be.
Soon even the historians began to use this way of dating important events; and by counting four years for each Olympiad, as the time between the games was called, we can find out exactly when the chief events in Greek history took place.
Although the Olympic games were probably held many times before this system of counting was begun, and before any good record was kept, we can trace them back to 774 B.C.
For one thousand years after that, the name of each victor was carefully written down; and it was only about three centuries after Christ that the Olympic records ceased. Then the games came to an end, to the sorrow of all the Greeks.
Several attempts have since been made to revive these games; but all proved fruitless until the Greek king arranged to renew them in 1896. In that year a great festival was held, not at Olympia, but in the city of Athens.
Besides some of the old-fashioned Greek games, there were bicycle and hurdle races, shooting matches, and contests in jumping. People from all parts of the world went to see them in as large numbers as they went to Olympia in the olden times.
The victors in the games, who belonged to many different nations, received medals, and wreaths of wild olive and laurel leaves; but the people did not wear crowns of flowers as formerly, nor offer sacrifices to the old gods, for Greece is now a Christian country.
XXX. MILO OF CROTON.
Among the athletes whose statues were to be seen at Olympia was Mi´lo, a man of Cro´ton, one of the Greek colonies in Italy. This man was remarkable for his great strength, and could carry very heavy weights. In order to develop his muscle and become strong, he had trained himself from a boy, and had practiced carrying burdens until he could lift more than any other man of his time.
We are told that he was so earnest in his efforts to become strong, that he daily carried a pet calf, gradually increasing the distance. As the calf grew larger, Milo became stronger, and his muscles became so powerful that he could carry the animal with ease when it became a full-sized ox.
To please his companions and show them what he could do, Milo once carried an ox for several miles, and then, feeling hungry, killed it with one blow of his fist, cooked it, and ate it all at a single meal. On another occasion, Milo was sitting with several companions in a rather tumble-down house. All at once he noticed that the roof was falling in. He stretched up his great arms, spread out his hands, and held the roof up until all his companions had run out of the house.
Milo’s hands were so strong that when he seized a chariot, even with one hand only, four horses could not make it stir until he let it go. Of course, Milo was very proud of his great strength, which, however, proved unlucky for him, and caused his death.
One day when he was very old, Milo wandered out alone into a forest where some woodcutters had been at work. The men had gone away, leaving their wedges in an unusually large tree trunk.
Milo, remembering his former strength, gazed for a moment at the tree, and then, feeling sure that he could easily pull it apart, he slipped his fingers into the crack. At his first effort the tree parted a little, and the wedges fell out; but the two halves, instead of splitting apart, suddenly came together again, and Milo found his hands held fast.
In vain he struggled, in vain he called. He could neither wrench himself free nor attract any one’s attention. Night came on, and soon the wild beasts of the forest began to creep out of their dens.
They found the captive athlete, and, springing upon him, tore him to pieces, for he could not defend himself, in spite of all his boasted strength.
XXXI. THE JEALOUS ATHLETE.
Near the statue of Milo of Croton stood that of The-ag´e-nes, another noted athlete, who lived many years after Milo. He too had defeated every rival. He was the winner of many prizes, and all envied him his strength and renown.
One of the men in particular, whom he had defeated in the games, was jealous of him, and of the honors which he had won. This man, instead of trying to overcome these wicked feelings, used to steal daily into the temple to view his rival’s statue, and mutter threats and curses against it.
In his anger, he also gave the pedestal an angry shake every night, hoping that some harm would befall the statue. One evening, when this jealous man had jostled the image of Theagenes a little more roughly than usual, the heavy marble toppled and fell, crushing him to death beneath its weight.
When the priests came into the temple the next day, and found the man’s dead body under the great statue, they were very much surprised. The judges assembled, as was the custom when a crime of any kind had been committed, to decide what had caused his death.
As it was usual in Greece to hold judgment over lifeless as well as over living things, the statue of Theagenes was brought into court, and accused and found guilty of murder.
The judges then said, that, as the statue had committed a crime, it deserved to be punished, and so they condemned it to be cast into the sea and drowned. This sentence had scarcely been executed, when a plague broke out in Greece; and when the frightened people consulted an oracle to find out how it could be checked, they learned that it would not cease until the statue of Theagenes had been set up on its pedestal again. The superstitious Greeks believed these words, fished the statue up out of the sea, and placed it again in Olympia. As the plague stopped shortly after this, they all felt sure that it was because they had obeyed the oracle, and they ever after looked upon the statue with great awe.
XXXII. THE GIRLS’ GAMES.
Although the women and girls were not often allowed to appear in public, or to witness certain of the Olympic games, there were special days held sacred to them, when the girls also strove for prizes.
They too ran races; and it must have been a pretty sight to see all those healthy, happy girls running around the stadium, as the foot-race course was called.
One of these races was called the torch race, for each runner carried a lighted torch in her hand. All were allowed to try to put out each other’s light; and the prize was given to the maiden who first reached the goal with her torch aflame, or to the one who kept hers burning longest.
The prize for the girls was the same as that given to the boys; but the boys took part in more games, and were present in greater numbers, than the girls, and their victories were praised much more than those of their sisters.
The crowd of people watching the games often grew so excited that they carried the victor all around the grounds on their shoulders, while Olympia fairly re-echoed with their cries of joy.
We are also told that one old man called Chi´lo was so happy when his son laid at his feet the crowns he had just won, that he actually died of joy, thus turning his son’s happiness into bitter grief.
While all the foot races took place in the stadium, the horse and chariot races were held in the hippodrome, and excited the greatest interest. There were two-, four-, and eight-horse races; and, as the horses were sometimes unruly, the chariots were liable to be overturned. Thus at times a number of horses would fall in a heap, and lie struggling and kicking in the dust, which added to the general excitement.