The Olympiad, Calenders & Time

In studying the history of the ancient Greeks and their Olympic Games we have assigned dates such as 776 BCE as the beginning and 393 CE. as the end of the Games.  How accurate are these dates and how were they determined? Here is a brief discussion that focuses on the ancient Greek calendar, called the Olympiad.

The Olympiad is a period of four years. The Olympic Games were celebrated in the first year of each Olympiad.  So the ancient Olympics looks like this on a calendar:


1st Olympiad

  • 776 - year 1 and written as 776.1
  • 775 - year 2 and written as 775.2
  • 774 - year 3 and written as 774.3
  • 773 - year 4 and written as 773.4


2nd Olympiad

  • 772
  • 771
  • 770
  • 769 - year 4 and written as 769.4


3rd Olympiad

  • 768
  • 767 - year 2 and written as 767.2
  • 766
  • 765 - year 4 and written as 765.4


And each Olympiad that follows would be written the same way, so that in 764 it was the 4th Olympiad, year 1,  and so on for 1100+ years.

In the years in between these Olympiads there were other Pan-Hellenic festivals. These were religious festivals to other Greek Gods but they also had sports events although it was slightly different from the Olympics. The most important festivals and Games were the Pythian Games, Nemean Games, and Isthmian Games.  All the other celebrations were also on the four year cycle of the OLYMPIAD. Because the Olympic Games were so important to all the Greeks, their calendar was based on this celebration to Zeus. The Greeks did not have a common numbering system either, as we do today when someone says "I was born in 1990." The years were based upon the Olympiad as numbered above and also given the name of the victor of the stade race at the Olympics.  So a writer would refer to the 1st Olympiad "when Koroibos won the stade race."

The ancient Olympic Games did NOT begin in 776 BCE.

Almost every book in every language says that the Ancient Olympic Games started in 776 BCE.  It has been repeated so often that everyone believes that it is true. However, this is misleading. It is NOT TRUE. It is an error. It is a misunderstanding.

The ancient Olympic Games began much earlier than 776 BCE.

But there is no written record on stone, papyrus or any other physical object that has been found to describe what happened. There are no records of winners for the first 200 years of the ancient Olympic Games. Even the ancient Greeks did not know when their Olympic Games actually began, but several ancient Greek writers tried to write about the history of these athletic festivals. Calculate the time difference. It is 2015 today (as of this writing). The year 776 BCE is added to that, so 2, 791 years ago we have some evidence that there was a winner at the ancient Olympic Games.

Over three hundred years of Olympic history had already passed before an enterprising person, Hippias of Elis, at the end of the 5th century BCE, (that is approximately the year 400 BCE, also written as circa 400 BCE) tried to write the history of the winners of the Olympic Games. Note that he did not have any interest in the losers. He created a record of the winners by using the existing records at Olympia and speaking with living judges from those Games. His work was called Olympionikai. He made a calender based upon the numbers of the Olympiads -- a four year period of time.  So...the question becomes "how accurate was Hippias in writing his Olympic Victor List"?

This is a serious question for classical historians and academics and has been debated for the past 150 years or so.  Nevertheless, since the Modern Olympic Games began in 1896 writers simply assume that the date of 776 BCE is correct, so everyone uses it. But they use it incorrectly. This date represents the first KNOWN VICTOR in the ancient Olympic Games, not the first Olympic Games. There were earlier victors but their names cannot be found.

With this in mind, Hippias ignored the unknown victors from earlier Games. Thus -- he dated the 1st Olympiad from the victory of Coreobus of Elis (also spelled "Koroibos").

Olympiads were then identified by each year within that Olympiad so, for example, you would refer to your birthday as: "I was born in Ol. 176,2 on the tenth day of Poseidon." (You read this as: "I was born in the second year of the 176th Olympiad, on the tenth day in the month of Poseidon"). The names of all Athenian months were Hekatombion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseidon, Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Munychion, Thargelion, and Skirophorion.

Keep in mind that all ancient civilizations, not just the Greeks, used different calenders. There was no such thing as "B.C." or the currently used "B.C.E." of course. Some ancient civilizations based their calender on the cycles of the moon and some on the seasons of the year -- for planting purposes. The Greeks themselves did not use the same calendar -- each individual city-state had its own version (Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Elis, etc).

Of all the Greek city-states the calendar of Athens is best known to today's scholars. The fact that the Greeks used the Olympiad as a calendar is interesting -- it may have been the only way to determine accurate time among all the separate city-states. There was still a need to send a herald across Greece to announce the date of the Olympic festival, so that the various Greek city-states had to have some familiarity of a common calender system in order to make sense of the upcoming religious festival.

Read more about the ancient Greek calendar here: The Ancient Greek Calendar

The Ancient Roman Calendar

It is the ancient Roman calendar that is the basis for our modern calendar. Originally created in the Roman Republic era, it was refined by Julius Caesar in what we now refer to as the year 47 BCE. You probably can recognize these Latin monthly names Januarius, Februarius, Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quinctilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December.

In 44 BCE the Roman Senate renamed the month Quinctilis to Julius in honor of Julius Caesar. The next emperor was Augustus, and he renamed the month of Sextilis to Augustus in his own honor.

SO -- please understand that dating events in ancient history is very difficult. All dating is debatable because all events prior to 45 BCE have to be translated into the fixed Roman Julian calendar that we know today -- and that is how we determine the year 776 BCE for the "first" Olympic Games.

Read more about the Romans here: Roman Republican Calendar.

The ancient Roman calendar was good but Julius Caesar corrected a deficiency that existed -- and therefore he added leap years. This worked very well for over 1000 years -- until the 13th century. Then the story of the calendar gets really complicated so you can read about it here: The Calculation of Easter.

The Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas needed accurate dates. Because they were based upon the ancient Hebrew calendar, which was a thirteen month calender based upon the cycles of the moon, they needed to be re-examined. Pope Gregory finally refined the Julian calendar in 1582, and it became known as the Gregorian calender. But Gregory was a Catholic Pope and this period of time was during the Protestant Reformation -- so some European countries refused to change their calender until the 1700's (Great Britain and the American colonies changed to the Gregorian calender in 1752). Read more here: Gregorian Calendar Conversion.

So why are we getting all fussy about the dates and the calendar? Who cares you ask? Well -- we need to know these things because if you are memorizing dates -- then you must understand that they are not always accurate. AND -- in 1896 when the first Modern Olympic Games were held in Greece -- the Greek calendar was in use in Greece and the dates were different than the rest of the world. The American athletes who traveled from the East coast almost missed the Athens Games because of the difference in dates.

Remnants of an ancient Greek Papyrus Olympic Victor List, British Museum, London
Remnants of an ancient Greek Papyrus Olympic Victor List, British Museum, London

With this background in the history of calendars and the problem of fixing dates in history, we now return to the historical issue of the ancient Olympic Games and the date of 776 BCE.

Using our modern version of the calender, we can now say that Hippias found that the first recorded winner of the ancient Olympic Games was from the year 776 BCE (before the common era, also written in many books in the past as "BC" before Christ. The international scholarly community has changed terminology to a non-religious reference of BCE.).

One century later the records compiled by Hippias were revised and corrected by Aristotle. After Aristotle, other ancient writers, both Greeks and Romans, attempted to write histories of the Olympic Games. Much of this material, written on papyrus scrolls, was destroyed when the ancient library at Alexandria (Egypt) was burned during a battle between Julius Caesar's Roman army and the defending Egyptian army of Queen Cleopatra. In fact much of the knowledge about the ancient world was lost at that time. The library at Alexandria was rebuilt -- and destroyed by fire -- two more times over the next centuries.

The ancient Olympic Games were held every four years for almost 1,100 years. The last known Olympic celebration was held in the year 261 CE (Common Era, also known as "AD" from the Latin Anno Domini which means In the Year of the Lord in English).

There are no surviving records after this date. There are no records of any Olympic winners over the next 132 years -- but there must have been something happening that seriously angered Roman emperors. Several times Roman Emperors issued decrees  that banned ancient Greek pagan festivals. But it seems that the festivals continued because the pagan activities of the Greeks, including the Olympic Games, ended forcefully in the year 393 CE. In this year the Roman emperor Theodosius I decreed an end to all pagan festivals in the Roman empire, including the Olympic Games, and to enforce his decree he sent an army to Olympia to destroy the sanctuary of Zeus. Statuary was either taken or knocked down, the noses of faces being chopped off (a serious ancient insult). Buildings were burned if they were wood, knocked down if they were stone. This was done because the Romans did not want the Greeks to have any religious ceremonies to pagan gods such as Zeus. Apparently the Greeks did not take to the new religion of Christianity too kindly - thus the Roman empire forced it upon them. In spite of several decrees by different Roman emperors, it took a Roman army to bring Greek festivals to a dramatic and final end. However, from 261 CE to 393 CE we have no names of Olympic victors, or even if there were any winners or even Olympic Games.

Over the next three hundred years more damage eroded the site of Olympia. There was total destruction of the sanctuary by 600 CE due to invading armies which eventually crushed Rome itself, followed by several earthquakes and the dramatic shifting of the river Alpheus, which changed course and flooded the entire area for centuries. Silt covered the ruins of the Olympic stadium and religious sanctuary and eventually, with the growth of grass, plants and vegetation, the entire area was out of sight and forgotten.

The influence of the Greeks had come to an end in the ancient world, and the religion of Zeus and the various Greek Gods ceased to exist. The Romans had their own pagan gods which replaced those of the Greeks. In turn, Christianity replaced the ancient Roman religion and their gods. Sadly for us today zealous Christians destroyed much of the ancient Greek and Roman civilization that they replaced. Both Greek and Roman cultural sites and literature were destroyed. Christians burned the texts and scrolls of ancient Greek and Roman writers and they destroyed the temples and religious shrines or turned them into Christian churches. Over the next few centuries of invasion by many different armies, the artworks and statues that once adorned buildings and temples, almost four thousand known bronze statues, were stolen, buried, destroyed or burned. Metal artworks were taken and melted for other use. Marble statues were frequently burned to make lime which was used for new buildings. Today only a fraction (approximately ten percent is a guess) of ancient artwork and writings survive for our scrutiny.

The fall of Roman civilization led to a thousand years of ignorance in Europe and the western world because organized education ceased to exist, turmoil and feudal life was the rule. We call this period the Dark Ages and it is referred to by historians as the Medieval Period.

The Renaissance began in the 1400's as education and interest in the ancient era was renewed. Ancient writings attracted new attention and "humanism" became a subject of interest once again, breaking away from the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Ancient Greek and Roman art focused on the human form, even for their gods. Medieval artwork focused on religion, saints and Christ. During the Renaissance artists once again used the human form in paintings and sculpture. Michelangelo even painted nude figures within the Church itself, and today the Sistine Chapel ceiling is revered as a masterpiece. From the late 1600's onward widespread interest in ancient Greek and Roman civilizations led to the discovery of thousands of statues, reliefs, vases and other artworks buried in the earth all over Greece, Italy, Turkey and other parts of Europe once occupied by these civilizations.

Wealthy individuals collected these artworks and they built their own private museums in their mansions and castles to show this stuff off to friends. These private museums eventually became the property of cities or governments, and today include the British Museum (London), the National Gallery (Rome), the Uffizi Palace (Florence), the Vatican Museums (Vatican City) and dozens of others in Europe and North America.

The ruins of ancient Olympia were only rediscovered by French archeologists in the 1700's after more than a thousand years of physical decay and the ignorance of the Dark Ages. The French excavators were eventually kicked out of Greece by the Greek government and they were followed by German archeologists. The Germans uncovered major portions of ancient Olympia and wrote excellent accounts of their excavations but most of this material has never been translated into English. The German excavations continued up until World War II (1939-1945). Their excavations resumed after the war and continue to this day.

So, to sum it up for you

In the 1870's ancient Olympia had been uncovered by the German archeological expeditions and this helped to fuel a revival of interest in studying ancient Greek history - especially about the ancient Olympic Games. Within Greece there were "Olympic Games" in the 1850's and 1870's that were only for Greeks and held in Athens. In the 1880's Pierre de Coubertin was studying sports in England and America in an effort to develop a better physical education system for French school students, because the French were humiliated by the Germans in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. He was strongly influenced by the newly re-discovered ancient Greek Olympic Games and the ideas of William Penny Brookes of England. (See: Pierre de Coubertin and the Wenlock Olympian Games). His ideas of promoting sport for his beloved French schools quickly grew into a larger, more comprehensive idea -- an international version of the ancient Olympic Games. His modern version of the ancient Olympic Games was promoted at two conferences on Physical Education that he held at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1892 and 1894. The 1892 conference garnered no support for his idea and he considered it a failure. The 1894 conference garnered total support and de Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee. Two years later, in 1896, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece. Thus -- with the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin as the "founder" -- the Olympic Games were reborn. And with the Modern Olympic Games came a new Olympic calendar, the Modern Olympiad, which began in 1896 and continues to this day.

One Comment

  1. John Sash

    A fantastic article on the calendar. It was so helpful to me in my researches. Thanks for writing it!

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