A Greek amphora showing athletes, 4th century BC. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Mythbusting Ancient Rome: Did Christians Ban The Ancient Olympics?

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Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 BC came to a sudden end in the late fourth century AD. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (AD 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.

The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?

Imperial intervention?

Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years AD 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code , which was compiled in the fifth century AD by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:

‘No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.’

Marble fragment depicting animal sacrifice, Rome, 2nd century AD. Now in the Louvre.

Marble fragment depicting animal sacrifice, Rome, 2nd century AD. Now in the Louvre. ( Public Domain )

Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out . Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.

The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period , with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in AD 399, after the emperor’s death.

The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century AD, during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (AD 408-450):

Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.

Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until AD 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century AD. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century AD. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.

Coin of Theodosius I.

Coin of Theodosius I. ( Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Economic stringencies

What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century AD? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople . The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church . This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.

The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century AD meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition .

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