Games of Ancient Greece—The Life and Death of a Greek Athlete

From a lecture series presented by Professor John R. Hale, Ph.D.

Around the year 500 BC, a young man died in the Greek colonial city of Taras. An inscription on the tomb, iota kappa kappa omicron sigma, that suggested that Ikkos was his name. When the tomb was inspected, it became clear that he had participated in the games of Ancient Greece.

Image of Sarcophagus with Strigil decoration for the article on Games of Ancient Greece
Sarcophagus
Image of Strigil used to scrape body
Strigil used to scrape body

The Belongings of an Athlete

The young man was laid to rest with items belonging to an athlete who had participated in particluar games of Ancient Greece. He had a strigil, which is a little bronze implement for scraping olive oil from your body. The way of getting clean in the Greek and Roman world was not to use soap—that was a Celtic invention—but to smear yourself with olive oil.

The olive oil would pick up all of your dry, dead skin, your sweat, the dirt, and you would scrape everything off. They were probably much cleaner then than we are when come out of the shower. Then they were ready to get in a bath and relax in the water. So the scraping was done with a strigil and it was placed in this young man’s tomb.

There was an unguentarium, a little vial that would have had perfume in it to rub on his body or after the bath. There were the prizes that he had won as an athlete, at least some of them. There were three beautiful amphorae from the city of Athens. He had obviously participated in the Panathenaic Games. He might have also been an Olympic athlete during the Olympic year.

Learn More: Delphi and Olympia

Image of Panathenaic Prize Amphora
Panathenaic Prize Amphora

The prizes for the winners were big, beautiful Athenian pots that were filled with olive oil, which was worth a lot of money. There was no such thing as the amateur athlete in antiquity. They put on the pot, on one side, Athena, with her shield and spear and helmet, but on the other side were pictures of an event. You would get, as a runner, Panathenaic amphorae showing runners. You would get, as a boxer, Panathenaic amphorae showing boxers. Ikkos had three and they were all different. There was a charioteer. There was a scene of boxers. And there was a scene, a double image on a vase that showed discus and long jump.

The Physique of an Ancient Athlete

What was he? They brought him to a laboratory where physical anthropologists studied his frame. He was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and in perfect condition, both as a specimen in terms of his physique and also the bone preservation. The latter was very good because of the stone chamber he was buried in. If you are buried in the soil, many soils are acid and will literally eat the bone.

They were able to analyze both the growth of the bone and the muscle attachments. Muscle attachments are the little holes in the bone where a muscle has its end inserted to hold on, and they get bigger and bigger as you work that muscle. You can determine the robusticity of the person from the muscle attachments, as well as the bone itself.

He had an overall robusticity that was remarkable, especially in the legs. He didn’t seem to be a boxer. Boxers tend to build up those upper bodies, the deltoid muscles and so on, from that continual punching. Greco-Roman boxers held their hands continually at a high level and punched, as we can tell from the vase paintings. So boxing did not seem likely because of the overall development of the body.

Learn More: The Greek Alphabet & Pronunciation

The charioteer seemed even less likely. The charioteers themselves were not the important athletes. It was the horses that were important, and the owner of the horses who was crowned as the winner. Often the charioteers were boys, like the famous bronze charioteer from Delphi who was riding a winning chariot from a tyrant’s entry from Sicily. So it didn’t seem likely that this great athlete would have been the charioteer.

Discus Throw

That left the discus and long jump. Those two events were part of the ancient pentathlon. That fivefold event called for every part of the body to be well developed. So it seemed clear that was this young man’s event. He was a pentathlete.

An Althete’s Life in Ancient Greece

Now the interesting question was then, well, what kind of a life did he lead? With modern scientific analysis, we can determine diet. He lived in a part of the world where people, even in 500 B.C., were obsessed with the health and diet of athletes. We think sometimes we’re a sports-crazy world. We are nothing compared to the ancient Greeks, and to a lesser extent, the ancient Romans, who worshiped—very literally—athletes.

Winning athletes bore on their heads a ribbon that was their prize. They tied it around their brows. The only other people allowed to do that were Gods, heroes, priests, and priestesses. It was a mark of divinity.

The scrapings from the body after you cleaned yourself, if you were a great athlete, somebody would come along and scoop them up and sell them on the market as a medicine because it was so valuable—it came from this great athlete. If you won several times at Olympia, you were allowed to have a portrait sculpted of your body that would then be on public display so people could study the musculature and admire you.

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He had this perfect body, and we now are able to look at his diet, thanks to isotope studies of what’s in his bone. Because it is very true—you are what you eat. This young athlete had built his body. His body was an artifact that he had created by every decision he made about which spring to drink out of, what meal to eat, what exercise to do during the day. All of his habitual positions during the day—did he squat? did he stand? did he run a lot?—all of these things are shaping his body, just as every disease shapes his body.

Every period that a person goes without food as a child leaves a mark on the teeth. Your teeth have little laminations that are like tree rings and they are sort of annual, and you can pick out—both in the teeth and some of the bones—the marks of the lean years, the famine years, the malnourished years, when they weren’t getting enough to eat.

Ikkos had perfect growth, every year. He was never without food. He seemed to have a very specific diet, a diet associated with an ancient Greek school of scientific, medical, and dietary thought, which was specific to south Italy, which recommended a vegetarian diet with occasional jolts of meat. So he seems to have been raised to be an athlete, perfect condition. They compared him to modern athletes’ frames and decided he would have done very well at the modern Olympics if he’d been called upon to compete.

Learn More: Greece and the Western World

We have then, in this remarkable athlete from ancient Taras, a witness to the intensity of the fervor that the ancient Greeks felt for their games and for their athletes.  He was brought up from the cradle to be an athlete, both in the training and in the dietetic regimen—something that they took much more seriously, it would seem, even than we do.

Keep Reading:
Chariot Racing: Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Sport 
Ancient Roman Architecture: Rome’s Most Impressive Buildings
Classical Greece—Wine, Olive Oil, and Trade

From the Lecture Series: Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome
Taught by Professor John R. Hale, Ph.D. 
Strigil Sarcophagus: By Disdero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Glass Unguentarium: By Unknown – Unknown, CC BY 2.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19469336
Panathenaic Prize Amphora: By Creator:Euphiletos Painter [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons