The Beginning of the Olympiads

The beginning of the Olympiads is the second fundamental point of chronology listed by Petavius.[1]

“The Greek calendar has not received as much attention from students of Greek religion as it deserves.”
~ George Thomson (1943)[4]

Traditionally, the beginning of the Olympiads has been dated to 776 BC, when the Olympic games supposedly had their first celebration .[1], [2] The wikipedia page with the list of ancient Olympic victors[3] contains a list of sources for the information in the list. For simplicity, I concisely list them here:

776 BC

1 – Eusebius
2 – Pausanias

480 BC

3 – P.Oxy.222
4 – Thucydides
5 – P.Oxy.2381
6 – Arrian
7 – P.Oxy. 12

296 BC

8 – Phlegon of Tralles
9 – Phlegon, apud Photius, Bibliotheca 97
10 – Dexippos the Athenian, apud Panodoros
11 – Moses of Chorene’s History of Armenia (3.40)

369 AD

I split the sources up by years to help visualize what sources we’re dependent on for each period of time. However, after a name has been listed, that does not mean it’s limited to that period of time. For example, Eusebius is used as a source almost until 261 AD. The three time periods I made above are 776-480 BC (296 years), 480-290 BC (190 years), and 290 BC-369 AD (659 years).

The list of Olympic victors was originally compiled by Hippias of Elis (fl.390-370 BC). It was then continued by Julianus Africanus (d.240), who modified it to include names up to 217 AD. Finally, it was copied by Eusebius (265-339 AD).[2]

In the later 19th century and early 20th century, European historians and philologists seriously began debating the authenticity of the traditional dating.[2]

“The doubts concerning the correctness of this date have involved other doubts concerning the accuracy of the earlier portions of Eusebius’s register of Olympic victors, and concerning the use of the Olympic register as a basis of Greek chronology for a considerable period of time.”
~ H. C. Montgomery (1936)[2, p.169]

Montgomery singled out John Pentland Mahaffy (1839-1919) as the first person to critically address the issue of the Olympiadic dating. Mahaffy noted that Sir George Cox regarded 670 BC as being “the earliest historical date available”. Mahaffy himself believed the list became accurate after Olympiad 50, about 580 BC, some 200 years prior to Hippias. Georg Busalt (1850-1920), Alfred Körte (1866-1946), and Ulrich Kahrstedt also raised some issues with the authenticity. Hermann Diels (1848-1922), Weniger, Brinckmann, and Wilamowitz were confident in the authenticity of the 776 BC date.[2]

“…Körte believes that up to the end of the fifth century there was no connected victor list and no history of the Olympic games…”
~ H. C. Montgomery (1936)[2, p.171]

Pausanias reported that the games were held by Oxylus, King of Elis, but they were stopped until Iphitus, when the “Olympic truce” is revived by him and Lycurgus of Sparta, his contemporary. Ephorus was quoted by Strabo and also noted the Oxylus-Iphitus “double foundation of the games”. Phlegon and Eusebius both created a triple foundation of the games when they each inserted Cleosthenes, King of Pisa, into the mix.[2]

Phlegon contradicted himself in his writings when he placed Iphitus as living 27 or 28 Olympiads prior to 776, but then also claiming Iphitus “consulted the Delphic oracle” in Olympiad 6. This results in a gap of 34 Olympiads (136 years). Weniger noted that there is a possibility there was a second Iphitus and a second Lycurgus.[2]

Mahaffy noted that Pausanias reported Orsippus of Megara introduced the custom of running through the games naked, but that Thucydides, Herodotus, and Hellanicus reported it was some 300 years closer to their time that the naked running custom began. Thucydides relied on Dionysius of Halicarnassus for his conflicting date. Dionysius of Halicarnassus reported that Acanthus of Sparta set the custom, and so Thucydides reported that the custom began with the Spartans.[2, pp.169-170]

The traditional dates for the introduction of the four-horse chariot racing are 680 and 408 BC, but archaeological evidence dated prior to 700 BC, such as bronze dedicatory objects, might suggest otherwise. Where these bronze horse and chariot figurines could indicate chariot racing in the games, they could be completely unrelated, as those figurines were also found with warrior figurines, sheep, oxen, and weapons.[2, p.171]

“Such conflicts on the origin of customs, sayings, and things innumerable are no more rare in modern than ancient history.”
~ H. C. Montgomery (1936)[2, p.174]

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[1] – Accessed 13 Sept. 2020.

[2] – Montgomery, H. C. “The Controversy about the Origin of the Olympic Games Did They Originate in 776 B.C.?” The Classical Weekly, vol. 29, no. 22, 1936, pp. 169–174. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Sept. 2020.

[3] – Accessed 13 Sept. 2020.

[4] – Thomson, George. “The Greek Calendar.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 63, 1943, pp. 52–65. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Sept. 2020.

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