Panhellenic Games is the collective term for four separate sports festivals held in ancient Greece. The four Games were the Olympic Games which were held at Olympia in honor of Zeus.[1] The Pythian Games took place in Delphi and honored Apollo.[2]  Nemean Games took place at Nemea and also honored Zeus.[3] The Isthmian Games took place in Isthmia and were held in honor of Poseidon.[4] Each of these Games took place over a four-year period, starting with the Olympics. Along with the fame and notoriety of winning the ancient Games, the athletes earned different crowns of leaves from the different Games. From the Olympics, the victor won an olive wreath, from the Pythian Games a laurel wreath, from the Nemean Games a crown of wild celery leaves, and from the Isthmian Games a crown of pine.[5]


Panhellenic Games is located in Greece Southern
Locations of the four Panhellenic Games in southern Greece.

The Olympiad was one of the ways the Ancient Greeks measured time. The Games took place over a four-year cycle that began with the Olympic Games in the first year. The Nemean Games were held in year two, the Pythian Games in year three, and the Isthmian Games in year four.[4] [1][2][3] They were structured this way so that individual athletes could participate in all of the Games. (Note that the dial on the Antikythera mechanism seems to show that the Nemean and Isthmian Games did not occur in the same years.[citation needed])

Participants could come from all over the Greek world, including the various Greek colonies from Asia Minor to Iberia. However, participants generally had to be fairly wealthy in order to pay for training, transportation, lodging, and other expenses.[6]

The main events at each of the Games were chariot racing, wrestling, boxing, pankration, stadion and various other foot races, and the pentathlon (made up of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw). Except for the chariot race, all the events were performed nude[citation needed]. Since the Olympic Games was the original and the pinnacle of all the games in the circuit, each festival might have had its own events but had to include all the events that took place at the Olympics, according to Young.[7] This gave the athletes the opportunity to compete in the same core events at all the Games in the Panhellenic circuit.

The Games were hugely popular not only for their three-day sporting competitions but also because they brought many spectators from all over, according to classics historian Jason König. This allowed for people to partake in other activities like religious events, speeches, and even musical performances. [8]

Long jump depiction, ceramic pottery, ancient Greek art
Ancient Greek long jump. Athlete preparing to jump, with one mid-jump.

The Olympic Games were the oldest of the four, said to have begun in 776 BC. It is more likely though that they were founded sometime in the late 7th century BC. They lasted until the Roman Emperor Theodosius, a Christian, abolished them as heathen in AD 393. The Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games most likely began sometime in the first or second quarter of the 6th century BC.

The Games are also known as the Stephanitic Games (derived from stephanos, the Attic Greek word for crown), because winners received only a garland for victory. No financial or material prizes were awarded, unlike at other ancient Greek athletic or artistic contests, such as the Panathenaic Games, at which winners were awarded many amphorae of first-class Athenian olive-oil. Though victors received no material awards at the Games, they were often showered with gifts and honours on returning to their polis.

The Four Games

Olympic Games

King Oenomaus, Hippodamia, and Olympian gods, Chariots, Olympic Games
King Oenomaus, Hippodamia, and Olympian gods. Possibly refers to the establishment of the Olympic Games in honour of Oinomaos;

According to Pindar’s Olympian 1, the origin of the Ancient Olympic Games can be traced to Pelops, son of Tantalus. Pelops seeks to win the hand of Hippodameia in marriage. King Oenomaus, Hippodameia’s father, knows of a prophecy that declares his death to be at the hands of his son in law. King Oenomaus decides the only way for him to marry his daughter is to take part in a chariot race that has killed many other suitors. Pelops asks a favor of Poseidon to bestow upon him a chariot fast enough to bring him victory. Poseidon granted him a golden chariot and winged horses. With this chariot, Pelops won the race and was able to marry Hippodameia. It’s also claimed that Pelops had Myrtilus sabotage King Oenomaus’ chariot which caused him to lose the race and die during the process.[9] After his victory, Pelops organized a festival to take place at Olympia with chariot races and other Games in tribute to the gods and to honor King Oenomaus. [10]

The Olympic Games took place every four years at the cite of Olympia in Greece. It's thought that first recorded Games were in 776 BC[1] but it is possible that they could have been around for many years before this according to scholar David C. Young.[11] The Olympics were the first established Games for approximately 200 years before the remaining Panhellenic Games came into creation.[7] Since the Games take place in Olympia, the festival held and sacrifices/offerings are in honor of Zeus. The winner of the Games receives an olive wreath which comes from the myth that Heracles started the Olympic Games as told by Pausanias.[12]

In Pindar's version of the Olympics, the chariot race was the first of the events at creation.[10] In Pausanias' versions, the foot race is the only event until the fourteenth Olympic Festival. Then another race is added that is longer than the original race.[13] Since the Olympic Games was the original and the pinnacle of all the games in the Circuit, each Festival may have its own events but it must include all the events that took place at the Olympics, according to Young.[7] This gives the athletes the opportunity to compete in the event at all the Games in the Panhellenic circuit.  

Origin Myths

Another origin story from Pausanias was that Heracles challenged his younger brothers to a foot race. The winner of the race would receive an olive branch as a reward since they were in such high supply.[12] Pausanias attributes another origin myth to Zeus. It's thought he started the Olympic Games in honor of his victory defeating his father, Cronus.[12]

Pythian Games

Stadium of the Pythian games at Delphi, modern ruin, tourism
Stadium of the Pythian Games at Delphi

The Pythian Games were established in 582 BC in Delphi to honor the god Apollo.[2] However, there is some debate about the start of the Pythian Festival amongst historians. Some historians believe Pausanias who dates the first Pythian festival to 586 BC. This argument is because there are few references to the date in Pindar’s poems whereas Pausanias more clearly articulates numbered festivals.[14] These Games include a mix of athletic events that took place at the previous Olympic Games, and musical events. The prize to the winner of the Pythian Games is a laurel wreath.[2]

In Pausanias' Description of Greece, he lists Cleisthenes of Sicyon as the winner of the first Pythian Games chariot race.[15] Cleisthenes is also credited with the creation of the Pythian Games. He sought after a suitor for to wed his daughter, Agariste. He organized a competition for those who thought of themselves as worthy to compete in athletic competitions.[16] These competitions evolved into the Pythian Festival.

Nemean Games

The Nemean Games were established in 573 BC in Nemea. These Games are held every other year, every second and fourth year, in the same years that the Isthmian Games are held, though at different times during the years.[3] The Nemean Games are thought to have two origination stories.

Pausanias tells of the most recognized myth that the Games were originally funeral Games to honor the death of baby Opheltes, the infant son of Lykourgos and Eurydike. Lykourgos was told of a prophecy that his son could not touch the ground until he walked. Lykourgos appointed a slave to take care of his son and prevent him from being set down. One day the Seven Against Thebes came across the slave and baby Opheltes and asked for a drink. The slave set the babe on the ground amongst wild celery to assist the Seven. Opheltes was attacked by a snake and killed, thus fulfilling the prophecy. The Nemean Games were held in his honor with the prize to the victor being a wreath of wild celery. [17][18][19]

Heracles, Nemean Lion, vase, pottery
Herakles wrestling the Nemean lion vase

The second origination is that of Heracles first of ten labors by King Eurystheus. He was tasked with bringing back the skin of the lion that stalked the hills of Nemea. Heracles came to a village, Cleonae where he met Molorchus. Molorchus agreed to make a sacrifice to Heracles if he didn't return after 30 days, and Zeus if he did. Heracles found the lion and followed him to his cave. He blocked on entrances then went in after the lion and attacked. Heracles returned to Molorchus' home on the 30th day and they made a sacrifice to Zeus.[20] The Games are said to be in honor of both Zeus and Heracles each year.

Isthmian Games

The Isthmian Games started in the same year as the Pythian Games, 582 BC. They are held every second and fourth year, just like the Nemean Games, but in the spring.[4] The winner of the Isthmian Games receives a pine crown.

Pausanias attributes the origin of the Games to King Sisyphus of Corinth.[21] Sisyphus held the Games at a funeral in honor of Melikertes (later changed to Palaimon), a boy who drowned in the gulf. According to Pausanias, Palaimon was killed because Hera found out his parents were raising baby Dionysus which brought down her wrath.[22][23]

Palaimon shown riding a dolphin after his mother jumps into the sea while holding him to save him from Hera.[23]

Plutarch and Apollodorus credit the origin of the Isthmian Games with Theseus. Theseus was travelling to Athens when he heard of Sinis. Sinis was a conqueror and a thief. He would kill his victims by tying them to the top of fir trees that he pulled down, then letting them spring back which caused the victim to launched into the air and fall back down to the ground. Theseus killed Sinis in the same manner. He then held the funerary Games in honor of the deceased.[24][25] Plutarch also credits Theseus with holding the Games in honor of Poseidon, since they were typically held in his sanctuary in Corinth.[26]


According to archaeologist, H.W. Pleket, in the early days of the Olympic Games, before the formation of local or the remaining "Big Four" festivals, the athletes mostly came from the wealthy class of Greek male athletes. This is because the cost training aand travelling would be too great for those of low birth to participate.[27] Pleket and historian David Stone Potter describe a view from Alcibiades saying how he would rather breed horses for racing than take part in the gymnastic events because it was "not to be pursued by one of low estate."[27][28] Lower class athletes were able to eventually take part in the Festival, many had to work their way up through the local festivals in order to prove themselves.

Young describes how the men were divided into different class groups for the Games however, the division was different at different festivals. These groups consisted of boys, youths and men but sometimes may just be broken into men and boys.[7] Edward Norman Gardiner makes the point that physical fitness and athletics is incredibly important in the Ancient Greek world because every male is required to take part in the Greek military. Because of the environment of warfare, physical fitness was essential to men's life.[29]

Female athlete figure, Spartan female, bronze figure
Bronze figure of a running girl. Spartan. The short chiton bearing one breast which matches the outfit that Pausanias says was worn by athletes competing in the Heraean Games.

While the majority of those that participated in the Games is overwhelmingly free Greek men, there is evidence that there were female athletes as well that participated in the Panhellenic Games, often as chariot race horse owners. Historian, Georgia Tsouvala, gives three examples of inscriptions from lesser polis festivals that provide evidence of female athletes that were members of the gymnasia.[6] Tsouvala also points out, while it's not common for women to have been able to partake in any form of physical education in ancient Greece, there are some states where it's encouraged like Sparta.[6] In many ancient Greek works from Vergil, to Plutarch, to Ovid, there are reverences made to Spartan women taking part in traditionally male activities like boar hunting, pancration, and discus throwing to name a few.[6]

Tsouvala points out that other than as chariot horse owners, it was likely that girls and women would take part in footraces in the festivals in honor of Artemis and Iphigeneia. There was also evidence discovered in Naples that held inscriptions detailing young women who participated in the stadion and dolichos foot races.[6]

The male athletes that participated in the Panhellenic Games did so nude. This was common and not viewed as something shameful or indecent because Ancient Greeks did not have the same views on nudity as is common in Western Judeo-Christian views, according to David Young.[7] Young also points out the etymology of the word gymnasium which breaks down to its core word gymnos which means naked, so literally “to train naked.”[30] While Young points out that men believed there was nothing indecent about the nude form, women were not allowed to be nude because it led to promiscuity. However, in Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, its discussed how Spartan women were encouraged to participate in all the activities the normally would naked except for some festivals that where singing and dancing with men was permitted.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Ancient Olympic Games | Greece, History, Events, Running, & Facts | Britannica". 2024-05-08. Retrieved 2024-05-25.
  2. ^ a b c d "Pythian Games | Olympic, Athletic & Musical | Britannica". Retrieved 2024-05-23.
  3. ^ a b c "Nemean Games | Olympic, Panhellenic & Athletic | Britannica". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  4. ^ a b c "Isthmian Games | Panhellenic, Athletic Competitions, Corinth | Britannica". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  5. ^ The Olympic Museum Educational and Cultural Services (2013). "The Olympic Games in Antiquity" (PDF).
  6. ^ a b c d e Tsouvala, Georgia (2021-04-08), "Female Athletes in the Late Hellenistic and Roman Greek World", New Directions in the Study of Women in the Greco-Roman World, Oxford University PressNew York, pp. 139–172, ISBN 0-19-093763-7, retrieved 2024-05-25
  7. ^ a b c d e Young, David C. (2004). A brief history of the Olympic games. Brief histories of the ancient world. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-1129-4.
  8. ^ Greek Athletics. Edinburgh University Press. 2013. doi:10.3366/j.ctvxcrb09.9. ISBN 978-0-7486-3944-1.
  9. ^ Evangelia (2024-01-31). "Pelops | Served as a Meal to the Gods Then Resurrected". Olympioi. Retrieved 2024-05-22.
  10. ^ a b "Pindar, Olympian, Olympian 1 For Hieron of Syracuse Single Horse Race 476 B. C." Retrieved 2024-05-22.
  11. ^ Young, David (2004). A Brief History of the Olympic Games (1 ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. pp. 17–18. ISBN 9781405111294.
  12. ^ a b c "Pausanias, Description of Greece, Elis 1, chapter 7". Retrieved 2024-05-23.
  13. ^ "Pausanias, Description of Greece, Elis 1, chapter 8, section 6". Retrieved 2024-05-23.
  14. ^ Miller, Stephen G. (1978-01-01). "The Date of the First Pythiad". California Studies in Classical Antiquity. 11: 127–158. doi:10.2307/25010728. ISSN 0068-5895.
  15. ^ "Pausanias, Description of Greece, Phocis and Ozolian Locri, chapter 7, section 6". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  16. ^ "Herodotus, The Histories, Book 6, chapter 126". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  17. ^ "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, Abaeus, Arcesila'us, Archemo'rus". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  18. ^ "Opheltes". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  19. ^ "Pausanias, Description of Greece, Corinth, chapter 15". Retrieved 2024-06-08.
  20. ^ "Hercules' First Labor: the Nemean Lion". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  21. ^ "Pausanias, Description of Greece, Corinth, chapter 1, section 3". Retrieved 2024-06-10.
  22. ^ "The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, ISTHMIA Corinthia, Greece". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  23. ^ a b "Palaemon (Palaimon) - Greek Sea-God, Protector of Sailors (Roman Portunus)". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  24. ^ "Apollodorus, Library, book 3, chapter 16, section 2". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  25. ^ "Plutarch, Theseus, chapter 8". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  26. ^ "Plutarch, Theseus, chapter 25". Retrieved 2024-05-24.
  27. ^ a b Greek Athletics. Edinburgh University Press. 2013. doi:10.3366/j.ctvxcrb09.19. ISBN 978-0-7486-3944-1.
  28. ^ Potter, David Stone (2011). The victor's crown a history of ancient sport from Homer to Byzantium. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199912209.
  29. ^ Gardiner, Edward Norman (1910). Greek Athletic sports and festivals. London: MacMillan and Co.
  30. ^ "gymnasium | Etymology of gymnasium by etymonline". Retrieved 2024-06-08.
  31. ^ "Plutarch, Lycurgus, chapter 14, section 2". Retrieved 2024-06-09.