The games in Olympia, which emerged in times immemorial (the first documented celebration dates back to 776 BC), were a vibrant pagan festival, associated in the minds of the Hellenes with the sacred marriage of the Moon and the Sun.
They were held every four years. There were competitions in running, wrestling, boxing, discus and javelin throwing, as well as chariot racing.
Winners at the games were awarded an olive wreath and enjoyed great honor. The Greeks kept their chronology by the Olympic games, counting the first ones held in 776 BC.
Apollo – if you believe the Greek myth, it was this golden-haired son of Zeus who invented fist fighting.
Blood was first shed on the stadium of Olympia at the beginning of the seventh century BC, when fist fighters were allowed to compete for the olive wreath.
At first, fighters fought with bare fists. In the classical era – the fifth and fourth centuries BC – fighters were allowed to wrap their fingers and palm with a soft strap of oxhide, softened with fat.
This kind of modern boxing gloves was called a cestus by the Greeks. Over time, the wrap, designed to protect the fingers, turned into a striking weapon. The cestus at least doubled the power of the blow.
When fighters were allowed to reinforce metal plates on the straps, the lethality of the blow became terrifying. Some fighters would enter the arena with their hands raised high, so that spectators and opponents could see the dried blood of their previous victims on the straps.
The Olympic fight was beautiful, ruthless, quick, and cautious. Everyone tried to perform the main maneuver – to put the opponent facing the sun. So that the light would blind him with its rays. Not the blow itself, but the dodge from the blow was valued in the duel. The rules allowed blows only to the head.
For a blunder – a blow to the body – the fighter paid off immediately: a warning from the Hellanodikai (judges), the anger or mockery of spectators. There was no division of fighters by weight. They fought until one fell on the wide platform between the running track and the spectator embankment, and having fallen, did not raise his hand upward with a protruding finger – as a sign of admitting his defeat.
And if both could not, having exhausted themselves, continue the duel, then the Hellanodikai appointed a free blow. The right to it was granted to the one who drew the lucky lot. The free blow decided the outcome of the fight.
Upon arrival at the games, they spent a whole month preparing for fights in the palaestra. Under the supervision of experienced mentors, men and ephebes (adolescents) pounded daily and fervently at hanging balls or bags filled with fig seeds, flour, or sand.
The first to celebrate victory in fist fighting was Onomastus of Smyrna, modern-day Turkish Izmir on the Mediterranean Sea. This Ionian Hellen outperformed everyone at the 23rd Olympiad (688 BC).
He subsequently developed the rules for the Olympic fight. Those rules were gratefully accepted by the elders of Olympia. The ephebic fighters were first admitted to the 41st Olympiad (616 BC). And then Philetes from Italian Sybaris was honored with the Olympic honor.
The last of the known winners of the Olympic Games in this type of competition – Varazdat.
He came to Olympia from afar – from the eastern outskirts of the Roman Empire. And when the Hellanodikai raised his right hand – the hand of the strongest in fist fights of the 291st Olympiad (385 AD), the herald proclaimed three times:
Varazdat, son of Anob, from Artashat. Few of those present knew then that Artashat was the ancient capital of Armenia, and the barbarian Varazdat – would soon become the king of Armenia.
Next to the temple of Zeus, the best craftsman was carving on the pre-prepared marble slabs the names of new Olympians. One of these names was unusual for the master – the name of a foreigner. The words appeared on the white marble: “Olympian Varazdat, son of Anob from Artashat, Games of the 291st Olympiad.”
In the name of the holy Zeus, the Olympic Council awards the highest award of the unmatched winners of the Games of the 291st Olympiad!
The right to crown the head of the next Olympian was granted to the Hellanodikai who was the chief judge – the agonothetes in this type of competition.
One after another, the herald shouted names, named the winner’s homeland and the type of agon (contest).
…Olympian Nicostratus, son of Xenophon from Sparta! Running one stadion – dromos
…Kapros from Constantinople. Pankration
Kapros from Constantinople, who won in pankration – mixed martial arts contests consisting of wrestling and fist fighting techniques. However, the fists of the competitors were without the leather apparel characteristic of the classical style of “fist” fighters.
The inhabitants of Elis rejoiced. Of the ten Olympians, three were their countrymen: the javelin thrower Rexibius, the long jumper Menalcus, and now the winner in the most exciting competitions – the fearless Nicander in the quadriga races.
…Olympian Nicander, son of Nikos from Pisa! Quadriga race! – the heralds continued to shout
…Olympian Varazdat, son of Anob from Artashat, the ancient capital of Armenia! The first foreigner to win the Games in Olympia! Fist fight!
In recognition of Varazdat’s special merits, the Olympic Council decided to honor him with the title of honorary citizen of Pisa.
In his youth, Varazdat, a descendant of the Arshakids, had been a hostage of the Persian autocrat. He had to earn his daily bread in fist fights, amusing the crowd in various cities of Asia Minor, and even fight a hungry lion. He tested himself at the games in Delphi and won…
According to tradition, the winner of the games in Olympia was proclaimed immediately at the end of the competitions on the stadium or the hippodrome. The award ceremony was held on the last day of the Olympic celebration in the temple of Zeus, later at the main eastern entrance of this temple, where crowds of pilgrims and guests gathered.
The organizers of the ceremony set up a carved wooden table on which olive wreaths were laid out. The most honorable sign of valor and the only award from the organizers of the games, the Olympian wreath consisted of two branches tied with purple ribbons, cut with a golden knife from a sacred tree that, according to legend, Hercules planted in Altis.
During the traditional ritual, the Hellanodikai placed branches with silver leaves on the heads of the Olympians over the white bandages received by the athletes and horsemen on the day of their victory. The herald loudly announced the name of the winner, his father’s name, and the name of the city from where he came.
The Olympian was also honored to be included in the Bassikalia – a list of winners of the games in Olympia. The list of Olympic heroes was compiled in the 4th century BC by Hippias of Elis, a celebrated sophist and orator, mathematician and astronomer, grammarian and archaeologist.
It was Hippias who recorded in his list the name of the first Olympian – Koroibos, a native of the same Peloponnesian region of Elis and a cook by profession, who surpassed his rivals in the dromos at the first ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC.
Hippias’ list, which contains the winners of the games for over three centuries, was used as a reference by ancient historians. However, the last major Greek historian, Polybius, believed that the names of the Olympians began to be recorded from the 27th Olympiad (672 BC), and before that they were kept in the memory of the organizers of the games.
After Hippias, the list of Olympians was kept, apparently, by the priests of the temple of Zeus. Modern scholars believe that the full Olympic Bassikalia contains 1029 names of the winners of the ancient games.
- The Hellanodikai were entrusted with judging the competitions. Complete impartiality was required from the Hellanodikai. This was extremely important, as the decision of the Hellanodikai was final.
- One talent – 26 kg.
- Stade – a distance of six hundred feet of Hercules, equal to the length of the Olympic stadium, or 192.27 m. According to legend, Hercules managed to take this many steps from the moment the first rays of the sun appeared over the hill of Krona in Olympia until the sun rose above the earth.
- Olympian – a lifetime honorary title for winners of the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.
The Olympic Games existed until 393 AD, when they were banned by Emperor Theodosius as incompatible with Christianity. Thirty years later, Emperor Theodosius II burned down the temple of Zeus in Olympia and all the luxurious buildings that adorned the place where the Olympic Games took place.
Varazdat – a proud son of the mountains, a few years after his victory in Olympia, received the crown of the king of Armenia from the hands of the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great.
By the decree of the same Caesar, the not too accommodating king-Olympian was sent to hard labor in Carthage – to break stones.
As the story goes, during his escape from the hard labor, he fell from a poisoned arrow shot by a pursuer in his back.
The life of Varazdat is described in the historical novel by Ashot Melik-Shahnazarov – the creator of the Pan-Armenian Games, – “Olympian from Artaxata” and the documentary novel about the Panhellenic games of antiquity by B. Bazunov “Gods of the stadiums of Hellas”.
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan