Many civilizations developed in the Mediterranean region between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 500. Among these peoples were the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks and the Romans borrowed ideas from other societies that existed during their time. The Romans, in fact, built much of their civilization on the learning of the Greeks. Both of these peoples developed new ways of thinking and new ideas about science, politics, literature, language, and the arts. Many of the achievements of the Greeks and Romans are still admired today.
Like many people living today, the people of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations enjoyed sports. They believed in "a sound mind in a sound body." The ancient Greeks, for example, included athletic contests in their religious festivals. The most famous contests in Greece were the Olympic Games.
The Greeks held the Olympic Games every four years to honor Zeus, who was believed to be the most powerful of the Greek gods. Cities and towns sent their finest young athletes to take part in the games. They came from such places as Athens, Sparta, Elis, and Delphi to run, throw, and wrestle. Like Olympic athletes today, they competed for the honor of their hometowns, their families, and themselves.
Read now about a 15-year-old athlete named Alexis, who competed in the Olympic Games in 492 B.C. for his hometown ofAsini in Greece. As you read, imagine the sights, sounds, and feelings you would have experienced while watching or taking part in the Olympic Games long ago.
1 n the first light the athletes came again to the Altis1 and gathered around the altar of Zeus at the center of the sacred olive grove. It towered high, filled with the ashes of sacrifices offered for more years than any living man could remember or even guess. A priest moved through the crowd, carrying a torch from the eternal fire that burned on the altar of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. He climbed the steps to the top of the altar of Zeus and set fire to the wood piled there. The smell of blazing poplar and of incense filled the grove.
Then the Olympic flame burst through the smoke and the crowd gave a sigh like the sound of a wave breaking on a long beach. Officials were coming with this year's sacrifices for the Games, baskets of meat cut from the thighs of a hundred cattle that had been brought to the slaughter with their horns gilded2 and with wreaths of flowers about their necks. At last the fire died down and was quenched with water from the Alpheus.3 When the ashes were cold, they would be hard and smooth, and the altar of Zeus would have mounted even closer to heaven; earth, air, fire, and water mingled4 to praise him who ruled all things. On the last night of the Games, after the gods were satisfied, the crowds would feast.
Alexis remembered what followed as if it had been a dream. Somehow he got to the stadium for the boys' race. The slopes were filling, many of last night's revelers5 having stretched out to sleep there. Alexis drew his lot. Luckily, he was to run in the first heat6 and would have time to rest while four other heats were run, supposing that he survived to run in the finals. There were fifteen boys in the first heat, but Lampis was not among them.
He remembered very little from the moment he toed the starting line and heard the trumpet until he reached the finish. He only knew that another runner had been ahead of him almost to the end. Then, with the blood beating in his ears and his lungs bursting, he had somehow closed the gap. But he did not know that he had won until he fell into the crowd at the finish line and felt himself being pounded on the back to shouts of "Asini! Asini has won the first heat! Alexis of Asini!"
His mouth was dry, his head throbbing.
Then his father and Dion were breaking a path for him through the crowd to a stone water basin where he took a long drink and sank down on the grass. He could not believe that he had won. His legs were numb. Could he run again? He needed time, and it would not take much time to run off four more heats.
Telamon was rubbing him down and gently kneading the muscles of his legs. "There will be time enough. The managers will be announcing the name and town of each contestant, you know, and the umpires usually argue about who has won, and there may be some false starts. It all takes time. You will be ready."
It was as Telamon had predicted. Twice the heats were delayed when runners made false starts and were punished by sharp blows from officials with long forked sticks. But Lampis won his heat easily, and all too soon they were announcing the final race for boys.
Aristes and Dion embraced Alexis. Above the noise of the crowd he could not hear what they were saying something about Lampis, something about Asini but he knew what they meant, and nodded as he went to the starting line.
"Eucles of Athens..." All over the stadium Athenians shouted encouragement to their runner. "Sotades of Elis ... Lampis of Sparta ... Alexis of Asini... Troilus of Delphi..." Each name was followed by cheers from some parts of the stadium and silence from others whose own champions had been beaten by one of the finalists or whose own city had been at war with one of these cities.
Alexis stared down the length of the stadium to the finish line. Lampis was the one to beat and he had to do it for Asini. But Lampis always went into the lead from the very start. If Alexis held himself back this time, tired as he was, he would never be able to close the gap at the end. He must start fast and stay even with Lampis all the way, then do even better in the last stretch. He drew a deep breath, let it out, and leaned forward, his toes gripping the starting stone. The trumpet blared and the runners shot forward.
Out of the corner of his eye Alexis saw to his left Lampis and the boy from Elis, running smoothly. On his right, no one. Athens and Delphi were somewhere behind. Another glance showed him that Lampis was going into the lead. Alexis felt his lungs and his legs laboring painfully. Then suddenly he heard, as if the words were spoken, "I belong to Zeus." He saw in his mind the beach at Asini, and he felt his breath coming easily and powerfully. His leg muscles were obeying his will and he was overtaking, passing Lampis. The crowd at the finish line loomed up and overwhelmed him.
It was over. Alexis had won. Sprays of flowers and olive branches flicked his shoulders. Arms pummeled him. And then, while faces were still a blur, he saw one familiar face that made him think he had gone mad.
It happened in a flash. Slender arms were around his neck and a girl's voice spoke into his ear. "You won and I saw you win!
Oh, you are excellent!"
It was Niki. Niki where no girl was allowed to be on pain of death, Niki with her hair cropped so like a boy's and wearing one of his old tunics that she must have brought from home, planning this trick all along. No one seemed to be giving her even a second glance, but his blood froze.
"You fool!" he said under his breath. "Quick! Leave, before it's too late. You know the penalty."
"I don't believe in the penalty." She gave him a flashing smile and slipped away into the crowd.
Telamon was wiping the sweat from Alexis's face, his father and brother lifted him shoulder-high, and his townsmen put a crown of flowers on his head. They tied a ribbon on his arm, another on his thigh, and so carried him to the stone seat of the judges to receive the palm branch that would serve as a token of victory until the final night when victors were crowned with wild olive. As Alexis looked down, dazed and smiling, from his high perch, he saw Lampis, his cheeks white and tear-stained, leaving the crowd, followed by his grim-faced trainer. Again, in the midst of his own triumph, Alexis felt pity. It was a weakness, one he must try to overcome. He did not allow himself to picture the arrival of Lampis in Sparta.
As you read more about the ancient people of the Mediterranean, you will discover why Alexis felt pity for Lampis, the runner from Sparta. You also will learn that the ancient Greeks are remembered today for more than the Olympic Games.