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The Last Olympiad

Aleksander Krawczuk



Milan, January 17


And yet it is not without significance that the Roman emperor, during whose reign the ancient Olympics came to an end, was by no means an opponent of games and competitions. Indeed, he seems to have been passionate about them, sharing thus the likes and dislikes of the vast majority of his subjects. For his people, regardless of their education, social position, or professed religion, took every opportunity for entertainment provided by theaters and circus arenas, especially the latter. Only a handful of ascetics—though admittedly influential and articulate—cast thunderbolts of condemnation on shows, races, and performances. They wanted to uproot them and smash them with a rod of iron as sinful in essence and disastrous in spiritual consequences. But these exhortations did not find much understanding. Not even among their fellow coreligionists, who refused to believe that the emotions of the arena and the stage were just sneaky tricks of the devil and his minions.

But where is our proof that the ruler, whose name is always mentioned whenever one speaks of the end of the ancient Olympics, did not really despise the games—or at least the circus? Let this suffice for an answer: it is but one fact, but it is well-attested and significant. Namely, when the opportunity arose to stage games, the emperor, though seriously ill, perhaps even dying, ordered chariot races to be held under his own auspices. Moreover, he honored the show with his presence and presided over the proceedings until the wee hours of the morning.

To those who recalled the scene by the evening of the following day, it must have seemed a strangely distant and unreal memory, so sudden and sharp was the contrast between the two events of one and the same day of that winter.

The scene was Milan. The emperor had arrived from Aquileia—or perhaps directly from Rome, we do not know—already very weak. Those around him ascribed his weakness to the hardships of last year’s campaigning. But contrary to popular belief, the cause of the weakness was deeper and, therefore, far more dangerous because for a man not quite fifty, commanding military operations in the field could not have been an overtaxing effort.

In fact, an incurable disease was destroying his health. In Greek, it was called hyderos or hydrops. In the terminology of ancient Greek medicine, it could have meant either bloating and swelling or an excessive and constant thirst. In the latter case, it would probably have meant diabetes, and in the former, an impending failure of the liver, kidneys, or cardiovascular system. Whichever it was, the sick man felt so bad that he thought his days were numbered. He was also troubled, it was said, by a certain prophecy of three years earlier. He had been in the East then, preparing for an expedition against the usurper who had by then most Western provinces in hand, including Italy and Rome itself.

The war between them took on the traits of a religious conflict. The usurper—he had been a professor of Latin rhetoric by profession and received the imperial purple by the grace of a Germanic commander—increasingly lent his support to pagan cults, himself offering blood sacrifices to the gods, consulting oracles, and erecting statues of Jupiter with golden lightning in his hand.

Meanwhile, the rightful ruler also resorted to the techniques of religious propaganda. He had instructed it to be spread about that a prophecy had been made by a certain hermit monk in Egypt: “In this war, you will win.” But a persistent rumor had it that the prophecy did not end there but continued: “You will win, only to die.”

And now the emperor, having defeated his opponent, became a victim of unbearable suffering and expected the worst. Therefore, he ordered that his younger son, barely eleven, be summoned from Constantinople. The older one, already eighteen, could not come: important business kept him in the East.

As soon as the boy arrived in Milan, his father seemed to regain strength. So much so that he considered it advisable to celebrate last year’s victory over the usurper with a chariot race, a total victory for he had taken not only his power but also his life. The games were held on January 17th. The emperor arrived at the hippodrome with his retinue already past midnight. Who could have guessed then that it was to be his last appearance in public?

When he took his place in the box to signal the beginning of the games, tens of thousands of eyes stared at him intently, with curiosity and admiration. True, he has been to Milan more than once, but only now did he appear as the sole, undisputed ruler of the whole Roman Empire. His co-rulers had died, and the unfortunate usurper met a miserable death some months back. For the first time in thirty years, all lands from the Atlantic to the Euphrates recognized only one commander. His sons, though they already bore the titles of Augusti,0F[1] did not really rule yet—neither was yet of age.

The emperor was of average height, rather slender but shapely. His hair—though he was a native Spaniard—was fair, his nose thin, straight, slightly aquiline. The only symptom of his disease was the ruddiness constantly glowing on his face. It is understandable—as happens in all places and all epochs—that his contemporaries had differing opinions of him as a ruler, but it was generally admitted that, as a person, he was likable. Intellectuals emphasized with satisfaction that he did not lack reading. He was especially interested in history and, when discussing it, often gave proof of traditional Roman patriotism.

Neither was it a secret how kind and sincere he was in his dealings with his family: he showed great respect to his uncle and to his own father, and he treated his brothers and sisters as his equals. He received his guests politely but without ostentation. In conversation, he excelled in polished wit, skillfully adjusting the subject and registering to the social condition and interests of those present. As for his everyday life, he cultivated certain exercises for his health, liked long walks, and ate in moderation. His most obvious fault was that he was easily angered, and when angry, he could be very dangerous. This especially manifested itself when he thought that his authority or power had been impinged upon in some way. In such situations, he tended to make decisions which he later regretted bitterly.

That day he presided over the games until the morning meal. After he ate it, he became overcome with sudden weakness and was unable to return to the box. Therefore, he asked his son to take over as the host of the games. It seems significant that he did not want to interrupt or postpone the games. Certainly, neither he himself nor any of those present would have ever suspected that the end was so near. The races in the hippodrome were to continue for a while yet, as the sixteenth anniversary of the emperor’s ascension to the throne was to be celebrated in just two days.

But on the same day, January 17, with the coming of night, he died in his palace, the Palace of Emperor Theodosius. His descendants nicknamed him the Great.1F[2]





The last word that the people gathered around his bed heard from the dying man was: Dilexi—I loved. Was he speaking of a great, eternal, spiritual love? Or of love for his subjects, living and close? Or maybe the emperor was thinking back to his old memories and to people who had once been close to his heart?

His father, also named Theodosius, had died a tragic death twenty years ago, imprisoned, condemned, and beheaded in Carthage as a victim of a grim political plot even though he had held the highest state offices and made great sacrifices on the battlefields of Britain, on the Rhine and Danube, and in Africa. His mother died soon thereafter, as well as his brother. Both his wives had also departed; the first, the mother of his two sons ten years earlier, the second only a year ago, in childbirth.

Several of the family members were gathered now in Milan. First of all, the aforementioned younger son, named Honorius. Also, Honorius’s stepsister, a five-year-old girl, Galla Placidia. (Her mausoleum, built over half a century later, is a jewel of European architecture and still adorns Ravenna today). Further, the emperor’s niece, twenty-something Serena, and her husband, Flavius Stilicho, commander-in-chief of the armies of the West, a man of at least forty. He was entrusted with the care of the children of the dying emperor.

But the emperor did not leave a written will, neither political nor private. Indeed, such a document was not needed since everything important had already been settled. In accordance with their father’s will, his two sons were to rule Rome jointly: the younger, Honorius, the provinces of the West, and the elder, Arcadius, the East. Both held the title of Augustus already. The Empire, of course, was still one and indivisible, the division being merely one of competences, which had been used frequently in the past and with good results. Who could have foreseen—who would have believed—that this division would prove final, permanent, and historically disastrous?

Finally, let us mention that the emperor, while so ordering the affairs of the state, did not remain indifferent to the fate of his ordinary subjects, plagued in recent years by barbarian raids and civil wars as they had been. Everything had already been prepared and only awaited the Emperor’s signature: an edict granting generous tax breaks empire-wide.

At the express request of the ruler, the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, also arrived at the palace. Forty days later, he gave a funeral oration in honor of the deceased. In it, he mentioned several times that last word, dilexi, not directly, however, but in an indirect reference to it with the dexterity of a born rhetorician, which he really was. And thus, he said in one place:

“I loved the man, and he, in the last moments of his life and with his last breath, asked for me!”

Elsewhere, the bishop implied that there were also deeper and somewhat less personal reasons justifying his attachment to the emperor. But also in this case, the word dilexi appeared:

“I loved a man who more respected principled men defending their honest views than ordinary flatterers; a man able to set aside all his monarchical insignia in order to atone publicly, in church, for his sin, though he had committed that sin only due to the deception of others. Moaning and wailing, this emperor pleaded with God for forgiveness. He was not ashamed of the sort of things that common people often are ashamed of, that is, to do penance openly. And there was not a single day when he did not bitterly regret his mistake.”2F[3]

We must admit that the picture painted by Ambrose is, in its nature, truly medieval, we could even say, heralding the humiliation in Canossa.3F[4] Behold, the emperor humbles himself publicly before a representative of the church. And the sin—or mistake—for which the emperor atoned so deeply was—as we will see—profoundly connected with the mores of the ancient world.

Alas, while listing in his funeral speech the various virtues and merits of the deceased, the bishop could not praise him—to his true regret, surely—for hostility or even indifference to games. And he would gladly have listed this virtue, indeed, praised it to high heavens. After all, only three years earlier, bidding farewell to another emperor (he died in his youth, a tragic death, possibly even suicide), the same Ambrose did not fail to state with appreciation:

“People say that at first, he enjoyed circus games. But later, he uprooted this weakness within himself so thoroughly that he did not stage them even on the birthday of the emperors, even in honor of the rulers!”4F[5]

But Theodosius did not show such glorious temperance in the matter of spectacles. And it was better not to touch on this subject at all since all those listening to the speech still had a vivid memory of how the day of the emperor’s death had begun: with the emperor presiding over chariot games.



Consuls, Eras, Olympics


Starting on January 1 of that year, the dignity of the consuls was held, by the emperor’s grace, by two brothers, very much too young, almost boys, Olibrius and Probinus. They came from a powerful and well-known family of the Anicii, settled in the city of Rome. The poet Claudian graced their assumption of office with a panegyric in which he said:

“You started with what usually is the ultimate terminus. Only a few old men have deserved what you were given at once. You find yourself at the finish line before your sweet faces were even shaded by the flower of youth, before hair adorned your graceful faces.”5F[6] 

The fact that two mere boys had been entrusted with the noble office testified to how little the office really meant; it had no real power at all. Nevertheless, the honor was considerable because all documents, both private and official, were dated by denoting the names of the consular pair.

On the other hand, the practice of counting years from the coming into the world of Jesus Christ, that is, from the “incarnation of the Word” (as we do today), did not come into general practice until much later and even then, not everywhere, not even within Christendom. Therefore, no one said then that “Emperor Theodosius died in AD 395.” It was enough to say that it happened during the consulate of Olibrius and Probinus.

Only in the works of some historians were the years counted differently. In some cases, they were counted “from the founding of Rome,” and by this count, our year was 1148. And sometimes, but only in very dry chronicles or in the works of very ancient scholars, we find dating according to the Olympics, usually not very precise. Let us use an example that interests us. One historian says that Theodosius died during the 293rd Olympiad, and another says that he died in the first year of the 294th. The first statement is obviously too general because an Olympiad covered a period of four years. The second is outright wrong. In fact, if we wanted to use that system of counting, we would have to say that the death of Emperor Theodosius took place in the third year of the 293rd Olympiad.6F[7]

But we should not be surprised by such mistakes. By the time these historians wrote their chronicles, the Olympics had not been celebrated for ages. The games died out with Theodosius, the last in a very long line of Roman emperors who reigned over the whole Empire. These historians conflated two momentous events: one political, the other cultural. Many such events, symbolically marking the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, came together during the final years of the reign of Theodosius. And yet, probably none of his contemporaries realized that a breakthrough was taking place: the old world was departing, and a new manner of thinking and living was coming on stage.

But it was.

Usually, when we declare that a new age is born, the changes which we see are formal, symbolic, and superficial. Conversely, when truly fundamental metamorphoses take place deep within the social structure, hardly anyone notices them. And the posterity wonders and says:

“That no one at the time noted these obvious changes! That no one understood their meaning!”

But the posterity sees things from a distance and has the whole panorama of the past in front of it, so it can see sharply what is a hill or an artificial embankment, and what is a lofty peak. It was no different when the Olympics were coming to an end and the ancient world with them. How much we do not understand the meaning of various facts becomes obvious only when we try to answer a simple, even banal question: how do we know that the last Olympics were held under Theodosius?



Georgios Kedrenos


“It was then that the Olympic ceremony, held every four years over the millennia, died out. It began while Manasseh reigned over the Jews and continued until the reign of Theodosius the Great.”7F[8]

The Greek work from which these words are taken is entitled Synopsis Historion, that is An Overview of History. And indeed, it gives a fairly comprehensive summary of major historical events—or more precisely speaking, of those considered important at the time of its writing—and that from the creation of the world, too. And thus, it first recounts Biblical stories, then discusses the history of Greece and Rome, and finally, the history of Byzantium through the year 1057.

Although the author of this Synopsis is unknown to us, we can surmise that he was a monk in one of the monasteries of the Byzantine Empire, lived at the end of the 11th century, and that his name was Georgios Kedrenos.

But we can say quite a lot about the way his mind worked, and especially about his methods and his sources, which his book amply illustrates.

It is not a very flattering testimony. Kedrenos paraphrased and sometimes outright copied verbatim whole pages from the works of his predecessors—various earlier Byzantine chroniclers. He compiled quite diligently and, in some places, one could say, thoughtlessly. He wasn’t a scholar. He did not rummage through archives. He did not engage in methodological research. He did not evaluate or compare his sources. But he also did not make stuff up or add anything from himself—other than the occasional simple-hearted praise or condemnation and sometimes a pious sigh.

If he did distort someone else’s words, it happened because he repeated them awkwardly, abbreviated them too much, or failed to connect one narrative with another. He was not a master stylist.

As for his interests… Well.

First, there are the outlines of the reigns of kings and emperors and the listing of wars and cataclysms. Then the history of the church—treated mainly as a series of miracles, synods, and struggles against the heretics. Further: Kedrenos had a particular interest in the wonders of nature. Consider the chapter on the rule of Theodosius. There one finds the short note about the end of the Olympics sandwiched between reports such as:

“In the fifth year of Theodosius’ reign, a woman in Antioch gave birth to quadruplets; she lived for two more months while her boys died one by one.”


“In the eighth year of the reign of this emperor, in the Palestinian town of Emmaus, a child was born split in two from its navel up so that it had two torsos and two heads, and each of these upper parts seemed alive on its own so that while one was eating or drinking, the other was resting; and when this one was asleep, the other was awake. Sometimes they played together in harmony, at other times, they cried together, and sometimes they even fought. They lived for two years. And when one died, the other left the world a few days later.”8F[9]

It seems pretty certain that Kedrenos did not come up on his own with the information concerning the end of the Olympics; he took it from an earlier chronicle. Unfortunately, that source was later lost, and we don’t even know its title. This single random note in a book of a Byzantine monk writing in the late Middle Ages informs us about an event that could be considered the symbolic closing of antiquity. It is worth noting this: if Kedrenos had skipped over that fact for one reason or another; if he had given us an account of some monster instead, or a miracle, or a wonder of nature, we would not know when the last Olympic Games took place. And we would be entitled to suppose that the games continued for many centuries, every four years, as always; and that they died out quietly in the reign of some other emperor, forgotten by gods and men in their poor corner of the Peloponnese.

Kedrenos leafed through old chronicles seven centuries after the death of both Theodosius and the Olympiads. And he felt free to mention the end of the Olympiads probably because he had very little idea what those ceremonies had all been about. He didn’t know how they were staged or what they meant. And if you look closely, even what he did report is one part confusion and one part wrong.

Thus, the Byzantine author says that Manasseh reigned in Juda when the Olympic games were held for the first time in Greece. It so happens that, thanks to the Bible, this king is well known to have ruled between 696 to 642 BC. Meanwhile, the first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC. The mistake of the Byzantine monk, or perhaps of the source from which he drew, is glaring. Perhaps Kedrenos meant another king, not Manasseh, but Menahem: that king reigned a bit closer to the start of the Olympiads—in the years 747–738 BC, and not in Judea but in Israel. (There existed at the time two mutually hostile Jewish kingdoms).

So, whoever was responsible for the mistake, the chronological error is clear. That aside, we would like to know which ancient Olympiad was the last. Kedrenos informs us briefly and vaguely that this happened in the time of Theodosius the Great. But this emperor reigned for almost sixteen years, from January 379 to January 395, and during this period, the Olympic competitions were held—or could have been held—up to four times. They could have been the games counted consecutively as 290th, 291st, 292nd, and 293rd, held in the years AD 381, 385, 389, 393. Where could we find additional clues which might allow us to establish the exact date?





The Last Olympics


There is no clear evidence in this matter, but there are two notable clues. First, the information has been preserved that during the 291st Olympics, that is to say, in the year 385, a certain Armenian prince won a victory. Yes, Armenian: a man of foreign origin, non-Greek, though undoubtedly Greek-speaking.

This apparently insignificant fact might stir certain reflections. After all, once, centuries earlier, in the times of independent Greece, no one was allowed to compete in the Olympic games unless he could prove that he was purely Greek. And so it happened that at the beginning of the fifth century BC, the Olympic authorities wanted to exclude from the games the king of Macedonia. He was obliged to prove to a jury that his ancestors had come from the city of Argos and were, therefore, Greeks, and only after documenting his pedigree was he admitted to the games. (He finished neck-in-neck with the winner).

These rules were not strictly applied in later centuries, especially with respect to Romans—and they participated in the competitions quite often. But of course, who would have dared to call the lords of the world “barbarians”? But then, centuries later, the last known Olympic winner of antiquity was—an Armenian. People who look for symbolic meanings in historical facts should be grateful for this opportunity: the death of the Olympic games heralds the new games of the distant future: games to be held as the common celebration of all mankind, not only of Greeks and Romans, not only of Europeans.

For us, however, it is not those great and distant historical perspectives that are important right now but the very fact that the Games of 385 had to have taken place. And this means that in our search for the last games—the games that did not happen—there are only two  to choose from: namely, those in the years 389 and 393. Most textbooks and encyclopedias assume the latter date. It is worth noting, however, that the evidence is circumstantial and of doubtful value: Kedrenos speaks of the “extinction” of the Olympic games in the final paragraphs of his account of the reign of Theodosius.

Another question arises. Did the games come to an end for (as it were) natural reasons—funds may have run out, or the interest of the fans, participants, or sponsors may have waned? Or did it happen suddenly, on the orders of the emperor or some other authority hostile to pagan rites?

The Greek verb apesbe, to which the English “become extinct” corresponds, allows both interpretations, and that is the word that Kedrenos used. It is generally accepted in various scholarly works, and sometimes even categorically affirmed as obvious and well-attested, that Emperor Theodosius banned the Olympics, putting an end to them with a special edict. But there is no documentary basis for this claim.

Yes, Theodosius persecuted pagan cults. He forbade, under severe penalties, the offering of sacrifices to pagan gods and ordered the closure and even destruction of pagan temples. Anti-pagan repression intensified toward the end of this reign, just when the Games of 393 would have been celebrated.

And yet, certain sports events clearly associated with pagan cults continued for decades after the death of Theodosius, some even centuries. Such was the case in Antioch, the greatest city of ancient Syria. Every four years, in each year preceding the celebrations in Olympia, games were held there. They, too, were called “Olympic games,” and rightly so, because they faithfully followed in almost every respect those celebrated in the old country. Those Antioch Olympics continued without interruption until the year 520, and thus they outlived their mother-games by almost 130 years.9F[10]

Is there any better proof that there was no Theodosian edict abolishing the celebration of the Olympics? For why should the Olympian Olympics be forbidden in Greece and the Antiochian Olympics tolerated in Syria?

Yet, there could have been a reason. Antioch was enormous, populous, and wealthy, and the emperor may have hesitated to ban the games there, for such a ban could have led to riots; and riots happened often enough during his reign. But, in Olympia, located far from large urban centers, no serious disturbances threatened because there were hardly any permanent residents there. It was enough to forbid the hosting of participants and fans. Or to cut off the source of funds—for the organization of the competition required, as always and everywhere, and not only in antiquity, large expenditures. In large metropolises, this burden fell on the shoulders of the rulers, the city councils, and, above all, the local rich since a contribution to the games was thought of as a kind of tribute to the community. But who was to pay the costs at Olympia? The neighborhood was poor, the local population sparse and mainly pastoral, rich foundations of yore—for there had been such—had become exhausted or passed into other hands, either secular or ecclesiastical.

Mundane financial issues had often been the cause of trouble for the organizers of the games in the past: over the centuries, they had been at risk of extinction more than once. This was the case at the end of the 1st century BC when the king of Judea, Herod, saved the pagan games. Yes, that famous king Herod, widely known in later Christian tradition as a bloody tyrant and the murderer of the Innocents.

No, he was not the gentlest of rulers, but as an admirer of Hellenic culture, he made great contributions to its various centers, sites, and manifestations. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius wrote about Herod’s patronage of the Olympic Games:

To the land of Elis, he made a gift intended not only for Greece but for the whole world, wherever news of the Olympic Games is keenly awaited. For, having heard that the games were failing, he took part in the competition as a judge on his way to Rome; and thereafter, he created a permanent source of income for all time to maintain the games in memory of his participation in the jury.[11]


Those would have been the 192nd or 193rd games (12 BC or 8 BC). Who knows: were it not for Herod’s generosity and for his love of the Hellenic past, perhaps the last Olympic games would have been celebrated then and not four centuries later? And such an early extinction of the games would, in turn, have certainly had an impact on our perception of their importance and their prospects for rebirth in our time.

It seems we must give up our inquiry concerning the causes of the extinction of the Olympic Games. Nor is it possible to say which games were the last: those of 389 or those of 393. There is, however, another fact, much more important: the fate of the games was decided between 389 and 395, that is to say, in the last six years of the reign of Emperor Theodosius.



The Birth of the World of the Olympiads


But, to start off on the right foot, let’s recall the salient facts.

In Olympia, on the shores of the Alpheus, in the land of Elis in the Peloponnese, games were held regularly and continuously every four years starting in 776 BC as a religious rite in honor of Zeus. From all parts of the Hellenic world, crowds of participants and fans came. The Games were born and flourished together with the classic period of Greek civilization, constituted its integral component and its symbolic manifestation, and eventually perished along with it.

Yes, there had been an earlier civilization in the lands of Hellas, which we conventionally call Mycenaean, between the 16th and 12th centuries. It was similar to the later classical civilization in some ways, and it also liked all kinds of shows and competitions, but those games had a different aspect. The Mycenean civilization did not know the Olympic games as regular quadrennial events—even though chariot races took place in Olympia in those distant times also. Those races were consecrated to the hero Pelops and are evidenced by ancient myths, as well as by archaeological finds, in particular small bronze statues depicting horses, charioteers, and chariots. They were probably votive gifts of the Mycenaean victors.

But there is no straight, unbroken line of continuity between the games of the Mycenaeans and those which began in the eight century. It was only in 776 BC that the permanent games began, to be repeated every four years from that time on until the time of Theodosius.

From 776 BC to AD 393 is almost twelve centuries: 1169 years, to be exact. The voice of heralds solemnly proclaimed the coming of the sacred truce over 290 times. The question comes to mind: will the modern Olympics last so many centuries? And if they do, what will the world be like in the year of the 290th Olympics of the new order? The world of 3056?


But let’s get back to the Mycenaean and Classical cultures. The two are separated by a chasm of five centuries. Following the invasion that crushed the Mycenean castles in the 12th century, the lands of Hellas became enveloped in a fog of unknowing for a very long time, and the fog only began to fade in the eighth century BC, just as the quadrennial Olympics began.

The most fleeting things survived the catastrophe of the 12th century best: myths, legends, poetic stories. In the dark ages following the fall of the Mycenean civilization, they were passed on from generation to generation as its most valuable legacy. It is true that some of the material works of the old civilization also survived: ruins of castles and tombs, broken remnants of vessels, weapons, and ornaments. Even clay tablets have been preserved, covered with a strange script used only by Cretans and Myceneans. But most of those souvenirs had to be discovered, excavated, and decoded; we had to compel them to speak in order to summon the shadows of the old world. And all that happened only in the last hundred and fifty years, partly in our time, partly before our eyes. After all, only in the 1950s did it become possible to read the characters of the Mycenaean script.

But those fleeting things—memories, myths, and legends—passed from mouth to mouth (as an old Greek metaphor had it), survived down to the 8th century, and saw the first of the quadrennial games at Olympia. It was then that the poet known to posterity as Homer composed his epics about the Trojan War. In them, he employed Mycenaean themes, rich and formal, which he knew thanks to the uninterrupted tradition of singing. This is the first literary work of our cultural inheritance, and it was born simultaneously with the Olympics. Is it just a coincidence that the two phenomena—the heroic epic and the quadrennial games—so emblematic of the Graeco-Roman antiquity arose at the same time?



The End of the World of the Olympiads


And if we ask what happened to that ancient Graeco-Roman antiquity when the ancient quadrennial Olympics finally died out, the answer seems obvious: a whole civilization passed away, giving way to new beliefs, new ideals, new values, a new way of life, including everyday life. The particularly distinct feature of the new world was a fundamentally different attitude towards the human body. The pundits of the victorious religion preached and practiced contempt for everything related to the flesh, claiming that it was, in essence, sinful, tainted, and gravitated towards evil.

And therefore, how could one possibly rejoice in his mortal shell? How could one admire its build, its grace, its strength, and beauty which it showed in the gymnasium, in the palaestra,11F[12] in the stadium? And how much more scandalous if this damned flesh performed its shameful frolics in games to honor pagan gods, who were, after all, nothing but demons, servants of Satan!

These sermons did not produce results quickly, and in any case, they were far less effective than the missionaries of the new faith would have liked. The seed, however, sown persistently and tirelessly from generation to generation, had to yield a hundredfold crop eventually. According to its sowers, it was a healthy crop of wheat, replacing wild weeds and flowers, the crop of insidious demons.

But the beliefs of the defenders of the old civilization were exactly the opposite: the proliferating weed of the new religion threatened to choke whole fields of golden grain, a gift of the goddess Demeter.

We should note that the condemnation of the body and its affairs became popular among some pagan thinkers in the fullness of classical times, long before Christianity. After all, ancient Greeks coined the saying that the body was the tomb of the soul: a view later developed and defended by many ancient thinkers, including Plato. But such claims were a kind of poetic and metaphysical reflection. Both in private lives and in public practice, people followed other principles. Evidence of this is provided by the very same Plato, who, though normally glad to talk about the soul being a prisoner of the body, was in his youth the pride of his gymnasium and remained an honest admirer of the beauty of the ephebes until his dying day—in which, by the way, he seemed to follow his master. This is how he spoke on the subject through the mouth of Socrates:


“At that moment, Charmides entered the room.

“I’m not much of a judge. I find gold in every beautiful boy, and almost all young people seem beautiful to me. But that day, Charmides seemed like a miracle—he was so good-looking and so handsome. I also got the impression that everyone else was in love with him because as soon as he was in the room, they all lost their cool. And there was a crowd of his admirers pressing behind, too!”


And then Charmides sat down next to Socrates:


“I suddenly felt a strange confusion. Somehow, all my recent boldness, when I thought that our conversation would be easy, was gone. Then Critias said that I knew a cure for headaches. And Charmides looked at me with interest, waiting for my answer. Everyone, as many as there were in the palaestra, surrounded us in a circle. I saw his body under his cloak. A heatwave poured over me, and I no longer had any control of myself.”[13]


Yes, the conversation then turns to the matters of the soul, but after such an introduction, who will believe—who can possibly believe—that the body is only its grave?


But let us not dwell on such shocking contrasts. We will understand much better the difference between the two worlds—the passing world of antiquity and the coming age of Christianity—in their relation to the body by considering the ordinary and prosaic question, but as closely related to the body as possible: the issue of bathing.



Baths and Pagans


“In very ancient times, people believed that dreams about bathing were not ominous. Back in those days, they did not know public baths, and they bathed in the so-called bathtubs. Later, when bathhouses came into existence, dreams of bathing and also about bathhouses themselves, even if one did not bathe there, came to be understood as portentous. It was now believed that such dreams foreshadowed trouble because, in a bathhouse, there is always commotion and confusion; also, a loss because one gives off sweat prodigiously there; and finally, stress and fear because the skin—the surface of the body—undergoes a change. Many today still follow this view and explain such dreams in this way. However, they are wrong because they do not take into account empirical research.

“The point is that our bathhouses used to be really poor, people bathed irregularly, and there were not all that many bathhouses anyhow. Folks usually washed themselves only after a fight or after some hard work. And perhaps for this reason, these dreams of baths and bathing made them think about toil and war. Currently, however, matters look completely opposite. Today, many won’t even take a bite to eat until they have bathed first. Others take a bath again after eating, and they also bathe before each feast. Thus, in our time, the bathhouse has become a path to pleasure. And hence a dream that one is bathing in beautiful, bright, spacious, and airy baths bodes health and well-being, pleasant moments, an improvement in the frame of mind, and for the sick—recovery. Because to bathe is a proof of health, even when it is not necessary.”13F[14]


These words are taken from the Greek textbook of oneirocritica, or the art of interpretation of dreams. Its author, Artemidorus Daldianus, lived in the second century AD. He was a typical representative of his age: of the thinking, preferences, views, and lifestyle of an rich and numerous middle-class, which was both the flower and the foundation of the Roman Empire in its era of greatest splendor. Hence the importance of his dream book as our source of knowledge of everyday life of his contemporaries.

What were they like? They liked games and baths; they knew their literature; they honored their ancient traditions, both local and national. They often undertook long journeys across the many lands of their vast empire, whose participating members they felt themselves to be. And they believed in dreams, omens, prophets, and gods (in this order).

The Roman empire had created exceptionally favorable conditions for the development of this class by giving administrative support to the development of towns and cities. Thanks to a long period of peace, a stable rule of law, and a general sense of security, towns and cities in all provinces flourished as centers of trade and crafts and culture. And each of these towns, even the smallest, strove to have its own theater and its hippodrome, its own basilica (a meeting hall), its own temples, and—its own public baths. The latter, especially the larger and better-equipped ones, were usually called thermae. The name is Greek, and it comes, of course, from the heated swimming pools they featured.

Their remains, scattered throughout the lands of the former empire, testify to the magnificence, even monumentality of the public baths. Whoever entered could swim in large pools filled with cold or warm water, sit on marble benches arranged around beautiful fountains, listen to their pleasant murmur, and chat with friends. Or to sweat out whatever ached him in rooms called sudatorium. He could also exercise and play ball in special rooms lined with marble and decorated with statues.

It is therefore not surprising that city dwellers spent a large part of their day there, often every free moment of their life. Of course, as long as there were no circus races or gladiator fights or wild beast hunts in the arena, or pantomime performances on stage. In the capital, a dozen emperors built colossal baths in its various districts, giving them their names. Some parts of these buildings still serve as churches, museums, planetariums, and even sports halls. And since the Olympic Games are our subject, it is probably worth recalling that some competitions of the 17th Modern Games, celebrated in Rome in 1960, were held in the halls of the so-called Baths of Caracalla.

But who could count all the smaller public baths located in every little street of ancient Rome? A passing note in an ancient work informs us that in 33 BC, there were 170 of them but a hundred years later, it was difficult to count them all.14F[15] According to another, a bit later source, the number reached a thousand.15F[16] Of course, we do not take into account private bathrooms in noble palaces.

Baths, large and small, were open to everyone, regardless of their social class, for a modest fee or sometimes even for free, when some wealthy citizen or the city itself decided to cover the cost on the occasion of some celebration.

Both men and women were admitted. Women used separate buildings or separate rooms or had special days and hours reserved for them. But often, there was no segregation at all, so people simply mingled while they bathed. And so, generation after generation, Romans enjoyed public baths, both in the second century, the age of the interpreter of dreams Artemidorus Daldianus, and in the fourth century, under the pious emperor Theodosius, even as the Olympic Games were dying out. And in some provinces, especially in the cities of the Hellenic East, thermal baths continued to prosper for centuries, right through the Byzantine times.

Even the strictest pagan ascetics (and it is worth remembering that there were also pagan ascetics) treated bathing as a hygienic measure necessary for everyday life in the same manner as bread and oil. Take, for example, the lifestyle and sayings of Apollonius of Tyana.

This famous mystic (and supposedly a miracle worker), who lived in the 1st century, i.e., in the times of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and Titus, did not differ much from later Christian monks when it came to the severity of self-discipline and his ascetic practices. He ate no meat at all, contenting himself with bread, fruit, and vegetables. He did not drink wine. He went about barefoot, wore only linen clothes, and never cut his hair. For many years he remained completely silent, faithful to a vow he had made in his youth, communicating with others only through gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements. Yet, each day, he took a bath, usually at the same time, towards the evening. Then he rubbed his body with oil and rinsed it with cold water. He was of the opinion that warm water promoted aging and disease, and therefore, when arriving in Antioch in Syria and learning that the emperor had ordered the closure of the city’s magnificent thermal baths as a punishment for a recent riot, he said:

“You do wrong, and as a reward, the emperor extends your life!”

What he meant was, of course, that in the baths, one was tempted to bathe in warm water pools.

Some centuries later, alleged letters of Apollonius began to circulate, and their author claimed that Apollonius did not bathe and required the same from his students.16F[17] Those letters, so obviously contrary to what we know about the conduct of Apollonius, may have been influenced by the practices and teachings of a certain current of Christianity.

As for bathing in warm water, many other pagans thought it was harmful to health and that only cold water was beneficial. And thus, cold water bathing was practiced in Rome by many people, even among the rich. Here is an example: Seneca—philosopher, writer, statesman, and a millionaire—and a near contemporary of Apollonius. In one of his letters written in old age, he writes that he has just returned from a walk during which he raced against a young boy who usually accompanied him on his daily strolls (he used to joke: “We are both the same age because we’re both losing our teeth!”); and that he came at the finish line neck-and-neck with him.

“Then I took a cold water bath. That’s what I call these days water that is not very warm. And yet, in my youth, I bathed in icy water! On January 1, I started the new year by jumping into a swimming pool fed with water running straight from a mountain spring! Later, a bath in the Tiber had to suffice, and now I bathe in a pond warmed by the sun.”17F[18]


[1] Plural of Augustus

[2] The Death of Theodosius: Socrates, History of the Church, V 26; Sozomen, History of the Church VII 29; Philostorgius, History of the Church, XI 2.


[3] Ambrose, De obitu Theodosii oratio, 34.

[4] Canossa is a comune and castle town in northern Italy where Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077 and stood three days bare-headed in the snow to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII.

[5] Ambrose, De obitu Valentiniani consolatio, 15

[6] Claudian, Panegirycus dictus Probino et Olybrio, 67–689.

[7] Traité d’études Byzantines, I La chronologie, V. Grumel, Paris 1958, s. 242

[8] Georgios Kedrenos, Synopis Historion (Compendium Historiarum), p. 258 B, Venice, 1729


[9] Ibid., p. 249 D and p. 250 B

[10] J.H.W.G. Leibeschuetz, Antioch, Oxford 1972, p. 136 ff

[11] Joseph Flavius, The Jewish War, I 21, 12

[12] The wrestling school in ancient Greek cities

[13] Plato, Charmides, 154 c 1 155 d

[14] Artemidorus Daldianus, Onirocriticon, I 64


[15] Pliny, Natural history, 36, 121.

[16] Blümner, Die römische Privataltertümer, Berlin 1911, p. 421.


[17] Philostratos, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, I 16; Letters 8 and 43.

[18] Seneca, Letters, 83, 4–5

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