The Tense Olympics of 420 BCE And A Boycotted Athlete From Sparta Who Sneaked Into The Games

 

Around 422, after nine years of war, a truce was reached in the Peloponnesian War between the rival Greek coalitions of Athens and Sparta. Although the peace between them would last seven years, war was still prevalent by way of regional disputes. In 421 BCE, one such conflict was caused in the Peloponnesus when the city of Argos announced the creation of its own league and began recruiting into its ranks some disillusioned allies of Sparta. Mantinea, Elis, Chalcidice and, less enthusiastically, Corinth and the Boeotian cities all aligned their regions with Argos. Boeotia and Corinth, however, had a change of heart and separated from Argos—Boeotia renewed its alliance with Sparta and Corinth decided to stay neutral, but was more favorable to Sparta than Argos. When the Boeotians and Corinthians abandoned the Argive alliance and Sparta began launching attacks against Mantinea, Argos decided to align itself and its allies with Athens. This was the atmosphere of Greece in 420 BCE, when the Olympic Games were held within the territory of the Argive alliance.

Argos and its remaining allies were still bitter with Sparta when it came time to host the Olympic Games. Although members of both the Athenian Delian League and the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League were welcome at the Olympics, Sparta, itself, was banned from participating. Just in case the Spartans should decide to show up and compete in a contest of battle, the Argive alliance and Athens sent troops to defend the Olympic Games—Thucydides estimated around 1,000 warriors from Argos, 1,000 more from Mantinea and an uncounted contingent of cavalry from Athens was present at the games specifically to guard against a Spartan attack.

The Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), recalled two or three events that stood out in the 420 BCE Olympic Games. An Arcadian athlete named Androsthenes proved his prowess that year, winning both the wrestling and the boxing events. Additionally, the horses and charioteer bankrolled by Lichas, son of Arcesilaus, won a chariot event during the games. Lichas’ success, however, caused no small amount of controversy—he was, after all, a Spartan. Lichas had stealthily sneaked his chariot team into the Olympic Games and they won the event without anyone being the wiser. When Lichas proudly raced down to course to congratulate his team and crown the charioteer, the spectators and umpires of the games quickly discovered that he was Spartan. In a rage, officials stripped the Spartan team of their victory, instead granting the win to a Boeotian charioteer who had finished in second place. As for Lichas, he was allegedly given an embarrassing punitive beating by the umpires of the chariot race.

After the scandalous Lichas incident, the 420 BCE Olympic Games became even more tense. According to Thucydides, the participants and spectators of the games were now more sure than ever that the Spartans would rally their forces to avenge Lichas. The Spartans, however, stayed home and no further incidents were reported to have occurred during the games.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Ancient image of a chariot from the Tomb of the Driver, now housed in a museum in Paestum, Italy. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book V) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

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