Greece: the Olympics and the Theater

Grades 5+

The cold sun beamed across ancient Athens, announcing spring and all its joys – theater, dancing, the Olympiad, and the sweet taste of wine.

Agnes had not slept a wink. Today was her 16th birthday, and her father, a big wine merchant in Attica, had gifted her with something special. He was taking her to the Theater of Dionysus to watch a play for the first time. She wanted to watch her boyfriend on stage. Leo was part of the chorus, but his ambition was to one day become a lead actor.

As she arrived in the theater, she was awed by its splendor. Stone benches lined the tiers of the huge amphitheater, and the stage was framed by massive columns. Statues and other artifacts decorated the stage. Built on the southern side of the Acropolis hill, this theater’s purpose was the staging of the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.

She took her seat and waited for the performance to begin. All around her, thousands of people filled the benches. Men and women of all ages chatted with their neighbors. They were a mix of different social classes – members of the upper class as well as ordinary people. The smell of wine and roasted nuts filled the air.

The performance featured a chorus of dozens of men, including Leo, and three lead narrators. They sang and danced to the music, wearing costumes and masks.

The play was a way to promote the celebration of wine and fertility. The wine industry was a major part of the economy and culture. From the steeply sloped terraces, the audience laughed and cheered along with the actors. The musical accompaniment and colorful costumes created a magical atmosphere that was both exciting and mesmerizing.

Agnes beamed with joy as she watched Alex perform. The theater’s stone walls echoed the cheers of the crowd. Agnes screamed with delight for Alex as the chorus sang, clapped when he moved in perfect sync with the other actors, and admired his skill in delivering his lines.

This light-hearted play was only the satyr part. Still to come were the more serious tragedy and comedy, as per the competition rules.

Agnes was thrilled to support her boyfriend as he strived for his dream. But what about her dreams? She preferred physical activities over the performing arts.

“Hold them steady, Agnes,” Leo said.

Agnes had a particular interest in chariot racing.

Besides, Agnes could not participate in plays even if she wanted to. Women were not allowed on the stage. It was considered improper and dangerous. The theater, the Olympics, and participation in government were for males only.

Unmarried girls had their own festival, Heraean Games, held separately. These games included a series of foot races along a track shorter than the men’s. The girls wore a chiton, a tunic made of linen or wool that was sewn on the sides and held together at the shoulders with pins or brooches. In contrast, men were naked in the Olympics Games.

Agnes did not want to run. She loved watching horses run. Chariot racing was for the rich who could afford owning horses and who could recruit drivers. Luckily for Agnes, her father’s wine-drakhmas made her a wealthy young woman. She often spent her time practicing with the chariot and learning the best techniques for controlling the horses. She was also learning the best practices to manage a chariot race team. She had been inspired by the story of Cynisca, a princess/athlete from Sparta. Cynisca discovered a loophole in the regulations that she used. In chariot racing, the owners of the teams, not the drivers, were declared as winners. She still could not step foot on the ground as a female. But she could fund and train a team without having to be herself the charioteer. Not only could Cynisca take part in the races, she won. Twice in a row, in 396 and 392 BC. That was a long time ago. However, if competing in the chariot races was unheard of for a woman in Cynisca days, it was still frowned upon at Agnes’ time.

The Spartan princess was Agnes’ idol, and was following in her steps. Given her age, Agnes was making big progress already. Her team is made up of 3 charioteers, 4 horses, and 3 two-wheeled carts. They trained regularly and took part in mini contests between Athens’ neighborhoods. There were also clandestine chariot racing events where women could take part as drivers.

It was 392 AD, so two years were still ahead until the next Olympics. So Agnes and her team had ample time to prepare for the big event that would be held in the small town of Olympia.

Little did Agnes know that these coming games—in which she would win the chariot race—would be the last. Ever. It wouldn’t be until 1896, 1502 years later, that Pierre de Coubertin revived the tradition and the first modern Olympics were held.