Olympic Games in the Iliad

The recording of events in ancient Greece was by the years of the Olympiads, four years apart, the first year of the first Olympiad having been -776. An important contest at the Olympiads was among charioteers, each driving a four-horse team. Olympia was located in the district of Elis in the western part of the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Tradition has it that the Olympic games were initiated by Pelops, an immigrant from Phrygia in Asia Minor. Another account ascribes the founding of the festival to Heracles, as a celebration of his conquest of Elis.1   In Worlds in Collision the identity of Heracles with the planet Mars was brought out from the statements of several ancient authors:2   While the founding of the games was attributed to Heracles, or Mars, the festival also honored Athene, or the planet Venus. This is shown by the fact that the early games were held at eight-year intervals,3  typical for Venus festivals, since eight terrestrial years equal five synodical years of Venus. Later they were celebrated every four years, or two and a half synodical periods of Venus. The eighth century was a time when the planet Mars was prominent among the heavenly bodies and caused much destruction on earth. Nestor, the future king of Pylos, was but a young man at the time of the rampage of Heracles-Mars through the western Peloponnese—he himself saw all his elder brothers killed by the god and his native Pylos burned to the ground4 —but by the tenth year of the siege of Troy, Homer tells, “two generations of mortal men had [already] perished: those who had grown up with him and they who had been born to these in sacred Pylos, and he was king in the third age.”5  This information permits the rough guess that some fifty to sixty years passed between the founding of the Olympic Games in Nestor’s youth and the Trojan War.

In the Iliad the aging Nestor recalls that soon after the rebuilding of Pylos his father Neleus sent from Pylos a team of four horses with a chariot to race for a tripod for a competition to be held at Elis. But the fine steeds were detained by the Elean king and their driver was sent home to Pylos empty-handed.6

. . . For in Elis a great debt was his [Neleus’] due: a four-horse team of racing horses and their chariot that would have contended in the games and raced to win the tripod.

That this passage from the Iliad is a reference to the Olympic Games was understood already in antiquity, as we gather from a discussion of it by the geographer Strabo.7  This means that Homer knew of the Olympic games and had Nestor refer to them as an event that began to be celebrated several decades before the drama that is the subject of the Iliad. However, it is beyond dispute that the beginning of time reckoning by Olympiads was in the eighth century, more precisely in -776. The fact that these games are mentioned as taking place when Neleus, the father of Nestor, was a young man gives some indication of the time in which the Trojan War was fought.


  1. Pindar, Olympian Odes, X 43ff.; Hyginus, Fabula 273.

  2. Eratosthenis catasterismorum reliquiae, ed. C. Robert, 1878: “Tertia est stella Martis quam alii Herculis dixerunt.” Cf. Macrobius, Saturnalia iii. 12. 5-6, reporting the opinion of Varro.

  3. W. R. Ridington, The Minoan-Mycenean Background of Greek Athletics (Philadelphia, 1935), pp. 82-83.

  4. Homer, Iliad XI. 688-692; Pausanias II.2.2; III.26.6 and V.3.1; Apollodorus II.7.3.; Diodorus Siculus IV.68.

  5. Homer, Iliad, transl. by R. Lattimore (1951), Book. I, 250-252.

  6. Homer, Iliad XI. 698-701.

  7. Strabo, Geography VIII.3.30; Pausanias V.8.2