Saturday, February 8, 2014

Emperor Theodosius Ends the Pagan Olympics (Theonomy Applied)

Theodosius I 
(347-395)—also known as Theodosius the Great—was emperor of Rome from 379-395. At this time the Roman Empire had been greatly influenced by Christianity, but still had some pagan influences as well. 

During his reign, Emperor Theodosius set out to topple the remnants of pagandom by banning idolatry and pagan ceremonies. This had enormous consequences for the Olympics, since pagan practices were foundational to it. 

Background of the pagan Olympics

The Olympics displayed the violence of pagan cultures. This was especially the case in a form of fighting called the pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, and street fighting. Participants could do such things as groin kicks, dislocate their opponents shoulders and ankles, and even chokeholds. One contestant nicknamed "Mr. Digits" was known for breaking his adversaries' fingers; another, named Damoxenos, once pierced through an opponents rib cage with a finger thrust and pulled out his opponent's intestines.[1]

Steven Gertz describes the Olympics overtly pagan practices:
Before the Games began, competitors processed to the village of Piera on the outskirts of Olympia. There, priests sacrificed a fat pig to Zeus, and the athletes participated in a ceremony of purification. Once the contestants had been confirmed, the priests repeated the ceremony, this time sacrificing a pig and sheep before the colossal statue of Zeus in Olympia. The athletes then swore allegiance to the Greek gods and fidelity to Zeus.
Nor were the gods relegated to the opening ceremonies. Winners of events visited the Temple of Zeus to sacrifice to the gods, and half of every animal was delivered to the priests to be prepared for the Olympic feast. That feast, held on the third day of the Games, was marked by a procession—priests scooped up glowing embers from the fire of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, then carried those embers past spectators singing a hymn to Zeus. Arriving at the Temple of Zeus, the priests mounted the steps and lit the fire in the altar with the embers. There, the priests slaughtered and sacrificed 100 bulls—one at a time—after which the feasting began.
If this wasn't offensive enough to Christian sensibilities, Greek men competed in the nude—apparently, one runner early in the Games' history lost his loincloth en route and ended up winning the race, thereby encouraging everyone else to follow suit. Married women were not allowed in the stands; women who flouted this prohibition ran the risk of being pitched head first off of nearby cliffs. But unmarried women were allowed to watch; and hetaeras, or "high-class" escort girls, would prostitute themselves during the banquets for Olympic victors. Some of these women likely came from the population of temple prostitutes dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex.[2]

Emperor Theodosius takes action

"Theodosius [above] ...
in his faith wiped out all
worship of graven images,
and trampled down their
-- Ambrose
The reign of Theodosius was a triumph against paganism, as the emperor took decisive action against anti-Christian religious practices. The Bishop Ambrose, who lived during this time, favorably summarizes this era:
Theodosius who, after the example of Jacob, supplanted perfidious tyrants and banished the idols of the gentiles; who in his faith wiped out all worship of graven images, and trampled down their ceremonies.[3]
Naturally, the pagan Olympics would be affected by Theodosius' campaign to demolish paganism; while the games to some extent or another may have continued, their particularly pagan rites would cease:
Though Theodosius does not target the Games specifically, his laws contributed to the eventual downfall of the Games at Olympia due to the prohibition of pagan practices. It appears that this point can be held as a source for histories blaming Theodosius for the prohibition of the Olympic Games. Downey assesses that the laws affected the character of the Games but, though many pagans such as in the letters of Libanius saw the Games as unaltered, the festival could no longer be seen as in honour of Olympian Zeus and lost some of their traditional Greek identity. Fowden specifies that the “externals of the pagan cults were dismantled.”[4]

Hillgarth explains that Theodosius I banned the use of areas of pagan worship such as temples and sanctuaries in XVI, 1, 2 (380). Theodosian code cites that “their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches,”[5] and that all pagan sites of worship should be abandoned in sight of the law and the new Christian dogma.  Young explains that the focal point of Olympia was the sanctuary of Zeus and the “renowned temple of Olympian Zeus.”[6] The Olympic Games focused significantly on becoming closer to the gods, to be the very best, and the sanctuary was an important and essential part of this ancient Greek ideal. ...
Theodosian code states that “no person at all, of any class or order whatsoever of men or of dignities,…shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city.”[7] As much of traditional Greek festivities and Games included sacrifice to the gods as a key aspect, the prohibition of such acts would have had a direct effect on events such as the Olympic Games.[8]
In 426, Emperor Theodosius II finished some of the work that his grandfather started by burning the Temple of Zeus and other Olympia buildings to the ground.[9] He demolished the great stadium of Olympia—which could hold up to more than 40,000 people.[10] 

The Olympics—at least in their outwardly pagan form—had been vanquished. 

Because pagan practices were so foundational to the Olympics, the decrees of Theodosius had inflicted such a wound that it would be centuries before the games would reemerge in a major way.

The Pagan Olympics return (why we need more like Theodosius)

Over time, the West would apostatize and repaganize. As such, it is no surprise that in 1896, the Olympics would become repopularized on a global scale. And since idolatry is the natural means by which pagan man seeks global unity, the pagan religious rites would return as well:
The term "Olympic Games" was still used about the local contests held in some Greek villages by the time a French educator, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, organized the first "Olympic Games of the Modern Era" in Athens in 1896. It had already been used about other attempted revivals, as in Paris on a local scale a century before during the French Revolution, and for Scandinavia in Ramlösa in Sweden in 1834 and 1836, aside from Panhellenic Games held in 1859 and 1875—all without lasting success. The tide only turned with the "Congress for the Reestablishment of the Olympic Games." It opened at the University of Paris on June 16, 1894, with a performance of the Hymn to Apollo just discovered in May 1893, which used to open the Pythian Games. Set to music by the composer Gabriel Fauré, it was sung against the evocative classical backdrop of Pierré Puvis de Chavannes's mural painting "The Sacred Grove" at the Sorbonne.[11]
The writer adds that the modern Olympics' invented traditions
express a need to present them as being in some sort of spiritual continuity with their ancient model, as if they were passing on the flame of classical agon and arete through time. This is why the Olympic flame (meant to recall the one that used to be kept on an altar for the duration of an ancient Olympiad) is still kindled using the sun's rays in a historical reenactment of the rite in the ruins of Olympia's temple of Hera. It is then relayed through space by runners to a new site every four years—often halfway around the globe, which cosmopolitan Western culture now encompasses, as the distant forbear it has in Hellenistic civilization did the classical Mediterranean world.[12]
While we by no means endorse the Greek Orthodox church, it was rightly morally outraged at the revival of the pagan Olympics:
The popular and zealous preacher, Apostolos Makrakis, had also protested the Athens Olympic games of 1896 and the Olympic Anthem as "an introduction of the ancient pagan spirit of error and wickedness." The Holy Synod denied permission to a priest seeking to participate in the Marathon race of 1896. The ceremonial lighting of the flame for the Berlin Olympic games of 1936 in Nazi Germany and the introduction of the Olympic Torch Relay for the first time brought similar complaints in the official bulletin of the Church of Greece, calling these pagan-like rituals unworthy of the Greek people.[13]
On the paganism in the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics, Gertz writes:
It begins with an austere mask shattering into pieces, revealing the true focus of this magical night—the human body. Minutes later, a centaur (half human, half horse) launches into the darkness a "javelin," a shaft of light arching through the air. Then the Greek god Eros descends over scantily clad lovers sensually clutching and releasing each other as they frolic in the water. Finally the procession of Greek history begins, with float after float parading the progress of Greek sport, science, mathematics, warfare, theatre, and—culminating in the persona of the goddess Athena and a replica of the Parthenon—religion. Over all this, Eros hovers, as though the god of love is guiding the course of human history.[14]
Unsurprisingly, the Olympic anthem included the following idolatrous words:
Ancient Immortal Spirit, chaste Father of all that is Beauty, Grandeur and Truth Descending appear with Thy presence Illumine Thine Earth and the Heavens. Shine upon noble endeavors wrought at the Games on Track and in the Field … To Thine Temple, to Thy Worship, come all. Oh! Ancient Eternal Spirit![15]
But while the pagan games have returned in a major way, they will not last forever. God will destroy them in one way or another; perhaps by means of civil rulers again. That is, if and when civil rulers realize again their duty as ministers of God, then they will once again put an end to these idolatrous pagan rites. 

And the work of Theodosius was not in vain. Most importantly, God was glorified in his actions. But also, he serves as an important example to future ministers of Godan encouragement to continue the fight for the crown rights of Jesus Christ and to ban the promotion of paganism. 


[1] Steven Gertz, "Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games," in Christianity Today (2004, posted online August 8, 2008), 2. Retrieved February 4, 2014, from
[2] Ibid.
[3] Cited in Ibid., 3. 
[4] G. Fowden, Bishops and Temples in the Eastern Roman Empire A.D. 320-435 (1978).
[5] Theodosian Code, XVI, 1, 2, (380) in J. N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), 46.
[6] D. C. Young, A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Cornwell, 2004), 60.
[7] Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 46.
[8] Jenni Irving, "The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code," in GraecoMuse (February 17, 2012). Retrieved February 5, 2014 from
[9] Louis Pritchard, ed., Eyewitness Olympics (New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2005), 12.
[10] Gertz, "Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games," 1.
[11] Christian Roy, Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2005), 166.
[12] Ibid., 166, 167.
[13] Vasilios N. Makrides, Hellenic Temples and Christian Churches: A Concise History of the Religious Cultures of Greece from Antiquity to the Present (NY: New York University Press, 2009), 150.
[14]  Gertz, "Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games," 1.
[15] Ibid., 3.

photo credits:
Discus Thrower
© Deutsche Fotothek‎ / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

© Henryart / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Note about the Theonomy Applied Series: In quoting any particular law, we do not necessarily endorse every aspect of that law as biblical, whether it be the prohibition, sanction, court procedure, etc. Rather, we are merely showing the more or less attempt to apply biblical law in history, whether or not that application was fully biblical. Moreover, in quoting any particular law, we do not necessarily consider those who passed and/or enforced such a law as being fully orthodox in their Christian theology. Professing Christian rulers in history have ranged in their theology from being orthodox (that is, Reformed Protestants) to heretical (for example, Roman Catholics).  


Scolaris Legisperitus said...

Another pagan practice of the ancient Olympics consisted in the following : after the contest, the sweaty participants would pour some sawdust or some flour on their wet body, then they would rub the discusting mix off and make a burned offering with this mix to Zeus.

Steve C. Halbrook said...

Revolting. Didn't they believe the sweat was somehow semi-divine? In any case, as Romans 1 teaches, paganism results in shameful and foolish behavior.