When Athletes Were Paid in Olive Oil


The stadion was a sprint along a straight, 210-yard track. Twenty finalists -- "tawny with rich oil, sleek and glossy" -- aligned behind a spring-loaded gate and faced east -- "stretching their minds toward the terma, putting their hope of victory in their feet."

At the far end a panel of judges squinted at the nudes flying toward them -- "leaving no tracks in the sand." If the Greeks had invented stop watches, they wouldn't have used them. Just as they never thought to measure a javelin toss or record the flight of a discus.

The ancients were interested in one thing. Who won.

A Greek historian could cite a year by saying, "It happened in the third year of the eightieth Olympiad, when Ladas of Argos won the stadion," and people would know what he meant. To win at the Panhellenic Games at Olympia was to win immeasurable fame. The laurel leaves were almost a godly crown.

But they weren't money, and an athlete has got to get by.

At the top of the post you see a Greek amphora of 530 B.C., in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At one time it contained 10.4 gallons of olive oil, harvested from the sacred groves of Attica planted, long ago, by the goddess Athena -- "the maiden revered, the succor of cities, of the grey-eyes, of the relentless heart."

Before the Panathenic Games, the city treasurers contracted the Potters' Quarter for about 1,400 amphorae of this type, and apportioned some 15,000 gallons of oil from some 350,000 olive trees.


The thrown, painted amphorae cost the treasury one drachma a piece, or about a skilled stonecutter's daily wage. The fragrant oil inside was worth, at the very least, twelve times the cost of its vessel. Olive oil was the very heart of Greek wealth.

The Athenians competed in three age divisions -- boys, beardless youths, and men -- and in events as varied as charioteering, boxing, wrestling, rhapsodizing, and painting, all as part of a religious Festival that began in the Parthenon with the robing and honoring of its colossal Athena. (That is, once the Parthenon was completed in 432 B.C.)

Below is another of the Met's Panathenaic amphorae, this one a prize for Pankrateon, a mixed martial art. 


Notice the judge ready to cane anyone resting in the clinch.

The marquee event was also the oldest: the race of the swift-footed, whose winners took home nearly 50% more than their peers. In real terms, the first place prize for the men's stadion was exactly 100 amphorae of this type.

1,300 gallons of olive oil. 

In cash terms -- and cash it in these athletes did -- 1,300 gallons of olive oil could buy a victorious athlete six or seven medium-priced slaves, a flock of one hundred sheep, two or three houses in Attica, or "one very fancy house in Athens," as calculated by a scholar.

Which begs the question. Derek Jeter's Trump apartment is "one very fancy house" in New York City. He recently put it on the market for $20 million dollars, roughly his yearly wage.

Without engaging in too much sophistry... the greatest Greek athletes enjoyed themselves.


"Indeed, at the moment when the gate has fallen, I am already proclaimed the victor, having traversed the stadion so fast that the spectators did not even see me." 

-- "Riches" boasting to Hermes about just how quickly he slips away.

Above: An olive oil flask with Hermes, the fortune-bringer.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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