What games did people play in ancient Greece?
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Greek Games

Discobolos
Discus Thrower (classical period)

April 2016 - The Greeks took games of all kinds very seriously, but especially physical athletic competition. The Greeks believed that their gods particularly loved to see strong, fit, graceful human bodies, especially boys' and men's bodies.

So one way to get on the good side of the gods was to exercise, to eat right, to oil your skin, to create a beautiful body that the gods would love. Because of the Greek tendency to turn everything into an agon, a competition, this also meant that there were a lot of athletic competitions in Greece. The most famous of these is the Olympic Games, but there were other games held in other places as well, like the Isthmian Games at Corinth.

Hockey
Young men playing field hockey

Young men (from richer families who didn't have to work) in most Greek cities spent a lot of their time training for these competitions, and the best of them were chosen to compete against the best young men from other cities. Then they would all meet, at the Olympic Games or the Isthmian Games or another festival, and compete for prizes and for the favor of the gods. Of course these games also served as good training for the army, because all these men would be soldiers as well.

girl running in a dress
Spartan girl running

The events were the same kind as in the Olympics today: running, jumping, throwing a javelin, and throwing a discus. There were also chariot races and horse races. Only men could compete.

Juggling Girl

These games are similar to Central Asian games, which also involved wrestling and horse races, and the Indo-Europeans may have brought them to Greece when they came in the Bronze Age.

Greek boys also played games that weren't part of the Olympic games, like field hockey. Greek boys usually played games without their clothes on (and so girls were not allowed to play or to watch). Greek girls also played games: they juggled and played catch. Little children played on swings, as they do now.

girls kneeling
Girls playing knucklebones

The Athenian girl in this picture is juggling three balls. In southern Greece, in Sparta, girls had organized races and competitions. Greeks also played less active games like dice and marbles, and knucklebones, and checkers.

greek vase - man puts child in a swing
A man lifts a child into a swing
(Eretria Painter, 435-420 BC)

In this Hellenistic scene, two girls are playing knucklebones, which was a game like jacks. (To Greek people, teenage girls playing knucklebones was a metaphor for the hit-or-miss gamble of marriage they were facing).

Even in these games, though, the competition was very important, and there was a feeling that losing at games meant that the gods didn't like you.

Learn by doing: learn to juggle
More about ancient Greek swimming

Bibliography and further reading about Greek games:

The Ancient Greek Olympics, by Richard Woff (2000). , from Oxford University Press.

Hour Of The Olympics (Magic Tree House 16) by Mary Pope Osborne (1998). A good beginning reading series. You can also get a research book about the Olympics to go with this storybook.

Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, by Mark Golden (P. A. Cartledge and Peter Garnsey are series editors)(1998). Mark Golden's an entertaining writer, and this book is a good general introduction, although not specifically for kids.

Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook With Translations, by Waldo E. Sweet (1987) 0195041275. Find out what ancient Greek and Roman writers had to say about sports and games, in their own words.

More about the Olympic Games
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?