5 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About Ancient Civilizations

#2. The Ancient Olympics Were About Tests of Physical Ability, Not Endorsements and Fame

Wikipedia Commons

The Myth:

Sure, today's Olympics are corrupt, rife with cheating, and riddled with scandal, but at least today's games aspire to the noble ideals of the ancient Greeks -- amateurism, fair play, and peace. For one brief moment in history, those cherished virtues were upheld. It's inspiring stuff, really.


Not a CCTV camera in sight.

The Reality:

Literally all the worst aspects of the modern games -- cheating, corruption, commercialism -- were present almost from the very beginning of the ancient Olympiad. Hell, the ancient Greeks couldn't even pay lip service to the spirit of sportsmanship, because the idea of "fair play" didn't even exist. And that other righteous Olympic ideal, amateurism? There was no place for that shit in the ancient Greek games -- not with "riches and bitches" (we're fairly certain that's an ancient phrase) up for grabs.


Oh yeah, mad bitches.

"For love of the game" certainly didn't exist two millennia ago. Ancient Greek athletes were just as motivated by material gain and glory as today's -- hell, the word "athlete" even means "one who competes for a prize." Technically, the Olympiad itself only awarded its victors laurels and olive wreaths ... but, bring home some of those laurels and prepare to be showered with the aforementioned riches and bitches. The city of Athens paid its Olympic winners literal fortunes. Pensions for Olympic athletes were common, too, with some athletes winning free meals for the rest of their lives -- which was a big deal in a time when a huge chunk of the population was subsistence farming. Popular winners were paid to make public appearances and attend other games, and appearance money was serious dough: Unlike the loose change ex-Real Worlders collect to show up at bar openings, a great athlete might make a hundred times the annual salary of a soldier for a single day's appearance.

Naturally, with political appointments, wealth, personal statues, and celebrity on the line, performance enhancement was a given and cheating was bound to happen. Athletes attempted spells, potions, herbs, oils, and alcohol. Even if the benefits were somewhat ... ethereal, the desire to get one over on competitors was very much real. Also, the ancient Olympics elevated cheating to an art form -- mostly because the punishments ranged from flogging to death. Despite the risks, athletes bribed judges and competitors, and as the Olympics progressed, various events could all be had for not-so-reasonable prices.

Matthias Kabel
"This 100 meter naked shield race is fixed!"

At least the ancient host city never changed, which meant no host city selection committee scandals. Instead of fighting to have their city host the games, ancient Greeks simply fought for control over the one city that did host the games, Elis. Just like today, hosting games meant profits from tens of thousands of spectators and hundreds of vendors jostling for the right to sell their kebabs, tchotchkes, and poorly made souvenirs. The ancient games were just as highly commercialized as today's Olympics, although as far as we know the ancient Greeks went several centuries without a single sperm-shaped mascot.

Forgotten Advertisements
So they've got one up on us in that regard.

#1. Ancient Greece Was a Progressive Beacon of Reason

The Myth:

Before the Roman Empire came along and conquered the world, reason, logic, and civility ruled in ancient Greece, where during any random late-night beer run you could run into Aristotle and Plato in line at the cash register. The whole country was a liberal arts major's wet dream. Truly, the era was a golden age for humanity.


"... and that's the best way to break your poop up with a stick so it'll flush."

The Reality:

Ancient Greece resembled a modern-day sectarian war zone with constantly warring bands. That's not to say there weren't bright spots, or that Western culture doesn't owe a great deal to said bright spots -- we'd just like to remind you that the ancient Greeks exiled, lynched, or executed some of the brighter among them. Ever heard of a guy named Socrates? Yep, executed.


"We wanted to let him live, but he just refused to put a shirt on."

See, the Greece of popular imagination never actually existed, because there was no one "Greece." The Hellenic peninsula was home to over 1,000 city-states. And ancient Greeks identified with their city-state like patriotic gang members. Also, each gang had its own armies, governments, customs, and religions. Oh, and they all had slaves -- enough slaves to make the antebellum South seem downright forward-thinking by comparison. Because for all that talk about lofty ideas like freedom and democracy, the ancient Greeks possessed no qualms about enslaving their fellow man. Sure, some philosophers said enslaving fellow Greeks wasn't super cool, but then city-states like Sparta and Thessaly told them to take their philosophy and get bent by enslaving the entire populations of other city-states.

Oh, and freedom-loving, democratic Athens had more slaves than anybody. And while we're on the subject of the only democratic city-state, now's probably a good time to mention that democracy lasted in Athens for less than two centuries. Almost every ancient leading mind couldn't wait to return to tyranny, or literally any form of government other than democracy. Plato and Socrates weren't buying it, while Aristotle's shining defense for it was simply that it didn't suck quite as hard as other governments.


"I guess it's better than just, like, stabbing people until they agree or something."

So, while philosophical and cultural achievements were made in ancient Greece, they didn't spread too quickly or too far. Constant warfare and rivalry between city-states was only one impediment. The other? Less than 5 percent of those living in ancient Greece were literate. Most Greeks weren't the urban intellectuals of popular imagination; they were rural farmers and herders who most likely never ventured beyond their own city-state.

See, part of the problem is that we interpret the ancient Greeks through the works and words of those who were most prominent ... and those who were most prominent also happened to be their most exceptional minds. But the average ancient sheepherder didn't give two shits about logic, literature, or the theater -- he was too busy being a sheepherder who preferred the comfort and familiarity of superstition. So, expounding that situation to modern society, we can safely assume that in 2,000 years some future culture will be trying to construct an accurate picture of the U.S. based solely off of reality TV and superhero movies. And that picture will be awesome.

Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Correct, Jimmy. Explosions and spandex, as far as the eye could see."



You can also find J. scribbling away about mercenaries, militaries, and all things generally history here.



Related Reading: Trust us, you buy into PLENTY of other myths about the ancient world. For example, the samurai's ancient bushido code only dates back to 1905. And yoga, that supposedly millennia-old stretchercise so beloved by hippies, only came about in 1960. Once you've read all that, feel free to reverse gears and check out our article on real ancient buildings much too advanced for their time.

We have some bad news: Marie Antoinette never said that thing you think she said, Guy Fawkes was not a badass anarchist and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.

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