How Do We Know?

What we know about ancient Olympic victors comes to us as a result of a victor list that was put together beginning in the fifth century B.C. by Hippias of Elis. Hippias was a sophist from Elis who compiled his list ca. 400 B.C. During the fourth century the list was revised by Aristotle and Eratosthenes and by the third century B.C. the list was used as a kind of chronological system by Timaeus of Sicily. Later in antiquity the catalogue was revised by Eusebius, Phlegon of Tralles and Julius Africanus.

The ancient Olympic games, held every four years, continued during twelve centuries of history and altogether the victor list consists of over 1029 ancient Olympic victories and information of over 794 ancient victors. The first recorded victor was Koroibos of Elis who won the stadion race in 776 B.C. The last victor about whom we have information was Zopyrus, a boxer from Athens in 385 A.C. Between these two dates there were a total of 291 Olympic festivals. In addition there were probably 2 additional ones after 385 A.C. for which we have no information, a total of 293 festivals.

According to my estimate the total number of possible victories at Olympia for the entire history of the festival, all 293 Olympic Games, should be approximately 4760. This estimate would take into consideration the changing number of events during the history of the festival. Our known 1029 victories constitute less than 22% of that number and should serve as a caution for our research. If the same relationship between victors and victories should prevail throughout the history of the festival, which it may not, one would expect to have a total of 3672 ancient victors, of which we know of approximately 794, leaving a startling 2878 Olympic victors for which we have no information at all.

Total number of possible ancient victories 4760
Total number of possible ancient victors 3672
Total number of known victories 1029
Total number of known victors 794

This number includes Olympic victories of uncertain date and of uncertain authenticity.

Moretti lists a total of 794 individual Olympic victors in his two publications , L. Moretti, Olympionikai, i vincitori negli Antichi agoni Olimpici, MemLinc, Roma, 1957; L. Moretti, “Supplemento al catalogo degli Olympionikai,” Klio 52, 1970, pp. 295- 303.

This information comes from a bronze inscription from the clubhouse of the athlete’s guild at Olympia. The building was built in the 1st century A.C. by Nero and was in continuous use until the late 4th century A.C., see U. Sinn, Olympia, Cult, Sport and Ancient Festival, (Markus Wiener) Princeton, 2000, pp. 114-118.