Myth and History

The beginning of Games

In the very ancient time, the area around Olympia belonged  to  Pissa kingdom. However,  after 570BC, Olympia came under the rule of Ileia.

According to the myth, the men of Pissa organized the first Games in memory of  Pelops victory against king Oinomaus on  a chariot racing.

Pelops married Oinomaos daughter Ippodamia and became the king of Pissa. Pausanias who visited Flious around 155AC, records the local tale that the victory chariot of Pelops was devoted and decorated the roof of the  Flious Palace.

Soon Pelops conquered the neighbouring areas,  till then named Apia,  and ever since  the name of  Peloponissos  was selected for the area.  

Pelops revived  the Games in great glamour, in memory of the races of Oinomaus against the candidates for his daughter, and for this reason he was honoured as a hero. This is the myth for what will follow with the establishment of  the Olympic Games in this sacred land of Olympia. 

Though the Games historically begin at 776BC, the date of the first Olympiad,  Games were taken place since early antiquity in the area and according to the myth one of the reformers was the hero Hercules.



We, hereunder, state a summary of the article “Cart-wheel Road Communnication”, by Professor Yianis A. Pikoulas, published in the Athens daily “KATHIMERINI” – 4th January 1998:

“Ancient Greeks developed and created a dense road-network, innovative in its conception and realisation, thus securing unimpeded cart-wheel communication, covering the greatest part of Greek territory.  The road’s principal remains are the artificial bed with obvious traces of rock cutting and the carved wheel-tracks with a standard gauge of 1.40 m.
This was a noteworthy achievement of the Greek road makers, dating from the 7th and 6th c. b.C.  Wheel-tracks are normally extant only on rocky surfaces, since they were not bound to survive on softer ground.
Today, by investigating the remains of ancient wheel-tracks, it is possible to map the routes followed by the ancient road-network”.
                        Pr. Yianis A. Pikoulas


A great number of ancient roads crossed the Peloponnese in its whole, from S to N and from E to W.  Scientific researches have brought into light a great number of traces of these roads, who permit the re-composition of their course.

The Olympian race’s route goes, today, towards the same direction as that of a major ancient road linking eastern to western Peloponnese.  This main road concerns the ancient road which started from Corinth and extended in Arcadia as far as the ancient town of Kandila and further down to Orchomenos.  Pausanias refers to this ancient main road as well as to another three of minor importance traced in the area.  This major ancient road, starting from Corinth went past Kleones – Nemea – Platani – Skotini – Kandila and carried on further down to ancient Orchomenos. 

Surprisingly enough, in the area between Nemea and Platani another three wheel-roads have been traced, a proof of the importance of this area.
At the village of Platani (CP 3, 20, 5 km) wheel-tracks were traced on the very spot where the CP is set up, while some others can be seen behind the entrance of a farm-house, the athletes passing just 1 m away from them.

Out of Platani there is this rough track going uphill – downhill, with St. Anne’s chapel standing on the top.  This rough track is an ancient track over this hill and athletes walk exactly on the traces of this ancient pathway.  Wheel tracks near Skotini are extant to 125 m and their depth to 0.30 cm!  They lead to the last houses of today’s village and out of it, towards Kandila.

They again lay exactly on the athletes’ route Kandila (CP 5, 48 km) was a major road junction with roads coming from different directions and all meeting here.  Wheel-tracks of these roads are spotted on the athletes’ course.  According to historical data, we can presume that this important road junction was used by troops, too, for military purposes.  In the 5th – 4th – and 2nd c. b.C.  Philip E’, King of Macedonia, must have also used the passage.

Wheel-tracks have also been spotted at various places around Kandila.  As far as Arcadia is concerned there were at least six main carriage-roads leading from the S to the N and from E to W via the mountain range of Mainalon.

Pausanias, again, refers to these ancient roads.  One of these that crossed Mount Mainalon, leads today to the Mainalon Mount ski resort and is exactly the road the athletes come across after the 10th km while crossing the rough track through Mainalon.  They are again meeting with an ancient road in their course across this impressive mountain.  Getting downhill, they run along this stretch of asphalt-laid route, which is a part of this ancient road.  From this point the traces of ancient roads going S, while the Olympian race’s course is heading N.

Athletes meet again with traces of ancient roads further down when they get along the Alphios River, where there is an extensive ancient rough-track network.

Also wheel-tracks have been spotted on their way out of this area till their exit to the National Road at Louvre.  They follow these tracks as they walk to next village of Miraka and till the end of the race route to Olympia.

A foot race “runs” today, in a parallel course with remnants of ancient roads, either stepping on their wheel-tracks or going past at some distance, depending on the ground or other technical parameters.

This almost parallel course exceeds over 100 km, an important fact that marks the indisputable historic framework surrounding the Olympian Race and which confers on it a degree of merit among the large family of the international long-distance running contests.

Information on this description is drawn from Professor Yianis A Pikoulas’ book “Road network and Defence” and from his article in the Acts of the 4th International Congress on the Peloponnesian Studies, Corinth 9-10 September 1990.

[The text hereunder has been kindly offered by Professor Y. Pikoulas.  Copyright©Yanis Pikoulas]

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Yanis Pikoulas
University of Thessaly (Dept. HASA) 

The ancient Greek cart-wheel road

 Known for their numerous technological achievements, the Greeks also made significant advances in the field of land transport and communication. Recent research has shown that the Greeks applied high-standard road-construction techniques and has brought to light important evidence of their admirable works (Pikoulas 1995, 2003, 2007). Basic principles of road-construction know-how must either have been inherited from the Mycenaeans, or, more probably, imported from the East. These were improved and used to create a dense road-network, innovative in its conception and realisation, thus securing unimpeded cart-wheel communication covering the greatest part of the Greek territory. The Romans’ reputation as pioneering and exceptional road makers is thus subject to reconsideration. Revision of modern bibliography is also necessary since it continues to ignore the subject of Ancient Greek Roads.

In the present paper I focus on the cart-wheel road-network, i.e. the roads that were constructed exclusively for the operation of animal driven carts. Obviously, there were also many pathways used by pedestrians and pack animals which constitute a separate category of roads. Continuous use of these pathways however and the fact that their mode of construction always remained the same, does not permit secure dating; they are not included in my study.

Urban roads (i.e. the intra muros roads) were usually laid with condensed earth/dirt mixed with gravel or sherds. Stone paved roads were rare and seem to have been introduced in Roman times. They were usually narrow with the exception of the central arteries, which were 2 to 5 meters wide. In several cases, depending on the time period, roads were equipped with a sewage system. In what follows I present my research data on the cart-road-network, that is, the extra muros roads that intersected the territory of different city-states.

1. The cart-wheel road was constructed for the use of carts regardless of the type and number (two/four) of wheels. The road’s principal remains are the artificial bed with obvious traces of rock cutting, and the carved wheel-tracks ―in ancient Greek αρματροχιές or αμαξοτροχιές― with a standard gauge of 1.40m.

By investigating the remains of ancient road beds, and, more importantly, of wheel-tracks, it is possible to map the routes followed by the ancient road-network. Wheel-tracks are normally extant only on rocky surfaces since they were not bound to survive on exposed softer ground; recently however, wheel-tracks on soft earth have been discovered in the course of excavating activities for modern road construction (Pikoulas 2002a). So, when constructing a cart-road, the Greeks used dirt mixed with gravel or sherds in order to form the road bed on soft and flat soil whereas on rocky soil and especially at difficult spots, such as steep ground, curves and junctions, they carved the road bed and formed wheel-tracks. In other words, the cart followed a fixed course and moved with its wheels within the tracks without deviating. This was a noteworthy achievement of the Greek road makers. In fact the Greek cart-road can be thought of as a "negative railway", or more precisely as a tram: just as modern trains run on the raised railway, in a similar way the Greek cart moved consistently in the wheel-tracks, that is, the ruts that were carved in the rock (0.05m. to 0.015m. wide and 0.01m. to 0.30m. or more deep, depending on the nature of the rocky surface). This is particularly evident at forks or branches, the so called ektropes according to the Greeks, which are identical with the points of modern railways, which were carved so that a change in the course of the cart was possible.

Since the network allowed for the operation of only one vehicle at a time, there was no possibility for the simultaneous use of a cart-road by two carts coming from opposite directions. In such cases one of the two carts had to come out of the wheel-tracks and give way to the other cart, an operation which was impossible on steep ground especially when the cart was loaded. If we bring to our minds the famous fatal dispute between Oedipus and Laius (Soph. OT 800-812), one can get an idea of how such disputes would commonly take place, as is the case nowadays, when two carts coming from opposite directions would meet. Presumably, there must have been regulations concerning these matters of which we are ignorant. I assume on the basis of the evidence that at the key points of a difficult route there must have stood individuals, “watchers”, whose duty was to inform the comer from a distance (either with visual or sound effects) on whether a particular section of the road was free. A solution of this kind must have been necessary in mountainous areas especially going uphill or downhill where the view offered at, e.g. the top of a pass, would constitute an appropriate point both for the “watcher” to stand and for the vehicles to pass. Obviously, things were much easier with roads running through the plains; besides, there is evidence at certain such areas of roads running in parallel courses.

Furthermore, it should be stated that no ancient road in Greek countryside was stone paved. Stone paved roads in Greece are only found in the urban parts of cities and belong to the Roman period. The only exception is the Diolkos of Korinth which was basically a specialized stone paved cart-road with a gauge of 1.50m. In general, Greek road makers would undertake to construct only what was absolutely necessary, e.g. bridges, great supporting walls, etc.; their building activities conforming to the peculiarities of the natural landscape.

On the contrary, the Romans established solidly founded stone paved roads and engaged in large scale public works that altered significantly the nature of the landscape. It should be noted however, that Roman roads are neither founded with constructions nor stone paved on rocky surfaces. The wheel-tracks were not artificially created but formed with time by the continuous use of vehicles. A typical example of a Roman road in Greek territory is Via Egnatia (Lolos 2008).

I believe that the evidence of the road-network in mainland Greece alters the generally accepted picture. Specialised study of Greek roads has only started in the 1980s, and is still largely ignored in the bibliography, which considers the Romans as the pioneering and the par excellence road makers (e.g., Casson 1994). Without meaning to underestimate Rome’s contribution to the development ―yet not the invention― of road making techniques, I think that the opinio communis about who laid the foundations in the field of road construction should now be revised. In other words, I wish to note that although the needs of Greeks and Romans that were met by the construction of road-networks were similar, Greek and Roman roads are very different from the point of view of construction technique. Since the Greek cart- road-network existed a few centuries before that of Rome, I think that the latter did not evolve independently of the former. The Romans must have inherited the relevant know-how from the Greeks. In their turn, they developed and standardised it. So maybe one should not wonder why the modern international railway has a standard gauge of c.1.40m. Was this standard inherited from the Greeks through the Romans?

I note that the road-network covered almost the entire Greek territory. It is surprising to observe the boldness of Greek road makers to create roads on steep slopes, often exceeding 10–15%, or in the alpine zone e.g. the road running along the mountain crest of north Taygetus (Pikoulas 1988, 151/3, 221/5) at an altitude of 1600m. In addition to remains of road-construction also belong the remains of bridges which are very few if one takes into account the density of the road-network. The poor evidence of river bridges should most likely be attributed to the fact that they were made of wood, a material that is not likely to survive (Pikoulas 2002b. Pikoulas – Kourinou 2009). Finally, a unique piece of road work is the artificial pass that was carved on a mountain crest in order to provide for the road from Sparta/Mantineia leading to Argos/Korinth. This artificial pass is located at a level of 300m. above the tunnel of Mount Artemision of the new Korinth-Tripolis highway (Pikoulas 1995, 104–109, 288–290).

2. Occasionally the literary sources offer valuable information for our knowledge of the Greek road-network. Significant gaps are covered by scanty archaeological evidence, especially by drawing inferences from the more complete evidence of the Roman world. Modern parallels can also at times be of some use but most important is the pursuit of the study of actual remains of ancient roads such as wheel-tracks, forks, supporting constructions, bridges etc.

The animals used to pull the carts were those belonging to the horse family and the ox. Of the first the most prominent was the mule because of its multiple physical abilities especially if one takes into account the peculiarities of Greece’s natural landscape. Without wishing to generalising too much, it seems to me that in Greek society the horse was the symbol of speed or wealth and status whereas the mule, the donkey and the ox should be associated with the necessary equipment serving primary needs of the economy such as agricultural and industrial production and transportation. It is generally accepted that our evidence of the range of domestic animals is scanty. My view is that, for carts, the main pulling animal was the ox. I shall not discuss here the complex subject of the different kinds of vehicles that were used in antiquity as it falls beyond the scope of the present paper.

3. The remains of the ancient road-network in Greece suggest that it was a systematic operation undertaken by state authority: the roads were properly and regularly repaired and parallel routes were provided along central axes of communication. It is logical to assume that such a sophisticated and complete road-network would presuppose a powerful central authority that would be in charge of a project of this scale with a view to provide efficient transportation, communication and maintenance services. The examples of Persia in Asia and of Rome in the Mediterranean World corroborate this hypothesis. Both authorities possessed an admirable road-network from the point of view of its density and of the quality of services that were provided and which covered not only their territory but extended to the larger neighbouring areas. As concerns the Greek territory, the road-network of the Peloponnese is, as far as I can tell, comparable in every respect to that of Persia and Rome. I have come to the conclusion that the Peloponnesian League with Sparta as its motivating force, must have been the central authority in question which created and supervised the cart-road network in the Peloponnese. The evidence suggests that is to be dated to the seventh century (at the latest) with the middle of the 6th century, when the Peloponnesian League was consolidated, as a landmark for its later development; this is when the road-network is extended with the creation of new and alternative roadways and the practice spreads to the whole of the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece (Pikoulas 2001b).

The reputation of the Spartan army for its ability to cover distances at a remarkable speed and its administrative efficiency owes much to the road-network. I may note that nowadays there is only one highway in Lakonia leading north, Tripolis-Korinth, whereas ancient Sparta had at least three. Moreover, more than a hundred cart-roads intersected the Spartan territory.

The correlation between the road-network of historical times with that of the Mycenean Age remains elusive. However, it is reasonable to assume that the former must have perhaps inherited some elements of the relevant know-how from the latter.

Attika, Central Greece or the Cyclades possesed a similar cart-road system. I have recently offered the hypothesis that possibly the "know-how" of constructing a wheel-road reached Lakonia, Cyclades and Attika from Ionia as early as the Geometric or the early Archaic period (Pikoulas 2003, 2007). It developed in these areas and was later diffused to the rest of Greece. Although we have indications but no proof yet, the extant evidence may suggest the following link: Mesopotamia–Assyria–Persia–Ionia–Greece.

In any case, basic road constructing knowledge must have been transmitted to the Romans by the Greek western colonies; the Romans in their turn developed this knowledge admirably.

4. In what follows I present briefly the evidence on land transportation and communication in the Medieval Age and in the time of the Ottoman occupation which is considerably different from earlier times (Pikoulas 1999). In this later era the cart-road is no longer used. The cart gives way to pack animals and transportation by land is operated by means of caravans. For reasons of safety large numbers of pack animals were brought together. The main advantage of the pack animal over the cart is that it is flexible in the sense that it can change promptly its course or protect itself by hiding or run away in case of danger. Moreover, during that period trading activity across the mainland was significantly reduced since the rural settlements ―not the urban ones― were basically self-sufficient. Coaches known as arabades, were used only in plains [Thessaly and Macedonia] or within and around a settement [Anapli and Tripolitsa].

In these times only relatively narrow stone paved pathways were constructed, the so called kalderimia. On the mountainous areas, the roads going uphill have multiple Z-shaped supporting constructions. The kalderimia are securely and firmly fixed with the technique of paving [=kaligoma] often with skales, i.e. the formation of steps at regular intervals; for this reason Skala is a common toponym. This practice was necessary both on rocky and soft ground to prevent the fracture of the legs of the animals when stepping in a rock cavity or in the mud.

During this period the animals were shoed in order to protect their hooves. The horseshoe appears at first in the 10th century of our era. Shoeing is another difference between medieval and ancient land transport system; shoeing is rather rare and different in antiquity (Pikoulas 1995, 20–21).

L. Casson 1994        The Cambridge Ancient History, VI² (1994) 512/3.
Y. Lolos 2008        Eγνατία Oδός, Athens 2008.
Y. A. Pikoulas 1988    H Nότια Mεγαλοπολιτική Xώρα, από τον 8ο π.X. ως.τον 4ο μ.X. αιώνα. Συμβολή στην τοπογραφία της, Hόρος: H Mεγάλη Bιβλιοθήκη nο 1, Athens.
Y. A. Pikoulas 1995    Oδικό δίκτυο και άμυνα, Horos: H Mεγάλη Bιβλιοθήκη no 2, Athens.
Y. A. Pikoulas 1999    “Aπό την άμαξα στο υποζύγιο και από την οδό στο καλντερίμι [Δρόμοι και μεταφορές στο Bυζάντιο και την Tουρκοκρατία]”, Horos 13, 245–258. 
Y. A. Pikoulas 2001     “Tο οδικό δίκτυο της Λακωνίας. Xρονολόγηση, απαρχές και εξέλιξη”, in V. Mitsopoulos-Leon (ed.), Forschungen in der Peloponnes, Akten des Symposions anläßlich der Feier «100 Jahre Österreichisches Archäologisches Institut Athen», Athen 5–7.3.1998, Athens, 325–330.
Y. A. Pikoulas 2002a    “H «Bελεστινόστρατα». Συμβολή στο οδικό δίκτυο της αρχαίας Θεσσαλίας”, in D. Karaberopoulos (ed.), Acts of the 3rd International Congress «Φεραί–Bελεστίνο–Pήγας», Velestino October 2–5, 1997, Yπέρεια 3, 147–158 & 1009–1012.
Y. A. Pikoulas 2002b    “Όλες οι γέφυρες δεν ήταν λίθινες...”, in Th. P. Tassios (ed.), Aρχαιοελληνική γεφυροποιΐα, Acts of Symposium «Ancient Greek Bridges», EMAET, Athens 20.5.02, Athens [2004], 97–102. 
Y. A. Pikoulas 2003     “Tαξιδεύοντας στην αρχαία Eλλάδα”, in National Hellenic Research Foundation, 4th cycle of Eπιστήμης Kοινωνία, 4.3–15.4.2003: Tο ταξίδι από τους αρχαίους έως τους νεότερους χρόνους, Athens 2003, 15–35.
Y. A. Pikoulas 2007    Travelling by Land in Ancient Greece, in C. Adams – J. Roy (eds.), Travel, Geography and Culture in Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Near East, Oxbow Books, Oxford 2007, 78–87.
Y. A. Pikoulas – E. Kοurinou 2009    “Aρχαία γέφυρα στα περίχωρα της Σπάρτης”, in W. G. Cavanagh et al. (eds.), Sparta and Laconia from Prehistory to Pre-modern, International Conference, Sparta 17–20.3.2005, BSA Studies 16, Athens 2009, 21, 181–186.


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