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“Hellanodikes” - The Olympic Judges of the ancient Olympics

30 Jan 2014
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Elis | The Olympic judges' origin

In the history of the ancient Olympics the “Hellanodikes” hold a very special place. They were the official and general organizers of the ancient Olympics and they also were responsible for the proper running of the games.

The Hellanodikes should be inhabitants of Elis with origin from the noble families of the town. At first, the post was hereditary and for life. However, at 584 BC it was decided that the “Hellanodikes” would be elected every four years by the drawing of lots and that their post would last only for one Olympiad. Their number ranged from one to twelve but since 348 BC stabilized at ten, one from each tribe of Elis.

Ancient Olympics | The Olympic judges' duties

The Olympic judges supervised the events of the ancient Olympics

The literal meaning of the word "Hellanodikis" in Greek is "the judge of the Greeks". Indeed one of the main duties of the Hellanodikes was to supervise the events of the ancient Olympics, to ensure compliance with the rules of each sport, to impose penalties, physical or financial, even exclude the athletes who violated any regulation and proclaim the winners. But this was not their only responsibility.


The Olympic judges in charge of the maintenance and renovation of the buildings in Olympia

Once invited to offer their services, they had to oversee the maintenance and renovation of the buildings in Olympia, to welcome and care for the host of the official representatives of the cities participating in the games, to organize the program of the ancient Olympics, including the racing as well as the festive part of the games.

The Olympic judges supervise the preparation of athletes in Elis

In addition, during the athletes’ preparation in Elis, one month before the ancient Olympics started, the Hellanodikes supervised their workouts and they gave instructions to their trainers concerning the exercises and the diet they should follow. Then they decided which of the athletes had the skills needed to take part in the ancient Olympics. Their decision was based not only on the racing ability and performance of each athlete, his strength and his durability but also on his morality, character and behavior. They also ensured that the athletes were Greek citizens, free and that they had never been convicted of murder, theft, disrespect and violation of the Olympic rules. The selection was rigorous as they wanted to keep the high level so as to present a spectacle worthy of the reputation of the ancient Olympic Games. The athletes who finally managed to be selected were registered in a special list, the “Lefkoma”.


The Olympic judges take their vows 

Two days before the official opening of the Games the Hellanodikes leaded the great procession that started from Elis and ended at ancient Olympia. There outside the “Bouleuterion”, in front of the statue of “Zeus Horkius” (Zeus of the Oaths), they gave vows that they would be fair judges and that they would not be bribed.

An additional task was to present the awards and the senior of the Hellanodikes crowned the champions. Assistants to their duties were the umpires (“alytes”), the staff-bearers and the rod-bearers who helped to maintain order.

The Olympic judges' preparation and training

Generally the Hellanodikes, as inhabitants of Elis, host city of the ancient Olympic Games, were familiar from an early age with all these procedures. However, as you might expect, all these various tasks required special training and preparation. Therefore, ten months in advance of the Games, the Hellanodikes stayed in the "Hellanodikaion" or "Hellanodikaiona", a building near the Gymnasium and they were trained by the “nomofylakes”, keepers of the law.

The Olympic judges' dressing during the ancient Olympics

During the ancient Olympics the Hellanodikes wore a purple mantle, the "porfyrida", that showed their authority and they were holding a palm branch. Αt the south of the stadium was built for them a specially designed platform, where they could sit. But in reality those seats were just honorary as the Hellanodikes had to be close to the games in order to make correct decisions and determine the winners.

The Olympic judges and disputes that arose during the ancient Olympics

Generally the public respected deeply the Hellanodikes and their function. Nevertheless, if any athlete disagreed with their judgment could appeal and the case was heard by the Olympic Council of Elis. If the Council judged that the athlete was actually right, the Hellanodikes were punished though their decision was irrevocable. For that reason, it was important to be as fair as possible.

Thanks to the integrity, impartiality and fairness of the Hellanodikes the ancient Olympics maintained over the centuries their high level, their prestige and their reputation.




Dimi NtouranidouWritten by Dimi Ntouranidou

Graduate teacher of Greek literature (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Literary editor of publications, Responsible for writing articles about the ancient Olympic Games   

Images of the ancient Greek Olympic Games blog are taken from the Ancient Greek Olympic Games Comic. In the Ancient Olympic Games Comic you will find much more about the ancient Olympic Games while having fun reading a wonderful comic story. You can download a sample episode of the comic here.
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