V012 22 March 2001

Ancient Greek Sport Festivals and Greek Poleis

Agiatis Benardou
B.A. (Classics), M.A. cand. (Classics)

Over a fixed circuit of four years (periodos), the Greek World gathered to participate in the four major panhellenic festivals, the Olympic (founded in c.776BC in honour of Zeus), the Isthmian (c.581BC honouring Poseidon), the Nemean (c.573BC, Zeus) and the Pythian (c.582BC, Apollo Pythios)Games, which, alongside the athletics, staged a musical competition of great antiquity and enormous prestige.

Much has been argued on whether the character of these gatherings (panegyris) was indeed "panhellenic", a pretty loose and unhelpful term anyway. Probably with the emergence of the Polis-cult, in 8th c. BC the character of the Greek sanctuaries changed (although, initially, Olympia seems to be the place of gathering for NW Peloponnese and Delphi seemed to attract people from much further afield), and instead of being restricted to locals it became interstate influencing a much broader area, attracting visiting citizens of other poleis. Nevertheless, specific sanctuaries still belonged to and were controlled by specific poleis, and, for example, in order for someone to participate in the Olympic Games, he had to be invited by the city of Elis. Moreover, there was no such thing as a panhellenic centre.

Archaeology has furthermore revealed an alteration in the pattern of dedications in Greek sanctuaries. In Delphi, there was a wide range of dedications and archaeological material - even from Crete. Delphi, being on the trade-route from West to East for ships sailing in the Corinthian Gulf, enjoyed dedications even by non-Greeks. Additionally, Herodotus describes how the Kings of Lydia made impressive dedications to Delphi, which undoubtedly attracted visitors and magnified Delphi. This is less true with Olympia, where the majority of foreign dedications are from S. Italy and Sicily as well as Epidamnus - although these are indeed Greek colonies and therefore perhaps not really "foreign". Archaeological sites show a sharp increase in dedications of valuable objects - bronze, jewellery, painted pottery and terracotta along with arms and armour, which are of particular importance, as the emergence of the City-State system was contemporary with and basis of the hoplite warfare. In Olympia, large bronze tripods of a very practical shape were excavated, usually dedicated by members of the elite. This phenomenon was less dramatically obvious in Delphi. Clearly the pattern shifted from cemetery to sanctuary dedications, which also discloses a different mentality emerging from a change in interests. This way, personal status was displayed during one's life, rather than family status displayed after one's death. Wealth was deposited in such a way that it would be visible for sometime and to the entire Greek World and especially to elite members of other Greek Poleis, and not only during the burial to the local community. Thus, apart from honouring the god, dedications stood for advertisements of status.

For reasons difficult to identify, sanctuaries get more global significance, especially with regard to athletic festivals, which gradually become a formal ritualised process. Archaeological findings only help us understand the function that the Games served, and literary evidence gives us a more coherent interpretation of festivals. Although in the Iliad there are references to Games (the Games held by Achilles at the funeral of Patroclos) and Hesiod refers to them as well, Games at a religious festival are much different; they take place regularly and preparation is required.

The periodos, namely the four-year circle in which the major festivals occurred, displays, according to C. Morgan, serious political considerations: "It is interesting to note that athletic contests were founded at around the same time at the two sites more closely connected with Corinth, Isthmia and Delphi, in emulation of Olympia. These were then copied at Nemea, a political creation like Isthmia, which was at least indirectly controlled by Argos, a rival Polis to Corinth and probably eager to copy Corinthian achievements." Morgan implies that Corinth was of major importance in sanctuary activity, as it was the city that created and controlled the Isthmian Games and provoked its rivals into festival activity. So far as the city of Athens was concerned, there was indeed an attempt to create a rival to the events of the four major interstate sanctuaries of the Greek mainland, but it did not succeed, as the Panathenaic festival and Games remained more Athenian than Greek. This phenomenon is a new form of competition between the Poleis, which may offer some interesting conclusions regarding the basis and origins of the religious festivals (which are perhaps similar to the competitions on which city would construct the greatest temple) - was there a use of religion for competing purposes?

Using the advantage to show themselves off in public, the athletes, who had to be all Greek citizens, went into training in their cities - Pausanias records that in Olympia, competitors had to swear that they had been training for ten months and that, later in Antiquity, they had to come and reside to the sanctuary for thirty days before the competition.

In order to prevent wars from disrupting the Games and to make sure that the thousands of visitors and athletes who came to Olympia and also had to return home were safe, Olympic Truce (Olympiake Ekecheiria: suspension specifically of the military hostilities) was declared, at first probably restricted to a month's time before and after the Games, and later extended to two and even to three months, as athletes and visitors came from greater distances. Therefore, the Eleians were not permitted to be at war with anyone during the Truce and were punished by fines according to the Olympic Law. The Games were preceded by heralds-sacred ambassadors (theoroi from Delphi and spondoforoi from Olympia and Athens) travelled to cities to announce the formal Truce that would facilitate the gatherings (panegyreis), enjoying generous and luxurious hospitality and usually inviolability.What is also interesting, is that slaves and non-Greeks during the Ekecheiria could take advantage of the temporary inviolability (asylia). Nevertheless, the Truce did not always work; Thucydides (5.49-50), reports an event in c.420BC, when, during the Olympic Games, hostilities between Eleia and Sparta did not actually cease. In general, the attitude towards the Olympic Truce was extremely legalistic and it was universally acknowledged. A characteristic example is the year's Truce between Athens and Sparta in c.421-420BC, right in the middle of the Great Peloponnesian War. There is, however, the question on whether the Truce always came to force on time.

Apart from honouring the Gods, taking part in the panhellenic Games was a sign of status. As T. Martin underlines, excellence (arete) was a competitive value for male Greek aristocrats - as well as for all Greek citizens - that was vividly displayed in the Games. "The emphasis on physical prowess and fitness, competition and public recognition by other men corresponded to the idea of Greek masculine identity as it developed in this period." The status gained by success in athletic competition was really high. The athletes had to be healthy and able to train. They did not engage themselves in activities which would damage their physique, therefore preparing for the Olympic Games (or indeed all panhellenic Games) was incompatible with labour-workers, who, anyway, could not afford to actually get there, abandoning their work for so long. So, although only the non-Greeks were excluded from the Games, the elite was actually only able to participate and win. One more argument to support the view that the panhellenic Games were elitist events, is that chariot-racing (hippodromion), one of the categories of sport that were recognised, was quite expensive and was itself an advertisement of wealth and power. This is because horses cannot be used for other activities apart from equestrian fighting, which requires a different kind of training. In other words, in the Archaic period, the Games were an essentially elite competition. In later times (4th c. BC onwards) the character of things changes and panhellenic festivals including the Olympic Games were dominated by professional athletes, who made their living from appearance fees and prizes won at various Games held all over Greece (T. Martin).

The agon (competition), according to Bruid-Zaidman, was the "most highly esteemed method of measuring oneself against others, precisely because the Gods themselves sanctioned it". The prizes for the Olympic victors were symbolic crowns of olive (Olympia), laurel (Delphi), pine (Isthmia) and wild celery (Nemea). Nevertheless, the cities took credit for the success of their citizens. Home cities granted to their victors such honours as triumphal entries, statues, money prizes and free entertainment for life at public banquets (sitesis) (Murray). In Athens, the victors and their descendants would enjoy lifetime dining rights in the Prytaneion. The victors were treated as major benefactors by the home city, and many well-known individuals were Olympic victors, such as Cylon, Theagones of Thasos, who competed successively at all the Games in a cycle and was victorious, and thus gained the glorious title of periodonikes, Miltiades, who was a chariot race winner and founder of a colony in the Chersonese, as well as Alcibiades. Actually, according to Plutarch (Life of Alcibiades 11), Alcibiades, in the Olympic Games of c.416BC, entered seven teams of the particularly prestigious chariot race, and came first, second and fourth (Thucydides), or first, second and third (Euripides). In 4th c. BC, the dead Olympic victors were treated similarly to heroes and hero-cults, not only in Athens, but in a number of Greek cities. This was surely an indication that they were particularly important people, and it signifies that victory was regarded as gift from the Gods, so the victor was considered to be a divine favourite. Not surprisingly, Greek cities competed fiercely with each other through the medium of their prize athletes.

Although implications and overtones of panhellenic festivals should not be seen as straightforward political moves, it is well accepted that a gathering of the powerful Hellenes every four years provided plenty of opportunities of varied activities that were of a political character and, of course, for diplomatic negotiations, usually quiet. Cities took the opportunity to make policy statements through public oration, since they knew that they were going to be widely publicised. Finley reports that treaties and other state documents were frequently publicly displayed in Olympia, inscribed on stone or bronze plaques, as, for example, the Decree of the Acharnanian League in c.216BC. Finley argues that "The deposition of this Decree in Olympia is an example of a common custom of solemnising public documents by placing copies in the great panhellenic shrine of Zeus." Although it might be a rather generalised statement, victorious athletes were tempted to and frequently actually entering the political field. The best example on that is definitely Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, who "illustrates the interplay between Games and politics", according to Finley. Alcibiades actually used his Olympic victories as one of his arguments in the public debate held in Athens over the launching of the Sicilian Expedition, dated c.415BC. Victors in the chariot race had a claim to be taken seriously, and in such Ekklesia debates personalities were discussed alongside any other arguments. An extreme aspect of the behaviour associated with Olympic victors is the fact that a number of them may go on to act as tyrants. Pausanias (6.9) delivers the story of Cleomedes of Astypalaea, who destroyed a school by throwing a discus some years after his victory in the Games. Instead of punishment, the Oracle said to treat him as a hero. However, we have to mention that not every outstanding athlete was interested in politics and some even entered the political field only when they were old enough and had to retire from the Games, as, for example, Theogenes.

As seen, literary evidence provides us with more opportunity to explore the other, of significantly minor importance, social and political influences of the panhellenic festivals. Apart from the historical, another form of evidence for victories in Olympia, Nemea, Isthmia and Delphi were the Victory Odes. Pindar of Thebes, writing in the early 5th c. BC named about thirty other contests apart from the major ones and implied that many more existed. The glory (kleos) of the victors was celebrated by Pindar in his Epiniceian ("victory") Odes. They were written for public performance, and many dedicators are from Italy and Sicily, while fewer from Athens. In these Odes, there was a celebration of the individual, his ancestry and his city, as well, set in the framework of an appropriate myth.

Xenia and philoxenia (hospitality and friendliness towards strangers) were two fundamental elements of Greek society in Archaic and Classical years. The panhellenic nature of the Games, therefore, allowed for the establishment and renewal of these bonds - especially when it comes to meeting on neutral grounds under the strict enforcement of the Truce. Pindar himself praises the xenoi, as well as the victorious citizens. Anyway, we must always keep in mind that one of the characteristics of Zeus, in whose honour the Olympic and Nemean Games were held, was "Xenios" (of the guests), which makes this side of the festivals another form of dedication to the him. Everything that occurred in the Games was, in other words, under his patronage.

The case of women in relation with the panhellenic festivals is another example that proves how religion integrated in civic life. Much has been debated on the suppressed role of women in Classical Athens, who were, however, priestesses of Athena, and virgins even carried her peplos in the Grand Panathenaic procession. Married women were not allowed to take part in or even attend the Olympic Games, where men competed without clothes, but apparently the ban applied only to married women as Pausanias states elsewhere that "virgins were not refused admission". Unfortunately, no other written evidence survives to explain this discrimination, but perhaps, as was the case in Athens, but it seems that only virgins were considered to be pure enough to attend sacred rites. Nevertheless, women had their own separate festival at Olympia on a different date in honour of Hera, the wife of Zeus. Worth mentioning is also that the Pythia of the Delphic oracle was a mature virgin woman, usually of low class.

In conclusion, the major panhellenic festivals were considerably affected by and also affected themselves both the social and the political life of the Greek poleis, their most essential influence probably being Panhellenic and National, in that they definitely contributed to the reinforcement of the National Consciousness, although "National" is perhaps not the best word - it is not clear what precisely it refers to, especially in Greek Antiquity.

Select Bibliography
M.I Finley / H.W Pleket, The Olympic Games: the first thousand years (London, 1976)

C. Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: the transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the eighth century BC (Cambridge, 1990)

J. Swaddling, The ancient Olympic Games (London, 1980)

R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200-479BC (London, 1996)

Bruit Zaidman and Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the ancient Greek City, (Cambridge,1999)

U. Wilcken, Griechische Geschichte (im Rahmen der Altertumsgeschichte) (Muenchen, 1962) O. Murray, Early Greece (Cambridge, Mass., 1993)

Greek Literature-An Anthology (Penguin Classics,1990)

A Tour of AncientOlympia - Perseus

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