The route of the 2012 Olympic torch relay was announced earlier this week. What connections does it have with ancient athletics?

The torch relay and the 1936 Olympics

There certainly wasn’t anything exactly like it in ancient culture. The modern torch ceremony was invented by the German classical scholar Carl Diem for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and glorified through Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia, whose opening scenes include idealised images of the carrying of the torch across a map of Europe, through a succession of countries that Germany would later invade, into the Berlin Stadium (see here, from about 1:03).

The question of whether the torch ceremony should be included in the next Olympics—London 1948—was debated at length, as far as we can tell from minutes of meetings of the organising committee. In the end, the committee chose to reappropriate the classicising athletic imagery of the torch ceremony, rather than discarding it because of its links with Nazi ideology. On 17 July 1948, two weeks before the opening of the London games, the torch set off from Greece through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium before crossing the Channel and continuing to London for the opening ceremony (not any further north—so the trip around the UK beginning in May of this year is a first). It has been a part of the modern Olympics ever since.

That story has been told quite frequently in recent years, both in the mainstream media (for example here, from the BBC or here, from the Guardian) and elsewhere (see interesting detailed discussion here, on the cosmopolitanscum blog ) so I don’t think there’s any need to say more. But I think there’s still some scope for a closer look at the evidence for ancient parallels.

Ancient torch races

Clearly Diem did not dream up the ceremony from nowhere. There is evidence for torch races in a wide range of different ancient festivals (although not in the Olympics themselves). The Athenian festival of the Panathenaia included torch races between teams from different areas of the city (unusually so, given that athletic glory was usually something won by individual competitors): the goal seems to have been to reach the end of the course with the torch still burning, and the reward was the right to light the sacrificial fire on the altar.

Still, all of this is a very long way from the modern version—not least because the ancient torch races were always precisely that—i.e. races.

Festival envoys

If we want an ancient model for the modern torch relay we may be better off looking at the ancient Olympic tradition of sending out envoys (theoroi) across the Greek world—which Diem clearly also had in mind. Their job was to notify other cities of the holding of the festival and to invite them to send ambassadors, as a way of celebrating their common membership of a wider Greek community. And in some cases we know a surprising amount about the routes they took thanks to inscriptions recording the names of theorodokoi (‘envoy-receivers’)—individuals who were responsible for offering hospitality to the envoys and assisting them in their task.

Here’s an extract from one (SEG XXXVI, 331; Miller, Hesperia 57 (1988) 147-63) (one of many)—this one from the site of Nemea, dating from the second half for the fourth century BC (the Nemean games being one of the four traditional great games of the Greek world, along with the Olympics, and the Pythian and Isthmian festivals):


In Salamis, Nikokreon son of Pnytagoras, Teukros son of Akestokreon

In Kourion, Pasikrates son of Aristokrates, Themistagoras son of Aristokrates

In Soloi, Stasikrates son of Stasias In Seriphos, Euarchos son of Paideas


In Palairos, Diphantos son of Lykophronidas, Diokles son of Thersilochos, Euphron son of Epiphron

In Anaktorion, Alexion son of Andromachos, Damotimos son of Andromachos, Androlaos son of Andromachos

In Echinos, Stilpon son of Olympichos

In Thyrreion, Alketas son of Antimachos

In Euripos, Polyalkes son of Chairimenes, Eualkos son of Chairimenes

In Limnaia, Philistos son of Aristomachos, Droxias son of Aristomachos

In Oiniadai, Pheidon, Porphyrion son of Damotharses, Philon son of Timosthenes.

In Stratos, Aishrion son of Adamatos, Ephesios son of Echekrates.

–and so on—with another five cities from the region of Akarnania—and then following on from that, in a more fragmentary state, a whole range of other cities and regions (including Macedon and the Hellespont and the islands of the Aegean).

Between them these details give an amazing picture of the care the Nemean organisers took to maintain their contact with specific cities. Nemea was in the eastern Peloponnese. Akarnania was in North-West Greece. You can see from this map how closely bunched together the named cities of Akarnania were (look for Palaerus, Echinus, Thyrium, Anactorium etc., with latinised spellings, right up at the top):

That’s a sign of the detail of planning in this itinerary (not unlike what we see in the maps for the 2012 relay)—even Akarnanian cities just a few miles apart are named individually in the inscription, each receiving its own visit from the envoys, and each with its own theorodokoi.


These texts don’t often get translated, in athletic sourcebooks or elsewhere—I guess because they look quite dry at first sight—just lists of names and cities. It helps if we can get behind our modern perspective and appreciate the fact that listing in ancient culture could be a much more prestigious mode of writing than it was for us (not just in inscriptions like these, but also in the traditions of ancient catalogue poetry—think of the Catalogue of the Ships in Iliad Book 2—and even in the many encyclopaedic works which were so widespread in the literature of the Roman period). But even if we find it hard to recapture that mindset, the attractions of the theorodokia texts should be fairly clear on reflection—just because they allow us to map out real-life journeys and interconnections between different cities of the ancient world, which used festivals like these to celebrate their own links with the rest of the Greek world.

The modern torch relay is often criticised, and perhaps rightly so—for its expense, its commercialism, or its Nazi origins. But if we want to find a positive rationale for it, the best way is maybe to stress its overlaps with this ancient festival envoy tradition—at least if the communities the torch passes through can use it as an opportunity t reflect on their own pasts and their own connections with the wider world.