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What do we know about spectators at the ancient Olympics and their experience?

We can reconstruct quite a lot. Most strikingly, many ancient sources mention the difficulties and discomforts of being an Olympic spectator, and the difficulties of travelling, as well as the pleasures of spectating.

Here’s one text that gives us a very vivid glimpse despite its brevity. It’s an epigram from the city of Beroia in Macedonia, dating from the second century AD, inscribed on a marble grave monument:

I, Kaikilios the baker, poor me, lie here dead,

Having seen the stadion-races of Pisa twelve times… [several fragmentary lines follow]

[Archaiologikon Deltion 2, 1916, p. 156, no. 13]

Funerary epigrams like these were very common in ancient culture. Brevity is a standard feature: the life of the deceased is ingeniously summed up within just a few lines.

Here Kaikilios, or those who commemorate him, summarise his life in two ways: first, quite conventionally, by reference to his profession, as a baker; second, and much more surprisingly, by noting the fact that he had visited the Olympics twelve times during his life (Pisa is the name of the site where the Olympic festival was held, identified in those terms partly to distinguish it from the local Olympic festival of Beroia).

Clearly this is someone whose identity as a sports fan was a defining feature of his life (although remember also that tourism and religious pilgrimage to great festivals were closely linked in the Greek imagination—it may not have been only the athletics that he went for). Presumably he was not vastly wealthy. It must have cost him a lot of effort and expense to make that journey—several hundred miles south from Beroia to the Peloponnese—so many times, every four years, over the course of at least 44 years of his life. Maybe it’s not surprising that he sees it as something worth commemorating…

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