Ancient festivals and private enterprise

I have written in an earlier post about the bureaucratic and organisational complexity of ancient athletics. Those things are not unique to the modern world.

The same goes for the economic activity associated with sport. Ancient athletic festivals were big money-making opportunities. Presumably the influx of people to a festival could give a major boost to the economy of the city in charge. For the Olympics that meant the city of Elis, 30 miles or so to the north, where athletes would spend a month in training before the games began–it must have been packed with spectators too, and people trying to make money out of them.

We also see evidence for festival organisers co-operating with private enterprise.

Priscus Iuventianus and the Isthmian Sanctuary

Here’s one text that gives a glimpse of those processes. It relates to the Isthmian festival near Corinth, probably from the 2nd century AD (the Isthmian was one of the four big ‘grand-slam’ festivals, together with the Olympic, Pythian and Nemean).

It honours a wealthy citizen called Priscus Iuventianus for paying for lots of building work at the festival site at Isthmia. The inscription praises his generosity, but it is also quite possible that there was some commercial advantage for him. If so, this is rather like a big corporate benefactor today paying for part of the games but getting the opportunity to profit from that investment as well. Certainly his benefactions made commercial activity possible for others.

This bit of the inscription is apparently a record of an intervention by the Roman governor of the province of Achaia. The governor seems to be involved because of the possible impact on public finances: clearly the financial aspect of festival organisation was significant enough and complex enough to need political attention at a very high level.

The governor is writing to give his permission for the arrangement. He is also intervening to make sure that Iuventianus’ commercial advantage doesn’t go too far: he makes it clear that one particular set of 50 rooms (to be built by Iuventianus from the remains of an old colonnade, probably with a view to using them as shops), must be made available for use during the festival period (i.e. once every two years, in the case of the Isthmian festival) for accommodating athletes.

Here’s the relevant bit of the text:

Therefore since Priscus conducts himself generously also in this matter, giving to the each citizen one denarius as the price for the previously mentioned property, not only do I give my agreement to the proposal of the Council and People, but I also congratulate this man for conducting himself so generously in all things. And I give my permission for the previously mentioned property to be sold to him under the following condition: that the resulting rooms should be available for the athletes free of charge in perpetuity on the occasion of the games, and that the agonothete (i.e. festival organiser) on each occasion should have the authority to allocate guest accommodation to them. If anyone objects to this he shall be free to tell me before the next Kalends of January. (IG IV, 203; Geagan, Hesperia 58, 1989: 349-60)

How to finance an Olympic village

That’s obviously a slightly different way of getting an athlete’s village, but it’s not far from modern practice.

In the London Olympic park, the athletes’ flats, like some of the sporting venues (under construction below–this photo from 2009) will be sold on after the games for private use.

In Isthmia, which has the different challenge of a permanent venue, these buildings are in private hands for the most part, and borrowed back for the festival periods only.

(This arrangement also has some resonances with the way in which tenants are being evicted just before the London games so that landlords can let their flats out to short-term visitors–although in that case I think the parallels are less significant: the Priscus Iuventianus text is about festival officials reclaiming property by advance arrangement, rather than about individual landlords evicting for profit).


Many of us complain today about the commercialisation of the Olympics, almost as though it’s a distinctively modern problem. Maybe there are good reasons for that. But this kind of financial complexity is certainly not unique to the modern world. Ancient festival organisation too involved a lot of expense. And this text is just one example of the way in which ancient festival organisers had to face up to the challenge of balancing private enterprise and public interest.