The cultural programmes of the modern Olympics

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad has been running for the last four years, from the day after the end of the Beijing Olympics. It hasn’t had much media coverage in the last few months, but yesterday made up for that a little, with the beginning of the London 2012 festival, which is intended as the culmination of the whole four-year programme. Cultural events have been linked with the modern Olympics almost from the beginning, and between the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 and the London games in 1948 there were actually contests, with medals, in architecture, music, painting and many other disciplines: convenient summary here.

Music and culture at ancient Olympia

What are the ancient precedents?

The Olympic festival didn’t include musical/artistic contests, although there was a tradition of famous orators and philosophers speaking to the crowds during the festival; and the emperor Nero famously introduced a musical contest as a one-off so that he could compete as a singer.

Musical contests at Delphi and beyond

But in many other festivals musical competition was almost as popular as athletics.

Most famously of all, the Pythian festival at Delphi combined musical contests with athletics and horse races. There was some variation in the programme over time, but the events included (among other things) singing to the aulos (i.e. flute), playing the aulos (see the image below, from the early fifth century B.C.), singing to the kithara (i.e. lyre), playing the kithara, dithyramb (a type of hymn sung by a chorus), tragic and comic acting.

By the time of the Roman empire there were similar programmes of musical contests at literally hundreds of festivals spread right across the Mediterranean world. The winners were honoured in almost exactly the same ways as athletic victors, and they could win enormous prestige and wealth.

Nor was it just the more highbrow events listed above that got the limelight.

We have lots of evidence for honours being given to public entertainers who performed in non-competitive ‘displays’ at festivals (perhaps the ancient equivalent of interval entertainment)–tight-rope walkers, acrobats, jugglers, strongmen, conjurors–some of whom were even given honorific inscriptions which echo the language used for famous athletes and musicians.

As time went on, the range of events included in festival contests also expanded to include less high-status events (some of which would originally have been included in the ‘displays’ just mentioned, but not as contests). That happened at Delphi, where contests in pantomime (a type of solo dancing which represented famous scenes from mythology) were eventually added. In other festivals the range was even wider.

Oxeidas the mime

Here’s a text which illustrates that point nicely. It’s from the city of Tralleis in western Turkey, found in the theatre, inscribed on a statue-base. It dates from the late second or third century AD.

The Council and the people have honoured Flavios Alexandros Oxeidas of Nikomedia, a biologos [i.e. a mime actor], and an Asioneikes [i.e. victor in the games of the Asian League], because of the pre-eminence of his achievement and the propriety of his way of life. He won 18 contests in the province of Asia Minor and 26 in Lykia and Pamphylia, and he was made a member of the Council of the cities of Antioch and Herakleia and a member of the Council of Elders of the city of Miletus.

(For anyone who’s interested, this is I.Tralleis 110; see also Robert OMS 1: 244-8; and Roueché Performers and Partisans 16-29 for more general discussion)

The word biologos is a word for a mimos, a mime-actor. The mime was often depicted by ancient writers as a slightly disreputable art-form (and certainly it has often been viewed in those terms in modern scholarship). But we know that mime had been included in festival displays earlier in the Roman imperial period. And from the third century AD onwards it increasingly made its way into the competitive programmes in at least in some lower-rank festivals. This text shows vividly just how highly developed the competition calendar was even for mime (44 victories in total here). Clearly its most successful practitioners could win local fame and political influence: many athletic victors similarly list their citizenships and memberships of city Councils as a mark of their fame. Oxeidas was not someone who needed to be embarrassed by his profession.


Musical contests were more or less an equal partner with athletics in ancient competitive festivals (even if not at the Olympics themselves). An ancient onlooker might be puzzled by the fact that we are so reluctant to turn music and art into competitive practices, when we do that so obsessively for sport. He or she might feel more at home in Stockholm 1912 than London 2012. He or she might even feel that we are a bit half-hearted in the way we celebrate musical and artistic achievement, by comparison with the adulation we still give to sports stars.