The London Olympics are over. Most of the athletes will be home by now. Some will have been greeted by cheering crowds and parades.
This usually seems to involve open-top buses. Here’s the French team back in Paris this week
And Kelly Holmes in 2004:
The high-profile winners can expect national honours and increased funding for themselves and their sports in the future.
What was it like to go home as an Olympic victor in the ancient world?
In some cases it would have taken a long time–not just because of slow transport, but also because of the packed festival calendar: many athletes would simply sail on to the next festival. But when a victorious athlete finally did get home, he would get a welcome just as spectacular as anything we would expect today.
If his victory was in one of the top-rank games with the title eiselastikos he would have the privilege of driving in to the city (eiselaunein) in a chariot. Diodorus Siculus (admittedly as part of an account of the luxury of the city of Akragas, which suggests that this may not have been entirely typical) has the following account:
In the ninety-second Olympiad, when Exainetos of Akragas was the victor [i.e. in the “stadion” race–approx. 200 metres] they led him into the city in a chariot, and included in the procession there were, in addition to other things, three hundred chariots with white horses, all of them belonging to citizens of Akragas. (Diodorus Siculus 13.82)
In some cases we hear of a breach being made in the city’s wall. The emperor Nero insisted on that privilege for himself in returning home after his (stage-managed) musical and chariot-racing victories in Greece:
Returning from Greece to Naples…he entered the city with white horses, part of the city wall having been torn down, as is the custom for victors at the sacred festival; in a similar fashion he entered Antium, then Albanum, then Rome…in purple clothing and a cloak decorated with gold stars. (Suetonius, Nero 25)
The ancient equivalent of the gold medal was the crown of victory (in the case of the Olympics that was a crown of olive leaves). It was particularly important in these ceremonies–in fact the whole process was sometimes referred to in a kind of shorthand form as ‘bringing in the crown’ (eisagein to stephanon). It would be carried in procession and then be dedicated within the city.
One Hellenistic inscription from Teos gives very precise instructions, as part of a much wider list of honours for the Seleukid king Antiochos III (see Ma, Antiochos III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor, Epigraphical Dossier no. 18, lines 46-9):
Those who make a solemn entrance into the city, having won a victory in the sacred contests, must go first to the Council chamber, as soon as they come through the city gate, to crown the statue of the king, and to offer sacrifice.
The victor’s pension
There were longer-term privileges too. Most importantly, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, victors would be given pensions and in some cases also exemption from taxation. In the Roman period, victory at a ‘sacred festival’ (i.e. one of the top ranked contests) seems to have given you an automatic right to a pension from your home city. Here’s a text from the city of Hermopolis in Egypt, from the mid third century AD, surviving on a papyrus manuscript. (Also available in the Loeb Classical Library series, Select Papyri vol. 2, no. 306).
To the most excellent Senate of the great, ancient, most revered, and most illustrious city of Hermopolis, from Aurelius Leucadius, citizen of Hermopolis, sacred victor and pankratiast …I request that an order be given to pay me from the city’s accounts, as my pension for the victory for which I was crowned at the sacred eiselastic games, the total of 1 talent 2610 drachmas, for 48 months…at the rate of 180 drachmas per month; also, as my pension for the first victory for which I was crowned at the sacred eiselastic universal Olympian [i.e. following the same rules as the Olympics as Pisa] boys’ contest in the colony of Sidon, the total of 1 talent 450 drachmas for 35 months 25 days…at the rate of 180 drachmas per month, making a total claim of 2 talents 3090 drachmas of silver…
180 drachmas per month was a lot of money: well above the average monthly wage for a skilled labourer. Note the way this request is phrased almost as the assertion of a right. It seems that you could claim a separate pension for each separate victory. Having lots of these to pay would have been a significant drain on the city’s budget.
That kind of evidence makes the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century idea that amateurism was important to ancient athletics seem all the more bizarre. Admittedly Olympic victors received only symbolic rewards at the games themselves, rather than money prizes–the same is true today. But victory was lucrative in other ways, and many ancient athletes must have been driven largely by financial motivations.
Some modern gold-medallists–especially from minority sports in less wealthy countries–might even wish they were back in ancient Hermopolis…