Going home after the Olympics

Going home

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.

Triumphal entry

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…


Imagining victory

Athletic victory in London 2012

It’s quite striking that media references to Olympic history are actually less frequent now that the games are underway. That’s maybe not a surprise–we have more urgent things to preoccupy us. The reason for watching sport is to see people win. When we watch Usain Bolt, or Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah or countless others in the moment of winning, it’s easy to forget everything else. If we care about who wins, even from the other side of a television screen, sport can pull us in to identify with the athletes we’re watching–it gives us a desire for victory.

We can feel an emotional engagement in watching the losers too: Lu Xian crashing into the first hurdle, or Tyson Gay in tears after his fourth place in the 100m.

Here’s Billy Mills winning a surprise victory in the 10,000 metres in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics–a great picture, I think:

Athletic victory in Pindar

Ancient literature is full of attempts to recreate precisely that kind of exhilaration, and the celebration that follows it.

Most famously it’s everywhere in the work of Pindar–the Greek poet who wrote his victory odes in the 5th century BC. Here’s his (often quoted) praise of the wrestler Aristomenes of Aegina for victory in the wrestling at the Pythian games of 446 BC (Pythian 8.81-97) (also in alternative translation in Miller, Arete (2004) no. 249).

You fell on the bodies of four opponents from on high and with cruel intent. For them no happy return home was allotted at Delphi, as it was for you, nor did sweet laughter bring pleasure to them when they went home to their mothers. Instead they slink along alleyways, staying aloof from their enemies, bitten by misfortune. But the man who has won some new fine thing is made splendid, and flies beyond hope on the wings of his manly deeds, nursing ambitions greater than wealth. But mortal pleasure flowers quickly, and quickly falls to the ground, shaken by an unpleasant thought. Creatures of a day. What is somebody? What is nobody? A human is just the dream of a shadow. But whenever a ray of sunshine comes as a gift from the gods, then a brilliant light falls upon men, and our life is gentle.

Athletic victory in early Christian writing

Oddly enough some of our other best descriptions of victory come from early Christian texts. A lot of early Christian writing uses athletic imagery to describe spiritual victory. Some examples are well known: for example it’s common in accounts of the deaths of martyrs, who are often compared to athletes or gladiators, and Paul’s letters are famously full of examples–they even get their own Wikipedia page.

But early Christian and late antique literature is still a huge untapped resource for scholarship on ancient athletics: there are hundreds and hundreds of more obscure passages which don’t get so much attention.

There are some good examples in a piece by Michael Poliakoff from IJHS 1984, freely available online here.

Job’s victory over Satan

Here’s one of his passages, from the tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda. It’s an account of the Old Testament figure of Job, who was often described as a wrestler, wrestling against Satan. That’s paradoxical, given how weak he often is in the traditional imagery. He’s the one on the right here, covered in boils (this image from the sixth- or seventh-century ‘Syriac Bible of Paris’)–he doesn;t look as though he’s in a position to wrestle with anyone:

Here’s the passage (quoted here from Poliakoff’s translation, with a few adjustments):

Job was that truly great and noble competitor for the truth who first opened the athletic stadium shared by the whole world, who threw down his opponent in every wrestling bout, who received blows and bruises to his very bones yet remained undefeated, who was full of worms yet also crowned (i.e. crowned as victor). Death was not able to lay him out or to put dust on his shoulders, but he stood immovable like a statue or an anvil, unstruck, wrestling throughout his whole life and smashing his opponent. He raised a monument of victory over the Evil One, not by contesting at Nemea, Olympia, the Isthmus, and Delphi…The Opponent’s madness and envy were not sated up until the point when he challenged this athlete naked to the dung heap, making him completely spotted with sores and full of worms and until finally the Cursed One brought the defeat upon himself and drew the lot of final shame….Job gained the ultimate and finest prize from his contests, to be raised with Christ…

This Byzantine fascination with athletic imagery is odd in a way, given that the old athletic festivals had died out many centuries before. The Olympic festival was held for the last time roughly in AD 400.

But maybe that just shows all the more clearly how deeply embedded these ideas of victory were in the Greco-Roman traditions which influenced early Christian and Byzantine culture…

Whipping spectators at the ancient Olympics?

Policing at London 2012

It sounds as though east London is crawling with police and security guards. Terrorists and ticket touts seem to be the main targets: at least 30 of the latter have now been arrested. Before that there was obviously also a big security presence around the Olympic torch relay, most of which went smoothly, but with occasional incidents of almost comical heavy-handedness (although probably not comical for the spectators in question: here an innocent bystander is wrestled to the ground for trying to jog beside the torch ; and similar treatment here for a boy on a bike).

Discipline at the ancient games

Ancient Olympia too had officials for keeping discipline. The difference is that much of their attention was directed to misbehaving competitors, although spectators could be a target too. Then, as now, their main role must have been as a deterrent. But in some cases the punishments they inflicted seem to have been more violent than anything we are familiar with (even by the standards of the two videos linked above), mainly involving whipping and beating.

(The best source for all of that is Nigel Crowther’s article on flogging as punishment in the ancient games, from the journal Nikephoros 1998, reprinted in his volume of selected essays, Athletika).

The right to flog lay with a festival’s chief officials–in Olympia’s case the hellanodikai. They could also appoint other officials, at a lower level, to keep order. The commonest word for these subordinate security officials was mastigophoroi (‘whip-carriers’), although in Olympia they seem to have been referred to as alytai. Some carried whips, others sticks and shields. There is evidence from some festivals that they might have a distinctive uniform.

Flogging could be used as punishment for a false start or other forms of cheating–especially during the combat events (boxing, wrestling, pankration).

Some of these punishments may have been relatively gentle reminders to stick to the rules–like the interventions of a boxing umpire in the middle of a bout–and this kind of thing is depicted regularly on vase paintings (it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the man with the stick–in this case the figure on the right–is a trainer or an umpire):

But in other cases flogging was clearly a more high-profile punishment, inflicted outside the contest itself. For example, it could be used against athletes who refused to pay fines which had been imposed for earlier misdemeanours. Famously we even hear about the wealthy Athenian Alcibiades being flogged at the Olympics for hybristic comments after a victory. No-one was above the law, it seems…

Crowd control in ancient Oenoanda

The whips could also be used for crowd control.

Here’s an extract from a festival inscription from the small city in Oenoanda in what is now southern Turkey.

(See Mitchell in Journal of Roman Studies 1990 for full English translation. It’s a very famous inscription, but it doesn’t get into Miller, Arete and some of the other sourcebooks on ancient sport, which is my excuse for including it here. It’s more than 100 lines long in all, with detailed instruction for the contests, processions and sacrifices–this is just a tiny snippet).

It explains that ‘in the same way 20 mastigophoroi should be chosen by the agonothete (i.e. festival organiser) to lead the way in the procession, wearing white clothing without undergarments and carrying shields and whips, and they will be responsible for good order in the theatre as they have been instructed by the agonothete’.

Why they don’t have any underwear on isn’t clear to me.

But it’s a good example of the way in which public order was an official concern for ancient festival organisers just as it is now.

Whether we would want to see our Olympic torch relay officials entrusted with whips is another question (passing cyclists beware)…

The opening ceremony at the ancient Olympics

Did the ancient Olympics have an opening ceremony?

The procession from Elis

The answer is yes.

Most modern accounts will tell you that it involved an overnight procession to the Olympic site from the city of Elis (where all the athletes had undergone a month of preliminary training). It followed a route known as the Sacred Road, probably 30 or 40 miles long. The procession seems to have included all athletes and umpires, and presumably lots of fans tagging along. It involved stops for ritual purification with pig’s blood along the way. On arrival in Olympia, the umpires would sort the athletes into age classes–in other words deciding which ones should compete in the boys’ category and which in the men’s–and then the athletes would all swear oaths on slices of wild boar’s flesh in front of the statue of Zeus, promising good conduct.

Some differences

Clearly there are some big differences from what we’re seeing today in London.

Most obviously, this was a religious event. In fact it was just one of many similar such events which took place throughout the five days of the games. These were absolutely standard for ancient festivals–we have lots of evidence for lavish processions winding their way through the streets of ancient cities at festival time, bringing animals to be sacrificed.

Second, even if it was spectacular in its own way, it must have fallen a long way short of the hype attached to opening ceremonies today. Admittedly the sacrifices which came later in the festival would have needed a big investment–especially the great sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus on the third day–and might have been watched by tens of thousands. There were also plenty of opportunities for athletes or delegations from cities to express pride in their own local identities. But the procession from Elis itself must have been pretty cheap and unostentatious, compared with the vast expenditure of today’s ceremony in London. And presumably some parts of it were significant more for participants than spectators: they would have been on their own with only a few onlookers at least for some stretches of the route.

A digression: on television and the modern Olympics

Today’s ceremony is of course vastly expensive, and driven above all by television, designed to attract many millions of viewers. (Here’s the Malaysian team processing in the 2008 games).

There’s a risk of stating the obvious in that claim. But if you want some more in-depth reading on that you could try Television in the Olympics (1995) (eds. de Moragas Spà, Rivenburgh and Larson)–large sections of it are freely available here (or see here for a closely related study).

The book focuses especially on the 1992 games in Barcelona, but I think a lot of it still rings true 20 years later. It involved a team of 25 translators transcribing and translating television commentary from around the world. I was interested especially in chapter 6 and chapter 8. They deal with the way in which different national broadcasters projected very different interpretations of opening ceremonies through their different styles of commentary, and very different views of national identity and national stereotypes. There are lots of commentary extracts from different nations reproduced word for word, some of them breathtakingly crass and patronising, including lots of mockery of ‘funny-looking’ traditional costumes, and one French commentator who refers to badminton (presumably in the context of the entry of the Chinese team) as ‘a charming sport for little old English ladies and robust Chinese proletarians’ (p. 160).

It all shows very vividly how big television events like this can have a powerful influence on the way we view ourselves and the world around us–perhaps all the more powerful for the fact that they appear to be offering just innocent ‘entertainment’. Not surprising, perhaps, but probably easy to forget while you’re watching…

(Here’s the US team, again in 2008).

Some caveats

The ancient Olympics did have an opening ceremony of sorts, then, but it was different in many ways from what we’re used to today.

Having said all of that, it’s worth stressing finally that the evidence for the procession from Elis is surprisingly precarious. In fact it’s infuriatingly difficult to work out what these claims are based on.

If you search online for ‘Elis to Olympia’ or ‘procession from Elis’ or similar terms you will turn up literally hundreds of websites which summarise the procession in more or less the way I have summarised it above. All of them present it as a self-evident fact, without any reference to specific sources. A lot of these sites have clearly lifted summary accounts almost verbatim from other secondary sources. For some reason even scholarly accounts of the procession tend to mention it without giving any references.

Actually when you look more closely it turns out that this is a reconstruction. There’s no single ancient account of the procession. Instead the picture is cobbled together from lots of tiny snippets. Many of these sources are very late (2nd or 3rd century AD, in the case of the ones cited below), and can’t necessarily be taken as evidence for how things were done at the Olympics many centuries before.

Some examples:

Pausanias 5.16.8: Neither the Sixteen Women (i.e. sponsors of the women’s contest of the Heraia, held separately from the men’s games) nor the Hellanodikai (i.e. Olympic umpires) perform any of the rituals they are obliged to perform until they have purified themselves with a pig which is suitable for purification and with water. Their purification takes place at the spring called Piera. You reach the spring of Piera as you go along the plain from Olympia to Elis.

Pausanias 5.25.7: On the same wall are both the offerings of the Agrigentines are two naked statues of Heracles as a boy…The second of these images used to stand at the end of the road that leads from Elis to Olympia, which is called ‘sacred’.

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.43: When the Olympic festival are approaching, the people of Elis train the athletes for thirty days in Elis itself…When they are going to Olympia they talk to the athletes like this: ‘If you have toiled hard enough to be worthy of going to Olympia and have done nothing lazy or dishonourable, go with confidence. But those who have not trained in this way, leave now to wherever you wish.


The bits in bold are the crucial sections. Between them they do seem to support the reconstruction I summarised at the beginning. It’s a perfectly plausible reconstruction. But that surely doesn’t mean we should just accept it without stopping to think about where it comes from, and without stopping to notice how precarious it is–like so many other elements in our understanding of the ancient Olympics…

Children’s books on the ancient Olympics

Olympic introductions

The choice of introductory books on the ancient Olympics is bewildering (if you type in ‘ancient Olympics’ to the books section on amazon.uk you get 1454 results; if you type just ‘Olympics’ you get 11,612). Here’s a quick review of some of the publications for children. I’ve picked five of them. 1 and 2 are on the ancient Olympics specifically; 3 is half ancient, half modern; 4 and 5 focus mainly on the modern games, but include some ancient material. There’s no special rationale for choosing these rather than others: they’re picked from the amazon.uk site; I have given priority to those high up the sales ranking and with good reviews; beyond that I just went for the ones that looked most promising and most interesting (like a last-minute present-buyer, perhaps…) But there are plenty of others out there too.

1. Avoid Entering the Ancient Greek Olympics (Danger Zone) by Michael Ford and David Antram (£5.99)

Part of the ‘Danger zone’ series, which aims to bring to life ‘the nitty and truly gritty facts’ behind a wide range of different periods of history. Fantastic cartoon-like drawings (in the Asterix mould), complete with over-muscled, villainous-looking athletes. All in the second-person singular: your father sends you off to compete at Olympia; you don’t want to go; but eventually you win through to become victor in the pentathlon. There are lots of ‘handy hints’ to keep you out of trouble (watch out for pickpockets, try to dazzle your opponent by making him face the sun, check your chariot before you set off in case one of your rivals has loosened a bolt etc. etc.). It gives a fairly conventional overview of the various sporting events, but pretty accurate and engaging (although the claim on p. 28 that Olympic victors were interested in winning for its own sake rather than for money is misleading–it’s fairly clear now that athletic victory was a very lucrative thing). There’s a good attempt to give some context on Greek education and warfare.

2. How the Olympics Came to Be by Helen East and Mehrdokht Amini (£6.99)

A British Museum publication. This too tries hard to avoid a predictable, pedestrian format. It combines the ancient Olympics with some Greek mythology, so you get two for the price of one. It’s divided into five chapters, one for each day of the ancient Olympics. Each one opens with really vivid description of the excitement of the races for participants and spectators. Then we cut to the gods up in Olympus, viewing the games through their tele-viewer, squabbling with each other, and listening to Tethys telling stories from Greek myth. There’s a special focus on stories involving contests–e.g. the story of Hippodamia and Pelops or Atalanta and Melanion–and it ends up with an account of the foundation of the Olympics. Beautiful drawings. It’s a bit allusive in places, especially in the opening pages, so might not always be clear to readers without a bit of background knowledge. And it doesn’t go into enormous detail on ancient Olympia, so it’s not the obvious one to go for if that’s what you want: it’s very much a story book, rather than a text book. But I think it is good to read.

3. The Story of the Olympics by Minna Lacey and Paddy Mounter (£5.99)

An Usborne young reading volume. The target audience of young readers means that there are very few words to play with, so it’s pretty brief. But it’s clear and engaging. It covers all the basics on the sporting side of the ancient Olympics very accurately. The second half moves on to Coubertin and the 1896 revival, and then lots on material on famous modern Olympic athletes. Bright and mildly comical drawings.



4. Fitter, Faster, Funnier Olympics by Michael Cox (£4.99)

This is for older children than the previous one. It’s fairly brief on the ancient games (8 pages out of 130 or so). Lots of gruesome details and comical asides, and a multiple-choice quiz on some Greek athletic vocabulary (‘What is or are dolichos? a) snacks served to spectators b) a running race c) ‘a nasty groin condition brought about by not changing your loincloth regularly enough’ etc. etc.) The rest of the book is along similar lines, organised event by event, with lots of entertaining silliness (if you like that kind of thing): there are timelines, more multiple-choice quizzes, collections of amazing facts on the various Olympic events and so on. The main problem is that it’s sometimes hard to know what’s true and what’s not–although I suspect the target audience won’t mind that very much. We hear at one point that ‘if an ancient Greek boxing match was going on too long, the boxers too turns to stand totally still while their opponent used them as a punch bag until one of them was finally knocked out’–p. 49–not true, as far as I know!

5. The Story of the Olympics by Richard Brassey (£7.99)

Along similar lines to 4, with lots of boxes full of amazing facts. Thinner but much more lavishly illustrated and really well produced, so maybe worth the extra money. There are 30 pages in total. Five of those are on the ancient games–this section is necessarily fairly thin, given the space. The rest is organised one Olympics at a time, from 1896 right through to 2016. There’s a lot to enjoy here: I especially liked the full page drawing of various misadventures from the marathon race in the St Louis Olympics in 1904: one runner cutting off the bottom half of his formal trousers at the start line to make shorts, another chased off course by a dog, another getting a lift in a car, another given strychnine by his trainer for energy etc. etc.


I think these are all pretty good in their own way. For what it’s worth I think number 2 and number 5 stand out if you want something an adult will enjoy reading with children. But young readers might give a different ranking. Some older children will certainly enjoy the more gruesome and comical approach of number 4–although it’s sometimes hard to extract the facts from the surrounding comedy. Number 1 has some of the same gruesomeness, but it is also at the same time by far the most thorough of all these five books on the detail of the ancient games, and it’s the stand-out choice if that’s your priority. Number 3 is probably the best bet for young readers (my four-year-old daughter liked this one best of all).

Postscript: modern representations of the ancient Olympics

It’s interesting to think about how these books and other popular accounts represent the ancient Olympics. One of the striking things is that they all offer a fairly similar story, with a tendency to rely on the same sources over and over again. For example most non-specialist accounts these days focus very much on the early period of Olympic history, with almost no mention of Hellenistic and Roman history. Most of them look in turn at the various different events or the different days of the festival. Most of them include some rehashing of ancient stories about the origins of the games and the very familiar stories from Pausanias about the great heroic athletes of the early days of the games. To take just two examples, the obligatory story of the wrestler Milo carrying a cow around turns up repeatedly in the books reviewed here (number 2, p. 34; number 4, p. 11; number 5, p. 11), as does the story of Polydamas wrestling against lions (number 2, p. 41; number 4, p. 10; number 5, p. 11).

Those are very familiar patterns and familiar stories from most of the web resources on the ancient Olympics too, even on some very good websites–e.g. here or here. It’s also true for the IOC site, which I’ve mentioned before.

There’s not necessarily any great problem with that. And none of this is meant as a major criticism of these five books specifically–they all do what they set out to do very well (and some of them do attempt an original format quite successfully, especially 1 and 2).

But I still think it would be nice to see a bit more variety in the way the story of the ancient Olympics is told, and especially the kinds of sources we use to tell it. The tendency to follow the same contours and to ask the same questions every time we talk about the Olympics is perhaps a hazard of the internet age. It certainly seems to be a problem of some modern journalism, where you often see the same news story repeated almost word-for-word in dozens of different places. If we stick to anecdotes from Pausanias it means that we’re cutting ourselves off from lots of other fascinating material. If some of these popular accounts were a bit more willing to branch out (as the best of the introductory books for adult readers now do–for a recent example, packed with translations from less often used sources, see David Potter’s 2011 book, The Victor’s Crown) I think it might help to convey the fascination of ancient Olympic history even more vividly.

CVs on stone

Time in ancient and modern sport

It’s interesting to look at the way in which ancient sport deals with time.

One of the striking things is that it’s very hard to find any interest in medium-term timescales: in other words hard to find examples of ongoing competition played out over a period of weeks and months. We’re used to this in big tournaments with a knock-out structure or in leagues with regular matches for more than half the year–those models are common in many different sports. Other structures are unique to particular sports: for example the concept of the series in test match cricket (up to five matches of five days each, played by two teams across a couple of months of the summer), or the big three-week stage races of professional cycling: the Giro d’Italia in May, the Tour de France in July, the Vuelta a España in August/September.

Following these events is one of the great pleasures available to the modern sports fan, with their drawn-out suspense and their ups and downs over a long period. And it’s one of the things that makes modern sport completely different from its ancient equivalents (or even from sporting activity before about the mid 19th century: many of these ways of organising sport came into being around the same time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: FA cup in 1871-2, first test match in 1877, English football league in 1888, Tour de France in 1903–this photo from 1906).

In other respects, however, the differences are much less. Ancient sportsmen and sports fans engaged with sport as a short-term activity, just as we do, in contests which last for seconds or minutes or (occasionally) hours.

That doesn’t mean that ancient sports fans had to be content with living in the moment. They also often perceived a long-term narrative, measured by years and decades. That’s apparent especially in texts which look back over the careers of famous athletes.

Ancient victory inscriptions

We have many surviving examples of this in victory inscriptions (especially from the Roman Empire). In the absence of journalists, athletes had to advertise their achievements for themselves. These texts were set up by athletes or by their home cities or by the athletic guild as ways of celebrating a glorious career, often accompanied by statues. They offered a kind of CV or palmarès inscribed on stone. Some of them give extraordinary impressions of the dominance of the great athletes they celebrate, and a vivid picture of the geographical range of the ancient festival calendar. (For a modern parallel, here’s Lance Armstrong’s palmarès–enjoy it while you can, since it may be looking a bit different in a year’s time…)

Some of the more famous examples are fairly easily available (e.g., good examples in Miller (2004) Arete–numbers 210 and 213). But there are plenty of others out there which aren’t easy to get hold of in translation.

Marcus Aurelius Abas

Here’s a fairly typical one (from Moretti, Iscrizioni agonistiche greche, number 76–and there are nearly 100 others there with Greek text and Italian commentary for anyone who wants to look).

It’s from the city of Adada–a small city Pisidia, now south-west Turkey. It’s probably from the late second century AD.

The Council and the Assembly have honoured Marcus Aurelius Abas, citizen and councillor, amazing running victor in the sacred games, a long distance runner, the first and only Adadan of all time to win the following sacred, iselastic contests:

The Capitolia in Rome

The Eusebeia in Puteoli

The Sebasta in Naples

The shield games of Argos, without competitors

The Asklepeia of Epidauros

The Olympia in Pisa

The Ourania (?) in Sparta

The festival of the Bithynian league in Nikomedia

The long-distance race and the diaulos (400 metres) in the Artemisia at Ephesos

The Hadrianeia in Ephesos twice

The Balbilleia in Ephesos

The festival of the Asian league in Kyzikos

The victory games in Ephesos

The Panhelleneia in Athens.

Compared with some, this list is pretty brief and modest. Many of the others boast of having won several successive victories at the Olympics and other festivals, instead of just one (then as now, an athlete who boasts of three Olympic victories is one who has dominated the sport for nearly a decade). And the point about being the first citizen of Adada ever to win this combination of victories is fairly unambitious compared with his more dominant contemporaries: some of them claim that their achievements are unique in the whole world.

But still this gives a powerful impression of how fascinated ancient viewers were with looking back over the whole sweep of an athlete’s career.

The detail about victory without competitors in Argos is also fairly common, and very prestigious–it basically means that all other competitors withdrew, conceding the race in advance.

Postscript: athletes and Roman emperors

Incidentally I think it’s also interesting to see the position of Olympia in this list–relegated to sixth place. More often Olympia comes at the beginning of lists like these, but there are other examples like this one from the second century where it slips down the list (see Moretti 69, with translation here, for another example).

More than anything that’s a sign of the importance given the festivals founded by Roman emperors or in honour of Roman emperors, which came to have an almost equal prestige to the old contests of the Greek world. The Capitolia, for example, the first festival listed here, was founded by the emperor Domitian in the city of Rome in the late first century AD, and very soon became one of the most important of all festivals in the Greek athletic calendar. (The Piazza Navona in Rome is built over the stadium constructed by Domitian for the games–you can just about see the long, thin stadium shape in this Piranesi etching from 1748).

Arguably the sponsorship of successive emperors was a major factor in the renaissance of Greek athletic festivals in the Roman Empire, Olympia included–surprising in a way, given that we tend to think of the Olympics as Greek rather than Roman…

New sports in the Olympic programme

The modern Olympic programme

One of the confusing things about the modern Olympics, for a casual observer, is the constant introduction of new sports. The list of Olympic events has a slightly arbitrary look: it’s hard to see the rationale for including some sports ahead of others. One factor is the principle that an Olympic sport must be widely practised around the world, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Rugby is due to be re-introduced in 2016, as rugby sevens. Rugby union was an Olympic event until 1924–here’s the US Olympic rugby team from 1920:

The same goes for golf (which was included in 1900 and 1904). But why don’t we have Olympic snooker or squash or karate? Why don’t we still hand out Olympic medals in the tug-of-war? (this photo from the 1904 Olympics).

And why don’t we have Olympic cricket? Admittedly the precedents for cricket in the Olympics aren’t very promising. It was included once, in 1900. Originally the plan was a four-way tournament between England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Eventually there was just one match (two days and twelve-a-side) between England and France, when the other two pulled out. England (represented by the ‘Devon County Wanderers’) beat France (represented by ‘All Paris’–many of whom were actually British residents living in Paris) by 158 runs:

But cricket now surely qualifies as a sport played right around the world, very much more so than it did then. This page has the full list of ‘associate’ and ‘affiliate’ members of the ICC (currently 96 of them, if I have counted right: Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, Botswana, Canada etc. etc.)

Ancient festival programmes

It’s tempting to imagine that this constant adjustment of the Olympic programme wouldn’t have happened in the ancient games, where tradition was so important, but actually there are lots of similarities.

Admittedly the situation was different in some ways just because there was a much smaller number of events competing for entry. One reason for the variations in the modern programme is simply the fact that there are so many sports, each with its own governing bodies pushing for entry. The ancient world just didn’t have so many sports.

But if we put that difference aside, there are plenty of similarities. There is a lot of evidence for programmes being adjusted from year to year in the many hundreds of smaller-scale festivals which were dotted around the Mediterranean world. Usually those changes would have been on the initiative of the festival funders and organisers, but they might sometimes have required a process of debate and negotiation involving city officials and others.

Even the biggest and most famous festivals were open to variation.

The Olympic programme was pretty conservative later in its history, from the second century BC onwards. But over the first half of its history there was a process of pretty frequent adjustment. It’s hard to reconstruct the rationale for these adjustments. But it’s clear that the Olympics started just with running events: first of all just the stadion (200m approx.), then the diaulos (400m) and dolichos (long-distance race) added 40 or 50 years later.

The first combat events are said to have been introduced in 704 B.C., then several varieties of horse race and boys’ events in the following centuries, the last being the boys’ pankration introduced in the Olympics of 200 B.C.

Plutarch and the Pythian programme

The athletic and (especially) the musical events of the Pythian festival at Delphi were adjusted even in later centuries (e.g., see here on the introduction of contests in ‘pantomime’ dancing in the Roman period).

The philosopher Plutarch was an official at Delphi in the late first and early second century AD, and gives us a glimpse of how these changes must have been debated in the festival’s governing body (in this case in relation to the musical/literary competitions):

At the Pythian festival there was a debate about whether the newer competitions ought to be eliminated…Some thought that the prose writers and poets especially ought to be excluded from the festival…During the Council meeting I tried to dissuade those who wished to change established practices and who found fault with the festival as if it were a musical instrument with too many strings and too many notes…

Some of Plutarch’s fellow council members want to sweep away all the new and inauthentic additions (some viewers of the modern games might sympathise) but Plutarch speaks out for variety.


We get here just a small glimpse of the organisational complexity of ancient festivals–also its debates and power struggles. Those things are not unique to the modern world. We can also see how tradition was always accompanied by innovation in the ancient Olympic and Pythian festivals. These festivals ran for an astonishingly long time–more than 1000 years. They were highly traditional occasions, symbols of the connections between the Greek past and the Greek present. But their organisers were not afraid to keep on changing them and improving them in response to changing tastes. The changes we see every four years in the modern Olympic programme are surely not so different.

Judging form and placing bets

Form in modern sport

One of the main sources of pleasure for anyone who enjoys sport in the modern world is speculating in advance about who’s going to be in form and who’s going to win. Is Usain Bolt going to overcome his early season dip in form and the good form of his competitors to win again on 5 August? Can Bradley Wiggins really hold his form to win the Tour de France (or the Olympic time trial, for that matter) or has he peaked too soon? (and see here, including the comments at the end, for similarly painstaking speculation about the poor form of his rival Andy Schleck, who has now pulled out of the Tour with a fractured pelvis).

Form in the ancient world

We don’t see much sign of that in the ancient world, and I think that’s one reason why ancient sport can sometimes be hard to connect with at first sight.

That’s partly because ancient sports fans didn’t have the kind of information we have today: it’s harder to speculate about the current form and the strengths and weaknesses of individual competitors if you haven’t seen them regularly on television and if you can’t call up their career histories in a matter of seconds online.

But it’s also partly just because of what survives: most of the ancient sources we have describe victories after the event and in relatively formal terms, in anecdotes or honorific inscriptions. In fact ancient sports fans must have spent time speculating in advance in much the same we do as we do–just that their conversations don’t survive on paper.

We get just occasional glimpses of that kind of thing in our surviving sources. The best place to look, I think, is the preparatory periods just before big festivals, when spectators could see athletes training in advance. Think of all the spectators crowding into the city of Elis for the month of compulsory training in advance of the Olympics and watching the athletes being trained in the gymnasium.

The satirist Lucian (writing in the second century AD) talks about being in Elis in precisely that period. He describes the crowds in the city. And he tells us that he wandered off halfway through listening to a tiresome public debate ‘in order to go and see the athletes’ (Peregrinus 31).

Iatrokles at the Sebasta

There’s a similar description by Dio Chrysostom, probably from the late first century AD, set in Naples just before the great festival of the Sebasta:

Having come up from the harbour, we went straight away to see the athletes, as if the whole purpose of our trip was to view the contests. When we got close to the gymnasium, we saw some athletes running on the track outside, and there was a sound of cheering from the people encouraging them, and other athletes exercising in different ways. We decided not to pay any attention to them, but went instead to where we saw the biggest crowd. We could see many people standing around the Arcade of Herakles, and others approaching, and still others going away because they couldn’t see anything. At first we tried to see by peeping over the crowd’s shoulders, and we managed with difficulty to catch sight of an athlete exercising with his head up and his arms outstretched. Then we gradually got in closer. He was a big and beautiful young man…he looked like one of those carefully wrought statues… (Dio 28.1-3)

They then interrogate a nearby athletic trainer about the athlete and learn that he is a boxer named Iatrokles. And the trainer discusses Iatrokles’ prospects for victory, and his newfound confidence, now that his arch-rival Melankomas has died.

It’s a very vivid portrayal of the crowds and the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation and speculation.

Betting in ancient Greek and Roman sport

I think it’s interesting also that there is very little sign of betting on ancient athletics. That absence of a highly developed betting culture may be another reason why advance speculation about particular athletes is relatively absent from our sources (whenever we talk about ‘favourites’ today we’re using the language of the bookmaker, even if we don’t realise it).

We do have evidence for betting on chariot racing in Rome, although it seems to have been frowned upon. The Latin satirist Juvenal mentions ‘shouting and audacious betting and sitting next to elegant girls’ (11.201-2) at the chariot racing as activities which are suitable for young men. The Christian moralist Tertullian describes chariot-racing spectators as ‘blind with passion and agitated about their bets’ (De Spectaculis 16.1).

But I don’t know of any example at all for a Greek athletic festival. (The best Greek example I can think of is the wager offered by the hero Idomeneus to Ajax, at the funeral games of Patroclus in Homer, Iliad 23.482-7, on which of the chariots is in the lead).

If you search online for ‘betting ancient Olympics’ you turn up a large number of betting websites claiming (in an obviously self-serving way!), that sports betting dates back to the ancient Olympics–but without any sign of where exactly that information comes from.

For example one site tells us that

Thousands of years ago, athletic competitions were held in Corinth, Delphi, Nemea, and Olympus. Events included footraces, hurling the discus, long jumping, throwing the javelin, wrestling, boxing, and a form of free-style fighting. Contestants would dress in full battle array, including body armour and helmets, and prize money was bestowed on the victors. But there was even more to be gained in the viewing stands at these events, where excited spectators wagered on the outcomes, sometimes gaining or losing entire estates in the bargain.

Other examples (among many others) here or here.


It’s possible that there are one or two sources out there which could be used to support that claim (I can’t think of any personally, but if anyone can I would love to know!) But even if that turned out to be the case, I still think it would be a highly misleading claim. Even if there was betting on ancient athletics every so often it clearly had a pretty low profile very far removed from the practices of the modern betting industry…

The cultural Olympiad and the musical contests of the ancient world

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.

Spectators as spectacle

Spectators as spectacle in the modern world

There has been a lot coverage of fan behaviour at Euro 2012 during the last week. Much of it seems to be linked with the idea that the character of a nation is signalled by its fans’ behaviour. There have been allegations of deep-rooted racism in Ukrainian society, leading to calls for black football fans to stay away: for example here. Nor is it just Ukrainian fans who have been attracting attention. Since the tournament began there have been several reported disturbances, including this account of Russian fans attacking stewards and directing racist chanting against one of the Czech Republic’s players, all of which has led UEFA to launch disciplinary procedures against the Football Union of Russia.

Obviously we’re also familiar with other less negative versions of the idea of spectators on show. There’s quite an idealised version of that idea in Riefenstahl’s Olympia, her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Repeatedly she lets the camera pan over the huge audience in the Berlin stadium, lingering on their faces often in quite a leisurely way, allowing us to appreciate their role as part of an unified body of German and Olympic spectators (e.g. here at 1:42 or 2:53 or 3:35, to take some examples almost at random). As so often, Riefenstahl’s film looks surprisingly modern here. Modern sports coverage has inherited that camera technique–albeit in a more frenetic and less interesting form, for example in the shots between balls in cricket coverage, and in other sports too, where you see brief glimpses of spectators in the crowd, sometimes just for half a second before the camera pulls away.

Dio Chrysostom and the Alexandrians

What I’m most interested in here, however, is the idea of moral judgements about spectator behaviour in the Euro 2012 stories, and the idea that the behaviour of an audience can reflect on the character of a city or a nation. Those ideas were very widespread in the ancient world too, in fact probably even more so than they are for us.

Here’s an example, from a speech by the orator/philosopher Dio Chrysostom, dating from the late first or early second century AD. These extracts are from a long speech criticising the people of Alexandria for their behaviour at public spectacles–musical performances, athletic contests, horse races etc.

He is worried particularly about what visitors to the city will think. He also worries about the Alexandrians’ loss of self-control. And he presents this kind of audience madness as a disease or a drug:

whenever they enter the theatre or the stadium, it is as if they are affected by drugs which have been buried there, and they lose all consciousness of their former state of mind, nor are they ashamed to do and say whatever comes into their heads…And when the terrible event is over and they are dispersed, the extremes of the upheaval are extinguished, but still their behaviour continues at street-corners and in alleyways throughout the whole city for many days… (32.41-2)

That kind of denunciation carries on for pages and pages. For example later:

Whenever you come into the stadium, who could describe the shouting there and the disturbance and the anguish and the bodily contortions and the changes of colour and the many terrible curses you utter? (32.74)

What he seems to want instead is silence and attentiveness:

For it is a divine and really holy and impressive thing when the face of the people is gentle and composed and neither convulsed with violent and unrestrained laughter, nor disturbed by continual and disorderly clamouring, but instead there is a single act of listening, despite the huge size of the crowd. (32.29)


Some of the behaviour Dio describes sounds very familiar. He might have felt that the behaviour of those Russian fans was part of the same phenomenon–emotional turmoil spilling out on to the streets outside the stadium. And there is certainly other evidence for fighting and rioting among ancient spectators, for example the famous chariot racing riots in Constantinople in AD 532–the Nika riots–which saw thousands of people killed; or the Pompeii riots of AD 59, which followed a gladiatorial show–famously depicted in this image:

However, some aspects of Dio’s approach does also sound very odd by modern standards. The moralising language he uses is more draconian than anything we are familiar with. I suspect even the most demanding modern critic wouldn’t go quite so far as Dio in his dislike of noise and laughter and emotional engagement (in a concert hall perhaps–but surely not on the football field). It’s hard to believe he would get much of a hearing today.

But then maybe the Alexandrians didn’t pay any attention to him either…