Athletics and Athletic Competition in Ancient Greece

By: Anthony Lee Gunn July 18, 2007

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You must be an athlete – since nothing renders a man more renowned in his own lifetime than what he can do with his hands and his feet. ~ Prince Laodamas1


When modern man thinks on the Ancient Greek civilization, many things come to mind. Among these are their philosophy, their architecture, their art – sculpture, vases, frescos, their literature, their militaries and their warfare, their religion, their legends, myths, and fables, their festivals and competitions. All are distinct yet interwoven and in all there is a presence of athletics. From the gymnasium and palaestra of the common polis to the great Panhellenic games at Delphi, Nemea, Ishtmia, and Olympia, athletics and athletic competition were integral parts of Greek life. To be Greek was, to most, to be athletic. In this paper, it will be shown that athletics and athletic completion was not a separate part of Greek culture but were, rather, an important part of all Greek culture, playing many roles.

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Athletics in Their History

The Ancient Greeks of their Classical Age themselves could research and discuss the topic of Athletics and Athletic Competition in their own history. They need only look at Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Or they could examine their legends and myths of their great heroes of the past, including those which explain the origins of their great Panhellenic festivals. These show that physical prowess as demonstrated by athletic endeavors and competition had been an important part of their cultural heritage from the dawn of their existence. Homer In the Iliad we find one of the earliest mention of funeral games, which were not sacred games2 but still of a religious significance3, when Achilles holds games in honor of his bosom friend Patroclus who had been killed in battle by Troy’s Prince Hector. In these games we find a chariot race, boxing match, wrestling match, foot race, weight throw, armed combat, archery, and javelin throw. There were a wide variety of awards to the victors (taken from the possessions of Patroclus and of Achilles) including, but not limited to, women, tripods (a common prize), horses, mules, oxen, gold, cauldrons, a two-handled pan, two-handled cup, armor, a lump of iron, double and single axes, and a javelin. Each of the entrants in the chariot race receives a prize unlike in later Greek athletic competition when only the winner receives glory. Even ancient Nestor, who coached his son in the event, receives a prize and recognition for his athletic exploits as a younger man, particularly at the funeral games for Amarynceus.

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King Agamemnon is declared the victor by Achilles in the javelin throw without a throw being made, showing respectful recognition for his superiority. In addition to the obvious purpose of honoring Patroclus as a hero, the funeral games also served to show recognition for the Arete of its contestants, all but one of whom were of noble birth. It also allowed Achilles to bury the hatchet, as it were, and rejoin as a comrade in arms to his fellow Greeks in their fight against the Trojans. Athletic references abound in Odyssey. Book VIII finds Odysseus in the palace of the Phaeacian King Alcinous where a festival is held in his honor, which of course includes athletic competition. Odysseus’s identity is not known to his hosts. When Prince Laodamus unwittingly challenges him to compete, Odysseus declines. One of the athletes, Euryalus, irreverently jibes him, saying that perhaps, in spite of his physical appearance, he is not an athlete. Odysseus bristles at what, to Greek ears, is obviously a great insult. He picks up the discus and throws it much further than any had done so before him. He challenges all to attempt to best him in any athletic contest, especially archery. Humbled, they astutely refuse, acknowledging him to be their better. There are more athletic events upon Odysseus’s return home. Disguised as an old man, he dispatches the beggar Iros with one blow in a boxing match set up by his wife’s suitors. He goes on to win the contest of stringing his own bow and shooting an arrow throw the sockets of axe-heads before going on to dispatch the suitors. These events as well as Homer’s previously mentioned ones demonstrate how athletic prowess showed one’s place whether there be prizes awarded such as in the funeral games for Patroclus or not such as in the games Phaeacia.

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Throughout his tales, Homer drives home the idea of heroism and athleticism going hand in hand. They provide a valuable part of the legacy on which the Greeks built their athletic heritage. Heroes The greatest known hero of the Greeks was Heracles. Heracles was the pinnacle representation of the physical man. His strength and exploits served as inspiration to centuries, if not millennia, of future athletes. As an infant son of Zeus he was reputed to have killed a serpent with his bare hands. His twelve labors all illustrate his physical superiority. In art and literature he is depicted as a pankratiast, a wrestler, a boxer, in horse-racing, and in chariot-racing. His shrines served as site for many athletic festivals. He is widely said to have been the founder of the Olympic games and even to have inaugurated the Nemean games. 4 At Olympia, athletes who won in wrestling and pankration competitions on the same day at Olympia referred to themselves as “successors of Heracles.” In order to be allowed to compete in the Olympic games, Phillip showed himself to be a Greek by his being descendant of Heracles. Such is the contribution of Heracles to the legacy of athletics in Greek civilization. Theseus, a founding hero of Athens, was a great athlete credited with the development of wrestling technique and the pankration.5 Being of superhuman strength, he was said to have hurled a brace of oxen higher than the roof of the Delphinim when taunted by men working there. He is best known for the slaying of the Minotaur and the rescue of the Athenian youth held captive in its labyrinth. He is also credited with expanding the Isthmian Games from a

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closed nightly rite into a full-fledged athletic competition in honor of Poseidon. 6 Like Heracles being a hero also meant both being an athlete and an advocate of athletics. In addition to these there are many heroes in Greek mythology, ranging from Bellerophon who tamed Pegasus to Meleager who dealt the death blow to the Calydonian Boar to the great hunter Orion. All of these were known for what could be called their athletic abilities. And as such they set examples which their Greek posterity set to emulate.

Athletics in Everyday Life

Athletics were important to the free Greek male from the time of his youth onward. Formal physical training and condition began at an early age and never ended. For the male child, this training and education was at the expense of his family. When he became an adult, the state provided the facilities and funding for its continuance. Unlike the average modern man, physical training did not consist of attempting (and usually failing) to make it to the gym about three times a week for a one to two hour workout or with sporadic team sports competition with friends or coworkers. For the Greek male, physical training was an everyday event for several

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hours with all of his peers in the city in the palaistra in his youth and in the gymnasium as an adult. The Palaistra Greek youth began their formal physical training at a young age, perhaps as young as seven or eight,7 at the Palaistra, wrestling schools, which were private schools founded for that purpose. There, they were placed under the care of a professional trainer, the paidotribes. They were off limits to adults so that the paidotribes and students could stay focused on the physical training without the distraction of those who wished to socialize or ogle the young boys. 8 The purpose of the private palaistra was to bring about the image of kalokagathia, health to the body and beauty to the soul. To this end they participated in a full range of physical activities: wrestling, running, jumping, calisthenics, even swimming at places where a body of water was available. In addition to seeing to the immediate conditioning of the body and mind, it also firmly established the importance of athletics to the Greek citizen, a lesson that would serve throughout their lives. Because of the importance of physical training, great care was selected in choosing a paidotribes, often more care than was taken in selecting the boy’s other teachers, the grammatist and the citharist. Plato explains the importance when he states in Protatoras (326): Then the youth is sent to the paidotribes so that the trained body can help develop a virtuous mind, and then there will not be bodily weakness which will cause youths to be cowards in war or upon any other occasion9.

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With such an important purpose in the training, it was necessary to take great care in choosing who provided it. The Palaistra for the training of young boys should not be confused with the Palaistra of the gymnasium. This second Palaistra was the athletic facility for wrestling which could be found attached to or as a part of the gymnasium and in time the terms became synonymous. 10 When the Greek youth reaches the age of eighteen, his physical training does not end. He leaves the Palaistra of his youth for the Palaistra of the gymnasium where he continues to strive to maintain kalokagathia. The Gymnasium One of the defining characteristics of a Polis was the existence of a gymnasion. Pausanias went so far as to say that a place without a gymnasium was not a Polis.11 The travelling barbarian Anacharsis is reported to have stated about his travels throughout Greece that, “In every city of the Greeks there is a designated place where they go mad daily. I mean the gymnasium.” Every Greek city had at least one of these institutions. Athens is often noted for its three largest and most important: the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Cynosarges though Athens had more than a half dozen in all. 12 Unlike the typical gymnasium of today in America, the ancient Greek gymnasium could cover hundreds of acres13 and were not used exclusively for physical exercise. To be sure, they originated as a place for exercise and physical (and perhaps military) training, over the centuries they involved into much more. As the Greeks were drawn to the idyllic grounds of the gymnasia

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to participate in and/or watch the physical activities, the gymnasium evolved into a place of learning, philosophy (Plato founded his school at the Academy, Aristotle founded his school of philosophy at the Lyceum, the Cynics were associated with the Cynosarges), and socializing as well. Such was the draw of athletics and the belief of the unity between the body and the mind. But the primary function remained to be to provide grounds for the free Greek man to maintain an excellent level of physical fitness. The Greeks expected adult men to keep physically fit by spending time in the gymnasium. A good citizen would keep himself in good shape, eumorphia.14 By doing so, the citizen kept himself more alert, healthier, and ready for war or hardship. It was very much a civic duty. To that end, the gymnasia contained facilities for all types of athletic activity: running, wrestling, discus throwing, ball games, jumping, etc. Some of the facilities were quite elaborate, such as covered, colonnaded places for sprinting known as xystos.15 The gymnasium also typically contained support buildings such as baths, changing rooms, classrooms, and offices. And of course, due to the pervasive influence of religion, shrines to the gods and heroes could be found there as well. So important to the Greeks was the gymnasium that they were publicly owned and publicly regulated. An official, the Gymnasiarch, was appointed to oversee the Gymnasium. He (or, sometimes, she16) was the “gymnasium magistrate.” As such, the Gymnasiarch’s responsibilities went far beyond that of the paidotribes of the Palaistra. He ensured that the rules of the gymnasium were enforces, rule such as those prohibiting the gymnasium’s use by “slaves, freedmen and their sons, male prostitutes, market traders, drunks, the mentally ill, and shopkeepers.”17 The Gymnasiarch also provided training, arranged competitions, raised funds,

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provided the oil (the great expense) and other supplies, and oversaw the everyday running the gymnasium. The Gymnasiarch had to be a wealthy person for though the city owned and regulated the gymnasium, it was the Gymnasiarch who was responsible for funding its activities using his own funds or those he rose from his wealthy friends to supplement whatever meager amounts might be provided by the city. That wealthy citizens were willing to undertake these duties along with the entailed expenses further illustrates the importance of athletics to the everyday Greek citizen.

Athletic Competition

That athletics and attention to physical conditioning were so important in the everyday life of the Greek male is due largely to their long history of athletic competition (agones.) In addition to the funeral and other games told of by Homer and in myth, there were actual games in existence whose origins were shrouded in myth and mystery themselves. These varied from the local festivals, great (such as the Panathenaic Games) and small, to the original four great Panhellenic Games at Olympia, Ishtmia, Nemea, and Delphi. These long running games dating back to a mythical past show the continued, pervasive importance of athletic competition to the Greeks.

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Local Games and Festivals The local games and festivals common to each Polis were the most accessible to the majority of the Greeks and were therefore much more of their common experience than the grander, more prestigious Panhellenic games. Most of these games, and there were hundreds of them, rose up during the Archaic age throughout all of Greece and her many colonies from the Black Sea to Sicily. They were typically associated with a deity or hero though that association was sometimes made long after the games had been established. Most Polis “incorporated, expanded, or refounded earlier cultic games to gods and heroes as local material value-prize (chromatic) athletic festivals.” 18 The early foundation of the majority of these local games and festivals laid the foundation for later athletics. Additionally, these local games and festivals contributed to the pride of each individual Polis as well as to the forming of a unique Greek identity. That the Greek festivals were an integral part of Greek life as reflected by the Greek proverb that “A life without festivals is like a road without an Inn.”19 In Athens alone, over 60

days of each year were dedicated to various festivals in honor of various deities. And common to all Greek festivals were Athletic contests. Perhaps the greatest of the local games were those with the Great Panathenaea. Every year Athens held a festival, the Panathenaea, to celebrate the birth of the goddess Athena. The Great Panathenaea, preceded by games, was held every fourth year. A wider range of competitions were held here than at the Panhellenic games and though these were for the most part chromatic games, wreaths and fillets were also given. 20 The games were open to all Greeks except on the

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eighth and final day of games when the games were citizen only tribal competitions. 21 These games served the agonistic spirit of the Greeks and fostered unity among first the Athenians and secondly to the Greek people as a whole. The Panhellenic Games Most prestigious of the competitions of the Greeks were the great Panhellenic Games. These consisted of the Pythian Games held at Delphi, the Isthmian Games held near Corinth at Ishtmia, the Nemean Games held at Nemea, and the greatest of them all, the Olympic games held at Olympia. These were considered to be stephanitai, crown games, and heiroi, sacred, where the Greeks, and only the Greeks, competed for glory and honor rather than for material prizes. 22 The fact that these were stephanitai contributed greatly to their prestige for this demonstrated more than anything the agonistic spirit of the Greeks. Additionally, these games served as a means of cultural unity among the Greeks. Greeks from throughout the Greek world, from the Black Sea to Spain, traveled to these games to compete among the Greek athletic elites and bring honor to themselves and their Polis. Being exclusive to the Greeks, these games showcased their difference from the barbarians and their similarity to one another for only they, the Greeks competed gymnos, nude, and only they competed for a valueless crown and only were Greeks worthy of competing with other Greeks in these most sacred of games. The oldest and most prestigious of these four were the Olympic games. So central to the Greek identity were these games that the Greeks measured time by them, with 776 BC declared to be the first Olympic game though the games were in fact much older. The Olympic cycle, the Olympiad, was four years in length. With the Olympic games being held every four years in the

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first year of the cycle, the Pythian games every four years in the third year of the cycle, and the Nemean games and Isthmian games every two years in different months of the second and fourth years of the cycle, no year went by without a Panhellenic festival being held. So important were these games that ambassadors were sent forth to all the Greek cities declaring a sacred truce so that competing athletes could travel to Olympia unmolested. Once there, the athletes had to show they had been training for the ten months preceding the games and they were required to remain in training at Olympia for the month before the games began. The winners of the Panhellenic games were honored throughout Greece but especially in their home cities. The games were later also known as eiselastikoi, “games for driving in,” for among the many honors bestowed upon the victors, they also had the honor of returning home in a chariot23 where they were greeted with great celebration. To win in the same event at all four games brought extra honor, earning the athlete the distinction of being known as a periodonikes. 24 Many of the athletes gained a type of immortality through the odes, statues, and vases which survive to this day that were created in their name, celebrating their names, cities, and victories.

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Art and Literature

That so much is known about athletics and athletic competition in Ancient Greece is largely to due to the vast treasury of information left behind in their art and literature. Countless thousands of vases record athletic events and activities. Also numerous are the statues in marble and bronze have survived through the centuries. And though many of the bronze have been destroyed, copies remain as well vivid descriptions by writers such as Pausanias who provided much about the victory statues displayed at Olympia. Athletics are mentioned and often discussed in most of the literature that has survived from the plays of Aristophanes to the philosophy of Plato to the histories of Xenophon to the odes of Pindar. All of this does more than just provide information. The sheer abundance of material available further demonstrates the profound prominence in athletics in ancient Greek civilization. Vases Athletic activity is depicted on vases dating back to the Minoans and Myceneans. The “boxer vases” from Knossos depicts muscular fighters25 (though some would argue that Greek athletics owed little to the Minoans 26) and A Mycenaean vase from 1350-1250 BC shows chariots and belt wrestlers. 27 Late Geometric Attic and Boeotian vases show scenes of boxers, chariot races, wrestlers, and foot races.28 The earliest athletics at Athens comes from vases showing boxers and chariots, possibly as parts of funeral games. 29 Vase paintings also depict the torch races of the Panathenaea.30 There are over 1500 “stock” athletic images on Athenian vases

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alone with many more showing horse racing or competitive victory. 31 In addition to showing the many athletic events the Greeks participated in, the vases also serve to explain and illustrate aspects of these events such as a Panathenaic amphora which shows how a Klimax was used to keep boxers at close quarter,32 the many vase paintings showing the use of halters, stone jumping weights,33 and are vases showing referees holding sticks, prepared to strike pankratiasts and boxers who commit fouls.34 All of these attest to the richness of the Greek athletic heritage and how there truly was something for everyone in the athletics of the Greek civilization. Statues Throughout Greece Epinikian statues were raised to commemorate the victories of her athletes, from the sites of the Panhellenic games to the home cities of their victors. Great sculptors such as Myron, Plyclitus, and Lysippus 35 created great works of art which provide the finest representations known to this day of the beauty of the athletic body. Working initially in stone and then later in bronze, Greek sculptors created countless paeans to athletes and the athletic forms. Great sums were spent to show the magnitude of the importance of victory in Greek athletic completion. In addition to the many statues made in honor of specific athletes there were others such as Myron’s Discobulus, Polyclitus’ Doryphorus, and Lysippus’ Apoxyomenus which were created to celebrate athletes and athletics in general. 36 Many of the great sculptors made great strides in capturing the athlete in motion such as another sculpture of Myron’s of a runner by the name of Ladas. Of this statue it was said of its breathtaking impact: “Soon this bronze will leap to take the crown, escape its pedestal. Look how art goes faster than the wind.”37 In addition to celebrating the athletes by preserving their likeness in stone or

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bronze, the athlete along generally with his victory, genealogy, and city, were further praised in the epigrams of the statues bases such as the following lines by Simonides on the base of the statue of Theognetos, who was the victor in boys’ wrestling in the Olympic games of 476 BC: Know what you see when you gaze upon this: it is Theognetos, boy-champion of Olympia, who skillfully steered his course to victory in the wrestling ring. Most beautiful to behold, most formidable to challenge, here is a youth who crowned the city of his good forefathers.38

Literature Just as athletic victory was commemorated in epinikian statues, it was also celebrated in verse through epinikian melos, victory hymns. Beginning with Simonides and followed most notably by Archilochus and Bacchylides, this literary form is best known to us through the works of Pindar of Boeotia. Their skills as “praise writers” were celebrated in their own time and they were in demand throughout all Greek lands to capture in immortal verse the glories of the athletic victors. However, it is not only in these that we here of the athletics of the ancient Greek world. As mentioned earlier, Homer, our most ancient writer gave us our first literary insight to athletics in ancient Greece. Further knowledge is gained in the teachings of the philosophers such as when Socrates wrote of the role of athletics and physical training in his perfect city. Plato also commented heavily on athletics and physical training such as when he criticized wrestling and boxing for being useless in training for war. Euripides was also critical such as in his satiric drama Autolycus where he let loose a violent tirade against athletics39 though athletes were seldom victims of abuse in Greek satire. 40 Athletics also were presented in the writings of

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Aristophanes and generally in a positive light. Xenothon in his Anabasis recounts the games they held in celebration of the “10,000” reaching the Black Sea, providing an exciting account of the races, boxing, pankration, and, most notably, horse races. In every form of Greek literature, athletics is evident.


Presented above is a mere sampling of the ways athletics were and integral part of Greek society. It would be impossible to fully cover all of them in a paper of this brief length. Books could be – and have been – written on each of the above subjects. Yet much more has not been addressed except for a few in passing at best: nudity, gender roles, the intertwined connection of religion and athletics, pederasty, and much much more. That so much remains to be said only goes to show just how large of role athletics played in the Greek miracle.

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End Notes


THE ANCIENT OLYPMICS, page 135. Translation of Prince Laodamas’s challenge to Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. 2 SPORT AND SPECTACLE, page 56 3 THE GLORY THAT WAS GREECE, page 71 4 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, page 155 5 Ibid., p. 124 6 SPORT AND SPECTACLE, page 141 77 LIFE AND LEARNING IN ANCIENT ATHENS, page 68 8 Ibid., p. 69 9 Ibid., p. 70 10 THE ANCIENT OLYMPICS, page 37 11 Ibid., p. 33 12 LIFE AND LEARNING IN ANCIENT ATHENS, pages 23 and 24 13 Ibid., p. 24 14 THE ANCIENT OLYMPICS, page 32 15 Ibid., p. 35 16 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, pages 133 and 137 17 SPORT AND SPECTACLE, pages 244-345 18 Ibid., p. 74 19 DAILY LIFE OF THE ANCIENT GREEKS, page 177 20 SPORT AND SPECTACLE, page155 21 Ibid., p. 158 22 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, page33 23 Ibid., p. 33 24 Ibid., p. 11 25 THE GLORY THAT WAS GREECE, page 30 26 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, page 33 27 SPORT AND SPECTACLE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, page 49 28 Ibid., p. 90 29 Ibid., p. 152 30 Ibid., p. 165 31 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, page 58 32 Ibid., p. 53 33 SPORT AND SPECTACLE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, page 122 34 SPORT AND SPECTACLE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, page 125 35 GREECE AND THE HELLENISTIC WORLD, page 282 36 THE GLORY THAT WAS GREECE, page 76 37 THE ANCIENT OLYMPICS, page 155 38 Ibid., p. 156 39 THE GLORY THAT WAS GREECE, page 75 40 SPORT AND SOCIETY IN ANCIENT GREECE, page 167

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