XVII

A GREEK ATHLETIC FESTIVAL

I HAVE described the various events that made up the athletic programme of a Greek festival. Now let me try to picture a typical festival. I will take the Olympic festival about the middle of the fifth century; it is the greatest of all Greek festivals, and the half-century that followed the Persian wars was its most splendid period. It is thus the festival and the period of which we know most. At the same time it must be remembered that our knowledge of it is very imperfect and often derived from late authors. Many of the details of the festival, the order of events for example, are uncertain, but the general outlines are clear. We shall see at least that though the actual competitions are in many respects similar to our own, the Olympic festival was something very different from any modern athletic meeting, even from the modern Olympic Games. It was much more than a mere athletic meeting. It was the national religious festival of the whole Greek race. Olympia was the meeting-place of the Greek world.

First let us look at Olympia itself. The situation is strangely beautiful, beautiful with a peaceful charm that we rarely feel in that land of rugged mountains. Some faint idea of its beauty may be formed from our illustration (Fig. 203), which shows a view of Olympia looking eastwards from the hill of Drouva on the right bank of the Cladeus. There we see the river Alpheus cutting its way in many shifting channels through the rich alluvial plain. Immediately below us is the valley where its northern tributary the Cladeus rushes to join it along a ravine—hardly visible in our picture—between banks once bordered with plane trees. In the angle between the two rivers the broken hills that form the northern side of the Alpheus valley end in a conical pine-clad hill, the hill of Cronus. The trees at its foot still mark the site of the ancient grove that gave to the precinct its name of the Altis. There was no wall round it in the fifth century, only perhaps a hedge marking its boundary. The space within was crowded with temples, shrines, altars, and statues. Immediately at the foot of the hill was the long low temple known as the temple of Hera, a joint temple probably of Zeus and Hera. But this was completely dwarfed by the newly erected temple of Zeus that stood a little to the south. Raised on a solid platform of masonry, it rose on massive Doric pillars to a height of over sixty feet, dominating the whole Altis. We have already seen something of the sculptures that adorned its pediments and metopes (Figs. 20, 35). It was here that, some years later, the great gold and ivory statue of Zeus by Pheidias was placed. But more important than any temple was the great Altar of Zeus, built up of the ashes of the sacrifices, the fire of which was kept burning perpetually. It stood a little farther north. It was the centre of the worship of Olympia, the altar of the oracle of Zeus, the chief altar of sacrifice. The open space east of it was commanded by a terrace along the foot of the hill supported by a stepped wall that formed a sort of grand stand, and on this terrace stood a row of small temples, called Treasuries, raised by the piety of various Greek states. In this open space probably all the sports had of old taken place on an improvised race-course ending at the Altar. But since the Persian wars the authorities of Olympia had been busy making the Sanctuary worthy of the festival. At the east end of the Treasury terrace they had built a covered colonnade, and beyond it had laid out the permanent stadium already described, and to the south of it a hippodrome.

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203. View of Olympia. Photograph by Bernard Ashmole, Olympia, Fig. 1

The festival took place every four years, on the second or third full moon alternately after the summer solstice, in the months of August or September. Some months before the three sacred ‘truce bearers of Zeus’ set out from Olympia wearing crowns of olive and bearing heralds’ staves. They travelled through the length and breadth of the Greek world, and to every state they proclaimed the Sacred Truce and invited them to the festival. From that time all competitors or visitors travelling to or from Olympia were under the protection of the god.

Competitors, it seems, had to arrive at Elis a month at least before the festival; and there they underwent the last part of their training under the eyes of the Hellanodikai, the official judges of the games. The training at Elis was noted for its severity: the Hellanodikai exacted implicit obedience and enforced it unsparingly with the rod. During this month they could test the capabilities of the candidates, and satisfy themselves of their parentage, for only those of pure Greek birth were allowed to compete. Above all, they had an opportunity for judging the claims of boys and colts to compete as such. Philostratus tells us that at the close of the training they called together the competitors and addressed them in these words:

‘If you have exercised yourselves in a manner worthy of Olympia, if you have been guilty of no slothful or ignoble act, go on with a good courage. You who have not so practised go whither you will.’¹⁸⁰

Meanwhile, visitors of all classes and from every part were flocking to Olympia. The whole Greek world was represented, from Marseilles to the Black Sea, from Thrace to Africa. There were official embassies representing the various states, richly equipped; there were spectators from every part, men of every class. Men, I say: for the only people excluded from the festival were married women, and even if unmarried women were allowed to be present, few probably availed themselves of the right except those from the neighbourhood. Apart from this Olympia was open to all without distinction, to hardy peasants and fishermen of the Peloponnese and to nobles and tyrants from the rich states of Sicily or Italy. All had the same rights. There was no accommodation for them except such as they could provide or procure for themselves; there were no reserved seats at the games, indeed there were no seats at all. The plain outside the Altis was one great fair, full of tents and booths. There you might meet every one who wished to see or to be seen, to sell or to buy: politicians and soldiers, philosophers and men of letters, poets ready to write odes in honour of victors in the games, sculptors to provide them with statues, perhaps already made, horse-dealers from Elis, pedlars of votive offerings, charms, and amulets, peasants with their wine-skins and baskets of fruit and provisions, acrobats and conjurers, who were as dear to the Greek as to the modern crowd (Fig. 205).

The festival lasted five days, from the twelfth to the sixteenth of the month. The first day was occupied with preliminary business and sacrifices, there were no competitions. The principal ceremony was the solemn scrutiny of the competitors in the Council House. There stood a statue of Zeus Horkios, the God of Oaths, who was represented with a thunderbolt in either hand ready to blast any who broke his oath. Before this awe-inspiring statue the competitors, their trainers, their fathers, and their brothers took their stand, and, having sacrificed a pig, swore on its entrails that they would use no unfair means to secure victory. The competitors further swore that for ten months they had trained in a manner worthy of the festival. Then the judges who decided on the eligibility of boys and colts to compete as such swore to give their decisions honestly and not to reveal the reasons for their decisions.

Throughout the day there were many other sacrifices and rites, both public and private, of which we know nothing. Competitors would offer their vows at the altars of the various gods or heroes whom they regarded as their patrons. The superstitious would consult the soothsayers as to their chances of success. Others would go off to the Stadium for a final practice. The crowd of sightseers would wander round the Altis, following in the train of some celebrity, athletic or otherwise, admiring the sculptures of the new temple, or listening to some rhapsodist reciting Homer, some poet reading his verses, some orator displaying his eloquence or sophistries. There were friends, too, to be seen, friends from all parts of the Mediterranean, for all came back to Olympia as to their mother-country.

The games started on the second day with the chariot-race and the horse-race. The Hippodrome lay to the south of the Stadium, the embankment of which bounded it on the north. Like the Stadium, it was merely a long rectangle surrounded by embankments, but larger. The actual course was marked by a pillar at either end round which the chariots and horses turned, but there was no wall, like the spina of the Roman Circus, connecting them. Not a trace of the Hippodrome remains and its dimensions are very uncertain. According to a document found at Constantinople, of somewhat doubtful authority, the distance between the pillars was three stades or about 600 yards. Elsewhere the distance was two stades.

At the western entrance of the Hippodrome was a colonnade, the portico of Agnaptos, and in front of it was a most elaborate starting-gate. Pausanius describes it as shaped like the prow of a ship, the sharp end pointing down the course. Its sides were 400 feet long and along them were arranged parallel pairs of stalls in front of each of which a rope was stretched. Here the competing chariots or horses were placed (Fig. 204). In the centre of the structure was an altar on which stood an eagle with outstretched wings; at the point was a bronze dolphin. When the official starter touched a piece of mechanism the eagle rose in the air and the dolphin dropped. This was the signal for starting, but we may suspect that it was not really given till the chariots were actually in line. The manner of starting was as follows. First the ropes in front of the pair nearest to the base were withdrawn, and the chariots started. As they drew level with the next pair, the ropes in front of these were withdrawn, and so on till when they reached the peak of the prow all were in line. The object of this elaborate arrangement must have been chiefly spectacular, and the racing did not actually start till all were in line. Whether this complicated starting-gate existed in the fifth century, we do not know. In the description of the chariot-race at Delphi in the Electra of Sophocles, there is no suggestion of any starting-gate. The chariots were drawn up in a line and started by the trumpet.

Early in the morning the crowds began to gather in the Hippodrome, occupying every place of vantage, especially at the ends where the chariots turned and accidents were most frequent. There were no seats except for the officials. The spectators sat or stood on the embankments, bareheaded under the scorching sun, often, as the day wore on, suffering severely from thirst and dust. There they waited till the official procession arrived. First came the Hellanodikai, or judges, robed in purple with garlands on their heads, the herald, trumpeter, and other officials, then the competitors, the chariots, and the horses. The judges took their seats and, as the chariots and horses passed before them, the herald proclaimed the name of each competitor, his father’s name, and his city, and asked if any man had any charge to bring against him. Then he proclaimed the opening of the games and the chief Hellanodikas or some other distinguished person addressed the competitors.

The first event was the four-horse chariot race, the most brilliant and exciting of all the competitions, the sport of kings in the Greek world; for only the rich could afford the expense of a racing stable. The chariots were light cars mounted on two wheels, with a rail in front and at the sides, and room only for the charioteer to stand. The two middle horses who did the work were harnessed to the yoke attached to the chariot-pole, the outside horses were harnessed only by traces. The charioteer wore a long white robe, he carried a whip or goad, and held the reins in his left hand or in both (Fig. 35).

Once more the herald proclaimed the names of the competitors: lots were drawn for position, and the names perhaps were written on a white board. Then the chariots took their places at the start, the trumpet sounded, and the race began. The fields were large, sometimes as many as forty chariots competing. Alcibiades boasted that he himself had on one occasion entered seven chariots. Fortunately the course was long, twelve double laps, 72 stades or nearly 9 miles, and the pace must have been slow at first. But it must have been a thrilling sight to see a field of even ten chariots such as Sophocles describes in the Electra, all racing for the turning-post at the far end of the course. For to be first round the turn must have been a great advantage. It is no easy task to turn a team of four horses sharp round a post, but to do so in a field of ten chariots or more, all striving to be first, must have tasked nerve and skill to the utmost. No wonder that accidents were frequent. For it was not one turn only, but twenty-three turns, that the charioteer had to negotiate: and few must have been the chariots that reached the last lap safely. We are not surprised that in the race where forty chariots competed the chariot of Arcesilaus of Cyrene alone survived.¹⁸¹ When the last lap was reached the excitement of the spectators knew no bounds, they shouted, leapt from their seats waving their garments, wildly embracing one another.

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204. The Starting Gates of the Hippodrome at Olympia.

When the race was over the owner of the victorious chariot advanced and bound a fillet round the head of his charioteer. For though in heroic times the heroes drove their own chariots, the rich nobles and princes of the fifth century, like rich owners to-day, employed professional charioteers and jockeys. The owner, however, as he does to-day, received the prize. Leading, perhaps, his chariot, he advanced to the place where the judges sat. Beside them was a table of gold and ivory on which were placed the crowns of olive leaves cut from the sacred wild olive tree behind the temple of Zeus. Then the herald proclaimed the name of the victor, his father, and his city (Fig. 207), and the chief Hellanodikas placed upon his head the crown¹⁸² (Fig. 208), while the people shouted and pelted him with flowers and branches.

Next came the horse-race. It was started in the same way, but the distance was only one lap of six stades. The jockeys rode without shoes or stirrups (Fig. 206). The horse-race and the four-horse chariot-race were the only events in the Hippodrome at the beginning of the fifth century. Early in the century, a riding race for mares and a mule chariot-race were introduced, but these events were discontinued in 444 B. C. In 408 B.C. a two-horse chariot-race was added, and in the next century three races for colts.

When the horse-races were finished the crowd hurried over the embankment to the Stadium to witnesss the pentathlon. The first four events in this competition, the foot-race, the long jump, the diskos, and the javelin, took place in the Stadium, the last event, the wrestling-match, in the open space in front of the Altar. The details of these events have been described in the preceding chapters and need not be repeated.

The pentathlon occupied the rest of the day. Then in the evening, under the brightness of the mid-month moon, the precinct rang with revelry and song. The victors and their friends, with garlands on their heads, went in joyous procession round the Altis, chanting as they went the old triumphal hymn of Heracles, written by Archilochus, or some new hymn of victory composed by Pindar or Bacchylides. The procession was followed by banquets given by the victors to their friends. Sometimes a rich victor like Alcibiades would feast the whole assembly, and the revelry would last the whole night.

The third day, the day of the full moon, was the great day of the festival, when the official sacrifice was offered on the Altar of Zeus. The procession started from the Prytaneion. First came the Hellanodikai in their purple robes, the seers and priests, the attendants leading the victims for the sacrifice ; then the Theoriai, the official deputations from the states of Greece, having in their hands costly vessels of silver and gold; after them the competitors, chariots, horsemen, athletes, trainers, and their friends. The procession moved along the boundary of the Altis, passed between the Council House and the Temple of Zeus, then made its way through the avenue of statues and monuments in front of the Temple to the Great Altar. The priests and seers mounted the ramp that led to the platform in front of the Altar, and there in the sight of all the people a hundred oxen were sacrificed. The thighs were taken to the top of the Altar and burnt, the rest of the flesh was removed to the Prytaneion to be cooked for the feast.

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205. ACROBATS AT A FESTIVAL. Attic b.-f. amphora of Panathenaic shape. Middle of 6th century. Bibliothèque Nationale, 243. Salzmann, Nécropole de Camiros, pl. LVII. This scene with its stand of spectators has a very oriental appearance

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206. HORSE-RACE. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. About 470 B. C. Goluchow. Photograph by Mrs. Beazley. See Vases in Poland, pl. II

A GREEK FESTIVAL

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207. HERALD PROCLAIMS THE VICTOR IN THE HORSE-RACE. ΔVNEIKETV : : NIKAI. ‘The horse of Dysneiketos is victorious.’ Behind the horseman youth carrying tripod, the prize for the race. Attic b.-f. amphora of Panathenaic shape. 3rd quarter of 6th century. British Museum, B. 144

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208. VICTOR WREATHED IN FILLETS IS CROWNED BY JUDGE. Attic b.-f. amphora of Panathenaic shape. Late 6th century. British Museum, B. 138

THE VICTOR IN THE GAMES

The sacrifice took place in the morning. In the afternoon the competitions for boys took place, the foot-race, wrestling, and boxing, and the evening was given up to revelry. The chief athletic events were reserved for the fourth day. The morning was occupied by the three foot-races in the Stadium, the afternoon by the three fighting events, wrestling, boxing, and the pankration. These last took place, not in the Stadium, but in the Altis, in front of the Altar. Here the ties were drawn in the presence of the Hellanodikai. Lots marked in pairs with the letters of the alphabet were put into a silver urn. Each competitor uttered a prayer to Zeus and drew a lot, holding it in his hand but not looking at it till all were drawn. Then the Hellanodikas went round and examined the lots, pairing off the competitors accordingly. The programme ended with the race in armour, and once more there was an evening of revelry.

The last day of the festival was spent in feasting and rejoicing. The victorious paid their vows at the altars of the gods. Of the other rites and sacrifices that occupied the day we know nothing, save that the victors were entertained at a banquet in the Prytaneion.

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