IN Homer the competitors in the foot-race ran to some mark in the distance, turned round it, and ran back to the starting-point. In historic times the Greeks always raced up and down a straight track, not round a curved track. Here we have the essential difference between the Greek racecourse or Stadium¹¹¹ and the modern running-track. The stadium was so called because the track for the straight race or sprint was exactly a stade long, other races being all multiples of a stade. In practice, however, the distance varied, because the standard of measurement was not the same in all places. The track of Olympia, said to have been stepped out by Heracles, was 192·27 metres long, that at Epidaurus 181·30 metres, that at Delphi 177·5, while at Pergamum we have the exceptional length of 210 metres. Time records would clearly have been useless even if the Greeks had had stopwatches.

The Greek stadium was therefore a long parallelogram, some 200 yards long by 30 yards wide. The start was in its simplest form marked by posts (ν σσαι) or a line (γραμμ ) drawn in the sand, and the finish or turning-point (κμπτ ρες) was similarly marked. It was usually enclosed by an embankment, natural or artificial. At Olympia the stadium lay along the foot of the hill of Cronus, and the other side and the ends were artificial. At Epidaurus advantage was taken of a shallow trough between two low ridges, the eastern end being raised by an embankment. The space enclosed was of course actually longer than a stade, there being a space of some 15 metres left at either end. The end might be square as at Epidaurus, or curved into a theatre (σφενδóνη) as at Delphi and Athens. Some late stadia have a sphendone at both ends, thus approximating to the Roman circus. But the shape of the ends only affected spectators. The track itself was rectangular.

The most interesting of the earlier stadia is that of Epidaurus ¹¹² (Figs. 81, 83). It was laid out probably in the fifth century and continued to be used in Roman times. Finish and start are marked by a line of stone slabs and pillars. All round there runs an open stone runnel with stone basins placed at intervals of 30 metres to provide water for the spectators. There was a similar arrangement at Olympia. At intervals of a plethron or 100 feet small square pillars were placed on either side of the course, which must have been very useful if, as in the girls’ races at Olympia, a shorter course was required, and also for measuring the throws of the diskos or spear. The rows of stone seats were mostly added in Macedonian times or later. In the centre of the seats on the north side was an arched tunnel communicating with a square enclosure. It probably formed a processional entrance for officials and competitors. Opposite to it on the south side there seems to have been a platform, and here we may conjecture stood the table on which the prizes were laid and here the victors received their prizes. In earlier days there were probably a few stone seats, and these were reserved for officials. Most of the spectators sat or stood on the ground. At Olympia, even to the close of its history, there were no seats for spectators.

The starting arrangements at Epidaurus are particularly interesting. Finish and start alike are marked by a pair of stone pillars, between which lies a line of grooved stone slabs similar to those found at Olympia and elsewhere. This stone sill, of which we shall have more to say later, was probably added in Macedonian times. Originally the start must have been marked by a line drawn in the sand between the pillars. But in front of the stone sill and blocking it are five pillars, having on each side a shallow groove, intended apparently to hold some sort of bar or starting-gate. We know that in late times runners were stationed behind a rope (called σπληξ) or a bar, the dropping of which was the signal for the start.¹¹³ A sort of starting-gate was used in the Roman Circus, but there is no evidence of any such practice in the fifth or fourth centuries.

Far more elaborate is the stadium at Delphi (Figs. 80, 82, 85), the best preserved of all Greek stadia and the most romantic in its situation.¹¹⁴ It lies on a rocky terrace above the sanctuary, with the cliffs of Parnassus rising sheer above it to a height of 800 feet, while deep below lie the valley of the Pleistus and the Crisaean plain. It was constructed originally in the second half of the fifth century when the terrace was cut out of the mountain-face. The lower side was supported by a massive retaining-wall on which was heaped an embankment so that the track lay in a sort of trough, to which fact it owed its name Lakkoma. As we see it to-day the stadium is chiefly the work of Herodes Atticus, who in the second century after Christ reseated it with stone, though not, as Pausanias says, with marble. The two sides and the shallow curved sphendone at the western end are surrounded by tiers of stone seats raised on a stone basement 5 feet high and providing room for 7,000 spectators. Flights of steps placed at intervals of half a plethron gave access to the seats. In the centre of the north side were the seats of honour for the officials. At the east end are four massive pillars of poor and late workmanship which possibly belonged to a triumphal arch. The actual course is 177·5 metres long and metres wide at either end, in the centre. The object of this curve which we find elsewhere was to provide a good view of the whole course to spectators. Start and finish were marked by a line of grooved stone slabs similar to those at Epidaurus and Olympia.



80. PLAN OF STADIUM OF DELPHI. B.C.H. xxiii (1899), pl. XIII.


81. PLAN OF STADIUM OF EPIDAURUS. Πρακτικ , 1902, pl. I.

82. VIEW OF STADIUM OF DELPHI, showing the curved sphendone.


83. VIEW OF STADIUM AT EPIDAURUS, showing the starting lines. Photograph from the Archaeological Institute, Athens.


85. VIEW OF STARTING-LINES AT DELPHI. The pillars behind the stone sill probably belong to some sort of triumphal arch and are a late addition.


86. THE PANATHENAIC STADIUM AT ATHENS as restored for the modern Olympic Games. The two pillars mark the line of the original starting line, the track round is an attempt to adapt the stadium to modern conditions.



84. STARTING-LINES AT OLYMPIA. Olympia, p. 284.

In earlier times the stadium at Delphi must have been much simpler. In the intervals between the festivals the track must have been overgrown with weeds and perhaps was used for pasture. When the time for the festival approached the track had to be put in order and the work was put out to contract. We possess various records of these contracts. The most interesting of those is in the accounts of the Archonship of Dion ¹¹⁵ (258 B.C.), in which are enumerated the various items of work to be done in the stadium and hippodrome and gymnasium.

First the course itself and the embankment were cleared of weeds and rubbish. This cost 15 staters. Then the track and jumping-places were dug up and rolled at a further cost of 110 staters. Finally it was covered with 600 medimnoi of white sand, which at obols per medimnos amounted to 83 staters 4 obols. Next a barrier was erected round the course at a cost of 5 staters, and a scaffolding of seats for 29 staters. This erection was clearly a temporary structure intended for a few privileged spectators and officials. Thirty-six staters were expended on the starting-line and turning-posts, and 8 staters on arrangements for the pentathlon, presumably for throwing the diskos and the spear. The comparatively large sum of staters spent on the boxing-ring suggests that some sort of platform was erected to enable the spectators to have a good view of this popular event. It is not easy to guess the value of these figures. The stater was equal to two drachmae, and in the time of Pericles a drachma was a day’s wage for an artisan: a labourer would not have received much more than half a drachma, or a quarter of a stater per day.

The Panathenaic stadium at Athens (Fig. 86) was recently restored for the revived Olympic Games,¹¹⁶ and we can realize something of its splendour, though an ancient stadium owing to its narrowness can never be satisfactorily converted into a modern track. Constructed originally by Lycurgus in the fourth century B.C. it was rebuilt like that of Delphi by Herodes Atticus, but with far greater magnificence. There were forty-six rows of marble seats raised on a marble basement nearly 6 feet high, and capable of holding 50,000 spectators. The start was marked by two stone pillars between which were remains of a stone sill. Between the pillars, too, stood four double-headed Herms. These were square shafts about 6 feet high crowned by two heads, said to represent the youthful Apollo and the bearded Dionysus. The square shafts were divided to the height of 3 feet by a narrow slit through which, as at Epidaurus, may have passed the rope or bar used in later times for the start. More probably some barrier may have been fastened in them for use when the stadium was employed, as we know it was in Hadrian’s time, for dangerous shows such as fights with wild beasts.

To return to the stone sills which, we found, marked the start and the finish at Olympia, Delphi, and Epidaurus, and were probably universal in the fourth century B.C., if not earlier (Figs. 84, 85). These sills at Olympia¹¹⁷ are about 18 inches wide and extend the whole breadth of the course. They are divided at intervals of 4 feet by square sockets, evidently intended to hold posts. At Epidaurus there were traces of lead in these sockets. Between each pair of sockets two parallel grooves are cut in the stone 7 inches apart at Olympia, 4 inches at Epidaurus, at Delphi. Their object was clearly to mark the place where each runner stood. There were twenty of these sections in the western sill at Olympia, twenty-one in the eastern, one of which is incomplete. Each section evidently afforded room for a single runner. The reason why these lines are alike at both ends is obvious. In the stade-race the runners finished at the opposite end to that from which they started, in other races they finished at the starting-place. As it was clearly desirable that the finish should be always at the same place, the stade runners must have started at the far end or turning-place. Hence it was necessary to have similar starting-lines at both ends.



87. START OF THE RACE IN ARMOUR. Attic r.-f. amphora. About 470 B.C. Louvre, G. 214. J.H.S. xxiii, p. 270; Bull. Nap., new series, vi. 7. The two figures are placed, as often, one on either side of the vase. The drawing between them is the vase itself. Cp. Figs. 24, 96. [On representations of hoplitodromoi and others at the start see also B.S.A. 46, pp. 9–13.]

89. THE STADE RACE. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora, about 525 B. C. Metropolitan Museum, New York, 14.130.12. Compare the photograph in Fig. 94.


88. RUNNER PRACTISING A START. Attic. r.-f. kylix. About 460 B. c. Now in Boston. This vase, formerly in Naples, had till recently disappeared, and was known only from Krause’s drawing, which I reproduced in Fig. 48 of Gk. Athletics. The lines of the face are worn away. Photograph from Mr. C. T. Seltman.


90. DIAULOS RACE. Fragment of b.-f. Panathenaic amphora. About 550 B.C. National Museum, Athens, 761. The inscription is ΔIAΥΛOΔPOMO EIMI, I am a prize for a diaulos-runner. New photograph obtained for me by Mr. A. M. Woodward.


Two questions naturally present themselves. What was the object of the posts? What was the object of the parallel lines?

It is tempting to suppose that the course was roped as it is to-day for short races, but we have no evidence either for or against this suggestion. But apart from this it is obvious that in a straight two hundred yards’ race the runner must have some point to fix his eye on if he is to run straight, and a post with a distinguishing mark would have been of great value as a guide. In the two-stade race, as we shall see, the runner turned round the post.

The object of the parallel lines is harder to understand. Here again the suggestion has been made that the runners started off their hands and placed their fingers in the grooves. But though we have several representations of runners in the attitude of starting, we never see them or hear of them starting off their hands. And even then, why two grooves? The only explanation that I can offer is that for some reason or other the runners had all to start with the same distance between the feet, whether because the Greeks thought it fairer that all the runners should start in exactly the same position or because it would prevent poaching at the start. At all events this explanation accords with the actual practice of Greek runners, who seem always to have started with one foot only a few inches in front of the other, a position recommended by many modern runners.

The best representation of a starter is that in Fig. 88. A youthful runner stands ready to start beside a pillar which marks the starting-line, and opposite to him stands a young trainer with his forked rod ready to correct him if he starts too soon. More upright is the position of the armed runner, represented in Fig. 24. The shield which he carried on his left arm is broken away. The same attitude is reproduced on an amphora in the Louvre (Fig. 87). Here, too, we see an armed runner, while opposite to him stands the trainer with his right arm extended and hand turned somewhat upwards. It is a singularly appropriate gesture. We can almost hear him say, ‘Steady on the mark’. The attitude of the armed runner hampered by his shield is somewhat stiffer and more cramped than that of the unarmed runner. But in these and in all other representations of the start (e.g. Figs. 53, 96) the runners stand with both knees slightly bent and feet close together. The position is accurately described in an old song where the herald summons the competitors ‘to take their stand foot to foot at the balbis’.¹¹⁸ The signal to start was given by the herald calling ‘Go’ (πιτε),¹¹⁹ or perhaps by a blast of the trumpet as in the chariot-race. Runners would try to poach a yard or two at the start. But the position of starting made this difficult, and Greek methods were more drastic than ours. ‘Those who start too soon are beaten’, says Adeimantus to Themistocles in the historic council before Salamis.¹²⁰ The long forked rods used by officials to keep order at the Games and in the gymnasia are familiar objects on vases. In Fig. 188 we see the rod in use to chastise an offender.

The length of the various foot-races was determined by the length of the stadium. The stade race was a single length of the course, about 200 yards. The diaulos, once up and down the course, was two stades or about 400 yards. The long-distance race or dolichosis variously given as 7, 12, 20, 24 stades, probably because the distance varied at different competitions. At Olympia the evidence is slightly in favour of 24 stades or about three miles. Occasionally we hear of a hippios or horse diaulos of 4 stades, so called because the length of the hippodrome was twice that of the stadium. There were different races for different ages, and possibly the races for boys were sometimes shorter than those for men. We know that in the girls’ races at Olympia the course was one-sixth shorter than the usual course.

There were, as we have seen, places for twenty starters at Olympia. In the stade race where the field was probably large there were preliminary heats, apparently of four runners, only the winners running in the final.¹²¹ Heats were undoubtedly run in other races where necessary.

In the stade race, a single length of the track, the runners naturally ran straight for their own posts. But how did they run in the diaulos, or in the long race? Did they run in parallel tracks turning each to the left round his own post, or did they all turn round one post in the centre? At Olympia the central socket in the stone sill is larger than the rest, and from representations of the long-distance race it seems probable that the turns were made round the central post at either end as they undoubtedly were in chariot-races. But in the shorter diaulos the runners on the outside would be at a serious disadvantage if all had to turn round a central post. In the crowding at the turn a runner might easily lose three or four yards, a matter of vital importance for this distance, but of less importance in a three-mile race where the runners spread out rapidly. Moreover, the Delphic inscription already quoted speaks not of the ‘turning-post’ but of the ‘turning-posts’. We may probably conclude, then, that in the diaulos each runner raced to and turned round his own post. The turn was always to the left. The name diaulos meaning the double-pipe, fitly describes the course.

The styles of the sprinter and the long-distance runner are clearly distinguished on the prize vases given for these events at the Panathenaic Games, which date from the sixth to the fourth century B.C. The style of the long-distance runner is excellent (Figs. 92, 93): his arms close to the sides yet swinging freely without any stiffness; his body slightly inclined forward, with chest advanced and head erect. He moves with a long, sweeping stride, running on the ball of the foot without raising the heel unduly. At the finish he too, like the sprinter, swung his arms vigorously in making his spurt, ‘using them as wings’, says Philostratus. ¹²² This violent action of the sprinters (Fig. 89) makes these early drawings of them seem at first sight grotesque, and the Greek sprinter has been described as ‘advancing by leaps and bounds with arms and hands spread-eagled’. But it must be remembered how extremely difficult it is to draw a sprinter, and, moreover, that the movements of the sprinter as revealed by the camera are hardly less grotesque. Indeed the Greek artists have succeeded in reproducing the essential points of the sprint. The runners run well on the ball of the foot, the heel somewhat higher than in the long race, their knees are well raised, and their bodies erect. The action of the arms is hardly more violent than that of the modern sprinter. ‘The arms’, says a well-known American trainer, ‘are of great service in sprinting, and the importance of this fact is generally underestimated. They are used in bent form and moved almost straight forward and back, not sideways across the body.’ This is just what we see on Greek vases. Indeed a comparison of the vase-paintings with the photographs of modern races (Figs. 94, 95) shows how amazingly accurate the Greek drawings are and how excellent is the style. The real reason why these pictures seem grotesque is that in the sprint the early vase-painters, perhaps for purposes of symmetry, make the right leg and right arm move together, whereas in reality the right arm swings forward with the left leg, and vice versa.



91. BOYS’ RACE. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. About 440 B. C. Bologna. Drawing from a photograph. J.H.S. xxxii, p. 179. The drawing of the two runners is vigorous: the leader seems to be running well within himself, the other is spurting in order to pass him. Notice that the drawing of the arms and legs is here correct, the right leg and left arm moving together. The youth holding in his hands sprays of some plant is perhaps a victor in another race.

92. LONG DISTANCE RACE. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. About 470 B. C. Collection of the Marquis of Northampton, Castle Ashby. Photograph by Mrs. Beazley. The runners are just reaching the turning-post and are about to turn round it to the left.


93. LONG DISTANCE RACE. B.-f. Panathenaic vase. Archonship of Nicocrates, 333 B.C. British Museum B. 609. New photograph.



94, 95. These two illustrations are selected from the large collection of athletic photographs in the possession of the Sport and General Agency.

94. PHOTOGRAPH OF THE 100 YARDS RACE BETWEEN OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE AT QUEEN’S CLUB. The photograph is taken about half-way in the race. The arm action of the winner, J. W. J. Rinkel, Cambridge (3rd from the left), is identical with that of the leader in Fig. 88 and the second runner in Fig. 91. The second runner from the left has his hands open, which is unusual in modern racing. If these four figures were brought close together and silhouetted, we should have an effect very similar to that on the Greek vase. The only real difference is that the Greek artist for some reason or other makes right arm and right leg move together.


95. PHOTOGRAPH OF THE 5,000 METRES RACE BETWEEN ENGLAND AND FRANCE AT THE STADE PERSHING, PARIS. A comparison of this with Figs. 92, 93 shows how similar the Greek style was to the modern style, and illustrates the accurate observation of the Greek draughtsman.


The only certain representation of a diaulos runner or quarter-miler seems to show that his style, as we should expect, is similar to that of the sprinter but with less violent action of the arms (Fig. 90). In Fig. 91 we have a picture of a boys’ race; from the style it must represent a stade race, or perhaps the finish of the long-distance race. The vase from which this illustration is taken is comparatively late in date, and we may note that the movement of the legs is here correct, the right leg and left arm moving together.

We have no means of estimating the performances of Greek runners or comparing them with those of our own times. The Greeks kept no records. We hear of a runner who could outpace and catch hares, of another who raced a horse from Coronea to Thebes and beat it. Various feats of endurance are recorded. Herodotus tells us how Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta in two days, a distance of a hundred and fifty miles. By a modern confusion the name of Pheidippides has been given to the runner who is said to have brought to Athens the news of the victory of Marathon, a story commemorated in the modern Marathon race which is of course a purely modern event unknown to the ancients. But all this is too vague to be of any value for comparison. Such scanty evidence suggests that the Greeks generally attained a high standard of running, especially in long distances.

Towards the close of the sixth century a race in armour was introduced. It was, strictly speaking, a military exercise, and its introduction was perhaps an attempt to restore to athletics the practical character which under the stress of competition was in danger of being lost. It was an event that appealed to the whole body of citizen soldiers rather than to the specialist. It may be compared to such events as the obstacle race and the race in uniform which are a useful and popular feature of our own military sports. Its picturesqueness made it a favourite subject with Greek vase-painters.

There are many varieties of the armed race, differing from one another in distance, in equipment, and in rules. At Olympia and Athens the race was a diaulos of two stades, at Nemea it was a four-stade race. The longest course was at Plataea; it was fifteen stades long, nearly two miles, and the runners were clothed in complete armour. The victor deservedly was proclaimed ‘Best of the Greeks.’ ¹²³ More usually the runner wore helmets and greaves and carried shields. The wearing of greaves was discontinued after 450 B. C. On a cup in Berlin (Fig. 96) we have a complete picture of the race. To the right is a runner starting, in the position already illustrated. To the left is a runner who has just reached the post and is in the act of turning. The third runner has completed the turn and is just starting on the return. Below we see three runners in full career, one of whom is committing an unpardonable offence, he is looking round. Perhaps the runner in the centre is the winner: if so, his position is excusable.


96. The race in armour. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B.C. Berlin, 2307. Gerh. A.V. 261.


97. Armed runner. Attic r.-f. kotyle. About 470 B. C., San Simeon, California, Hearst Collection. Jahrb. x, p. 191, Fig. 16; J.H.S. xxiii, p. 285. Dr. Hauser considers that this represents the start off the hands; de Ridder regards it as a gymnastic exercise. I would suggest that it may have been a fancy variety of start for the race in armour. [See, however, B.S.A. 46, pp. 12–13.]

Some of the variations depicted of this popular competition can hardly be regarded as serious. We have seen, for example, the position of the armed runner at the start. In Fig. 97 we see him stretched forward and supporting himself on his right hand. Has he overbalanced, or is he really a starter, and was it sometimes ordained that the competitors in this race should start in this awkward position just as competitors in an obstacle race or a sack race are sometimes placed lying on the ground at the start? Anyhow, this picture is slender evidence for the theory that the Greek runners started off the hands. Again, in Fig. 98 we see some of the runners carrying their shields before them, others without shields. This suggests a race where the runners put down their shields at the end of the first lap and ran the second lap without them. But of course this is mere conjecture.

With the torch races (Fig. 65) we are not really concerned.

They were really ritual performances, the object being to bring the new pure fire as quickly as possible to the altar. There were torch races in many Greek States. At Athens there were torch races on horseback and on foot, individual races, and team races. In the individual races the runners started from the Academy outside the city, and the runner who came in first with his torch alight received the prize. The efforts of the runners to keep their torches alight were the cause of vast amusement to the spectators who sped them on their way with resounding slaps. The team race, well known to all readers of the Agamemnon, was a relay race. The teams represented the different tribes, and the members of each team were posted at intervals along the course. Though not serious athletics, the training for the torch races provided a large number of youths with excellent exercise.


98. Armed runners practising. Attic r.-f. kylix, late 6th century. Munich, 2613. J.H.S. xxiii, p. 284, Fig. 11. The objects hanging on the wall suggest that the scene is in a gymnasium. Here we have another fancy performance.

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