Ancient Panathenaic Games

Panathenaic amphora with depiction of Athena (c. 490 BC) – Ancient Panathenaic Games
Panathenaic amphora with depiction of Athena (c. 490 BC)

The ancient Panathenaic Games was a nine-day festival held in ancient Athens, used as a tool to promote the city-state’s political, economic, and cultural reputation. The games featured several days of musical and artistic contests, several days of athletic contests, and concluded on the ninth day with a celebratory procession, a sacrifice of 100 oxen, and a feast. This festival had a runtime of around 800 years, hosted once every four years beginning in 566 BC and continuing into the 3rd century AD.

The Panethenaic Games are perhaps most notable for their economically prestigious prizes; 10-gallon amphoras (vases) of sacred olive oil. Though the olive oil was considered to be of the finest quality, Athens’ primary focus was on the amphoras themselves. These large vases featured prominent depictions of the mythical goddess Athena and the phrase ton Athenethen athlon (“a prize of Athens”) to make clear where they came from. Over 1,400 of such amphoras were prepared for each of the Panathenaic Games, with victors of each event receiving, on average, 40 of these vessels. (The number varied among different events.) As these oil-filled amphoras spread out from Athens back to the athletes’ hometowns, they brought with them a message of wealth, prosperity, and prominence from the city in which they were crafted.

Olive oil was not the only prize awarded to the victors. Money and golden crowns were given as prizes for the musical and poetic contests, shields for the euandria,* oil for the athletic contests, bulls and oil for the equestrian contests, and money and food for the rowing contests. These competitions are covered in more detail under Events further down.

Though the Panathenaic Games were technically one of the Panhellenic festivals, they are typically not included in lists of such. This is likely because this festival was not as widely celebrated as the four primary Panhellenic games; the ancient Olympic Games, Nemean Games, Isthmian Games, and Pythian Games.

*The euandria was a sort of beauty contest in which men would be selected to bear sacred objects in the procession on the last day of the festival.


Origins and History

The first official Panathenaic Games were held in 566 BC. A smaller festival predates this, though few details of it are known. In 566 BC, this festival was reorganized into something much more grand, notably with the incorporation of competitive athletic events, like the other Panhellenic games. Peisistratos (608–527 BC), son of Hippocrates and ruler of Athens during this period, is generally held as the influential figure behind this festival’s revitalization, using it to promote both his popularity and Athens’ presence in Greece.

Much like the Greeks did with the other Panhellenic festivals, native Athenians invented a mythical founding story for the Panathenaic Games. Ancient Athenian legend attributed the origins of this festival variously to Theseus, the mythological founding king of Athens, and the sometimes-conflated, semi-mythological kings Erichthonios and Erechtheus.

The games maintained a level of popularity throughout Greece for around eight centuries. After the suppression of religious festivals under Roman emperor Theodosius in 393 AD, Panhellenic festivals such as the Panathenaic Games faded out of practice.


Events

The Panathenaic Games featured a large number of events, perhaps more than any of the other Panhellenic festivals. The first few days of the festival featured artistic contests; singing, playing instruments, and reciting poetry were among the most common events. Over the rest of the festival, an assortment of athletic contests took place. The eight athletic events featured at almost all of the Panhellenic festivals were represented here as well:

Event Description
Stadion a sprint the length of the stadion track, around 200 meters
Diaulos a two stadia sprint, around 400 meters
Dolichos an endurance race of 18-24 laps on the stadion – about 3 miles
Hoplitodromos an encumbered race in which athletes had to wear pieces of hoplite armor
Pentathlon a fivefold event consisting of the discus toss, javelin throw, long jump, stadion sprint, and wrestling
Palé Greek wrestling
Pygmachia Greek boxing
Pankration a brutal combat sport with few rules

In addition to these athletic contests, there were quite a few equestrian events, such as chariot races varying in chariot type and number of horses, a javelin throw from horseback, and a peculiar event in which the competitor would jump out of his chariot, run alongside it, and jump back in. These equestrian events were held as the centerpiece of the festival, and the prizes doled out for these victors exceeded, on average, those of all the other events.

A few of the nine days of this festival consisted of events restricted to Athenian citizens only, many of them equestrian events. Most of these contests were featured on other days for all Greek citizens as well, giving any Greek man an opportunity to participate in them at some point. Perhaps the most notable of the Athenian-only events was the torch race, in which athletes had to carry a burning torch from Piraeus (a connected city) to Athen’s acropolis before it was extinguished. Whenever an athlete’s torch was extinguished, he was disqualified.


Competitors

Athletic events in the Panathenaic Games were open only to Greek men. Citizens from all over Greece would travel to Athens to compete in these games, hoping to bring honor to their homes and wealth to their families. A selection of nonstandard athletic events were further restricted to Athenian men only, as detailed under Events immediately above.

Unlike the other Panhellenic games, in which competitors were split into only one or two age classes, the Panathenaic Games had three age classes, split into “boys,” “youths,” and “men.” Some events were restricted to certain age classes; for example, the hoplitodromos event was only held for the men, likely due to the weight of the hoplite armor that the runners had to wear.

Bibliography

Kyle, D. G. (2007). Sport and spectacle in the ancient world. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Miller, S. G. (2012). Arete: Greek Sports From Ancient Sources. University of California Press.

Palagia, O., & Spetsieri-Choremi, A. (2015). The Panathenaic Games: proceedings of an international conference held at the University of Athens, May 11 – 12, 2004. Oxbow Books.