Ancient Pythian Games

the greek mythological deity Apollo, in honor of whom the Pythian Games were held (1st–4th century AD) - Ancient Pythian Games
the greek mythological deity Apollo, in honor of whom the Pythian Games were held (1st–4th century AD)

The ancient Pythian Games were a series of athletic festivals at Delphi held in honor of the Greek mythological deity Apollo. It was one of the four Panhellenic games, the other three being the Olympic Games, Nemean Games, and Isthmian Games. The Pythian Games took place every four years, two years before and after the Olympic Games.

Like the other Panhellenic Games, the events at the Pythian Games were introduced gradually over time. In addition to its musical and poetic contests, the festival featured the same athletic events as the Olympic Games by the time it was fully developed, though the dates at which the events were introduced are unknown. The full list of athletic events that were part of the Pythian Games is as follows:

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
 Harmatodroia chariot racing

Victors were awarded a wreath of bay laurel, and were sometimes lavished with poems or songs written in their honor. The city of Delphi did not offer a monetary reward like Athens did for the Isthmian Games.


Origins and History

The earliest record of the Pythian Games lies in 582 BC, though it’s possible the festival preceded this date. Some sources claim that prior to this date, the games took place every eight years as opposed to four, though this is unfounded. Greek legend relates that Apollo established the games as reparation for killing Python, the serpent of Delphi. As these figures are legendary as opposed to historical, this legend doesn’t shed much light on the festival’s possible early dates of origin.


Competitors

Information regarding the Pythian Games is scarcer than for other Panhellenic festivals. As such, there is no extant information regarding requirements for competitors. However, it is very likely the restrictions matched those of the other Panhellenic games, in that only Greek-born men could participate in the athletic events. Following this pattern, it is likely that Roman men were allowed to participate beginning in the 3rd or 2nd century BC.

In addition, women wouldn’t have been able compete in the athletic events. They were likely included in the musical and poetic contests, much like the Nemean and Isthmian Games. (Only women were allowed to compete in the Heraean Games, however.)

Bibliography

Potter, J. (1837). Archæologia græca; or, the antiquities of Greece (J. Boyd, Ed.). T. Tegg, London.

P., & Frazer, J. G. (1913). Pausanias’s Description of Greece. London: Macmillan and, Limited.

Smith, W., Wayte, W., & Marindin, G. E. (1890). A dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities. London: J. Murray.

Pindar, & Wheelwright, C. A. (1837). Pindar, volumes 1-2. New York: Harper & Brothers.