If you hear the herald with attention, you see that he announces the
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‘… If you hear the herald with attention, you see that he announces the closure of the games and the prize awards at the end...’ (Philostratos, Gymnastikos 7.12)
24. PRIZE-GIVING CEREMONIES AND BETS IN THE ANCIENT EQUESTRIAN GAMES The highest achievement, greatest honor and dearest dream of athletes, who compete at the Olympics is to win a medal or, if possible, two. In the ancient Olympia there were no gold, silver or bronze medals for winners in the gymnika or hippika contests, only a crown-shaped olive branch for the head of the victorious athlete or owner. Those who took second and third places received no tributes, and their names weren't even recorded in the Elean archives which were scrupulously kept by the Nomophylakes. In the entire history of the Olympics there were only two exceptions and they have both been described in previous Chapters. Namely, there was the Athenian Alkiviades who came first, second and fourth in the teleion tethrippon race of the 91st Olympia (416 BCE) and Alexander I, who was judged ‘equal-first’ in the stadion andron at the 80th Olympia (460 BCE), placed ex equo to Torymbas of Thessaly. Greek horsemen or mule drivers were acquainted with stress and pressure. Although they competed as individuals, they represented families, communities, cities and citadels. In every event they carried the heavy burden of economic and emotional investment, and were ready to give their last ounce of energy for Zeus, family, tribe, city and state. Participation was not enough -- victory was what mattered. Pindar (518-443 BCE) noted that victory was the greatest height to which mortals could aspire and wrote of defeated men who, in their shame, tried to return home unnoticed. In Homeric times, men sometimes competed in athletic contests for which there was no material reward. They were called “athletai without athla”. But at the funeral of Patroklos Achilles set a unique precedent by awarding valuable prizes, e.g. cauldrons and tripods, horses, mules, cattle, well-girded women, and iron. Even the 4th prize for the chariot race was two talents of gold, and the 5th (awarded to Nestor for judging) was a two-handed kylix. By contrast, prizes for winners at the gymnika were less remarkable. In boxing, the rewards were a six-year-old mule and a bowl; in wrestling, a tripod worth twelve oxen and a girl worth four oxen. In running, a silver crater, an ox and half a talent. In the Iliad Agamemnon offered Achilles a dozen prime horses, boasting that ‘a man who possessed...these horses ...would be rich in…gold’. Most Hellenes would have agreed with Homer's sentiments, expressed in the Odyssey: ‘There is no greater fame for a man than that which he wins with his footwork or the skills of his hands.’ Horse racing remains the sport of kings and it has always belonged to the wealthy, before and after Homer's days. In early times, there was a strong tradition that valuable prizes ought to be offered to victors in the Pythia (founded in 589 BCE). Later, the policy was changed at all festivals and only the symbolic laurel, celery, pine or olive wreaths were awarded. The Olympics may have been ‘money games’ at first but by the 5th century BCE the big four periodoi (Olympia, Pythia, Isthmia and Nemea) awarded only the symbolic wreaths mentioned above. In the early days however, there were many festivals (perhaps over 40) where valuable prizes continued to be offered. We know this from Pindar and many other ancient sources.
Then, of course, there were the wagers. The first instance of a bet being placed in the context of horse racing and the inevitable disputes that went with it is delightfully described in the Iliad (23. 473-98): ‘ΤΟΝ Δ’ΑΙΣΧΡΩΣ ΕΝΕΝΙΠΕΝ ΟΙΛΗΟΣ ΤΑΧΥΣ ΑΙΑΣ / ’ΙΔΟΜΕΝΕΥ, ΤΙ ΠΑΡΟΣ ΛΑΒΡΕΥΕΑΙ; ΑΙ Δ’ ΕΤ’ ΑΝΕΥΘΕΝ / ΙΠΠΟΙ ΑΕΡΣΙΠΟΔΕΣ ΠΟΛΕΟΣ ΠΕΔΙΟΙΟ ΔΙΕΝΤΑΙ. / ΟΥΤΕ ΝΕΩΤΑΤΟΣ ΕΣΣΙ ΜΕΤ’ ΑΡΓΙΕΟΙΣΙ ΤΟΣΟΥΤΟΝ / ΟΥΤΕ ΤΙ ΟΞΥΤΑΤΟΝ ΚΕΦΑΛΗΣ ΕΚ ΔΕΡΚΕΤΑΙ ΟΣΣΕ. / ΑΛΛ’ ΑΙΕΙ ΜΥΘΟΙΣ ΛΑΒΡΕΥΕΑΙ. ΟΥΔΕ ΤΙ ΣΕ ΧΡΗ / ΛΑΒΡΑΓΟΡΗΝ ΕΜΕΝΑΙ. ΠΑΡΑ ΓΑΡ ΚΑΙ ΑΜΕΙΝΟΝΕΣ ΑΛΛΟΙ. / ΙΠΠΟΙ Δ’ΑΥΤΑΙ ΕΑΣΙ ΠAΡΟΙΤΕΡΑΙ, ΑΙ ΤΟ ΠΑΡΟΣ ΠΕΡ / ΕΥΜΗΛΟΥ, ΕΝ Δ’ΑΥΤΟΣ ΕΧΩΝ ΕΥΛΗΡΑ ΒΕΒΗΚΕ.’/ ΤΟΝ ΔΕ ΧΟΛΩΣΑΜΕΝΟΝ ΚΡΗΤΩΝ ΑΓΟΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΝ ΗΥΔΑ. / ‘ΑΙΑΝ, ΝΕΙΚΟΣ ΑΡΙΣΤΕ, ΚΑΚΟΦΡΑΔΕΣ, ΑΛΛΑ ΤΕ ΠΑΝΤΑ / ΔΕΥΕΑΙ ΑΡΓΕΙΩΝ, ΟΤΙ ΤΟΙ ΝΟΟΣ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΠΗΝΗΣ. / ΔΕΥΡΟ ΝΥΝ, Η ΤΡΙΠΟΔΟΣ ΠΕΡΙΔΩΜΕΘΟΝ ΗΕ ΛΕΒΗΤΟΣ,/ ΙΣΤΟΡΑ Δ’ ΑΤΡΕΙΔΗΝ ΑΓΑΜΕΜΝΟΝΑ ΘΕΙΟΜΕΝ ΑΜΦΩ,’ ΟΠΠΟΤΕΡΑΙ ΠΡΟΣΘ’ ΙΠΠΟΙ, ΙΝΑ ΓΝΩΗΣ ΑΠΟΤΙΝΩΝ.’ / ΩΣ ΕΦΑΤ’ ΟΡΝΥΤΟ Δ’ ΑΥΤΙΚ’ ΟΙΛΗΟΣ ΤΑΧΥΣ ΑΙΑΣ / ΧΩΟΜΕΝΟΣ ΧΑΛΕΠΟΙΣΙΝ ΑΜΕΙΨΑΣΘΑΙ ΕΠΕΕΣΣΙΝ, /.. ΚΑΙ ΝΥ ΚΕ ΔΗ...ΕΡΙΣ ΓΕΝΕΤ’ ΑΜΦΟΤΕΡΟΙΣΙΝ, / ΕΙ ΜΗ ΑΧΙΛΛΕΥΣ ΑΥΤΟΣ ΑΝΙΣΤΑΤΟ ΚΑΙ ΦΑΤΟ ΜΥΘΟΝ. / ‘ΜΗΚΕΤΙ ΝΥΝ ΧΑΛΕΠΟΙΣΙΝ ΑΜΕΙΒΕΣΘΟΝ ΕΠΕΕΣΣΙΝ, / ΑΙΑΝ ΙΔΟΜΕΝΕΥ ΤΕ, ΚΑΚΟΙΣ, ΕΠΕΙ ΟΥΔΕ ΕΟΙΚΕ.’
Since the original passage is long and difficult, I shall attempt a free translation of its main points. On the homeward stretch the speeding chariots pass momentarily out of sight of the crowd. When they come into view again, still a long way off, Idomeneus the Cretan and Aias, son of the Argive Oileus, argue as to who is in the lead. Idomeneus says it's Diomedes of Argos; Aias retorts that he is half-blind and that Eumelos is clearly ahead. After a heated exchange of insults, Idomeneus asks him if he is ready to bet a tripod or a cauldron on who will win, nominating Agamemnon as their referee. They are about to come to blows when Achilles steps in. He orders both to stop ‘behaving like children’ and instead watch the race quietly since they will soon know its outcome. Anyone who has ever stood in a crowd watching horse races has witnessed such scenes re-enacted hundreds of times. But let's leave bets and quarrels and return to the principle of prize giving. We have mentioned the symbolism of wreaths of the classical era, and their great importance at the Olympics. The elaia kallistefanos tree, from which the famous wreaths were made, is itself a very intriguing subject. First, no record of its use was made until the 7th Olympia of 752 BCE. Second, prior to 752, a modest apple or a tripod was offered to the victor of the only athlon held, namely the dromos. Iphitos was the first known Hellanodikes to offer an olive wreath to Daekles of Messenia, who won the stadion andron. The Elean king had no difficulty determining who should receive the kotinos in that race since no other athlete had competed. Circumstances obliged King Iphitos to choose the olive wreath. He sought the help of the Delphic oracle through the medium of its priestess Pythia to resolve the pressing problems of civil war and epidemics which beset Greece at the time (Pausanias 5.4.6: Iphitos, because Greece was then suffering from civil wars and infectious disease, asked for advice the Delphic god to absolve the evil). Without delay, Pythia advised the king and his subjects to reinstate the Olympics and refrain from ‘offering fruits of the earth, and search for the wild olive tree decked in gossamer webs.’ Delphic oracles always offered enigmatic advice; cobwebs were understood by the Hellenes to signify rain and so were related to fertility. King Iphitos rushed back to Olympia, found the elaia kallistefanos, and promptly built a fence around it. According to Aristoteles, a great observer of nature's fauna and flora, this particular olive tree was exceptional. For one thing, its leaves grew in a symmetrical pattern like those of the myrtle. Unlike the leaves of other olive trees, kallistefanos leaves were pale green on the upper side but unlike the leaves of common olive trees, not on the lower side.
The Elian boy chosen to get the kotinos was allowed to cut only one branch of the elaia so that only the wreaths required to crown the heads of first-place winners in the events could be made. It is interesting to note that Elian citizens and their king were dedicated ecologists - if they had made wreaths for second or third placed athletes they would have had to cut additional branches, perhaps putting the sacred tree in danger. Scholars are uncertain as to the exact time and place of victors’ coronation. Evidence lacks concerning the two different ceremonies held at two different stages of the Olympics. According to one account, victors were crowned immediately after winning the contest, just like today, but this assumption is not supported by the evidence. While it may have been the practice in the early Olympia (for example in the case of Pagondas of Thebai, victor of the teleion tethrippon at the 25th Olympia), but it took a very long time for the ritual of crowning victors instantly to become the custom, as indicated by the following story of Pausanias, about the 218th Olympia of 93 CE (5.21.12): ‘Apollonios, a boxer whose nickname was Rantis (as was the custom in Alexandria) arrived late at Olympia. He rushed in the Palaistra to fight Herakleides but discovered, to his dismay, that he had already been disqualified. He watched with disgust as the head of his opponent was adorned with a wreath from the hands of two irresponsible judges. The enraged Rantis then put on his boxing thongs and proceeded to a vicious attack on Herakleides who, still bearing the kotinos, ran to the Helleanodikai for shelter’ Other than humiliating Apollonios for being a bad looser, Pausanias' old story provides valuable information on the timing of the coronation ceremony, which, in this case, must have been held immediately after the event. Yet I am not convinced that this could have been the case in at least nine other Olympiads where women emerged as winners. As seen in Chapter 6, women were not allowed access to Olympia during the ‘active’ four days of the festival. Despite that, exceptional ladies saw their charioteers win equestrian contests over a period of more than six centuries. Since these female owners had to be crowned for their teams’ victories, the only way this could have been done would have been by holding the award ceremony at the end of the festival. In the alternative version, victors at hippic contests were crowned at a special ceremony after the festival, in front of the statue of Zeus. This may not have been the case in the gymnika, but the peculiarity of horse contests would have allowed for their being treated exceptionally. It must be stressed that the kotinos never adorned the heads of victorious jockeys, charioteers or mule drivers, who had to be content with simple wool ribbons around their arms, head and legs (Fig. 24.1). The wreath crowned the head only of the owner, and the owner could well be a woman.
Fig 24.1, left: Attic red-figured hydria from an Etruscan tomb, c. 500 BCE. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. A victor at a nude contest, probably a boy a head shorter than the old man in front of him (a judge?) receives his prize. He stands modestly, his head slightly bowed, yet his eyes shine with joy. The boy is bedecked by spectators and friends, as shown by a wreath around his neck and red ribbons tied round his arm and leg. In his hands he holds the sprig of greenery thrown to him by the crowds (phyllobolia). Scholars maintain that the bearded man cannot be the boy's trainer or the Hellanodikes officiating at the award ceremony because he would be arriving too late for the ceremony. The emotional tension in his posture as he hastens to tie a third ribbon round the boy's head and his transparent himation would be inappropriate to the neutrality expected of a judge. Hence, the bearded man could well be the boy's father. Right, a Panathenaic amphora found in Eretria in 1969. The ‘Pourtales Painter’, 363-362 BCΕ (the times of archon Charikleides). National Archaeol. Museum, Athens. Side B depicts five figures, in the middle of which are two wrestlers. An imposing Nike holds a white ribbon, which she is about to tie on to the victor. An interesting detail on this amphora (not seen) is the presence of a stand-by wrestler to the left of the contestants, still naked and watching the bout with interest
Thus, the immediate coronation of equestrian victors on the Altis grounds simply wasn’t feasible before the end of the festival. As seen in Fig. 24.2, the victorious jockey (anabates) of a keles flat race is also uncrowned. The wreath is held by a servant, and is intended for the horse's owner, whether man or woman.
Fig 24.2. Panathenaic amphora from Vulci. The Swing Painter, c. 520-500 BCE. British Museum, London. The scene depicts a victor in the keles race. In the center is a beautiful robust stallion walking proudly with its powerful neck and chest, flowing tail and slender head and legs. The bareback riding youth is dwarfed by the horse's bulk but has a perfect seat and holds the rains in a straight line. A short tunic reaches his mid-thigh. Ηis toes pointing downwards is the only flaw but is expected from riders not using stirrups. Behind the horse walks a naked boy (groom or servant), who raises the victor's wreath in his left hand while carrying a big tripod trophy on his head. A bearded man clad in long mantle, walks in front. He is perhaps the herald because in front of him is the inscription ‘Dyneiketos's horse wins’. The wreath is destined to the head of the horse’s owner, Dyneiketos, and not the young jockey's whose name we may never know
In the interim, i.e. from the end of any given contest to the crowning ceremony, the winning jockeys, charioteers or mule-cart drivers bore some kind of honorable distinction. This is exemplified by the statue of the Delphic charioteer, and in scenes depicted on vases, stelai and statues. A red ribbon served as a mark of recognition for the remainder of the festival. Such recognition was deserved considering the cost in sweat, blood and tears of achieving victory in the early light of the day. At later Olympics victors carried palm leaves, and riders seen on coins were waving palms (Fig. 23.3).
Fig. 24.3. A coin celebrating Philip’s victory in the keles teleios race of 356 BCE
There is no clear evidence as to where these palms were stored at the Altis but, thanks to the keen eye of Pausanias, we know exactly where the kotinos wreaths were kept. The old writer recorded that the Heraion (the temple of Hera) housed not only the diskos of Iphitos (on which the ekecheiria was written) but also a very special table. Purportedly Hippodameia’s ‘play-table’, it was made of gold and ivory by Kolotes, a sculptor from Herakleia or Paros. On this exquisite table the Eleans displayed all the wreaths for the duration of each Olympia (Pausanias 5.20.1): ‘…and a table on which the wreaths of the victors are displayed. They [the Eleans] say that this [table] was Hippodameia's toy. On the diskos of Iphitos was the ekecheiria declared by the Eleans at the Olympics, written not in straight line but circularly on the disc. The table is made of gold and ivory, and is made by Kolotes’. It has been suggested that the same chryselephantine table might have been carried to and from the judges' stand, or to the temple of Zeus for the prize-giving ceremony on the last day of the festival. Surely, there was ample space in the Stadion and the Hippodromos, and more than enough to allow movement around the gigantic gold and ivory statue of the god-protector of the games, to make possible a most imposing ceremony. It feels embarrassing to doubt myths on the amateur status of the athletes in the ancient Olympics. However, it has been my conviction, based in the absence of the term ‘amateur’ in ancient Greek, that modern conventions such as ‘amateurism’ are so false and so unrealistic or pretentious, that force me to add more ‘killer’ details. Equestrian athletes were mostly hired professionals. Classicists who cite a Delphic inscription, translated as ‘wine cannot be taken into the Stadion’ have assumed that athletes set an example of total abstinence. This is nonsense. Many historians would agree that a correct translation of that epigraph is ‘wine cannot be taken out of the Stadion.’ Another famous inscription that has been the subject of debate is the five-ring emblem, which, it had been claimed, originated at Delphi. More nonsense! When Frau Riefenstahl filmed the 1936 torch relay from Olympia to Berlin for her documentary ‘Olympia’, a crude stone block inscribed with the five ring symbol, was strategically placed so that it might be captured by the camera as a runner circled the Stadion at Delfoi. Years later, authors Lynn and Gray Poole saw the old movie prop, mistook it for an ancient epigraph, and published their error.
Finally, at the Panathenaia as early as the 6th century BCE, victors legitimately carried off as many as a hundred or more amphoras filled with oil. Clearly, this tradition was practiced in chariot racing, but boy wrestlers were also awarded three amphoras for their victories. Adult wrestlers were rewarded much more handsomely, winning up to sixty oil-filled vases per victory. Given the price of olive oil in the ancient world, athletes went home considerably richer, having won goods to the value of $200 to $70,000. I believe this is the last detail, which disproves the notion that the Olympia and other Greek festivals were ‘amateur’. The hundreds of amphoras won at festivals that keep surfacing from shipwrecks in the Aegean and other Mediterranean sites, were not empty at all. They were full of olive oil. One generation ago the study of ancient contests was focused primarily on the ‘technical’ aspects of how each event was practiced. Namely, how the contestants threw the diskos, jumped, boxed, wrestled, or rode horses. Influenced by the violent, erotic or materialistic aspects of contests, and downplaying the abuse or opportunism of game sponsors, scholars far better than I subscribed to the theory of an ancient idealism, linking it to notions of who the Hellenes were and why they competed. Using a plethora of evidence today we are de-mythologizing the ancient events, including the Olympics. Recent finds at Olympia and elsewhere have forced a new understanding of the athletes’ participation and of the role of spectators and sponsors in the ancient festivals. Lately, archaeology, art history, epigraphy and the examination of vases, stelai and frescos have provided important new data. They have led us reconsider and revise our former understanding of how the athletes trained, worshipped, competed, won, and celebrated or cheated. We also have new insights on how they were motivated, rewarded and honored. In this quest for the truth we have had help from non-Olympic, local and limited athletic events, which offered a surprising variety of contests including, for example, male beauty, dancing in armor, torch racing, and swimming. We are fortunate to have epigraphic studies, such as the publication of a new victors' list at the Panathenaia, and records of festivals in Hellenistic and Roman times, from Alexandria to Aphrodisias. These studies reveal facts about festivals beyond those at Olympia. Most inscriptions reflect a proliferation of prize-money in contests throughout the Mediterranean. New games were, of course, modeled on Olympia, but the Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games remained the most revered. Finally, inscriptions record prizes in money, majestic buildings and the patronage of Olympic athletes by such famous figures as King Herod of Judea and the emperors Nero and Hadrian. It is debatable whether ‘sport’ as we perceive it is a modern phenomenon or a continuation of a Greek tradition. Scholars and laymen alike see modern sport as distinctive in its secularism and zeal for statistical quantification and records. Others, including myself, view ancient and modern athletics on a continuum reflecting our enduring Greek heritage. It is irrelevant whether agon is modern or timeless. Athletes worldwide have understood effort and agony, a derivative of agon, winning and loosing. Sometimes the media undermine our sense of awe. Often they show us too much, as was the case of Atlanta where anorexic beauties and anabolic beasts were shown with equanimity. So now a question remains touching those ancient athletes: who and how different were they? Today, with the advantage of historical and archaeological data, checked and rechecked from many interdisciplinary angles, we can approach a conclusive verdict. Blind idealism should be allowed to fly from the window while professionalism is let through the door. The International Olympic Committee has been right to revise its position lately so as to allow ‘professional’ athletes to compete. Better late than never…