Homer, The Olympics, and the Heroic Ethos

[[Originally published in The Olympic Games in Antiquity: Bring Forth Rain and Bear Fruit, eds. M. Kaila et al. (Athens: Atrapos, 2004) 61–91]]
Sports are by definition public events, events of the stadium, and thus events which in some ways serve as a mirror for activity in the public sphere of society outside the circumscribed space of the competition. Sports involve public performance, carried out by the bodies of participants. In their public and physical displays before spectators or an audience, sporting competitions are comparable to religious rituals, to the recitation or singing of stories, and to performances of drama in ancient, traditional, and even modern cultures. The actions of sports, like analogous performances, often describe a complex interplay of tensions from which the audience can derive implicit or explicit messages from texts of their collective past to apply to their present lives. Each athlete sees him- or herself as the latest participant in the tradition of the greatest from years past. Thus the activity of the stadium in a sense constitutes a dialogue between a contemporary culture and the mythic time of its referent. While drama, poetry, and other traditional performances make explicit intertextual allusions along the way, sports connect to the past through continuities of style of play, rules, costume, and even traditional iconography of the sports venue.
A major difference between sports and most other public performances is that rituals, songs, and dramas are structured with fixed endings. Sporting competitions by definition have no absolutely predictable outcome, but necessarily admit risk or chance in determining the result. To cite one comparative example: in Mayan culture, sport is closely associated with divination and the casting of lots, and among the Greeks the outcome of a contest was thought to depend greatly on the favor of the gods. So even the unpredictable and novel aspect of a contest can be ascribed to traditional, divine forces acknowledged in the mythic traditions surrounding the competition.
Sport was for the Greeks an instrument for reinforcing deeply held cultural values by alluding to them in the course of play and in the institutions and practices surrounding their athletics. In cultures where sports play so central a role as they do in Greece, the allusion to cultural values has often involved imitation of or allusion to the canonical myths of that culture. The Maya culture of Central America, for instance, has at the core of its famous ball games the myth of the creation of the cosmos. The Gaulic Celts practiced a ritual competition which imitated the legendary tensions in their cosmos. And the Greeks arguably have Homeric and other heroic legends, but unlike Mesoamerica and Gaul, the Hellenic fusion of sports and myth is less obvious. [1]
Did Homeric and heroic poetry in some sense create the ancient Olympics? Chronology appears to pose a problem for this proposition. The first Olympics were traditionally founded in 776 B.C., the date given in the Olympic victor list of Hippias of Elis composed about 400 B.C. The 776 foundation has long been disputed. Eratosthenes and his followers adhered to a foundation in 884, while Callimachus took it to have begun in 828. Modern archeologists and historians have either held to the canonical 776 foundation, downdated a beginning to 704 (Mallwitz), less convincingly suggested a start in the early sixth century with the other Panhellenic games (Peiser), or simply left the question open (Morgan; Golden). [2] Here I accept that the games likely began in or about 776 B.C., for the following reasons in brief: 1) archaeological evidence shows that the games definitely began by the late eighth century, and 2) a one-event program which gradually evolved from the simplest running events is more likely than a fully developed festival with chariot races and athletic sports right from the start. [3] Aside from Peiser’s unacceptably low, sixth-century date, the consensus view of scholars is an Olympic foundation date sometime between 776 and 704, that is, just before, during or after the traditional dates of 750 to 725 for the composition of the two great Homeric epics. Again, with Homer’s texts, the dates of inception are disputed. Undoubtedly parts of the Iliad and Odyssey retain passages which reflect historical Bronze Age society and poetry, and oral versions with some greater poetic synthesis of extant myths existed since at least the eighth century. I follow in general Nagy’s evolutionary model for the formative stage of diffusion in the second half of the eighth century and a more definitive stage in the middle of the sixth, when Panathenaic recitations began under the regime of the Peisistratids. [4] The text as we have it is the product of centuries of fluidity, with some orthodoxy of general episodes during the Panathenaic performances, standardizing from the late fourth to mid-second century B.C., then relative rigidity from that point on.
In sum, then, the traditional Olympic founding date of 776 which I favor antedates the possession of an authoritative and canonical text of the Homeric epics. The two epics do not, moreover, explicitly mention the Olympics, nor do the Olympics foundation stories in turn evidence explicit connections with heroic narratives of the eighth or seventh centuries B.C. [5] Despite these difficulties and the apparent fluidity of the epic media, the broader heroic ethos incorporated in eighth to sixth century Greek culture was a crucial and arguably essential catalyst for establishment of the Olympics and the other Panhellenic games. Although the Olympics and the Homeric epics were both probably roughly contemporaneously ‘invented’ or at least ‘repackaged’ from pre-existing customs in the eighth-century, both experienced centuries of fluidity in form and content, and, in my view, the two phenomena did not have immediately widespread, Panhellenic prestige and canonical status. [6] Rather both gradually rose in visibility during the course of the seventh century, with the Olympics fueled by civic enthusiasm for the contests in the heroic legends, and with three rival Panhellenic games, namely the Pythia, the Nemea, and the Isthmia, reorganized between 586 and 573 B.C., as a result of this movement. [7] The model for the heroic myth serving as a catalyst is the allusion to or appropriation of mythical foundations seen in the sports of other cultures. The Greek use of heroic epic as a mythic foundation for the games is the core of the present argument, the evidence for which follows.
For the majority of this study, I will investigate how one Homeric passage, Iliad 11.689-702, is the only arguable allusion to the Olympics in Homer. [8] I will argue that this passage and contemporary images of heroic athletics in Greek art provide clues to when and how heroic poetry boosted the prestige of the Olympics. Finally, I will briefly survey the seventh to fifth century receptions of the Homeric and heroic traditions in athletics as evidenced in literature, art, and archaeology.
Homeric epics are of course the earliest literary testimony for any Greek sports, most prominently the funeral games for Patroclus in Iliad 23 and the “after-dinner games” at Phaeacia in Odyssey 8. These contests are in many aspects different from those of later historical festivals, for example the wearing of loincloths by athletes and the inclusion of a duel in armor that is unparalleled in later practice. Moreover the use of bronze cauldron prizes and mention of soloi, iron-lumps for hurling used as proto-diskoi, moreover suggest practices of the Dark Age, rather than the Mycenaean period. [9] Whether these are conscious archaisms or true relics of earlier customs cannot be decided, but it is clear that Homer’s games are not precise templates for later festival contests.
Later authors explicitly discuss the historicity of the first Olympics in relation to Homeric and heroic games. Strabo (ca. 64 B.C. to post A.D. 21) in Geographia 8.3.30 is skeptical of the existence of any Olympic festival games prior to the first ‘historical’ Olympics in which Coroebus won the stade race:

What is more, the Olympic Games are their [the Eleans’] invention (καὶ δὴ καὶ ὁ ἀγὼν εὕρημά ἐστιν ἐκείνων ὁ Ὀλυμπιακός). They also held the first Olympics (τὰς Ὀλυμπιάδας τὰς πρώτας). For one should disregard the old accounts concerning both the foundation of the sanctuary and the establishment of the games, some saying that Heracles, one of the Idaean Dactylii, was founder of these; others that Heracles son of Alcmene and Zeus first contended in the games and won. For such things are told in many variations and are not entirely to be believed. It is more believable that from the first Olympiad in which Coroebus won the stade race until the twenty-sixth the Eleans held the administration of the sanctuary and the games. But in the times of the Trojan War, either there was no crown game or it was not renowned, neither this [Olympic festival] nor any one of those which are now famous. Homer does not mention any of these, but he does some others, namely funeral games. And yet some think that he mentions the Olympic games when he says that Augeas deprived the driver of “four prize-winning horses, which had come to win prizes” [Iliad 11.699]. They say that the Pisatans did not take part in the Trojan War since they were considered sacred to Zeus. But neither was the Pisatis in which Olympia was situated subject to Augeas at that time, but only the Elean territory, nor were the Olympic games celebrated even once in Elea, but always in Olympia. The games just cited [in Homer] clearly took place in Elis where also his debt was owing: “for a debt was owing to him in divine Elis, four prize-winning horses.” And these were not games in which the prize was a crown (for the horses were to run for a tripod), but those [Olympic games] were [crown games]. After the twenty-sixth Olympiad, the Pisatans took back their homeland and themselves celebrated the games.

So Strabo denies that Iliad 11.699 can allude to the Olympics for the reasons stated, and even modern commentators have followed him. But Strabo’s testimony requires closer scrutiny on the question of whether the Homeric mention of four-horse chariot racing may or may not refer to the Olympics.

There is nothing in the Iliadic passage itself which precludes an allusion to the Olympics:

For to him [Neleus] was owed a great debt in shining Elis,
four prize-winning horses with their own chariot
going to a prize festival; for they were about to race for
a tripod; but there Augeas the lord of men took them
and sent away their driver who was angry for the sake of his horses.

Iliad 11.698-702

The fact that the debt for the stolen chariot is owed by Augeas in Elis does not rule out the possibility that the Olympics, or some precursor of the historical games, were the “prize festival” (êeyla) for which the chariot was headed. The Homeric passage does not say that the games to which Neleus’ chariot was headed took place in Augeas’ sovereign territory. It is likely that the festival was somewhere in the region around Elis. In any case, contrary to Strabo, the territory of Augeas might have included Pisatis, the immediate region where the Olympic sanctuary was located. The presence of a tripod prize and not the simple crown of the later Panhellenic games, Strabo’s other objection, also does not exclude an allusion to the Olympics in Homer. Phlegon, writing ca. A.D. 140, testifies that the olive crown was first instituted in the seventh Olympiad (conventionally 752 B.C.). [10] Burgess includes the passage among those in the Iliad and Odyssey which give “hints of Panhellenic activity at places such as Delphi, Delos, and Olympia, which could be judged to reflect the seventh century,” [11] I agree that the epics present hints of Panhellenic sites, but Burgess’ conjecture of a seventh century date for the allusions is given without support and is, I will argue, too early for the Olympia reference.

Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of an allusion to the Olympics in these lines is the mention of “four prize-winning horses with their own [single] chariot” (τέσσαρες ἀθλοφόροι ἵπποι αὐτοῖσιν ὄχεσφιν). Four-horse racing chariots, or quadrigae, are mentioned only here in Homer. Homeric racing and war chariots are or the two-horse variety, with two exceptions. First, Iliad 8.185 describes a war chariot within a controversial passage where Hector addresses the horses of his war chariot, which most commentators take as a suspect addition. [12] War chariots are virtually universally two-horse chariots for the sake of maneuverability; trace horses beyond the first two are not tied to the yoke and therefore do not allow for easy control during combat. [13] The second exception is at Odyssey 13.81-83, which compares the swift sailing of a ship to the racing of four yoked stallions under a whip; the location in a simile and the rarity of the quadriga make this probably a late development. [14] But the absence of cultural or narrative context in the simile, unlike the passage in Iliad 11, makes the Odyssey 13 passage more difficult to date.
Most scholars agree with Pausanias (5.8.7) that the four-horse chariot race was introduced to the Olympic program first in 680 B.C., the 25th Olympiad. Nagy observes the irony that the chariot race therefore long followed the aetiological myth of Pelops’ victory over Oenomaus, king of Elis, after which the king died and the hero established a festival and contests for the ruler. [15] Nagy also notes that the chariot race was “the central event of the Olympics in Pindar’s time,” based on the evidence of the chest of Cypselus (Pausanias 5.17.7), dated about 570 B.C., and the pedimental sculptures on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia about a century after that. The simple stade footrace (200 meters) was in fact the first event and traditionally the most prestigious since the Olympiad was named after its victor, and the violent combat sports of wrestling, boxing, and pankration, reputedly introduced respectively in 708, 688 and 648, were probably the most popular with the crowd. But if the four-horse chariot was not the unqualified “central” event, it was the most spectacular and prestigious in status since it was sponsored by the wealthiest, most elite competitors at the festival.
The famous, lengthy account of a race at the Funeral Games of Patroclus in Iliad 23 features two-horse chariots. Two-horse warrior chariots are attested from depictions on the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, dating ca. 1650-1550 B.C. A 13th-12th century B.C. jar from Tiryns and perhaps one or two other Mycenaean vase paintings attest to the presence of chariot racing in Bronze Age Greece. The Tiryns image shows a single horse in silhouette, but it is likely an artistic convenience for a two-horse ‘Rail’ chariot, developed in that period for lightness and speed, and hence ideal for racing. [16] This type corresponds to the chariot described in Iliad 23, but not the one in Iliad 11. Archeological evidence of chariots extends to eighth century Greece, as Crouwel indicates: [17]

Indeed the chariot, and also horse keeping, my be regarded as important elements of continuity with the Mycenaean past. The chariot must have retained at least its social prestige even in times of stress and insecurity, when some if not many were still able to afford the luxury of running such a vehicle and its harness team.

The 8th century uses seem to have been mainly funeral processions and possibly racing, and the vehicle of choice in the eighth century, to judge from vase painting, is the two-horse chariot, or biga. Bronson notes that in Athenian vase painting:

In the late eighth century B.C. the quadriga has already begun to infringe and by the beginning of the sixth century B.C. almost completely overwhelms the biga. Undoubtedly the biga continued to be raced, as the festival record shows, but the Attic pot painter found more scope for his brush with four horses than two. [18]

But none of these relatively rare eight-century four-horse chariots is depicted as racing. [19] The first certain illustrations of chariot racing after the Bronze Age appear only in the first half of the seventh century including a Syracusan aryballos showing four bigae, a Protoattic sherd also probably depicting bigae, and a Berlin aryballos showing quadrigae. [20] An early seventh century fragment from Athens shows a chariot race with two-horse chariots whose drivers lean forward, and a pyxis lid from the Agora dated about 670-60 B.C. depicts a chariot race. [21] So the few extant depictions of racing chariots of the eighth and first half of the seventh century are of the two-horse variety.

The later seventh century archeological evidence attests no clearly identifiable depictions of chariot racing, Bronson suggests. Numerous examples of seventh century vase painting, e.g. in Protoattic vases dating about 700-625 B.C., are cited by scholars as definite representations of ‘chariot races.’ Yet close inspection will show Bronson’s statement to hold up. The later seventh century vases frequently show chariots in a row with one driver, and I have seen none with the clear indicators of a race, such as front hooves rearing back or legs galloping, driver arched forward, and a turning post amidst the chariots. Instead, the horses’ legs seem to be walking, not striding high or galloping, drivers stand upright, and in some cases the presence of armed warriors on foot between chariots suggests rather a procession. These aspects and the fact that many of the vases show funeral scenes in other registers of the vase point rather to a funeral cortège of chariots than a race. [22] Interestingly the Protoattic vases catalogued and illustrated by J. Cook do not evidence any four-horse chariots. The rarity of four-horse chariots and indeed clear examples of racing in the seventh century, whether contemporary scenes or epic, make it unlikely that the Iliad 11 reference to a four-horse chariot was inserted in this period.
For further clues related to the Iliad 11 passage, we turn now from the four-horse chariot images on vases to the representation of heroic competitions in early Greek art. The theme of chariot racing reappears in the early sixth century, notably in narratives of mythical heroic races in vase painting of Attica and Corinth. Two vases of that period present the earliest depictions of the chariot race, and both are of the Patroclus Games. The Sophilos dinos fragment of about 580-70 B.C. shows bigae, which conform with our Iliadic description, but the partially preserved victor’s name ends in –”os” or -“ios,” which contradict the Homeric naming of Diomedes as victor. Most interestingly the vase has spectators anachronistically seated on bleachers resembling ikria, plank-scaffold seats erected in the classical Athenian agora for special events. [23] The ikria were known to have been used for a variety of public performances in the sixth century, dancing, singing, and the earliest drama, until the seat collapsed during a performance in the 70th Olympiad (499-496 B.C.). These Athenian structures, not attested for other Greek cities in the Archaic period, are likely the ones copied in Sophilos’ image. Sophilos’ vase precedes the 566 reorganization of the Panathenaic Games, but follows Athens’ established presence on the athletic scene, with seven known Olympic victors in both athletic and hippic events, and follows Solon’s reputed legislation (about 594/3) granting monetary rewards to Athenian Olympic victors. [24] There is no firm evidence for athletic events in the Panathenaia prior to 566, but evidence makes it likely that there were some occasional games attached to the Panathenaia and other regional contests in that period. Sophilos’ inclusion of the raised benches at a chariot race is best explained as a reflection of early sixth-century practice at athletic and hippic contests. [25] So the Sophilos piece juxtaposes an anachronistic image from contemporary Athenian contests and the games of the Iliadic tradition, appropriating the epic heroic legends. The image lends authority and prestige to the recently established Solonian program of public sports or perhaps to the nascent Panathenaic movement.
On the François Crater of about 570 B.C. the artist Cleitias shows quadrigae racing and the labeling of the competitors, apart from Diomedes (here put in third place), is completely different from the account in the received Iliad, and different as well from the version of Sophilos. [26] Cleitias’ vase signaled a breakthrough in painting possibly given impetus by poetry:

This switch from the Colossal style to the animation of the age of Cleitias cannot be explained as an autonomous development within the visual arts. It must be seen against the flowering of epic poetry which is attested c. 600 from the Peloponnese, and in the time of Solon, and, in particular, of Peisistratus of Athens. [27]

The François Crater is also remarkable in combining the stories of several traditional oral legends and presumably poetic texts, e.g. the Calydonian boar hunt and the Patroclus Games in one place in a manner in which tales were assimilated into one great body of poetry, the Epic Cycle, during this same period: “Thus a cyclic combination, which was new at the time, has been adapted to fit the invention of the painter.” [28] Just as remarkable is that the Homeric Iliad, and the Sophilos and Cleitias vases evidence three independent traditions.

How can one account for the divergent visual versions? Perhaps the artist forgot details and made some up, or he followed another poetic tradition, or he deliberately invented his own version or details. Lowenstam convincingly argues that Cleitias’ treatment was likely adhering to an alternate version, which suggests the fluidity of the Iliadic variants on this myth in the sixth century; vase paintings which show variations on other epic scenes show a more widespread pattern of fluidity in epic versions in the sixth and fifth centuries. [29]
The apparently general fluidity of epic motifs at least into the sixth century suggests a time at which the four-horse chariot was made a part of Iliad 11. The rarity of visual images of quadrigae for racing before the sixth century and the lack of racing chariots at all in the art of the later seventh century point to the inclusion of the Iliad 11 quadriga sometime after 600 B.C. The existence of variants on the Patroclus Games in the first quarter of the sixth century suggests a broadening of interest, almost a competition or quasi-athletic rivalry among poetic and visual artists. At some point, the Iliad and Odyssey, mostly in the form known to us today, achieved both a canonical status, prominence above other versions of their own story and above other poems in the Epic Cycle, and a relatively fixed form. Fixity and prominence, the key characteristics of a canonical text, were probably first acquired with the public recitations during the Panathenaic beginning in about 550-450 B.C. [30] But there is before that early canonization of the Iliad and Odyssey a movement evidenced whereby heroic legends of athletic contests come into prominence with the vases of 580-70 B.C. So these variants had to be current about 600 B.C., and arousing enough interest to generate the visual images we have. In sum, even if the Iliad and Odyssey themselves were not canonized until sometime after 550 B.C., there was a sufficiently large appetite for heroic myths and images to produce the proliferation of legends, with the athletic themes notable among them, about 600 B.C.
Another athletic subject in which artists of the early sixth century tried to rival one another was the Funeral Games for Pelias, the subject and title of a poem by Steisichorus dated to about 580 B.C., and part of the design of the non-extant chest of Cypselus described by Pausanias (5.17.7-11) and dated to about 575-50 B.C.:

If one begins to look at it from the bottom the first area of the chest has the following: Oenomaus is pursuing Pelops with Hippodameia. Each of the men has a two-horse chariot, but those of Pelops have also grown wings. [Next is a description of Amphiaraos’ house]… Beyond Amphiaraos’ house is the funeral contest for Pelias, and those watching the contestants …

Then follows lengthy description of the games in this order: Heracles watching, five chariot racers, a pair each of boxers and wrestlers, a discus thrower, five runners, tripod prizes, the daughters of Pelias, and Iolaus, helper of Heracles, who is the chariot race victor. Noteworthy is the amount of space devoted to the Games for Pelias, literally and figuratively underlining the importance of the mythical contests. Also remarkable is the juxtaposition of those events with the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus at the beginning of the same bottom register of the chest. Since the splendid cedar box is decorated in gold and ivory and is kept in the temple of Hera at Olympia, the inclusion of the contest of Pelops is understandable. The race with Oenomaus, also shown on the later pedimental sculpture of the Temple of Zeus, is the most renowned foundational event for the Olympics. By putting Pelops first and then linking him visually to the Games for Pelias on an object in the Olympic sanctuary, we have a reminder of the association and equal authority of these two archetypical contests for later historical games.

The earliest vase depiction of the Games for Pelias is on the magnificent Amphiaraus crater (Florence 3773) including a chariot race of six four-horse chariots and dating to about 575 B.C. Apart from the mythic subject, the race scene also gives prominence to the spectators perched on the ikria benches, very much in the manner of the Sophilos fragment of the Patroclus Games. As discussed above, these benches are likely a contemporary, sixth century provision in Athens, associated with games held prior to the formally reorganized Panathenaia. And so the artist here gives prestige to current contests by connecting them visually with those of the heroic past. A Pontic amphora in Munich and a Tyrrhenian amphora in Florence, are both from 575-50 and both depict two-horse chariots racing; no spectator benches are evident here however. Lynn Roller has studied the depictions of the Pelias Games on the Cypselus chest and the vases and concluded that they all differ significantly from the details known about the Steisichorus version and from one another. This lack of correspondence between the narratives on the vases those of the received poems of both Homer and Steisichorus may suggest that visual and poetic artists, typically according to a tradition of myth making, “constantly conceived and interpreted anew” the Homeric view of the world, [31] or more likely the variants suggest a fluidity of versions extant here as for the Games for Patroclus. When the poetic works became more widely known, the painters took up the themes for their clients. The themes of both the Patroclus and Pelias Games therefore entered the artists’ repertoire about 580 B.C. and were popular only until about 540 B.C. [32] Equally significant is the possible architectural allusion on the Amphiaraus crater to the spectator stands at the contests of early sixth-century Athens.
There is a similar chronological pattern for the earliest visual depictions of other heroic myths also treated famously in the Epic Cycle composed mainly or entirely in the seventh to sixth centuries B.C [33] and early poetry of the sixth century. One example is the cyclic poem Sack of Troy or Iliou Persis written by Lesches or Arctinus, and a lyric poem of the same name by Steisichorus (active 600-550 B.C.). In art there is at first only the rare object such as the Trojan Horse incised on one late eighth century bronze pin, and it is again portrayed on an elaborate pithos from Mykonos from 675-50. Then there is a gap in the artistic record until a century later, from the mid-sixth to the mid-fifth centuries when scenes of the murder of Priam and the attack on Cassandra are popular, particularly among Athenian painters. [34] One might argue that there are many indistinctive vase images from the seventh century showing athletics scenes which could represent epic contests, but it is more likely that these illustrate general scenes of contemporary life. Some specific references to epic themes by distinctive attributes, inscriptions, etc. are present on objects starting in the first half of the seventh century, but athletic scenes are anonymous until the first half of the sixth century. [35] The vigorous popularity of the visual depictions of heroic events starting in the early sixth century is, I believe, connected with the emerging diffusion of epic and lyric heroic narratives in the mid-seventh to mid-sixth centuries and an athletic ‘revolution’ of that same period.
Chariot races seem to reach a height of popularity, based on visual evidence, by the mid-sixth century. One other confirmation of the growing recognition of that sport then is the first known dedication of a votive offering given by an Olympic chariot victor, namely an ivory “horn of Amalthea” given by Miltiades of Athens and set up in 560 B.C. after his victory in the 55th Olympiad. This was soon followed by Miltiades’ dedication of a model of a chariot, without driver. Cleosthenes of Epidamnus sponsored a winning quadriga at Olympia in 515 B.C. and dedicated a statue of himself the chariot, his driver, and the four horses; the base is still extant. [36] Other victors followed suit at Olympia and elsewhere in later centuries and increased the extravagance of the size and splendor of the chariot dedication set up, including the actual chariot or bronze sculptures of them, of which the bronze ‘Delphic charioteer’ is but the best extant piece. The innovation and increase of dedications in the sixth century suggest that a kind of ‘quadrigamania’ accompanies the clear association of the games with the heroic epic. It is odd that the dedications of chariot victors took a century to appear and are not evident from their inception in the 680 B.C. Olympics. A seventh century lag in Olympic popularity interestingly mirrors the lag in epic diffusion during the same period.
This overview of visual depictions of chariot races prompts some summary observations about the date of composition of the Iliad story of the theft of Neleus’ four horses. The Iliad passage, whoever the author of these particular lines may be, is neither a historical reminiscence of the Mycenaean Age, nor likely a literary invention reflecting eighth century B.C. practice. There can, of course, be no certainty in determining when the Iliad 11 quadriga passage was composed, but given the above evidence on iconography and popularity of themes, we can reasonably conjecture that it was a product of the evolving Iliadic tradition between 680 B.C., when the quadriga first appeared in the Olympic program, and 580-40 B.C., when epic depictions on vases enjoyed great popularity and four-horse chariots were first widely evident in art. More precisely, I have argued that the passage was likely an invention of the first half of the sixth century, the period when the other Panhellenic games and the Panathenaic games are founded or reorganized. This is also a period when clearly identifiable depictions of heroic games first appear in Greek visual arts, beginning with the Cypselus chest of 575-50 and the 570 B.C. François crater. Votives by four-horse chariot victors at Olympia also first appear in 560 B.C., inaugurating an era of ‘quadrigamania’ which the Iliad 11 passage arguably reflects.
Why does Strabo question an allusion to the Olympics? The logical inclination of both ancient and modern readers of Homer Iliad 11.698-702 is to read the passage as an allusion to the early Olympic tradition, within which I include an allusion to some legendary precursor to the historical games, as in Pausanias 5.1-8. Why else would commentators have argued at length against the idea? The second thoughts of some educated readers from Strabo onward question the likelihood of an Olympic allusion, and seek reasons why such a reference would be clumsy on the part of the poet: the anachronism of citing a later festival in the heroic age, no explicit mention of the Olympic sanctuary, and the distribution of prizes. D. B. Monro says in his commentary, “This passage is probably ancient, even if it does not go back to Homeric times [because of the mention of a four-horse chariot]. The absence of allusion to Olympia (which was Nestor’s frontier) and the mention of a tripod go far to prove it not to be later than the institution of the Olympic chariot race (Ol. 25) with the olive crown as the only prize.” [37] B. Hainsworth’s more recent commentary states that “In this context, μετ’ ἄεθλα, unless it is anachronistic, seems to imply some precursor of the classical Olympic games (reputedly founded in 776 B.C.)… Prize giving for sports is restricted in the epic to funeral games.” [38]
If the Iliadic passage alludes to the Olympic tradition, it does so by avoiding an explicit and anachronistic mention of olive-leaf crowns and of Olympia itself. The passage artfully calls the Olympics to mind by mention of Elis in an athletic context and by recalling the most spectacular of the contemporary events, the four-horse chariot race. Even more subtly, we are reminded of the mythical Olympic foundation by the mention of one legendary, namely Heracles. Nestor recalls Heracles presence as an ally for the Eleans (11.689-90), and we are prompted to recollect the locale of Olympia when Nestor mentions the sacrifices to Zeus which he made alongside the Alpheus River before a great battle (11.722-728). The apparent narrative motivation for the mention of Elis is Nestor’s reminiscing about his own days of strength and valor in the Pylos-Elis war, and the grievous crime of the Elean king, Augeas, who slighted Neleus by stealing his racing team.
One other Iliadic passage deserves mention at this point, namely Nestor’s reminiscence of his athletic prowess as a youth at the funeral games of Amarynceus (Iliad 23.629-42). The reminiscence occurs during the Funeral Games for Patroclus, at which Achilles presents Nestor with an honorary prize during the (two-horse) chariot event. The garrulous Nestor digresses on the Amarynceus Games held by the Epeians at Bouprasion in the district of Elis, and he boasts of how he won almost every event, including boxing, wrestling, footrace and javelin, but lost only in the chariot race, where the number of horses per chariot are unspecified. Amarynceus, whose father was from the Thessalian horse country, was an ally of Augeas and shared the rule of Elis (Paus. 5.1.10-11). The fact that the games drew Aetolians as well as Pylians to Elis suggests an importance on a par with later Panhellenic festivals. [39] As in the Iliad 11 reference, the contests are held in the vicinity of Elis, the horse race is prominent in the story, and Nestor is the narrator. In Iliad 23 the major difference is that the occasion is specified as funeral games, and the location is clearly not Olympia itself. In addition, there is no conflict or tension between the Pylians and Eleans as there was in Iliad 11. Even so, this passage artfully recalls the Iliad 11 reminiscence of Nestor and thereby evokes again the legacy of Olympia in the Elean region. Here in Iliad 23, in the heart of the most prominent athletic narrative in the Homeric epics, we have a second mention of games prior to the Olympics in Elis. Readers engrossed in the Patroclus Games story are reminded of the rich pedigree and the heroic past of the contests attached to the Olympic region, even before the games of the time of the Trojan War.
Was there chauvinism expressed or political capital to be gained by the Olympic allusion in Iliad 11? Do the political circumstances around the earliest Olympics also point to a date in or around the first half of the sixth century for the invention of the quadriga passage? The questions require a look at the early history of the games and their patronage. Nestor’s passing mention of chariot races in the Olympic region would at least support the heroic pedigree of the area as a place where nobles compete. To that extent it is a piece of pro-Olympic propaganda. But Nestor’s story paints an unflattering picture of the Eleans generally, and of Augeas’ insolence to Neleus in particular. If the Iliad 11 passage was a device to serve as propaganda for a particular city, Elis was apparently not the city to benefit from the tale. Might the story then derive from the perspective of the Pisatans, the traditional rivals of the Eleans for patronage of the games? If the Eleans are portrayed as insolent from legendary times, then the games should either be kept under or yielded to Pisatan control.
The mythic picture of the region around Olympia after Augeas is a complex one of a struggle between Elis and Pisa for control of the sanctuary, ending with the legendary Truce of Iphitus marking the historical (re)foundation of the festival. [40] Elis and Pisa had joint control of the Games from their historical establishment, 776 B.C. by majority consensus, until 748 B.C. Pisa took sole charge of the games in the eighth Olympia, 748 B.C., the 26th Olympiad as Strabo attests, possibly until 720 B.C., after which the games were again under a shared patronage with Elis. Africanus says that in the 28th Olympiad (668 B.C.), Pisa was allowed to control the games by Elis who was at war with Dyme. In 664 Pisa broke relations with the Eleans, and until the 51st Olympiad (576 B.C.) the Pisatans retained the presidency of the games. [41] Elis defeated Pisa in 576, after which Pisa’s shared control was nominal. [42] If Nestor’s story of the stolen horses in Iliad 11 stems from a period of Pisatan hegemony at Olympia, then the period between 664 and 576 is the most likely period for the origin of this Iliadic tale. One can, for instance, imagine a Pisatan bard performing the Iliadic passage indeed as part of an Olympics sideshow while the Pisatans held control of the games. The local Pisatans and their supporters likely howled approval during the narration of the defeat of the Elean King Augeas, thief of the chariot of Neleus.
Though the mention of Heracles as an Elean ally in Iliad 11.689-90 may be part of the allusion to the early Olympic tradition, as I suggested above, Heracles’ labor of cleaning the Augean stables and his subsequent founding of the Olympic Games is remarkably absent from all pre-fifth century literature: from the Homeric epics, from Hesiod’s poems and from other pre-fifth century heroic poems. Heracles’ Augean and Olympic deeds are both first mentioned in Pindar Olympian Ode 10, written ca. 476-70, and they are contemporaneously depicted on the metope of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia built in 470 or 468 to 457. [43] So the less than flattering portrait of Heracles in the Iliad 11 episode likely precedes by some years the fifth century adulation of the hero as Olympic founder. Perhaps again Pisatan authorship. In the end, the ‘death blow’ to Pisa’s having even nominal control of the Olympics came in 471 when sovereignty over the sanctuary was supposedly transferred once and for all to Elis. Pisa had been defeated in the latest local conflict, and the Temple of Zeus itself was built from the spoils of the plunder of Pisa (Pausanias 5.10.2). The feuding between Elis and Pisa in this later period of 572 to 471 may also be the source for an anti-Elean viewpoint, but 471 is the terminus ante quem for that source.
Even if the Iliad 11 passage does reflect a Pisatan agenda, it may have been attached to the Iliadic tradition by another source. Pisa was quite a small polis, always second to Elis in size, economy and general prestige. If some Pisatan or pro-Pisatan performer was the author of this passage, the question remains how his version became widely publicized and accepted. The mid-sixth century Athenian Panathenaea was, as mentioned above, the most obvious platform for establishing canonical status, or at least for wide diffusion of reasonably homogeneous Homeric legends. And the festival was firmly linked to both poetry and athletics by the mid-sixth century. [44] Athletic and hippic events were attached to the festival and it was celebrated every four years beginning in 566 B.C. [45] At some point early in the festival history, probably about 550 B.C. and traditionally by the tyrant Hipparchus, Homer’s epics were performed by rhapsodes with the story in a fixed order, but probably not with a fixed written recension of the text, as a regular part of the festival which remained at least until the mid-fifth century. [46] The Panathenaia is the earliest attested context for regular performances of the Iliad and Odyssey, first in the sixth century under the institutionalization of a “Peisistratid Recension.” [47] The Athenian festival was the likely venue at which the Iliad 11 tale, along with much else of the epics as we have them, was widely publicized and made a fixed part of the Iliadic tradition.
Why should the Athenians endorse and include this story? The four-horse chariot was not only a prestige event at the Olympics, it was an intrinsic part of the new Panathenaic program whose legendary pedigree could be advertised through this tale. Moreover Athens had a more immediate motive: the Athenian elite had recently enjoyed great success in the four-horse chariot event at Olympia, extending to a run of nine known quadriga victories in the twenty six Olympiads between 592 and 492. [48] Among these were the victory of the tyrant Peisistratus in 532, and Miltiades’ victory in 560 with his dedication, the first by a chariot victor at Olympia, discussed earlier. Athens’ achievement is exceptional, amounting to about 53% of the total of seventeen known quadriga victors, or about 35% of the absolute total of twenty-six at Olympia in a period spanning virtually the entire sixth century. That the victory series began just after Solon’s archonship of 594/3 may be more than coincidence since the leader allegedly codified a law granting a reward of 500 drachmas for an Olympic victor. Connecting the quadriga to the distant era of Nestor’s father would enhance for all Greek peoples the value of the event in the Olympics, and in other Panhellenic games, and in the reorganized Athenian festival. This motivation outweighed the seemingly anti-Elean aspect of the episode. Athens apparently had good relations with Elis, and hostilities between Pylos and Elis in the distant past can be excused or ignored by the Athenian aristocrats, by the Elean Olympic organizers, and by others generally.
Essentially we have seen from our focus on the Iliad 11 passage and relevant evidence in Greek art that both Homeric and heroic poetry and the Olympic contests flourish first circa 600 B.C. with heroic legend providing cultural prestige for the games, which then prosper as panhellenic phenomena. Now we turn to a more general overview of the growth of Homeric diffusion as seen in Greek literature and art, a discussion of how a ‘heroic ethos’ in Greek culture relates to both literature and athletics, and a general look at the growth of Olympic prestige.
Gregory Nagy posits a distinct stage in the transmission of Homeric texts in which there were no written texts but the stories became gradually pan-Hellenized from the mid-eighth to the mid-sixth centuries. [49] Many scholars contend that the texts were fixed in writing in the eighth century, with some scholars arguing for both epics being written down in the early eighth century, while most put the Iliad at about 750 B.C. and the Odyssey at about 725. [50] Even if written down early on, the Homeric epics are not evidenced in Greek culture for almost two centuries. The earliest preserved allusion to the poet Homer himself comes in the Hymn to Apollo (172-73), dated approximately to the first third of the sixth century. [51] Xenophanes ca. 550 B.C. takes issue with Homer’s representation of the gods (frs. 11, 14, 15, 16 DK). The importance of the Panathenaea in spreading the Homeric poems in this period had been mentioned above. Homer’s prestige grows considerably in the first half of the sixth century. The Homer of Pindar and of other Greek lyric poets and dramatists follow even later. Pindar, writing from about 500 to 446 B.C., names Homer three times and constructs an extensive intertextuality with Homeric epic. [52] In this very brief literary assessment, we should keep firmly in mind that well into the fifth century B.C. and beyond Homeric authorship was commonly, if not universally, attached to epic poetry, including the Epic Cycle, not just the Iliad and Odyssey. [53] The heroic tradition was widely identified with the Homeric texts in the minds of archaic and classical Greeks.
Archeological artifacts of Iron Age Greece, i.e. from the eighth century B.C., also evidence a growing interest in the heroic past. This interest is, according to Catherine Morgan, not necessarily inspired by Homer’s works, which were Ionian products and probably took some decades to have a great impact on the Greek mainland. So in the eighth century itself, the age of the earliest Olympics, the Iliad and Odyssey in whatever fluid forms they first emerged, probably had minimal impact on the way in which Olympic participants viewed the recently formed games. [54] More likely there was a “single expression of an heroic ethos which emerged in the late Geometric/Early Archaic times,” of which epic poetry, artifacts illustrating heroic scenes, and the earliest Olympics themselves were individual products. Anthony Snodgrass sees this as a trend of pan-Hellenism beginning in the eighth century and continuing thereafter. [55] We will return shortly to the term heroic ethos.
In Greek art, as we have seen earlier, we find a distinct lack of evidence for familiarity with Homeric epic for the first couple hundred years. From the mid-eighth century to 600 B.C., “only a small fraction of the probable mythological scenes on vases take their subject from the Iliad or Odyssey— between 10% and 16%, according to the degree of optimism of the person counting.” [56] Yet other myths in the Homeric cycle are recorded in art of this period, and probably non-Homeric versions of Homer’s subject matter, which suggests only that Homeric texts were known but had not yet become the exclusive or widely accepted canonical versions of the legends. Judging from heroic scenes in Greek art, then, it was not until the period between the late seventh century and the mid-sixth century that canonical versions of the epics of Homer and others in the cycle seem to become widely known in the Greek world.
The mention of heroic ethos above raises questions beyond the scope of this study, namely what constituted an aristocratic value system, essentially that sketched in the Iliad, and indeed what a hero was. Hêrôs, as scholars have pointed out in recent decades, covers “two distinct, and in some ways incompatible meanings.” [57] In Homeric texts it mostly refers to a living warrior who will die and pass into obscurity; in later texts it refers to someone who had died, much earlier but possibly recently, and to whom a local, honorific cult has been established. The hero of the local cult may even be an earlier usage of the term, and the two hero systems seem to be in some kind of semantic and cultural competition. Gregory Nagy argues that the two systems are fused, with Homeric heroes also becoming recipients of local cults. Greek athletic festivals also effected a fusion of the two senses of hêrôs, most notably in the association of both with funeral games. Before the Olympics, undoubtedly prominent local individuals were honored with funeral games, and the Iliad and Odyssey refer to funeral games for the Homeric heroes. From at least the eighth century, the Olympics inaugurate a festival with a local heroic cult, an event not particularly resembling in form or content the games of Ilia d 23, but certainly in their spirit.
Lynn Roller has listed the evidence of inscribed bronze prizes for nine different funeral games for historical persons over the span of the seventh to fifth centuries; Hesiod’s reference to participating in funeral games in his own eighth century suggests that the tradition was indeed established before that time. Roller has also shown that these games from the seventh to fifth centuries were held in Greek cities on the mainland, East Greece, and Magna Grecia (Italy). In the broad field of competitors, likely a leisured elite with broad networks in the earliest eras, the funeral games paralleled both the Olympics Games and the games of the epic tradition. Later contests for civic heroes, such as the Athenian Epitaphia, and funeral games for prominent individuals, such as Mausolus of Halicarnassus and Alexander the Great, continued the heroic aristocratic practice, continued in the Classical and Hellenistic periods alongside the Panhellenic games. [58] On the more vexed question of whether or how the funeral games of legend give rise to more formal, periodic athletic festivals, there can be no certain, historical genealogy of contests. It is likely that occasional funeral games were held by family or fellow citizens and warriors for leaders and military heroes from the Bronze Age onwards, as portrayed generally in Greek legend and evidenced from Hesiodic testimony and archaeology reviewed by Roller. [59] The double source of funeral games reflects the two types of heroes named above, those from poetic tradition and those from actual ancestors. We can perhaps reconcile the two traditions without speculation on any given festival origin: the historical funeral games from at least the eighth to the fifth centuries occurred simultaneously with the earliest formulation and gradual stabilizing of ‘Homeric’ and heroic epics. The funeral games for Patroclus and those for Pelias were prominent in the rhapsodic repertoire at least from the early sixth century, to judge from vase painting, even if the precise details of the stories were fluid. The prominence of these games follows from three phenomena: the contemporary historical funeral games, the growing prestige of the Olympics, and, most significantly, the increasing authority of the poetic presentations of myth.
We now turn from the dates and early diffusion of the Homeric poetry to the origins and growth of the ancient Olympic festival. As mentioned at the beginning of this study, the traditional date for the founding of the Olympics, derived from the fifth century B.C. victor list of Hippias, is 776 B.C., though several ancient sources put the beginning back to the early ninth century or even earlier and call the eight century date a point of the restoration of the festival. Significantly for present purposes, most ancient commentators name the 776 date as the year in which the games were re-instituted on the occasion of a treaty between local warring states; the important date was not therefore that of any legendary founding by famous heroes of the Bronze Age three centuries earlier. Notably by the third century B.C. the 776 date became so important that it was a widely used common date from which later ancient historians like Timaeus and Eratosthenes dated events. Like the Maya culture, the foundation of a communal sporting event became the basis for periodization, but unlike that New World model, the Greeks fixed on an historical and political event, and not a mythic one, associated with the games. Even so, it seems significant that the Greeks, like the Maya, chose for their periodic ground zero a festival contest shared widely among their independent states, and a contest moreover heavily invested with mythic foundation tales.
As the Olympics grew in their first two centuries and the Greeks generally began to link the games with the heroic tales. As we saw above, it was not until about 600 B.C. that heroic epic was widely depicted in Greek art. Prior to the 20th Olympiad, 700 B.C., Hippias’ list shows athletic victors almost exclusively from the western Peloponnese or Laconia. Thus the early games were by custom, by explicit restriction, or simply according to popular interest, local in character in comparison with the more properly Panhellenic games of later periods. [60]
Known Olympic victors in the seventh century came from a bit wider afield, but in no great numbers: of a total of fifty nine, the greatest number, thirty nine, still came from the Peloponnese with thirty three of these from Sparta, followed by seven from the ascending state of Athens, and the remaining thirteen from the far west, Italy and Sicily, from Ionia on the eastern edge of the Greek world, and from central Greece. [61] In short, so far as our fragmentary records can tell, the games were still fairly parochial, greatly dominated by the victories of Spartan athletes from 720 to 576, when their polis aggressively sought political capital from the conspicuous success. The end of Spartan domination is coincident with the production of vases showing the Patroclus and Pelias funeral games. In part the growing authority of legends of competition may have caused the Olympics to become more popular and more truly Panhellenic with an increasing field of skilled competitors from the Greek world. Apart from the Delian Games, [62] the seventh century is remarkable by the absence of any other periodic athletic festival along the Olympic model. That century is one in which athletics had still not reached its acme of civic and popular appeal. This was before the age of gymnasia and training processes. There were certainly some regional festivals with games and occasionally secular athletic or equestrian contests, but they were much fewer and of smaller scale than in later centuries. [63]
With the first quarter of the sixth century, the picture changed entirely. In 582/1 (or 586/5) the first major prize games were held at Delphi at the Pythian festival for Apollo which became a quadrennial fixture thereafter. [64] Two biennial games also began at this time, in 582/1 the Isthmian games for Poseidon at the Isthmus of Corinth, and in 573 the Nemean games in honor of Zeus. These three festivals, along with the Olympics, constituted a circuit or periodos, at which athletes thereafter aspired to become periodonikai, “circuit victors,” though the term first appears only in the second century A.D.
With the first quarter of the sixth century, the picture changed entirely. Between 586 and 573, three other major Panhellenic games were instituted in Greece, and there were joined by the first local games at Athens, the Panathenaia in or near 566. And an inscribed law from Olympia from the last quarter of the sixth century (on infractions in wrestling) suggests that a bureaucracy with written records did not arise at Olympia until the first half of the sixth century. [65] The early sixth century, then, was marked by an intense institutionalization of athletic festivals, the very period when the Homeric epics and other heroic legends also became more widely known in Greece.
The canonical legends, I argue, gave focus and collective purpose to the spread of athletics in the early 500’s. The public monuments of Olympia itself yield the most famous examples. In the story of the Olympic foundation mentioned earlier in the discussion of chariot racing, Pelops, a foreign hero, defeated and caused the death of the brutal King Oenomaus in a chariot race, thereby winning the king’s daughter, Hippodameia, in marriage. [66] A funeral mound for Pelops and an altar for Zeus were probably the central features of the Olympic sanctuary from its founding. “Pelops,” Pausanias (5.13.1) tells us, “is worshipped by the Eleans as much more than the other divine heroes at Olympia as Zeus is worshipped more than the other gods.” The prominent depiction of Pelops, Hippodameia, Oenomaus and Zeus all on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was noted earlier. On the metopes of that temple are depicted the labors of Herakles, the hero also seen as a legendary founder of the games. The Olympic space thus explicitly alludes to its origins in mythic time, and evidences the growing popularity of both the heroic ethos and athletics. The other Panhellenic games of the early sixth century similarly connected their games to their legendary heroic founders through architecture and sculpture. Melicertes/Palaemon had his shrine at Isthmia and Opheltes/Archemoros at Nemea. Like the Maya ballgame, the Olympics seek validation from a supposed mythic time. The juxtaposition of Pelops and Zeus in the sanctuary and on the temple underscores a crucial theme for Olympic athletes, the opposition of death and life, mortality and immortality, defeat and victory.
When we step back and examine the total socio-historical contexts of festival games like those in Mesoamerica and in Greece, we are confronted with broader questions. First a political question. How at any given time and place in those cultures was the appeal to origins from canonical legends used by kings or the ruling élite to solidify their hold on power? Architecture, ritual, costumes, claims to genealogy, and so on were invoked during the occasion of the festivals themselves to score political capital, to gain popular favor, to establish individual or civic identity, in short to use a constructed memory of the past as a basis for authority in the present. [67]
Secondly, a question of whether the sports-and-legends phenomenon is unique to Greece and Mesoamerica, or has broader, even contemporary importance. If the canonical legends had not existed, would the games not have become as popular? This is too complex to address here of course, but quick reference to cultures like ancient India, China, the Hittite empire, and Egypt, where there are scattered traces of games but no coalescence into important regular festivals, suggests that legends can serve as a catalyst for or invest meaning into sports. The immense popularity of gladiatorial and other contests in Rome, however, without foundation myths for the games, suggests that sometimes forces other than canonical legends can also promulgate such contests.
In the present day in most cultures around the world, sports seem to have spread more along the lines of ancient Rome, for extraneous social reasons like the rise of a leisured class in the nineteenth century. We seem to lack a dominant single legend perhaps mainly because our proliferation of media results in a multiplicity of legends. Still we can identify in modern sports a thread of canonical legend around which media images cluster. Internationally most popular sports are team sports. Do team sports represent a high valuation of community and individual sports of the individual? How can we in the United States, for instance, reconcile the American tradition of praise for the individual and the loner with the love of team sports? One commentator attributes this to the nature of modern life in which our notions of freedom often include elements both of autonomous effort and of cooperation towards common goals. The team element connects the fan with the team representing a region or a school. Yet the American cowboy or the loner Rambo image simultaneously feeds the complementary image of the individual star player seeking to get into the hall of fame. Films, novels, and television all reinforce this paradox of the solo individual alongside a collective deeply dependent upon him or her.
Our survey has viewed Homeric and heroic legend and Greek athletics as processes of canon formation and situates these phenomena in construction of a culture’s identity. The games in the Greek stadium, the Maya ball court, and the modern sports venue provide a public arena for re-enactment of mythic aetiologies. Both participants, spectators, and the social élite can vicariously, or ritually speaking even actually, become the founding heroes who perform acts of death and rebirth. The same process is at work generally in Pindar’s poetics: “The link between hero and athlete can be achieved by formal mention of the athlete’s immediate ancestors, who were treated by the ainos [‘praise’] of epinician poetry as if they were a logical extension of the world of heroes.” [68] And the seemingly fixed canons and the mythic time to which these performances make reference are constantly re-constructed and given new meaning by the dominant culture of the time.


[ back ] 1. Maya ballgame and myth: Linda Schele, David Freidel and Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path (New York, 1993) 308-10; M. Miller and K. Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London, 1993) 42-44. Celtic ritual fused with competition: Alison Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (Austin, Texas, 1997) 103-106.
[ back ] 2. M. Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998) 63-65 summarizes the ancient and modern views on the date of Olympic origins.
[ back ] 3. On the material evidence for an eighth century foundation of the games, see A. Mallwitz, 79-109, in W. Raschke, ed., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Madison, 1988; reprint, 2002); for the gradual evolution theory, see H. Lee 110-18 in Raschke (1988).
[ back ] 4. G. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Austin: University of Texas, 1996) 41-42 for the general schema, argued passim. This approach is echoed by S. Lowenstam, “Talking Vases: The Relationship between the Homeric Poems and Archaic Representations of Epic Myth,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 127 (1997) 21-76; id., “The Uses of Vase-Depictions in Homeric Studies,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122 (1992) 165-98; S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (Baltimore and London, 2001) 172-75 argues plausibly for a modification of Nagy’s evolutionary model: he sees fluidity in both Homeric epic and the Epic Cycle through the seventh century with some borrowing and intertextuality, and believes that all these epic narratives were widely known in the sixth centuries and classical period (fifth to mid-fourth centuries), then finally crystallized in the Hellenistic period (mid-fourth century and thereafter). The formative stage of the eighth century is reflected strongly in language, as seen in the careful analysis of R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod, and the Hymns (Cambridge, U.K., 1982) 228-31 who suggests the firm dates of 750-25 B.C. for the Iliad, and 743-13 B.C. for the Odyssey.
[ back ] 5. I will argue below for two possible implicit allusions to the Olympic festival in Il. 11.698-701 mentioning chariot races in the vicinity of Elis, and Iliad 23.640 mentioning funeral games for Amarynceus at Bouprasion near the Alpheios River.
[ back ] 6. Burgess (2001) 174 notes the later magnification of Homer against the Cyclic poems: “Celebration of the Homeric poems has led to an exaggerated sense of their initial historical importance, but it is clear that at first they did not encompass or dominate this tradition.”
[ back ] 7. Panhellenic Games: Golden (1998)10-11.
[ back ] 8. I thank Gregory Nagy for discussing this passage with me and suggesting its possible relation to the Panathenaic performances of Homer.
[ back ] 9. C. Renfrew in Raschke (1988), 17; soloi: Iliad 23 and Odyssey 21.
[ back ] 10. Phlegon of Tralles FGrHist 2.257, pp.1161-62, translated in Rachel Sargent Robinson, Sources for the History of Greek Athletics (Chicago, 1979 repr. of 1955 edition) p. 42 §10.
[ back ] 11. Burgess (2001) 50 and 210 n. 14, where in addition to Iliad 1.697-701, he adduces Iliad 9.404-405 (re Apollo sanctuary at Delphi) and Odyssey 6.162-65 (Apollo sanctuary at Delos) and 8.79-82 (Apollo’s Delphic oracle). See also J. P. Crielaard, 257-59 in J. P. Crielaard, ed., Homeric Questions (Amsterdam, 1995) who concludes that the presence of four-horse chairiot in a passage ostensibly alluding to the Olympic festival “should be dated to the period after 680 B.C.” (259).
[ back ] 12. Iliad 8.185 occurs within the controversial passage in which Hector addresses the horses of his war chariot; most commentators take as a suspect addition. See G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, Volume II: books 5-9 (Cambridge, U.K., 1990) 312-14 ad ll. 184-97. For Homeric chariots generally, see H. L. Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments (London, 1950) 324-28.
[ back ] 13. J. H. Crouwel, Chariots and other means of land transport in Bronze Age Greece (Amsterdam, 1981) 144; H. A. Harris, Sport in Greece and Rome (Ithaca, New York, 1972) 157; W. Raschke, “A Red-Figure Kylix in Malibu,” Nikephoros 7 (1994) 163.
[ back ] 14. G.S. Kirk, Homer and the Epic (Cambridge, U.K., 1965) 154, sees the four-horse chariot of Odyssey 13. 81 as one of several “cultural rarities” appearing in similes, a departure which “probably represents a relatively late development of custom or viewpoint.” T. B. L. Webster, From Mycenae to Homer (London, 1964) 216 sees the Odyssey use of a racing quadriga as “a striking innovation of [the poet’s] own day [i.e. 750-25 B.C.] for his comparison.”
[ back ] 15. G. Nagy Pindar’s Homer: The Lyrics Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore, 1990) 127-29, cf. 119 and note 15, citing Phlegon FGrHist 257 F 1 for the story of Pelops’ founding of the games.
[ back ] 16. Mycenae: R.C. Bronson, “Chariot Racing in Etruria,” 100, in Studi in onore di Luisa Banti (Rome, 1965). Tiryns: Crouwel (1981) 142 and Pl. 66 and Catalogue V 51; 150. Single-horse shown for two-horse chariot: J. Cook, “Protoattic Pottery” 172 in The Annual of the British School at Athens 35 (1934-35) notes the use of this artistic convention in seventh century painting.
[ back ] 17. Crouwel (1981) 151.
[ back ] 18. Bronson (1965) 100; cf. J. Davison, “Attic Geometric Workshops,” Yale Classical Studies 16 (1961) figs. 22, 33, and 136; fig. 22 (Louvre A547) has an armed warrior in a four-horse chariot alongside mourners, possibly in a funeral procession; fig. 33 (Athens 894) seems to be a war scene with one two- and one four-horse chariot and warriors on foot in between; fig. 136 (London 1927.4-11.1). Davison evidences other chariots whose horses are all walking, and which lack any racing iconography: figs. 18 and 115 have a single horse likely to represent two; figs 35 and 36 show two three-horse chariots each. Davison also shows in fig. 39b another four-horse chariot not mentioned by Bronson. K. Fittschen, Untersuchungen zum Beginn der Sagendarstellungen bei den Griechen (Berlin, 1969) 26-28 discusses 8th to 7th century representations of chariot racing as possible allusions to myth, and some of those mentioned by Davison plus 3 others (27 note 83), but acknowledges the difficulty in identifying racing scenes in the 8th century period when dynamic movement was seldom portrayed (27 n. 88); Fittschen in any case finds no iconography to connect the chariot scenes clearly with myth. A funeral procession of chariots is just as likely as a race in the scenes noted. A complete catalogue of chariots, four-horse and otherwise, in Geometric art has not been undertaken, but would be a useful project. There are more Geometric quadrigae than the ones listed here, but not likely many nor in race contexts.
[ back ] 19. E. Hinrichs, “Totenkultbilder de attischen Frühzeit,” Annales universitatis Saraviensis 4 (1955) 124-47, esp. 135-36, argues that racing chariot scenes appear on vases in the early and late eighth century; Hinrichs argues that charioteers using whips, wearing long chitons, and bowing forward indicate racers in the context of funeral games. Whips and chitons alone are not convincing, and the bowing (in the three cases she notes, p. 135 n. 42) does not appear pronounced; most notably, the horses’ legs do not appear to be running.
[ back ] 20. Bronson (1965) 90-91 and nn. 7 and 8. Webster (1964)173-74 argues generally that Geometric vases, i.e. those from about 760-700 B.C., show exceptional funeral games of kings or great heroes and that these representations “agree very well with Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus.” L. Roller “Funeral Games in Greek Art,” AJA 85 (1981a) 107-19, to be discussed below, has shown this view to be incorrect. The four- and three-horse chariot races in the context of funerals on Geometric vases which Webster notes (174 and n.2) are probably funeral processions, not chariot races. The other athletic events on Geometric vases noted by Webster as parallels to the Patroclus games are in fact quite different in detail from the Homeric descriptions.
[ back ] 21. Athens fragment with chariot race: S. Morris, The Black and White Style. Athens and Aigina in the Orientalizing Period (New Haven, Connecticut, 1984) 48 and Pl. 11 #368, with attribution of the piece possibly to The Polyphemus Painter (670-40 B.C.). Agora pyxis lid with chariot race: The Black and White Style. Athens and Aigina in the Orientalizing Period 85 n. 187. Morris p. 67 also notes a four-horse chariot in a mythical scene of Heracles and Deianeira dated to 650-40 (New York 11.210.1). On p. 48 and Pl. 8 (upper right) Morris discusses a dinos fragment from Aigina (necropolis) showing a frieze of warriors and chariots (no horses preserved) by The Polyphemus Painter (670-40 B.C.), likely a war scene rather than racing.
[ back ] 22. Roller (1981a) 115 n. 63 cites Cook (1934-45) 165-219, esp. figs. 38a, 41, 47, and 50 as examples of later seventh century chariot races, yet none of these show the horses legs as running.
[ back ] 23. H. A. Thompson and R. E. Wycherley, The Agora of Athens (Princeton, 1972) 126-27; J. Camp, The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens (London, 1986) 46; M. Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theater (Princeton, 1961) 54 and fig. 220, using the Sophilos seats to illustrate sixth-century seating for performances in the Athenian agora.
[ back ] 24. Athenian Olympic victors pre-580 B.C.: Pantalces, stade footrace (twice), 696 and 692; Eurybates, stade footrace 616; Stomas, stade footrace 644; Cylon, diaulos footrace, 640; Phrynon, pancratium, 636; Alcmaeon, quadriga, 592. Solon and sports: Kyle (1987) 21-22; id., “Solon and Athletics,” Ancient World 9 (1984) 91-105; id., 79-80 in J. Neils, ed., Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (Princeton: PUP, 1992).
[ back ] 25. The location of the hippidrome during the Panathenaia at Athens is unknown, with the best evidence pointing to the areas of New Phaleron or Piraeus, i.e. Athens’ nearest port regions: Kyle (1987) 96; the agora is probably the location of the earliest stadium, a temporary site requiring bleachers: Kyle (1987) map A. and illustration B.
[ back ] 26. Roller (1981a) 107-19 generally; 108-109 on the Patroclus Games depictions. See K. Schefold, Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art, A. Hicks, trans. (New York, 1966) 60 and 90; his linking of the Sophilos fragment to the artist’s familiarity with the Panathenaic Games (90) is incorrect, since the artist’s floruit just precedes the establishment of the Panathenaea in 566 B.C. On the discrepancies Patroclus Games in the two vase paintings and the Iliad: Lowenstam (1992) 168-69; id. (1997) 27-28 and 51; S. Lattimore, “The Chariot Racers on the François Vase,” (abstract) American Journal of Archaeology 101.2 (1997) 359.
[ back ] 27. Schefold (1966) 63.
[ back ] 28. Schefold (1966) 60. A. Snodgrass, 581 in I. Morris and B. Powell, eds., A New Companion to Homer (Leiden, New York and Cologne, 1997) observes that “while four of the twleve scenes [on the François vase] are taken from the Trojan Cycle, just one of these is strictly ‘Homeric,'” namely the chariot race of the Patroclus Games. Cleitias’ restricted use of Homeric episodes may indicate those poems’ lack of dominance in the early sixth century.
[ back ] 29. Lowenstam (1997) 49-51 and 57. See Burgess (2001) 81-82, who suggests, convincingly, that the Patroclus Games are not likely to have originated from a tradtion entirely independent of the Iliad, but rather derive from the Iliadic tradition; sixth-century vase painters could have been drawn to “games for a less than major character,” instead of other games in the tradition, precisely because of the attraction of the Iliadic episode and one of its variants (82).
[ back ] 30. Lowenstam (1997) 65-66.
[ back ] 31. Schefold (1966) 97.
[ back ] 32. Roller (1981a) 109 and112-13; for the Patroclus Games, only the Sophilos fragment and the François crater can definitely be identified as depictions of the games. For the Pelias Games, see, D. A. Amyx, “Attic Vase-Painting vis-à-vis ‘Free’ Vase-painting at Corinth,” 37-52, esp. 39-43 in W. G. Moon, ed., Ancient Greek Art and Iconography (Madison, Wisconsin, 1983) notes further differences among vase representations and no discernable common source image among them; for an image of the ikria, see Amyx, 40, pl. 3.3b. Schefold (1966) 60 unconvincingly suggests that the description of the funeral games for Patroclus “was composed after the pattern of the games for Pelias” which Schefold traces back to a Corinthian epic of about 600 B.C., without proper justification.
[ back ] 33. M.L. West, s.v. “Epic Cycle,” p.531 in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford and New York, 19963).
[ back ] 34. M. J. Anderson, The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art (Oxford, 1997)179, 192-93, and 208-09.
[ back ] 35. Roller (1981a) 115. See Snodgrass, 560-97 in Morris and Powell, eds. (1997) for other possible allusions to epic on vases of the seventh century; Snodgrass notes a general absence of such scenes in this period.
[ back ] 36. Miltiades’ dedication: Paus. 6.19.6; L. Moretti Olympionikai, i Vincitori negli Antichi Agoni Olimpici (Rome, 1957) 71 #106. Euagoras’ dedication: Paus. 6.10.8; Moretti (1957) 71 #110. Cleosthenes’ statue: Paus. 6.10.6-8; Moretti (1957) 76-77 and #141.
[ back ] 37. D. B. Monro, Homer Iliad, Books I-XII (Oxford, 1906) 375-76 ad l. 699; “Homeric times” presumably refer to the eighth century. W. Leaf and M. A. Bayfield, The Iliad of Homer, Vol. 1 (Books I-XII) (London and New York, 1965 reprint of 1895), 522 ad l. 700 says: “The passage may be earlier than the Olympics, so far as the evidence of the line goes” with reference to the introduction of four-horse chariots in Ol. 25 and the giving of an olive prize in the Olympics.
[ back ] 38. B. Hainsworth, The Iliad: A Commentary, Volume III: Books 9-12 (Cambridge, U.K., 1993) p. 301 ad ll. 699-700.
[ back ] 39. N. Richardson, The Iliad: A Commentary, Vol. 6: Books 21-24 (Cambridge, U.K., 1993) 238 on lines 632-37.
[ back ] 40. Pausanias 5.1-4 narrates the regional strife up to Iphitus; E. N. Gardner, Olympia: Its History and Remains (Oxford, 1925; repr., Washington D. C., 1973) 77, 83, and 88-89. See W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, P. Bing, trans. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1983) 94 note 5.
[ back ] 41. Sextus Julius Africanus, Olympionicarum Fasti or List of the Victors at the Olympian Games, J. Rutgers, ed. (1862; repr. Chicago, 1980) 11, s.v. Ol. 28 and 30.
[ back ] 42. Gardner (1925, repr. 1973) 101.
[ back ] 43. T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth, Vol. 1 (Baltimore and London, 1993) 381 and 392-93, notes that the Augean Stables labor is altogether absent even from extant artistic images prior to the fifth century.
[ back ] 44. On the vexed question of the Peisitratid recension of Homeric epics, see G. Nagy 174 in J. B. Carter and S. P. Morris, eds., Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermule (1995); less disputed are the phenomena of rhapsodic performances of the epics, whether unwritten or written, at the Panathenaia in the mid-sixth century. On the epics at the Panathenaia, see H. A. Shapiro, “Mousikoi Agones: Music and Poetry at the Panathenaia,” 53-75 in Neils, ed., (1992). On the performance of epic at pan-Hellenic festivals, see Oliver Taplin, Homeric Soundings: the Shaping of the Iliad (Oxford, 1992) 39.
[ back ] 45. J. Neils, in J. Neils, ed., (1992) 20-21
[ back ] 46. Nagy (1996) 99-106. See H. A. Shapiro 72-75 in Neils, ed. (1992) on the origins of rhapsodes; D. Kyle, Athletics in Ancient Athens (Leiden, 1987) 22-31 on the introduction of athletic events.
[ back ] 47. Nagy (1990) 21-22 and n. 20.
[ back ] 48. Moretti (1957) 68 #81, Alcmaeon in 592; 70 #103, Callias I in 564; 71 #106, Miltiades in 560; 72 #120, Cimon in 536; 74 #124, Peisistratus (victory ceded by Cimon) in 532; 74 #127, Cimon in 528; 80 #164, Callias II in 500; 81 #169, Callias II in 496; 82 #176, Callias II in 492. See also discussion of these victors in Kyle (1987) Appendix B. After 492, the only recorded later Athenian quadriga victories are those of Megacles in 436, Alcibiades in 416 B.C., and Glaucon in 276 B.C. N. Yalouris, The Eternal Olympics: The Art and History of Sport (New York, 979) 289-96 presents a simplified and easy-to-read list of victors based on Moretti’s work. A. Hönle, Olympia in der Politik der griechischen Staatenwelt (Bebenhausen, 1972) 53-66.
[ back ] 49. Nagy (1996), 42.
[ back ] 50. Early 8th century: B.B. Powell, 31, in Morris and Powell (1997); 750 and 725: M. Wilcock, s.v. “Homer” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford and New York, 19963).
[ back ] 51. G. S. Kirk 114-15 in P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox, eds., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, I. Greek Literature (Cambridge, 1985); J. Strauss Clay 501 in Morris and Powell, eds. (1997).
[ back ] 52. Nagy (1990)
[ back ] 53. Lamberton 38-39 in I. Morris and B. Powell, eds. (1997); G. Nagy (1995) 164 notes that Aristotle distinguishes Homer as author of the Iliad and Odyssey from the authors of other epics in the cycle. See M.L. West, s.v. “Epic Cycle,” p.531 in S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford and New York, 19963); Lowenstam (1997) 59-60.
[ back ] 54. Catherine Morgan, Athletes and Oracles (Cambridge, 1990) 59-60.
[ back ] 55. A. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece: An Archeological Survey of the Eleventh to the Eighth Centuries (Edinburgh, 1971) passim; cf. id. An Archaeology of Greece: The Present State and Future Scope of a Discipline (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1987) 160, 165.
[ back ] 56. A. Snodgrass 573 in Morris and Powell, eds. (1997). See also Snodgrass (1987), 160-61 on Attic Geometric artists who evidently had no familiarity with Homer, and on mainland heroic tomb cults which, with their rock-cut chamber tombs, show no emulation of Homeric-style burials (cremation and inhumation). Cf. Ann Blair Brownlee, 363-72 “Story Lines: Observations on Sophilan Narrative,” in J. Carter and S. Morris, eds. (1995), who argues that the non-linear narrative of the artist is dealing with “familiar scenes in unusual ways” (368), but Iliad 23 is clearly the source for the image.
[ back ] 57. A. Snodgrass (1987) 159.
[ back ] 58. Lynn Roller, “Funeral Games for Historical Persons,” Stadion 7 (1981b) 1-18.
[ back ] 59. Kyle (1987) 18-19; H.A. Thompson, “Panathenaic Festival,” Achaeologischer Anzeiger 76 (1961) 224-31, who cites a similar evolution from funeral games to hero cults and then to civic athletics of the Panathenaic games.
[ back ] 60. Morgan (1990) 92, assessing material evidence and following Pausanias’s dating, supports the date of 776 as one which “may relate to the refoundation of the Olympic games after some earlier contest had lapsed.” For a collection of the primary sources (in English translation) on the legendary origins of the Olympics, see Sargent Robinson (1979 repr. of 1955) 32-55. Discussion of the founding date: Golden (1998) 63-65. Origin in 700: A. Mallwitz, 79-109, in W. Raschke, ed. (1988; reprint, 2002). Last quarter of eighth century: Morgan 48-49. Local participation in Olympics pre-700: Morgan 102; I. Morris, “The Use and Abuse of Homer,” Classical Antiquity 5 (1986) 100.
[ back ] 61. The reckoning of regional affiliations of victors from the 696 to the 588 Olympics is based on: Moretti (1957).
[ back ] 62. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo 146-50, written in the sixth century, mentions boxing, dancing and song, but no other contests, and indicates recurrent holding of the festival. See Janko (1982) 200, Table 4, argues plausibly for the approximate date of 675-60 B.C.; cf. W. Burkert, “Kynaithos, Polykrates, and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo”, 53-62, in G. W. Bowersock, et al., eds., Arktouros: Hellenic Studies Presented to Bernard M. W. Knox on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1979).
[ back ] 63. There is a inscription from about 580 B.C. by a victor probably in the local Eleusinian games for a victory in the pentathlon or possibly in the long jump as a separate event: L. Moretti, Iscrizioni Agonistiche Greche (Rome, 1953) #1, pp. 1-5.
[ back ] 64. Dates for the origin of the Pythia: Morgan (1990) 136; for the Pythia, Isthmia and Nemea: Golden (1998)10.
[ back ] 65. Peter Siewert, “The First Olympic Rules,” 113-17 in W. Coulson and H. Kyrieleis, ed., Proceedings of an International Symposium on the Olympic Games, 5-7 September 1988 (Athens, 1992).
[ back ] 66. L. Lacroix, “La Légende de Pélops et son Iconographie”, BCH 100 (1976) 327-341; Weiler (above, note 11xx, 1974) 209-217.
[ back ] 67. Nagy (1990) 373-74: “The concept of mimesis, in conveying a re-enactment of the realities of myth, is a concept of authority as long as society assents to the genuineness of the values contained by the framework of myth. Correspondingly the speaker who frames the myth, or whose existence is re-enacted as framing the myth, is an author so long as he or she speaks with the authority of myth, which is supposedly timeless and unchanging. The author has to insist on the timelessness and unchangeablility of such authority, which resists the pressures of pleasing the interests of the immediate audience by preferring the pleasure of timelessness and unchanging values transmitted to an endless succession of audiences by way of mimesis.” Cf. id., Poetry as performance: Homer and Beyond (Cambridge: CUP, 1996) 224.
[ back ] 68. Nagy (1990) 199.