Sunday 21 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece - Day 5

Clare Balding would have loved Day 5 of the Greater Panathenaean Games, but being a woman she wouldn’t have been allowed to watch. Day 5 was all about equestrian events, complete with chariot races.

Chariot racing is first recorded by Homer in the “Iliad”, the story of the Trojan War. In that poem, recited as part of the poetry contest on Day 1, hero Achilles decided to hold games at the funeral of his boyfriend Patroclus.

Funeral games were common in Ancient Greece. Herodes Atticus, a great benefactor and descendent of the founder of Athens, rebuilt several stadiums where the Greater Panathenaean Games were held in the 2nd century AD. His boyfriend, the athlete Polydeukes, died young, and Herodes held massive funeral games in his honour in the stadiums he rebuilt. He also had the marble carving made of Polydeukes which shows him to be extremely young (right), which may be partly artistic license though it’s probable he was less than 20 when he died. Herodes was so upset that he died of a broken heart not long afterwards and his own funeral was held in the very same stadium.

The equestrian events were divided into the usual age groups, even the 12 year olds competed. And it wasn’t only the humans who were divided into age groups – there were races for young and mature horses. During the day there was also a procession of chariots and horses in honour of the city’s patron goddess Athena.

There were several different types of race, and for them athletes were allowed to wear protection rather than compete named as normal. But that probably only meant a helmet and shield. The chariot races were much like the more familiar Roman ones, with 2-horse and 4-horse chariot races. One contest gradually disappeared from the games. It was horse-ridden race with soldiers throwing javelins, presumably at speed.

The most prestigious equestrian event had the name of apobates. A picture of one contestant in the race appears on a vase in the Getty Villa (photo by Brian McMorrow). The chariot, which could have 2 or 4 horses, as here, had 2 occupants – a driver in a flowing robe, and a soldier. As the chariot charged around the course the soldier had to jump off the moving chariot at a given point. After running alongside for a distance the soldier had to jump back onto the moving chariot at another given point.

The winner of this race was given the biggest prize of sacred olive oil in the whole games – 140 vases. Given that one vase contained 10 gallons (45.46 litres) of sacred oil worth the equivalent of £1,000 a vase, you can see how important this race was.

And so Day 5 draws to a close, and we head towards another change tomorrow. Until now all the contests have been open to anyone (male-only, of course), and have been held as entertainment. But as soon as the sun has set the religious element comes to the fore and the games are restricted to citizens of Athens alone. Others can watch but not compete. And if you want to hear about the gayest of these gayest games, then come back tomorrow. Ooh, I can’t wait! You’re in for a treat!

If you’d like to know more about the Greater Panathenaean Games – the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece – go to

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