Wednesday 24 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece - Day 8

Day 8 of the Greater Panathenaean Games was devoted to the sea. Athens had a close association with the sea, but we know very little about the boat races which were held today. So rather than waffle about very little I’ll take you back a day to the great procession of Day 7.

After the excitement of the night-time torch relay people were gathering at the Sacred Gate in the city walls to prepare for the procession rather than go to bed. The procession itself has been seen by millions of people, perhaps even you! Because it was preserved in marble by the greatest sculptor in Ancient Greece, Phidias, whose boyfriend he immortalised on the statue of Zeus at Olympia. The sculpted procession is known today as the Elgin Marbles.

As dawn broke over Athens the procession set off for the Acropolis. In front of the official religious part of the precession were girls carrying offerings. Like other participants, this was great honour for the girls and their families. But one year things didn’t go as planned.

Hipparchus ruled Athens with his brother Hippias. They were sons of Peisistratus, the main founder of the games and had a complicated family set up. Peisistratus and Hippias had the same boyfriend Charmus (not at the same time!) whose daughter married Hipparchus. But Hipparchus kept flirting with a young man called Harmodius, who wasn’t remotely interested because he was happy with a man called Aristogeiton. Their relationship had lasted beyond the usual intimate length. Neither married, and Harmodius didn’t seem interested in looking for a younger boyfriend as expected of his age. As such it was much like a gay relationship today.

Hipparchus was jealous. One year he chose Harmodius’s kid sister to be one of the girls in the procession. But as they were forming up before dawn he rounded on her and humiliated her in public, thereby insulting the whole family. For Harmodius and Aristogeiton this was the last straw. Plans had already been made with others to get rid of the tyrant brothers during the hustle and bustle of the procession. These plans were brought ahead and Harmodius and Aristogeiton decided to do it immediately. They found Hipparchus in the agora, the market place, and stabbed him. Harmodius was killed by the guards and Aristogeiton was captured and tortured. Hippias, brother of the assassinated Hipparchus, ordered the procession to go ahead regardless.

In later years the procession would pass a statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, perhaps the first ever statue to commemorate a gay couple, on the spot of the assassination. They became heroes by killing Hipparchus because it started a chain reaction which led to the establishment of the first democracy in Athens.

The procession itself contained winners of all the contests (except for the boat races), cavalry, priestesses, city elders, and also 100 bulls for sacrifice on the Acropolis. Something no-one would miss was a full-scale ship on wheels. Instead of a sail it had a huge embroidered dress which was to be draped around the enormous statue of Athena in the Parthenon. This was another mega-sculpture by Phidias out of ivory and gold plated bronze.

Non-Athenians weren’t allowed to follow up the steps of the Acropolis, but how they got all those bulls up the hundred or so steps is a marvel.

Once the people had assembled and presented their offerings, several sacrificial fires were lit, including one lit from the torch that won the relay. Then the bulls were sacrificed. The meat was handed out to the Athenians, and there was plenty of bread, cake and wine on supply. All in all, a great communal meal for the whole city, like a big barbecue.

With the procession over people could go home and rest up before the boat races that took place today. But tomorrow, Day 9, was a day they could let their hair down and party, party, party.

In a way I’m a bit disappointed, because the Panathenaean Games didn’t include a contest that was created in honour of an Athenian hero.  I’ll tell you what it was tomorrow, so prepare to pucker up.

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

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