Gold, Silver and Bronze: The Ancient Olympics

The ancient Greek Olympics were just as enmeshed in international politics, national rivalries and commercial pressures as their modern counterpart, says David Gribble.

Olympic village: Leonidaion at Olympia, built in 350 BC to accommodate official visitors to the gamesIn the first Olympic games of the modern era, held in Athens in 1896, the marathon was won by a Greek, Spiridon Louys. As he entered the Olympic stadium the audience erupted in cheers and Prince Constantine and Prince George of Greece hurried to the track to accompany him to the finish. Among the crowd was the French writer Charles Maurras, who remarked to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement: ‘I see that your internationalism does not kill national spirit, it strengthens it.’ The ability of an Olympic victory to contribute to national prestige was evident for the first time in the modern era.

The Olympics are an international showcase of national achievement. International sports festivals need states to host them and participate in them. They also need money to pay the athletes, stage the competition and finance the national display. The inaugural games of 1896 would not have been possible without the political intervention of Prince Constantine or the financial sponsorship of the Greek businessman and philanthropist George Averoff. Whether we like it or not, international sport is tied up in nationalism, politics and finance. By the 1970s the Olympics would be subject to Cold War boycotts, commercialisation, even, in Munich in 1972, terrorism.

At no time was the political and financial element of the games more apparent than in the ancient Olympics when the power and cultural achievement of Athens was at its peak, the city locked in competition with its great rival, Sparta. In the games of 416 BC Athens went head to head with Sparta in a competitive display organised and financed by its most prominent, flamboyant and dangerous citizen, Alcibiades (c.450-404 BC). It was a performance intended to demonstrate Athens’ power and wealth to the Greek world. Alcibiades succeeded in eclipsing his rivals, but the performance would help bring about not just his own downfall but also that of Athens.

Greek cold war

By the time of the Olympic games of 420 BC Athens was in its prime. Having defeated the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC, it controlled an Aegean empire reaching to the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Empire brought wealth from tribute and commerce, in the form of silver reserves, which enriched its leading citizens and the state itself, allowing it to maintain a fleet that dwarfed those of its rivals and to fund huge building projects.

Athens had not, however, succeeded in dealing with Sparta, its ally in the war against the Persians. Where democratic Athens dominated at sea, oligarchic Sparta was the major force on land, at the head of an alliance of cities which bitterly resented Athens’ rise to power. This led to a series of conflicts, the latest of which had just ended inconclusively in the Peace of Nicias (421 BC). But it was an uneasy peace. While observing the treaty in name the rival cities jockeyed for position diplomatically. The Athenians attempted to exploit rivalries among Sparta’s allies, creating an Athenian-led grouping in the Peloponnese. In effect it was a cold war between the two Greek ‘superpowers’, with the majority of Greek cities lined up behind one or the other.

One of Athens’ new allies in the Peloponnese was Elis, a small city which would have had little military or strategic importance but for one thing: the Eleans controlled Olympia and it was they who hosted and organised the greatest religious and national event of the Greek world, the Olympics.

The Eleans had a long-running boundary dispute with Sparta, so they jumped at the chance to join the new Athenian alliance. Shortly before the games of 420 BC they took a further step: they banned the Spartans from competing in the games and forbade them from carrying out sacrifices in the temple of Zeus at Olympia, citing a technical breach by Sparta of the Olympic truce. With Sparta excluded from the festival, the new anti-Spartan Athenian-led alliance was formalised at the games. The alliance was recorded on a bronze pillar erected on the site.

This was a humiliation for Sparta. Modern ‘political’ boycotts of the Olympics, like the US-led Cold War boycott of the 1980 Moscow games, or of the 1984 Los Angeles games by Soviet bloc countries, aim at the political exclusion of the sanctioned nation from the international community. In the Greek world the Olympic festival was above all a religious event, dominated by the great sacrifice to Zeus, attended by religious delegations (theoroi) from the Greek cities taking part. A city’s participation at the festival and its sacrifice demonstrated that it belonged to the religious and cultural community of Greeks.

The Spartans took their exclusion so seriously that they contemplated using force in order to participate in the sacrifice. The anti-Spartan alliance responded by sending its own soldiers to the festival, including a troop of Athenian cavalry. This intrusion of interstate political rivalry to the festival was by no means untypical. (In 364 BC the festival was interrupted by an armed battle for control of the Olympic site between the Eleans and their rivals from nearby Pisa in the western Peloponnese.) The ancient Olympics were not only an expression and definition of common cultural values, but also an arena for intense competition between Greeks. The festival’s shared rituals emphasised the commonality of the participating cities, but the competition of sport and spending also displayed their rival power and wealth. The Olympic site was itself a showcase for the common religious identity of the participants as well as the conflicts between them, decorated not just with temples and statues of gods and athletes but also commemorations of previous inter-city wars. The festival took place against a backdrop of memorials celebrating the victory of city over city, where civic wealth and status, in bronze, marble and treasure, was conspicuously displayed. Olympia was also a site for rival orators to show off their skills; some of their speeches survive. The orators called for the Greeks to forget their differences and unite against the common enemy of barbarians or tyrants. Their speeches show that, like us, the Greeks were concerned by the disparity between the display of cultural solidarity at the festival and the reality of conflict outside it, not because of a notion that sport should have nothing to do with politics but rather because wars between the Greeks flew in the face of the panhellenic unity of the festival.

There was a consolation of sorts for the Spartans in the 420 Olympic festival in the chariot race. This was the most prestigious and exciting of all Olympic events. Over 40 four-horse chariots took part, financed by the richest men of Greece. The event had been dominated by the Spartans since the Persian wars: an investment by Sparta’s leading citizens that helped to demonstrate their state’s power. In 420 a leading Spartan, Lichas, financed and entered a team in the name of Sparta’s allies, the Boeotians. It won. Lichas came forward himself to receive the prize despite the Elean ban (which apparently forbade Spartans from competing in but not attending the games). It was an attempt to demonstrate the dominance of Sparta by flouting the ban in the face of the anti-Spartan alliance. But the attempt misfired: the angry Elean judges had Lichas whipped.

This was the moment where everyone feared Spartan troops would move in to take control of the festival, the moment where cold war could have turned hot at the Olympic festival itself. But the superstitious Spartans refrained from breaking the Olympic truce, swallowed their humiliation and took no action.

Athens’ revenge

By the time the Greeks were getting ready for the next Olympic festival of 416 the situation in Greece looked very different. The Spartans had restored their pride and reasserted their dominance in the Peloponnese by defeating their rivals at the battle of Mantinea in 418. The peace between Athens and Sparta was still in force, though more uneasily than ever. The thoughts of some Athenians were already turning to another adventure: the conquest of Sicily. If Spartan domination of the Greek mainland could not be ended through hiving off Spartan allies, perhaps Athens could create a more powerful empire abroad and use it to defeat the Spartan threat at home.

The Greeks awaited the 416 festival with great excitement. How would the conflict be played out? What would the Athenians do, after the defeat at Mantinea?

Enter Alcibiades: adopted son of Pericles and associate of Socrates, he was the foremost leader of those in Athens who favoured war and imperial expansion. Young, aristocratic, warlike and intensely ambitious, he had won conspicuous awards for personal valour in battle. It was he who had been behind the policy of forming the anti-Spartan alliance. He was also one of the richest men in Athens, with a reputation for a dissolute lifestyle and for spending more than he could afford. His spending was not just about personal luxury (though allegedly there was plenty of that) but, as for all Greek political leaders, was a means to secure political prominence and influence. In his spending he aimed at securing his influence with the Athenian people and the wider Greek world in competition with his rival, Nicias, who was foremost among those who favoured peace and was the architect of the peace treaty with Sparta.

What Alcibiades spent most on was chariot racing: he certainly had the credentials for it. This was a sport with intensely aristocratic associations, a game for the super-rich (comparable to today’s America’s Cup yacht race, for example). The competitor did not take part personally, so did not need to sully himself in the dusty stadium with his inferiors. It was not a physical competition but an economic one. The horses had to be bred and then sent, along with their retinue, half way across Greece to compete. The owner was also expected to organise feasts and hospitality, to erect magnificent pavilions and entertain prominent figures. Themistocles, who had led the Athenians to victory at Salamis, was said to have incurred ridicule by taking part in horse racing at the panhellenic festivals because he was not sufficiently well-born. Chariot racing was a competition of quality for men not just of enormous wealth but also of the right stock.

We know quite a lot about Alcibiades’ participation in the 416 festival: the fame and controversies it caused were to reverberate in court cases and speeches for years and from them we can reconstruct much of what happened.

Alcibiades had already notched up chariot victories at other major Greek festivals. Now, for the 416 Olympics, he began to plan a display the like of which had never been seen in the Greek world. He would enter seven chariots in the prestigious race and would match this sporting expenditure with a lavish entertainment that would eclipse that of his rivals.

The motivation for the ruinous expenditure Alcibiades planned was threefold. In the first place there was the chance of honour for himself, his family and his ancestors. Second, it would demonstrate the brilliance and sheer spending power of Athens, snatching the olive crown for the chariot race from the Spartans after the upset of 420 and ending their dominance of the event. Alcibiades, encouraging the Athenians to send a force to Sicily with him in command, tells them: ‘The Greeks regarded our city as greater, perhaps even in excess of its power, as a result of the magnificence of what I achieved at the Olympics, where they had previously thought that it had been worn down by the war.’

Finally, the victory would help establish his own political dominance in Athens. There is nothing to compare in the modern world, in the realm of sport or elsewhere, with the almost godlike status an ancient Olympic victor could achieve: not just fame, but kudos, a talismanic status, which led cities to appoint victors to military commands or found colonies, even, after their death, to establish cults in their honour. But it was a status that might just as easily lead to fear, suspicion and jealousy. We hear of many Olympic victors coming to a sticky end, not that this worried Alcibiades. An unforgettable Olympic victory would massively enhance his status in Athens, lead to preferment over his rival Nicias and make him a household name throughout the Greek world.

Raising the cash

To do all this Alcibiades needed money. An Olympic-quality chariot team seems to have cost more than five talents (a talent represents the wages of a skilled worker for nine years). Alcibiades put seven chariots into the running, enormously expensive in capital cost alone, leaving aside the logistical and personnel costs. Only a handful of individuals in the Greek world had such means.

To get this kind of money Alcibiades needed the assistance of others. His connections with the ultra-rich horse-racing family of Hipponicus, whose daughter Alcibiades had just married, doubtless helped him. Other wealthy Athenian friends and allies contributed. We know this because two of them later sued him, after his subsequent disgrace and exile. They alleged that Alcibiades entered teams belonging to other people as his own.

In addition he seems to have pioneered a kind of sponsorship, getting cities from Athens’ empire (or prominent citizens from within them) to help with costs. The Aegean city of Chios, for example, provided provisions for the horses.

Other cities provided the wherewithal for the lavish entertainment. Alcibiades needed in the first place a great pavilion – which the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor provided for him. There was no accommodation for the public at the Olympic festival in the fifth century BC and visitors had to camp as best they could – up to 80,000 of them in a tent city without sanitation or bathing facilities. So the ordinary citizens as well as rich individuals erected tents, which served as accommodation for themselves and their retinue and the site of their hospitality.

Next he sought offerings for the victory sacrifice, which would then provide the meat for the feast; these were provided by the inhabitants of Chios. Finally the wine and the other costs of the feast came from the island of Lesbos.

The motivation for this ‘sponsorship’ was probably the same as it is today – the association of one’s name with ‘Team Athens’ or ‘Team Alcibiades’. Today corporations sponsoring America’s cup teams pay five million dollars just to put their company mark on a spinnaker. For Alcibiades’ sponsors, however, the payback would not be in commercial benefit, but in political capital.

Singing his praises

The games were a triumph for Alcibiades. His expenditure, planning, innovation and, perhaps, sharp practice paid off. No other Greek before or after entered so many teams or ones of such quality. Not only did he win the chariot race but his teams also came second and fourth (or third, in one tradition).

Alcibiades’ celebrations and hospitality were on a similarly massive scale. From his pavilion he held a great feast, open to the whole festival. This seems to have taken place on the morning of the third day, the day after his chariot race victory. This was also the day of the procession and sacrifice to Zeus, the highpoint of the religious festival, attended by religious delegates from all the Greek cities, including Athens, culminating in the sacrifice of one hundred oxen at Zeus’s great ash altar. The slaughter was ‘watched’ by the great gold and ivory covered Zeus statue, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Alcibiades’ own victory sacrifice must have been on a scale to match the public sacrifice. As we have seen, the people of Chios provided the beasts, but Alcibiades also had help from the official Athenian delegation itself, who lent him the city’s own sacrificial vessels, the same ones used by the city in the panhellenic procession.

Finally, in celebration of his victory (and perhaps for performance at the Olympic feast itself), Alcibiades commissioned a Pindaric epinician ode, like the victors of old, allegedly composed by Euripides, a fragment of which survives:

I wonder at you, son of Kleinias. Fine is the victory, but the finest is, which no other of the Greeks has achieved, to run first and second and third with the chariot, and to go effortlessly, crowned with Zeus’s olive, to give the shout to the herald.

Money and sport

The Olympics took place in August 416. By early the following year the Athenians were already planning their expedition against Sicily and Alcibiades, exalted by the status of an Olympic victor, had himself elected one of its commanders. ‘My victory gives me a greater right than others to hold office’, he told the Athenians.

But the victory caused as much suspicion and fear as it did admiration. His enemies started to ask questions about how the victory and its celebration had been achieved.

In the first place there were concerns about how the money was raised. Modern spending concerns about the Olympics centre on a dislike of commercialisation, that sport should not be contaminated with money and a fear that the games will be dominated by corporations. The Greeks had no issues with festivals being funded by rich individuals (nor were they concerned about the funding of athletes through commercial means: they had no concept of amateurism). But they were concerned about the power and influence the elite funders would gain as a result. In Athens there was an established system to encourage and control civic spending by individuals (‘liturgies’). Indeed it was such a liturgy that funded the official Athenian religious delegation to the Olympics. Alcibiades’ spending at Olympia bypassed the liturgy system. Moreover his personal spending clearly exceeded that of Athens itself (the official civic delegation was a relatively small scale affair). His pavilion was ‘twice as big’ as that of the Athenian pavilion, according to his enemies. Far from demonstrating the power of the city, Alcibiades was eclipsing it. They also made the city look foolish before its allies and the Greek world. The cities who sponsored Alcibiades were supposed to be the subject-allies of Athens. At Olympia it looked like they were personally subject to Alcibiades.

People also asked uncomfortable questions about Alcibiades’ use of the Athenian sacred vessels for his own sacrifice. His enemies claimed that once again it showed Alcibiades usurping the city.

Those who did not know that the vessels were ours, thought that we were using his vessels, while those who had been told they were his, held us in ridicule, seeing one man more powerful than the whole city.

There was also the sheer scale of the personal expenditure and the evident effect of the victory on Alcibiades’ already unbearable ambition and ego. His rival Nicias urged the Athenians not to trust a man who spent on such an uncontrollable scale. For the historian Thucydides, Alcibiades’ expenditure was one of the main causes of the downfall of Athens. As a result of it and the attitude it suggested people began to fear he was aiming to make himself tyrant. Just before the Sicilian expedition set sail Alcibiades was implicated in the scandal of the mutilation of statues of Hermes and profanation of the sacred Eleusinian mysteries, which had been carried out in sacrilegious sport by Athenian drinking clubs. He was called to stand trial. Fearing he would not receive justice, he defected to the Spartans and was condemned and disgraced in absentia. Robbed of its guiding light and undermined by the information Alcibiades gave the Spartans, the Athenian expedition to Sicily was annihilated in 413.

Incredibly the Athenians survived the loss and held out against the Spartans and their allies for another 10 years. They were even persuaded to recall Alcibiades for a time as commander-in-chief. But finally in 404 BC the Spartans and their allies defeated Athens and dismantled the Athenian empire.

In 416 Alcibiades had put on a spectacular display of his own power and that of Athens, but the Athenians feared and resented his power and arrogance. Within three years he had been disgraced and exiled, the city’s power shattered. The Olympic festival had been shaped by and had helped to shape international politics. It is a story familiar to us today.

David Gribble is the author of Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (Oxford Classical Monographs, 1999).