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date: 22 January 2018


(1) The term agōn (ἀγών‎) and its derivatives can denote the informal and extempore competitive struggles and rivalries that permeated Greek life in the general fight for success and survival (cf. Hes. Op. 11–26), especially philosophical, legal, and public debates; action between opposing sides in war; medical disputes. Competitive behaviour in this last area is illustrated by the Hippocratic work (see hippocrates (2)) On Joints, which at one point (Art.70) envisages a medical assistant, in his struggle to realign a dislocated thigh, enjoying an agōn or contest with the patient (cf. also Art. 58: medical rivalry in producing prognoses). A corollary of the agonistic drive was the prominence as a motive for action of philotimia (love of honour), which could turn into over-ambition and jealous rivalry, and, in its worst form, lead to stasis (strife) and political upheaval (cf. Pind. fr. 210 Snell–Maehler; Thuc. 3. 82. 8).

(2) Gatherings of people, usually for formal contests in honour of a god or local hero.

Before 300 bce

Prior to the 8th cent. bce they seem to have been small-scale events, centring round a shrine or sanctuary. But the agōn at Olympia came to acquire a special status: traditionally founded in 776 bce, by the end of the 8th cent. it was, because of the wide range of athletics contests it offered and its lack of political ties, attracting increasing numbers of foreigners (especially from among the athletic Spartans) and was organized as a Panhellenic agōn (see olympian games; panhellenism). With interstate relationships assuming increased importance during the 7th cent., local agōnes were reorganized at other places too. The Pythian Games became Panhellenic in 582 bce; its range of athletics events followed the Olympian model, but it preserved its identity and associations with Apollo through its emphasis on musical competitions. With the reorganization of the Isthmian (c.581) and Nemean Games (c.573), a group of four Panhellenic agōnes came to form an athletics circuit (periodos), as the Olympics, World Championships, European, and Commonwealth Games do for some athletes nowadays. At Athens the Great Panathenaea (founded 566) was also Panhellenic, but for athletes never achieved the status of the other four. Despite this development, local agōnes with athletics contests continued to flourish: Pindar's victory-odes mention more than 20 local games (cf. Ol. 13. 107–13; also Simon. Epig. 43 Page), and a 5th-cent. Laconian inscription records 72 victories won by Damonon and his son Enymacratidas at eight agōnes in the Peloponnese (IG 5. 1. 213, trans. Sweet 145–6: see bibliog. below).

Contests were often in athletics, but music, poetry, and equestrian events were also popular. Hesiod won a poetry-singing competition in Chalcis (Op.657); the Pythian Games included three types of musical contest (singing to the accompaniment of cithara or aulos, and solo aulos) and a painting competition (Plin. HN 35. 58). In Athens tragedies, comedies, and dithyrambs (choral songs) were performed in competitions at the City Dionysia, and at the Panathenaea rhapsodes competed in Homer-reciting contests. Horse- and chariot-races were mainly entered by wealthy individuals who paid charioteers or jockeys to ride on their behalf, and hoped for political prestige from good performances (cf. Alcibiades' boast, Thuc. 6. 16. 2). The chariot-race was often long (about 14 km. (nearly 9 mi.) at the Olympian Games) and dangerous (Pind. Pyth. 5. 49–51: the victor was the only one of 40 starters to finish with chariot intact). Beauty contests, drinking contests, and even a wool-carding contest are also recorded.

At the four major Panhellenic agōnes, victors were honoured with a wreath: olive at Olympia, laurel at the Pythian Games, varieties of selinon (parsley or celery) at the Isthmus and Nemea (but cf. hyp. c Nem., hyp. b Isthm.; Paus. 8. 48. 2). At other venues wreaths were made of date-palms (Paus. 8. 48. 2) or myrtle (Pind. Isthm. 4. 88). The victor might also be showered with leaves (phyllobolia). On returning home he could receive more substantial rewards: free meals (sitēsis), the privilege of a front seat (prohedria) when spectating at agōnes, and gifts. Athens was especially generous to victors: Solon passed legislation to award Athenian victors at Olympia 500 drachmae (Plut. Sol. 23; monetary prizes are however anachronistic at this early date—see coinage, greek), and at the Great Panathenaea in the 4th cent. bce money, gold crowns, bulls, and large numbers of amphorae containing olive oil were awarded as prizes (IG 22. 2311, trans. Miller 80–3 (see bibliog. below); 100 amphorae, c.4,000 l. (880 gal.), for a victor in the men's stadion race, a very valuable prize). Local agōnes also awarded prizes: silver cups at Sicyon (Pind. Nem. 10. 43), a bronze shield at Argos (1), and a thick cloak at Pellene (Pind. Ol. 7. 83, 9. 97–8).

To lose in a contest was shameful, and the incidence of failure-induced depression and mental illness is likely to have been high (cf. Pind. Ol. 8. 68–9, Pyth. 8. 81–7; Paus. 6. 9. 6).

After 300 bce

The spread of ‘periodic’ contests in the Greek style is a defining feature of post-Classical Hellenism. In the 3rd and 2nd cents. bce they were sponsored by kings (the Alexandrian Ptolemaea and Pergamene Nicephoria) and leagues (the Soteria of Delphi, by the Aetolian Confederacy) as well as cities great and small (e.g. the plethora of Boeotian agōnes by c.50 bce: A. Gossage, BSA1975, 115 ff.). Under the Roman Principate this expansion continued; provincial cities founded new games as late as ce 275–6; by the 3rd cent. they were celebrated from Carthage to Zeugma. Beginning with Augustus (see neapolis; nicopolis (3)), Roman emperors became major patrons of agōnes.Nero introduced them at Rome, with later foundations by Domitian, Gordian III, and Aurelian (the agōn of Sol, 274). Frowned on by Christianity, Greek games (shorn of pagan ritual) none the less survived until at least 521, when Justinian banned the Olympia of Antioch (1).

The distinctiveness of ‘sacred’ games, celebrating a deity (often poliad or, under Rome, the ruler-cult) and (at first) offering only a symbolic prize (typically a crown, stephanos), is fundamental. In the Hellenistic age the recognition of new ‘sacred’ games required cumbersome interstate diplomacy by the promoter (best attested with the Leucophryena of Magnesia (1) ad Maeandrum (I. Magn. 16–87)). From 30 bce Roman emperors decided ‘the gift of a sacred contest’, weighing up cost, a city's record of loyalty and, in 3rd-cent. Cilicia, its support for imperial troop-movements. An élite group of ‘iselastic’ games emerged, often named after one of the famous games of the ‘ancient circuit’ (archaia periodos), and distinctive for the privileges which victors could demand of their home cities, notably a triumphal entry, pension (opsonion, suntaxis), and tax-immunity (ateleia). Otherwise there were prize-games (thematitai, themides), also subject to Roman control.

‘Sacred’ contests comprised a sacrifice, to which other Greek cities sent representatives (theōroi or more often, under Rome, synthutai), and a profane festival (panēgyris), often incorporating markets and fairs, as well as the contests proper, supervised by an agōnothetēs. Funding of new contests relied heavily on civic euergetism; infrequently emperors stepped in—notably Hadrian who also drastically reorganized the schedule of iselastic games to accommodate his new festivals in Athens and elsewhere (AE (2006), 1403a-c). From the 2nd cent. ce the pantomime, and from the 3rd the mime, joined the more traditional events.

Supported by the imperial state, agōnes were absorbed into the Graeco-Roman cultural synthesis. Elite Greeks still sought athletic success; the world of agōnes, past and present, is a prominent theme among Greek writers of the Second Sophistic. See athletics; comedy (greek); music; theoroi; tragedy, greek.



L. Moretti, Iscrizioni agonistiche greche (1953).Find this resource:

W. Sweet, Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook with Translations (1987).Find this resource:

M. Wörrle, Stadt und Fest in kaiserzeitlichen Kleinasien (1989): major Hadrianic inscription from Oenoanda.Find this resource:

S. Mitchell, ‘Festivals, Games, and Civic Life in Roman Asia Minor’ in Journal of Roman Studies, 1990 183 ff. (Eng. trans. of Wörrle).Find this resource:

S. Miller (ed.), Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources 2nd edn. (1991).Find this resource:

Modern literature

L. Robert, Opera Minora Selecta 6 (1984), 709–19.Find this resource:

D. Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics (1984).Find this resource:

O. Van Nijf in S. Goldhill (ed.), Being Greek under Rome (2001), 306–34.Find this resource:

C. Morgan and S. Hornblower (eds.), Pindar's Poetry, Patrons and Festivals, from Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire (2007).Find this resource:

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