Politics and Athletics in Ancient Greece

In his Anacharsis, the rhetorician Lucian described the value that the ancient Greeks placed on athletics. He claimed that various athletic competitions in Ancient Greece were fundamental in training men to become good citizens and preparing them for both times of peace and war, thereby benefiting the “chief good of the public and the supreme felicity of the state.” In addition to this belief, the ancient Greeks also held the views that victory in athletics allowed individuals to gain and demonstrate important Greek values such as arete (a person’s might, power, and skill) and kleos (one’s glory, honor, and renown).

In addition, victory in elite athletic contests such as the Crown games also brought honor and prestige to the victor’s city-state. These values also transferred to other aspects of an individual’s life including fighting on the battlefield during wartime and demonstrating their political capabilities. Political leaders and rulers were expected to have arete and kleos in order to be the considered the most capable and worthy to rule.

Athletics in Ancient Greece provided a stage for political leaders to demonstrate their arete and prove their right to rule either through competition or sponsorship of athletic contests. In addition, event such as the Crown Games allowed prominent Greek leaders to display their authority and address current political issues on a panhellenic scale.

In the 4th century BCE, prominent Greek orators began advocating for the ideas of panhellenic unity, often with the purpose of waging war against the Persian Empire and expanding into Asia.

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Orators including Gorgias, Lysias, and Isocrates all used the Olympic Crown Games as a platform in order to present and advocate their ideas on a panhellenic scale. The ideal of panhellenic unity among the Greek city-states was first explicitly stated by the orator Gorgias in his Olympic Oration. According to Philostratus, Gorgias’ oration was an attempt to “turn [the Greeks] energies against the barbarians and to persuade them not to regard one another’s cities as the prize to be won by their arms, but rather the land of the barbarians.” By using the games at Olympia which were themselves panhellenic, Gorgias was able to address the Greeks as a whole rather than by the individual city-states (although he would later address Athens alone in his Funeral Oration) and more fully advocate the idea of an united Greece. Similar to Gorgias was the orator Lysias who delivered his Olympic Oration in 388 BCE, at the end of the Corinthian War. As only fragments have survived from his oration, what is known of his speech is taken from the two pages which have survived. It is implied that Lysias’ discusses an expedition against the Persians, similar to what Gorgias had discussed. It is also suggested that Lysias is primarily addressing Sparta in an attempt to cease their fighting with Thebes and Athens.

Isocrates, the most famous of the three orators discussed, produced his Panegyricus in 380 BCE at Olympia. The ideas he presented (a dual hegemony between Sparta and Athens for the purpose of fighting Persia) were not new to the Greeks, as both Gorgias and Lysias had already addressed the subject in previous Olympic games. However, Philostratus states that though “it had been compiled from the works of Gorgias on the same subject,” it was the finest argument made on the subject. Despite the repeated arguments made on the subject, Greece ultimately failed to unite until Philip II of Macedon managed to conquer the various city-states after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE.

Although the orators were unsuccessful in their attempts to achieve panhellenic unity, their orations do show that events like the games at Olympia, offered the Greeks opportunities to debate and discuss current political issues on a panhellenic scale. In addition, other political leaders also used the Crown Games as a platform to address the Greeks. Rulers such as Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great used Olympia as a stage to augment their authority and right to rule as well as to demonstrate their power to the Greeks.

Following the battle of Chaeronea, Philip commissioned the Philippeion to be built inside the Altis at Olympia. According to Pausanias, the Philippeion was a round and “made up of burnt brick and surrounded by columns.” Inside of the Philippeion were statues of Philip, his son Alexander, his parents Amyntas and Eurydice, and Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Building the Philippeion inside the Altis was a powerful show of authority and prestige on Philip’s part. The Altis was an important part of the sanctuary at Olympia, reserved for the monuments of the gods, heroes, and athletic victors at the Olympian games. By placing the Philippeion inside the Altis, Philip not only connected himself and his family to the gods and victors that were already there but also laid claim to the arete and kleos that was normally reserved for athletic victors, gods and heroes.

Likewise, Alexander the Great also used the games at Olympia to display his power and prestige to all of Greece. In 324 BCE at the 114th Olympiad, Alexander announced his Exiles Decree which effectively forced the Greek city-states to allow 20,000 political exiles to return to their home cities either in harmony or by force if necessary. In addition to his Exiles Decree, Alexander also announced at the same Olympiad that he be accorded divine honors by the Greeks. Both decrees were a blatant show of Alexander’s control and power over the Greek city-states. While not part of the games themselves, both the Philippeion and Alexander’s decrees demonstrate the role that the Olympic games played in both Philip and Alexander’s political policies. By connecting themselves to the Crown Games, the Macedonian rulers are able to display their political power and demonstrate their authority over the Greeks on a level that addresses all of the city-states on a panhellenic stage.

Throughout the Fourth Century there are several examples of the various ways that the games at Olympia were used to address the Greeks on a panhellenic scale. From Gorgias at the beginning of the century to Alexander after the fall of Greece, prominent political leaders and rulers used the platform provided by panhellenic athletics to address political issues, augment their authority, and display their power to the Greek city-states. In addition to using the games as a stage to address the Greeks, political leaders also used athletics themselves, namely victories on the athletic field, as well as sponsorship of various events to demonstrate their personal arete and kleos and prove their ability to rule.

Victory was an important aspect of Ancient Greek culture. Both on the battlefield and the athletic stage, becoming associated with victory and thereby becoming associated with both arete and kleos allowed specific individuals to further themselves in other aspects of Greek life, primarily on a political platform. Arete and kleos, while often associated with athletics, were applicable in all aspects of Greek life, including politics. Arete displayed an individual’s power, might, and prestige while kleos provided one with renown and glory. By gaining arete and kleos in athletic victories, individuals were also able to prove themselves capable of claiming and maintaining positions of political power. Also, by accumulating victories they were also able to increase their reputation and prestige as well as provide an individual with more political potential.

One such example is the Athenian Alcibiades. In 416 BCE, Alcibiades entered the chariot race at Olympia with seven chariots and won first, second, and fourth place in the same event. The following year in 415, Alcibiades argued that he should lead the Athenian expedition to Sicily rather than Nicias. He argued that his victories from the chariot races brought glory to both himself and Athens. He also claimed that his victory enhanced Athens’ prestige and position in Greece as well as his own. Although the expedition failed spectacularly, Alcibiades provides an excellent example of how victory in the Crown Games could augment an individual’s prestige and provide political opportunities.

The Macedonian rulers provide another example of the opportunities that the Crown games afforded their victors. According to Herodotus, Alexander I of Macedon attempted to compete in the Olympic games but was rejected based on the fact that he wasn’t considered a Greek but a barbarian. To dispute this, Alexander claimed that he was one of the Argeads who claimed to have descended from Herakles. He was then allowed to compete in the games and, according to Herodotus, came in first place. While it has been debated whether or not Alexander I actually competed in the Olympics it is important to note that later Agread kings competed in the games at Olympia without debate, which shows that their claim to be descended from Herakles and therefore Greek was accepted. More importantly, it shows that Alexander I and his descendants were unquestionably Greek, and they were no longer required to prove their ethnicity. As a result, when Philip of Macedon and later Alexander the Great conquered the rest of Greece they were able to claim Greek ethnicity to support their right to rule.

Further, Philip of Macedon also competed in the Crown games at Olympia. According to Plutarch, Philip won a victory in the chariot races at Olympia not long after he had captured Potidaea. Plutarch also claims that Philip took pride in his athletic victory and “took care to have the victories won by his chariots at Olympia stamped upon his coins.” According to W. Lindsay Adams, the coins that portrayed his victories became an icon of his reign, which shows that Philip’s success at Olympia was an important part of his political ambitions. Philip’s victories in athletics granted him the arete and kleos that he needed to augment his authority and prestige among the rest of Greece.

While victory at the Crown games provided political leaders with prestige and power to claim the right to rule, competing in athletics also included inherent risks that could potentially damage a ruler’s political position, namely the risk of defeat. By competing against common citizens, rulers risked losing their arete and potentially threated their right to rule if they were defeated. While victory could bring about political potential and augmented an individual’s authority, defeat could cause a loss of authority and respect from the citizens. Xenophon actively advised the tyrant Hieron from competing in athletic events as defeat to a common citizen could inspire ridicule from the people and even success could potentially bring about envy instead of prestige.

Alexander the Great, for example, refused to compete in the Crown Games. Plutarch reported that when asked if he would compete at Olympia like his father he famously replied, “Yes…if I have kings to run against me.” W. Lindsey Adams argues that the story of Alexander’s refusal is most likely false given that he “had a lifelong love of athletics which was demonstrated throughout his campaigns in Asia…and one would be hard pressed to find an Olympiad which would fit the circumstances.” Whether or not Alexander actually refused to compete in the games or he just simply never had the opportunity to compete, it should be noted that Alexander does seem to be interested in athletics, as Adams argued. Also, Plutarch does mention that Alexander was interested enough in “fighting with the quarter-staff and various forms of hunting” that he founded contests for others to compete in. Finally, Plutarch recounts that after landing in Asia at Troy, Alexander made sacrifices to the gods and “smeared himself with oil and ran a race naked with his companions” at the tomb of Achilles, in order to honor the hero. Despite not competing at Olympia, it is unlikely that Alexander disliked athletic contests, rather it is more likely that like Xenophon claimed, the risk of defeat outweighed the positives that came from victory.

Competing in athletic contests was only one way for rulers to gain arete and kleos and augment their authority. By sponsoring athletic games, political leaders were able to claim the arete that came with the association of victory without having the inherent risk of defeat that they otherwise would have faced when competing against common citizens. The model for sponsoring athletic contests was first laid out by Homer. In book 23 of the Iliad, Achilles sponsors the funeral games for Patroclus. When he first announces the funeral games to the others, Achilles also explains that he will not be competing but rather overseeing the contests and handing out the prizes. However, he does also claim that if he were to compete he would “surely walk off to my tent with the prize.” By sponsoring the games, Achilles is able to safely avoid risking defeat from any of his would-be competitors while still being able to boast the skill set to win any of the contests. As a result, Achilles is able to gain the prestige and honor that is associated with the victors of the contests while never risking defeat and the subsequent loss of prestige that would have followed.

In addition to gaining arete through sponsorship, rulers were also able to take on qualities that were normally attributed to the gods. Most significant was the ability to confer victory on an athlete. Homer’s tale of Patroclus’ funeral games emphasizes this ability as throughout the Iliad the gods routinely involve themselves by aiding specific characters to achieve victory. For example, Athena becomes helps Odysseus win the footrace by making Ajax trip and fall. In comparison, during the wrestling match between Odysseus and Ajax, Achilles intervenes before any of the gods can determine who will be the victor. Rather, Achilles stops the match and states that both athletes can claim victory and the prizes for first place.

In another example, after the Peloponnesian War ended, Plutarch claimed that Lysander was considered one of the most powerful and influential Spartans of the time . The citizens of Samos founded the Lysandreia, a festival in honor of Lysander, which he also presided over and distributed prizes to at least some of the victors. By doing so at the height of his power, his sponsorship of the festival only further augments Lysander’s power and prestige at the time. In addition, Greek citizens performed sacrifices and built alters to him, acting as if he were one of the gods. Similar to Achilles, Lysander takes on characteristics of the gods by presiding over the games. Lysander seems to have gone a step further as well, by having a festival founded in his honor, and having sacrifices performed for him both actions which were normally used to honor the gods .

Jason of Pherae, the Tagos of Thessaly, was given the right to oversee the Pythian Games and planned to do so prior to his assassination. Likewise, in 346/5, Philip II of Macedon was also able to preside over the Pythian Games at Delphi after the Third Sacred War had ended. By presiding over the Pythian Games (or in Jason’s case having the authority to preside over them) lent both leaders power and prestige as it displayed their political authority and influence over the Delphic Amphictyony .

Furthermore, throughout his campaigns in Asia, Alexander the Great sponsored and presided over fifteen athletic games. Although as mentioned above, he avoided from competing in contests himself, his athletic games served several purposes in regards to his armies. According to W. Linsday Adams, the athletic games fell into several different categories, including funeral games, victory celebrations, entertainment, military practice prior to battles, and also as a way to relax after long marches and boos the soldiers’ morale. According to Arrian, it was Alexander’s “custom to offer sacrifice…to celebrate the happy occasion. He also held a festival with literary and athletic contests.” By using the phrasing “as it was his custom” Arrian implies that Alexander routinely held athletic contests for his friends and soldiers throughout his campaigns. By doing so, Alexander used athletic contests as part of his political policies throughout his campaign in order to strengthen and unite his army more fully.

In addition, Alexander uses his contests to install a sense of victory among his men. Plutarch states that “he showed no interest in offering prizes either for boxing or for the pancration.” Similar to Lycurgus of Sparta, who also looked down on those particular contests for they required one of the contenders to accept defeat, Alexander hoped to condition his army to won that had victory at the center of its values. Also, by sponsoring and presiding over these games Alexander associated himself further with victory all way maintaining a way to distance himself from defeat.

Political leaders were required to have Greek values such as arete and kleos in order to be considered capable of maintaining political authority. As such, political leaders used athletic competitions as a way to demonstrate their right to rule as well as to augment their authority often either through competing in the contests or by sponsoring or presiding over the games. In addition, elite events such as the crown games allowed prominent Greek leaders to address current political issues on a panhellenic scale as well as augment their authority and display their power to the entirety of Greece.

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Politics and Athletics in Ancient Greece. (2021, Apr 01). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/politics-and-athletics-in-ancient-greece-essay

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