Department of Greek & Latin


Literature and Athletics

Song was always a major part of Greek life and sung celebrations of athletic victories probably took place from the very first emergence of athletics. One catch-all song available for all occasions which remained popular was the brief hymn to Heracles popularly attributed to Archilochus (hurrah, triumphant, hail, Lord Herakles, yourself and Iolaos, the pair of warriors!). But perhaps as early as the middle of the sixth century, that is, as early as a generation after the arrival of the big four festivals, we find specially commissioned songs written by internationally distinguished poets. Athletic victories were commemorated in Victory Odes by Simonides, Pindar and Bacchylides (and there were probably as many or more second division poets who could be hired locally to turn out a decent song of praise) and commemorative Inscriptions. We also find echoes of this kind of song throughout tragedy, comedy and prose historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides.

The commissioned Victory Ode praises winners mainly at the grand Panhellenic Games (in Olympia, Nemea, Isthmos and Delphi) and is rich in mythical examples functioning as warnings against excessive behaviour on behalf of the winners. The Victory Ode had a surprising short life-span (about 100 years), arising because of the need to create lasting monuments to commemorate athletic victories and disappearing (or evolving into something else?) following a series of political and cultural changes.

" Xenophanes fr. 2.1-12, Xenophanes complains about the rewards the athletes receive: What if a man wins a victory by the swiftness of his feet or by participating in the pentathlon, in Olympia, where the temple of Zeus is near the springs of Pisa? What if he seems more glorious to the citizens either by fearful boxing, or by taking place to that horrible contest called pankration? What if he receives the privilege of sitting at the front seat in the contests, and he gets his food at public cost, and a gift that he might hold as a treasure? What if he wins at a chariot-race? If he obtains all that, he will not be as worthy as I am. For my wisdom is better than the might of men or horses. 
" Herodotus 5.47, reference to Olympic Winners: Philip the son of Boutakides from Croton, followed Dorieus and died with him. He was betrothed to the daughter of Telys from Sybaris, but he was banished from Croton and, cheated from his marriage, he sailed to Kyrene, and setting out from there he followed Dorieus with his own trireme and covering himself the expenses of his men. He was an Olympic victor and the most handsome Greek of his time. For his beauty the Egestans gave him honours that no one else had received. For on his tomb they set up a hero's shrine and they offered him sacrifices to appease him. 
" Sophocles Trachiniae 503-6: But when this bride was to be won, which rivals participated in the contest for her wedding, who came forward for a contest full of blows and dust? 
" Sophocles Trachiniae 520-2: There were intertwined wrestler's moves, there were deadly strokes on foreheads and groaning from both sides. 
" Pausanias 6.7.4, reference to Olympic Winners:Dorieus, son of Diagoras, apart from his Olympic victories, he won eight victories at the Isthmian Games, and seven at the Nemean Games. It is also said that he had won a Pythian victory without effort. 
" Extracts from Victory Odes praising victorious athletes: Pindar, Olympian 1.8-17: From there the excellent hymn is cast like a net over the wisdom of poeta, so that they sing of the son of Cronus when they arrive at the wealthy, blessed hearth of Hieron, who sways the sceptre of law in Sicily with many flocks, reaping the best part of every excellence, and is adorned with the flower of music, which we men often play around his hospitable table. 
" Pindar Olympian 4.12-16: May the god be kindly to his future prayers. Because I praise him who is zealous in breeding horses, who rejoices in being hospitable to all guests, and whose pure disposition is turned to city-loving peace. 
" Pindar Olympian 7.77-88: This sweet reward for his toil is established for Tlepolemus the first leader of the Tirynthians, as if for a god: a procession of flocks full of steam of burnt sacrifice and a judgement of contests. With the flowers that Diagoras was crowned twice, and four times at the famous Insthmus being in good fortune, and at Nemea more and more and at rocky Athnens. And the prize of bronze got to know him, and the works of art in Arcadia and in Thebes, and the lawful contests of the Boeotians, and Pellana and Aegina where he won six times. In Megara the decree written on stone gives no other account. But, father Zeus ruler over the ridges of Atabyrion, honour the song ordained for the Olympic winner, a man who found excellence in boxing, and give him revered grace both from the citizens and from foreigners. 
" Pindar Olympian 9.1-9: The song of Archilochus that sounds in Olympia, the triumphant hymn, thrice exulted loudly, sufficed to lead Epharmostos revelling with his friends and comrades to the hill of Cronus. But now, from the far-shooting bows of the Muses, sent the song to Zeus who hurls red lightning-bolts and on the sacred peak of Elis with these arrows, which the Lydian hero Pelops won once as the best dowry of Hippodameia. 
" Pindar Olympian 10.16-21: Let Hagesidamus, who was a victorious boxer at Olympia, offer thanks as Patroklos did to Achilles. A man can excite another man born for excellence to set out to mighty fame with the help of the god. 
" Pindar, Isthmian 4.55-61: Heracles went to Olympus, after exploring all the lands and the hollow bed of grey sea with the high cliffs, after taming the straights for sailing. Now he lives in bliss by Zeus that bears the Aegis, and is honoured as a friend by the immortals, and has taken Hebe as his wife, he is lord of a golden palace and the son-in-law of Hera. 
" Pindar, Nemean 3.1-8: Revered Muse, our mother, I beseech you, come in the Nemean sacred month to the much-visited Dorian island of Aegina. For near the waters of Asopos young men, craftsmen of melodious songs, are waiting, searching for your voice. Different deeds thirst for different things. Victory in the games loves song above everything, the most fortunate attendant of garlands and excellences. 
" Pindar Nemean 5.1-5: I am not a sculptor, to create statues that stand motionless on a base. Go on every ship and boat that leaves Aegina, o sweet song, and announce that Pytheas the mighty son of Lampon has won the garland of victory in the pankration at the Nemean games... 
" Pindar Pythian 1.29-38: May it be so, Zeus, whatever may please you, you who frequent this mountain, the forehead of the fruitful earth, whose namesake neighbouring city the renowned founder exalted, when the herald in the Pythian race called aloud the name of Aetna, when he announced the triumph of Hieron in the chariot-race. For seafaring men setting out to sail, the first kindness is a favourable wind: for then it is likely that they will also get a better return home at the end of their journey. And that saying, in these prosperous circumstances, brings the expectation that in the future the city will be renowned in garlands and horses and its name will be famous in sweetly-sung festivities. 
" Pindar Pythian10.57-63: And I hope that, when the Ephyraeans pour forth my sweet voice around Peneius, with my songs I will make Hippocleus even more admirable to the boys his age and the older ones, and beloved to the girls. 
" Bacchylides 3.94-8: Hieron, you have demonstrated to mortals the most beautiful flowers of happiness. For the man who has succeeded silence is no ornament. With the truth of beautiful deeds, a man will also sing the grace of honey-tongued Keian nightingale. Bacchylides 5.6-16: Stop your righteous-judging mind from caring, reflect on this, your guest from the famous island sends to your renowned city a hymn woven together with the deep-girded Graces, the famed servant of Ourania with the gold headband. And he wishes to pour forth his hearth from his chest, to praise Hieron. 
" Bacchylides 9.21-41: From those glorious games in Nemea, the mortal men who crown their blond hair with a three-year-old garlands, are renowned. Now a god has given it to the victorious Automedon. For he distinguished himself among the pentathletes, like the bright full-moon outshines the light of the stars. Being such he demonstrated his extraordinary body among the vast circle of the Greeks, throwing the round discus, and he stirred a shout from the people, when he sent forth from his hand high up in the sky the branch of the dark-leaved elder-tree, or when he performed the quick movement at the last wrestling match. With such daring power he brought strong bodies to the earth, then he went to the dark-whirling waters of Asopos, whose renown has come to every land, even the farthest parts of the Nile. 
" Euripides' Victory Ode for Alcibiades [Poetae Melici Graeci 755]: I admire you, son of Kleinias; your victory is a beautiful thing, but the most beautiful thing, which no other Greek man has achieved, you have achieved, to be first, second and third in the chariot-race, and to go without struggle, crowned with the olive laurel of Zeus, to make the herald cry your name aloud.