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p166 Athletae

Unsigned article on pp166‑168 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ATHLETAE (ἀθληταί, ἀθλητῆρες), were persons who contended in the public games of the Greeks and Romans for the prizes (ἄθλα, whence the name of ἀθληταί), which were given to those who conquered in contests of agility and strength. This name was, in the later period of Grecian history and among the Romans, properly confined to those persons who entirely devoted themselves to a course of training which might fit them to excel p167in such contests, and who, in fact, made athletic exercises their profession. The athletae differed, therefore, from the agonistae (ἀγωνισταί), who only pursued gymnastic exercises for the sake of improving their health and bodily strength, and who, though they sometimes contended for the prizes in the public games, did not devote their whole lives, like the athletae, to preparing for these contests. In early times there does not appear to have been any distinction between the athletae and agonistae; since we find that many individuals, who obtained prizes at the great national games of the Greeks, were persons of considerable political importance, who were never considered to pursue athletic exercises as a profession. Thus we read that Phayllus, of Crotona, who had thrice conquered in the Pythian games, commanded a vessel at the battle of Salamis (Herod. VIII.47; Paus. X.9 §1); and that Dorieus, of Rhodes, who had obtained the prize in all of the four great festivals, was celebrated in Greece for his opposition to the Athenians (Paus. VI.7 §1, 2). But as the individuals, who obtained the prizes in these games, received great honours and rewards, not only from their fellow-citizens, but also from foreign states, those persons who intended to contend for the prizes made extraordinary efforts to prepare themselves for the contest; and it was soon found that, unless they subjected themselves to a severer course of training than was afforded by the ordinary exercises of the gymnasia, they would not have any chance of gaining the victory. Thus arose a class of individuals, to whom the term athletae was appropriated, and who became, in course of time, the only persons who contended in the public games.

Athletae were first introduced at Rome, B.C. 186, in the games exhibited by M. Fulvius, on the conclusion of the Aetolian war (Liv. XXXIX.22). Aemilius Paulus, after the conquest of Perseus, B.C. 167, is said to have exhibited games at Amphipolis, at which athletae contended (Liv. XLV.32). A certamen athletarum (Val. Max. II.4 §7) was also exhibited by Scaurus, in B.C. 59; and among the various games with which Julius Caesar gratified the people, we read of a contest of athletae, which lasted for three days, and which was exhibited in a temporary stadium in the Campus Martius (Suet. Jul. 39). Under the Roman emperors, and especially under Nero, who was passionately fond of the Grecian games, the number of athletae increased greatly in Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor; and many inscriptions respecting them have come down to us, which show that professional athletae were very numerous, and that they enjoyed several privileges. They formed at Rome a kind of corporation, and possessed a tabularium, and a common hall — curia athletarum (Orelli, Inscrip. 2588), in which they were accustomed to deliberate on all matters which had a reference to the interests of the body. We find that they were called Herculanei, and also xystici, because they were accustomed to exercise, in winter, in a covered place called xystus (Vitruv. VI.10);º and that they had a president, who was called xystarchus, and also ἀρχιερεύς.

Those athletae who conquered in any of the great national festivals of the Greeks were called hieronicae (ἱερονῖκαι), and received, as has been already remarked, the greatest honours and rewards. Such a conqueror was considered to confer honour upon the state to which he belonged; he entered his native city in triumph, through a breach made in the walls for his reception, to intimate, says Plutarch, that the state which possessed such a citizen had no occasion for walls. He usually passed through the walls in a chariot drawn by four white horses, and went along the principal street of the city to the temple of the guardian deity of the state, where hymns of victory were sung. Those games, which gave the conquerors the right of such an entrance into the city, were called iselastici (from εἰσελαύνειν). This term was originally confined to the four great Grecian festivals, the Olympian, Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian; but was afterwards applied to other public games, as, for instance, to those instituted in Asia Minor (Suet. Ner. 25; Dion Cass. LXIII.20; Plut. Symp. II.5 §2; Plin. Ep. X.119, 120). In the Greek states the victors in these games not only obtained the greatest glory and respect, but also substantial rewards. They were generally relieved from the payment of taxes, and also enjoyed the first seat (προεδρία) in all public games and spectacles. Their statues were frequently erected at the cost of the state, in the most frequented part of the city, as the market-place, the gymnasia, and the neighbourhood of the temples (Paus. VI.13 §1, VII.17 §3). At Athens, according to a law of Solon, the conquerors in the Olympic games were rewarded with a prize of 500 drachmae, and the conquerors in the Isthmian, with one of 100 drachmae (Diog. Laërt. I.55; Plut. Sol. 23); and at Sparta they had the privilege of fighting near the person of the king (Plut. Lyc. 22). The privileges of the athletae were preserved and increased by Augustus (Suet. Aug. 45); and the following emperors appear to have always treated them with considerable favour. Those who conquered in the games called iselastici received, in the time of Trajan, a sum from the state, termed opsonia (Plin. Ep. X.119, 120; compare Vitruv. IX. Praef.).a By a rescript of Diocletian and Maximian, these athletae who had obtained in the sacred games (sacri certaminis, by which is probably meant the iselastici ludi) not less than three crowns, and had not bribed their antagonists to give them the victory, enjoyed immunity from all taxes (Cod. 10 tit. 53).

The term athletae, though sometimes applied metaphorically to other combatants, was properly limited to those who contended for the prize in the five following contests:— 1. Running (δρόμος, cursus). 2. Wrestling (πάλη, lucta). 3. Boxing (πύγμη, pugilatus). 4. The pentathlon (πένταθλον), or, as the Romans called it, quinquertium. 5. The pancratium (παγκράτιον). Of all these an account is given in separate articles. [Stadium; Lucta; Pugilatus; Pentathlon; Pancratium.] These contests were divided into two kinds — the severe (βαρέα, βαρύτερα), and the light (κοῦφα, κουφότερα). Under the former were included wrestling, boxing, and the exercises of the pancratium, which consisted of wrestling and boxing combined, and was also called pammachion; and under the latter, running, and the separate parts of the pentathlon, such as leaping, throwing the discus, &c. (Plat. Leg. VII. p833, Euthyd. p271).

Great attention was paid to the training of the athletae. They were generally trained in the palaestrae, which, in the Grecian states, were distinct places from the gymnasia, though they p168have been frequently confounded by modern writers. [Palaestra.] Their exercises were superintended by the gymnasiarch (γυμνασιάρχης), and their diet was regulated by the aliptes (ἀλείπτης). [Aliptae.] According to Pausanias (VI.7 §3), the athletae did not anciently eat meat, but principally lived upon fresh cheese (τυρὸν ἐκ τῶν ταλάρων); and Diogenes Laërtius (VIII.12, 13) informs us that their original diet consisted of dried figs (ἰσξάσι ξηραίς), moist or new cheese (τυροῖς ὑγροῖς), and wheat (πυροῖς). The eating of meat by the athletae is said, according to some writers (Paus. l.c.), to have been first introduced by Dromeus of Stymphalus, in Arcadia; and, according to others, by the philosopher Pythagoras, or by an aliptes of that name (Diog. Laërt. l.c.). According to Galen (De Val. Tuend. III.1), the athletae, who practised the severe exercises (βαρεῖς ἀθληταί), ate pork and a particular kind of bread; and from a remark of Diogenes the Cynic (Diog. Laërt. VI.49), it would appear that in his time beef and pork formed the ordinary diet of the athletae. Beef is also mentioned by Plato (De Rep. I. p338) as the food of the athletae; and a writer quoted by Athenaeus (IX. p402C‑D) relates that a Theban who lived upon goats' flesh became so strong, that he was enabled to overcome all the athletae of his time. At the end of the exercises of each day, the athletae were obliged to take a certain quantity of food, which was usually called ἀναγκοφαγία and ἀναγκοτροφία, or βίαιος τροφης (Arist. Pol. VIII.4); after which, they were accustomed to sleep for a long while. The quantity of animal food which some celebrated athletae, such as Milo, Theagenes, and Astydamas, are said to have eaten, appears to us quite incredible (Athen. X. pp412, 413). The food which they ate was usually dry, and is called by Juvenal coliphia (II.53).

The athletae were anointed with oil by the aliptae, previously to entering the palaestra and contending in the public games, and were accustomed to contend naked. In the description of the games given in the twenty-third book of the Iliad (l. 685, 710), the combatants are said to have worn a girdle about their loins; and the same practice, as we learn from Thucydides (I.6), anciently prevailed at the Olympic games, but was discontinued afterwards.

This subject is one of such extent that nothing but an outline can here be given; further particulars are contained in the articles Isthmia, Nemea, Olympia, and Pythia; and the whole subject is treated most elaborately by Krause, Die Gymnastik und Agonistik der Hellenen, Leipzig, 1841.


Thayer's Note:

a opsonia: More generally, the word opsonium (Greek opsonion) had been used for several centuries to mean any payment, originally in kind but often replaced by a payment in specie, often what we would call incentive pay or a bonus; see for example three different uses of the word in the language of the Greek bureaucracy of Ptolemaic Egypt, 3c B.C., given by Bevan in chapter V of his House of Ptolemy: 1 2 3.


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