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p645 Isthmia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp645‑646 of

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

ISTHMIA (Ἴσθμια), one of the four great national festivals of the Greeks. This festival derived its name from the Corinthian isthmus, where it was held in honour of Poseidon. Where the isthmus is narrowest, between the coast of the Saronic gulf and the western foot of the Oenean hills, was the temple of Poseidon, and near it was a theatre and a stadium of white marble, the scene of the Isthmian games (Paus. II.1 § 7; Strab. VIII.6 p380). The entrance to the temple was adorned with an avenue of statues of the victors in the Isthmian games, and with groves of pine-trees. These games were said originally to have been instituted by Sisyphus in honour of Melicertes, who was also called Palaemon (Apollod. III.4 § 3; Paus. II.1 § 3). Their original mode of celebration partook, as Plutarch (Thes. 25) remarks, more of the character of mysteries, than of a great and national assembly with its various amusements, and was performed at night. Subsequent to the age of Theseus the Isthmia were celebrated in honour of Poseidon; and this innovation is ascribed p646to Theseus himself, who, according to some legends, was a son of Poseidon, and who, in the institution of the new Isthmian solemnities, is said to have imitated Heracles, the founder of the Olympian games. The celebration of the Isthmia was henceforth conducted by the Corinthians, but Theseus had reserved for his Athenians some honourable distinctions; those Athenians who attended the Isthmia sailed across the Saronic gulf in a sacred vessel (θεωρίς), and an honorary place (προεδρία), as large as the sail of their vessel, was assigned to them during the celebration of the games (Plut. l.c.). In times of war between the two states a sacred truce was concluded, and the Athenians were invited to attend at the solemnities (Thucyd. VIII.10). The Eleans did not take part in the games, and various stories were related to account for this singular circumstance (Paus. V.2 § 2). It is a very probable conjecture of Wachsmuth (Hellen. Alterth. vol. I p155), that the Isthmia, after the changes ascribed to Theseus, were merely a panegyris of the Ionians of Peloponnesus and those of Attica; for it should be observed, that Poseidon was an Ionian deity, whose worship appears originally to have been unknown to the Dorians. During the reign of the Cypselids at Corinth, the celebration of the Isthmian games was suspended for seventy years (Solin. c. 12). But after that time they gradually rose to the rank of a national festival of all the Greeks. In Olymp. 49 they became periodical, and were henceforth celebrated regularly every third year, twice in every Olympiad, that is, in the first and third year of every Olympiad. The Isthmia held in the first year of an Olympiad fell in the Corinthian month Panemus (the Attic Hecatombaeon); and those which were held in the third year of an Olympiad, fell either in the month of Munychion or Thargelion (Corsini, Dissert. Agon. 4; compare Goeller ad Thucyd. VIII.9). Pliny (H. N. IV.5) and Solinus (c. 9) erroneously state that the Isthmia were celebrated every fifth year. With this regularity the solemnities continued to be held by the Greeks down to a very late period. In 228 B.C. the Romans were allowed the privilege of taking part in the Isthmia (Polyb. II.13); and it was at this solemnity that, in B.C. 196 Flamininus proclaimed before an innumerable assembly the independence of Greece (Polyb. XVIII.46).º After the fall of Corinth, in B.C. 146, the Sicyonians were honoured with the privilege of conducting the Isthmian games; but when the town of Corinth was rebuilt by Julius Caesar (Paus. II.1 § 2, II.2 § 2), the right of conducting the solemnities was restored to the Corinthians, and it seems that they henceforth continued to be celebrated till Christianity became the state-religion of the Roman empire (Sueton. Nero, 24; Julian Imperat. Epist. 35).

The season of the Isthmian solemnities was, like that of all the great national festivals, distinguished by general rejoicings and feasting. The contests and games of the Isthmia were the same as those at Olympia, and embraced all the varieties of athletic performances, such as wrestling, the pancratium, together with horse and chariot racing (Paus. V.2 § 4; Polyb. l.c.). Musical and poetical contests were likewise carried on, and in the latter women also were allowed to take part, as we must infer from Plutarch (Sympos. V.2), who, on the authority of Polemo, states that in the treasury at Sicyon there was a golden book which had been presented to it by Aristomache, the poetess, after she had gained the victory at the Isthmia. At a late period of the Roman empire the character of the games at the Isthmia appears greatly altered; for in the letter of the emperor Julian, above referred to, it is stated that the Corinthians purchased bears and panthers for the purpose of exhibiting their fights at the Isthmia, and it is not improbable that the custom of introducing fights of animals on this occasion commenced soon after the time of Caesar.

The prize of a victor in the Isthmian games consisted at first of a garland of pine-leaves, and afterwards of a wreath of victory; but in the end the ivy was again superseded by a pine-garland (Plut. Sympos. V.3). Simple as such a reward was, a victor in these games gained the greatest distinction and honour among his countrymen; and a victory not only rendered the individual who obtained it, a subject of admiration, but shed lustre over his family and the whole town or community to which he belonged. Hence Solon established by a law that every Athenian who gained a victory at the Isthmian games, should receive from the public treasury a reward of one hundred drachmae (Plut. Sol. 23). His victory was generally celebrated in lofty odes, called Epinikia, or triumphal odes, of which we still possess some beautiful specimens among the poems of Pindar (see Massieu in the Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscript. et Bell. Lett. V p214, &c.; Dissen, De Ratione Poetica Carminum Pindaricorum, prefixed to the first volume of his edition of Pindar; Müller, Hist. of Greek Lit. p220, &c.; Krause, Die Pythien, Nemeen, und Isthmien, p165, &c.).


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