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p666 Lampadephoria

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp666‑667 of

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

LAMPADEPHORIA (λαμπαδηφορία), torch-bearing (as Herodotus calls it), or λαμπαδηδρομία, torch-race (as some lexicographers), also λαμπαδοῦχος ἀγών, and often simply λαμπάς, was a game common no doubt throughout Greece; for though all we know concerning it belongs to Athens, yet we hear of it at Corinth, Pergamus, and Zerinthus (Böckh, Publ. Econ. of Athens, p463, 2nd ed.; Müller, Minerv. Polias, p5); and a coin in Mionnet, with a λαμπάς on it, which is copied below, bears the legend Ἀμφιπολιτῶν.


[image ALT: An engraving of a primitive coin, on which is figured a relay torch in a square surrounded by the legend ΑΜΦΙΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ. It is a Greek coin illustrating the λαμπάς, or ceremonial torch used in the ancient Greek relay race known as the Lampadephoria.]

At Athens we know of five celebrations of this game: one of the Prometheus at the Prometheia (Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 131; Ister. ap. Harpocr. s.v.); a second to Athena at the Panathenaea1 (Herod. VI.105, and ll.cc.) a third to Hephaestos at the Hephaesteia2 (Herod. VIII.9, and ll.cc.); a fourth to Pan (Herod. V.105); a fifth to the Thracian Artemis or Bendis (Plat. de Rep. p328A). The three former are of unknown antiquity; the fourth was introduced soon after the battle of Marathon; the last in the time of Socrates.

The race was usually run on foot, horses being first used in the time of Socrates (Plat. l.c.); sometimes also at night (Interp. vetus ad Lucret. II.77 ap. Wakef.). The preparation for it was a principal branch of the γυμνασιαρχία, so much so indeed in later times, that λαμπαδαρχία seems to have been pretty much equivalent to the γυμνασιαρχία (Aristot. Pol. V.8.20). The gymnasiarch had to provide the λαμπάς, which was a candlestick with a kind of shield at the bottom of the socket, so as to shelter the flame of the candle; as is seen in the following woodcut, taken from a coin in Mionnet (pl. 49.6). He had also to provide for the training of the runners, which was of no slight consequence, for the race was evident a severe one (compare Aristoph. Vesp. 1203, Ran. 1085), with other expenses, which on the whole were very heavy, so that Isaeus (de Philoct. Haered. p62.20) classes this office with the χορηγία and τριηραρχία, and reckons that it had cost him 12 minae. The discharge of this office was called γυμνασιαρχεῖν λαμπάδι (Isaeus, l.c.), or ἐν ταῖς λαμπάσι γυμνασιαρχεῖσθαι (Xen. de Vectig. IV.52). The victorious gymnasiarch presented his λαμπάς as a votive offering (ἀνάθημα, Böckh, Inscr. No. 243, 250).

As to the manner of the λαμπαδηφορία, there are some things difficult to understand.a The case stands thus. We have two accounts, which seem contradictory. — First, it is represented as a course, in which a λαμπάς was carried from one point to another by a chain of runners, each of whom formed a successive link. The first, after running a certain distance, handed it to the second, the second in like manner to the third, and so on, till it reached the point proposed. Hence the game is used by Herodotus (VIII.98) as a comparison whereby to illustrate the Persian ἀγγαρήϊον, by Plato (Leg. p776B) as a living image of successive generations of men, as also in the well-known line of Lucretius (II.77)

"Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt."

(compare also Auctor, ad Herenn. IV.46). And it is said that the art consisted in the several runners carrying the torch unextinguished through their respective distances, those who let it go out losing all share of honour. Now, if this were all, such explanation might content us. But, secondly, we are plainly told that it was an ἀγών, the runners are said ἁμιλλᾶσθαι (Plat. Rep. l.c.); some are said to have won (νικᾶν λαμπάδι, Andoc. in Alcib. ad fin.; compare Böckh, Insc. No. 243, 244); the Schol. on Aristoph. Ran. (l.c.) talks of τοὺς ὑστάτους τρέχοντας, which shows that it must have been a race between a number of persons; the Schol. on the same play (v. 133) speaks of ἀφεῖναι τοὺς δρομέας, τοὺς τρέχοντας, which shows a number must have started at once.

This second account implies competition. But in a chain of runners, each of whom handed the torch to the next man successively, where could the competition be? One runner might be said to lose — he who let the torch out; but who could be said to win?

We offer the following hypothesis in answer to this question. Suppose that there were several chains of runners, each of which had to carry the torch the given distance. Then both conditions would be fulfilled. The torch would be handed along each chain, — which would answer to the first condition of successive delivery. That chain in which it travelled most quickly and soonest reached its destination would answer to the second condition, it being a race between competitors.

In confirmation of this hypothesis we observe as follows — The inscription in Böckh, No. 245, consists of the following lines:—

λαμπάδα νεικήσας σὺν ἐφήβοις τὴν δ᾽ ἀνέθηκα

Εὐτυχίδης παῖς ὦν Εὐτυχίδους Ἀθμονεύς.

This Eutychides was no doubt the gymnasiarch who won with the ἔφηβοι he had trained, just as Andocides (l.c.) talks of his νενικηκέναι λαμπάδι as gymnasiarch; so too inscr. No. 250 records a like victory of the tribe Cecropis.3 How we know that the gymnasiarchs were chosen one from each tribe. If then each furnished a chain of λαμπαδηφόροι, there would have been ten (in later times twelve) chains of runners. Perhaps, however, the gymnasiarchs were not all called on to perform this service, but each once only in the year, which would allow us for each of the three greater celebrations p667(the Prometheia, the Panathenaea, and Hephaesteia) three or four chains of competitors.

The place of running was, in these great celebrations, from the altar of the Three Gods (Prometheus, Athena, and Hephaestos) in the outer Cerameicus to the Acropolis, a distance of near half a mile (Pausan. I.30 § 2; Schol. ad Ran. 1085). That in honour of Bendis was run in the Peiraeeus (Plat. l.c.).

The origin of these games must be sought, we think, in the worship of the Titan Prometheus. The action of carrying an unextinguished light from the Cerameicus to the Acropolis is a lively symbol of the benefit conferred by the Titan upon man, when he bore fire from the habitations of the gods, and bestowed it upon man.

κλέψας ἀκαμάτοιο πυρὸς τηλέσκοπον αὐγήν

ἐν κοίλῳ νάρθηκι. (Hesiod. Theog. 566 Gaisf.)

But the gratitude to the giver of fire soon passed to the Olympian gods who presided over its use — Hephaestos, who taught men to apply it to the melting and moulding of metal, and Athena, who carried it through the whole circle of useful and ornamental arts. To these three gods, then, were these games at first devoted, as the patrons of fire. And looking to the place it was run in — the Cerameicus or Potters' quarter — we are much inclined to adopt Welcker's suggestion (Aeschylische Trilogie, p121), viz. that it was the κεραμεῖς or potters who instituted the λαμπαδηφορία. Athena (as we learn from the Κεραμίς) was their patron goddess; and who more than they would have reason to be thankful for the gift and use of fire? Pottery would be one of the first modes in which it would be made serviceable in promoting the arts of life. In later times the same honour was paid to all gods who were in any way connected with fire, as to Pan, to whom a perpetual fire was kept up in his grotto under the Acropolis, and who was in this capacity called by the Greeks Phanetes, by the Romans Lucidus; so also to Artemis, called by Sophocles Ἀμφίπυρος, and worshipped as the moon (Creuzer, Symbolique, vol. II pp752, 764, French transl.). At first, however, it seems to have been a symbolic representation in honour of the gods who gave and taught men the use of material moulding fire (πάντεχνον πῦρ, διδάσκαλος τέχνης, as Aeschylus calls it, Prom. 7.110), though this special signification was lost sight of in later times. Other writers, in their anxiety to get a common signification for all the times and modes of the λαμπαδηφορία, have endeavoured to prove that all who were honoured by it were connected with the heavenly bodies, λαμπροὶ δυνασταί, (so Creuzer, l.c.; Müller, Minerva Polias, p5); others that it always had an inner signification, alluding to the inward fire by which Prometheus put life into man (So Brönsted, Voyages, vol. II p286, note 2). But this legend of Prometheus was a later interpretation of the earlier one, as may be seen by comparing Plat. Protag. p321D, with Hesiod. Theog. 561, &c.


The Author's Notes:

1 Probably the greater Panathenaea (Böckh, ubi supr.)

2 The ceremony at the Apaturia was different. [Apaturia.]

3 No. 244 gives a list of νεικήσαντες τὴν λαμπάδα, the winners in the torch-race, fourteen in number. Who were these? If the several links of the winning chain, it is rather against analogy that they should be named. No one ever heard the names of a chorus; yet they can hardly be fourteen winning gymnasiarchs.


Thayer's Note:

a The convolutions our 19c author puts himself through to come up with the obvious solution — a relay race — are almost incomprehensible to the modern reader, testifying to the explosion of competitive sports in the 20c. Yet such contortions were unnecessary: see for example Varro, R. R. III.16.9 and the Loeb editor's note 103 there.


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