The Royal Festivals of Egypt

Hello! We’ve already seen that early Hellenistic rulers were willing to spend quite a bit of money and effort on gathering athletes, musicians and other competitors for festivals. At first these were one-off events, separate from the regular circuit of major games which had existed for centuries before Alexander. Yet from about 280 BC that changed – kings started to manage their own regular festivals, creating permanent ties to the Greek civic world in the process. The methods which they used to found and promote these festivals would in time be picked up by the cities themselves and then by the Romans, and some of these newly-founded competitions would come to rival the very oldest games in Greece. But the trend began with a single city, poised between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, one that exemplified all that was new about the Hellenistic era – Alexandria.

The city was founded as a port on the western edge of the Nile delta in 333/2, upon the Makedonian conquest of Egypt. In fact, Alexander founded more than forty different Alexandrias in his career, but “Alexandria by Egypt” grew to be the largest, mainly due to its position as a gateway to wealthy Egypt from the Mediterranean. After Alexander’s death his general Ptolemy made it the capital of a new kingdom, using the enormous fertility of the Nile as a basis for one of the most powerful states in the new Hellenistic political system. By the time of Ptolemy’s death in 283, Alexandria was a major commercial and political centre, and almost unique in Egypt as one of only three cities with Greek civic institutions.

It was thus the natural place for the new king, Ptolemy II, to hold memorials for his late father. In 279, on the fourth anniversary of his father’s death, Ptolemy II established a new, quadrennial festival to be held near Alexandria, called the Ptolemaia. This was swiftly associated with a second, similar set of games, the Theadelpheia, held in honour of Ptolemy II and his new wife (and sister) Arsinoe. A third festival, the Basileia, was dedicated to Royal Zeus, patron of the ruling dynasty. This complex of festivals was an unprecedented creation for a king, and must have entailed considerable expense. Yet Ptolemy II thought it worthwhile not merely to create the new contests but to pursue a vigorous diplomatic campaign to encourage attendance by competitors from across the Greek world.

This strategy is familiar from the later efforts of the Attalid king Eumenes II in promoting his own festivals – indeed, the Ptolemies set the standard for the marketing of royal games. Central to their approach was a request that other cities recognise the new contests as “isolympic” – equal to the Olympics and the Pythia, the most prestigious competitions in Greece. Not only would this raise the profile of the Alexandrian festivals, but crucially it meant that victors at Alexandria would receive the same valuable prizes and public honours in their native cities as would Olympic winners. This recognition (and it was eventually obtained from most, if not all, Greek cities) was thus key to attracting skilled competitors to festivals which had not even existed, let alone been culturally significant, only a few years before.

How successful was Ptolemy? Several records survive of men travelling to Alexandria to compete in the new games, but the quality of talent seems to have been mixed. One tragic actor from the Peloponnese won the boxing contest at the Ptolemaia, which certainly doesn’t suggest a surplus of elite athletes. On the other hand, an extremely successful lyrist who may have been the famous Nikokles of Taras competed at the Basileia, and an Olympic victor won a chariot-race at the Theadelpheia. Perhaps the amateur boxer was the exception rather than the rule, and in general the new festivals did see participation from the highest tier of Greek competitive culture. Statistical analysis of competitors travelling to and from Greek festival sites also suggests that Alexandria became an important node in the wider network of festivals during the third century.

These maps of the dense network of connections between sporting festivals, formed by travelling competitors, show the development of Egypt as a festival centre over time. From humble beginnings at the start of the period, Egypt became a frequent destination for competitors in the 3rd century, only to fall from significance as royal resources declined. (Note that the Ptolemaic court and royal family are separated out from other athletes in these maps, but would in fact have resided in Alexandria.)

Late 4th century BC
Early 3rd century BC
1st Century BC (prior to the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC)

Yet competitors are only part of the picture. Another frequent sight at Greek festivals were theōroi, sacred envoys sent to participate in rituals and sacrifices by foreign cities. Ptolemy II and his successors actively encouraged these religious missions, asking all cities which recognised their festivals to send envoys not only when announcing their participation, but to every instance of the games. The Ptolemaia and Theadelpheia fell close together in the calendar, so cities seem to have sent theōroi to sacrifice at both together.

This practice was useful for both the kings and the cities. In this period the Ptolemies controlled a network of naval bases spanning the eastern Mediterranean, and held authority over a large number of coastal cities. Yet these cities had no regular means to communicate with their royal overlords. The sending of theōroi to Alexandria every four years created a predictable diplomatic framework for the negotiation of responsibilities and privileges with the royal court – we know that theōroi were given royal audiences after the festivals and were often in communication with other important court figures. From the Ptolemaic viewpoint, these visits were opportunities to forge relationships with civic politicians and to impress upon them the might and majesty of the kingdom, using the monumental architecture of the capital, grand processions of soldiers and exotic goods, and, of course, the games themselves.

The Alexandrian festivals were thus closely linked to royal strategic interests in the Mediterranean. As Ptolemaic power declined in the second century and royal forces were gradually expelled or withdrawn from their fortresses in the Aegean, so too did the need to engage closely with Greek civic networks. At the same time, growing strains on the royal treasury lessened the appeal of costly festivals. It is not clear whether any of the major contests were ever formally abolished, but after the middle of the second century Alexandria no longer appears as a centre of sporting culture. Only in the Roman period would the city’s fortunes and festivals be revived.

And yet there is still much more to learn from the great Ptolemaic festivals! This entry has looked at them as vehicles for engagement with Greece, but future posts will discuss their impact on sport and competition in Egypt, both in the court and in the countryside. Even more important was the precedent set by the Ptolemaia as the first “isolympic” festival. We will see that this claim, and its eventual acceptance by the Greeks, would transform the Mediterranean festival system forever.


Anchoring Roman Rule Through Cults and Festivals: an example from Kyme

Hi everyone! So far we have learned a lot about festivals forging links with and within Hellenistic kingdoms, and we have also seen how smaller festivals created cohesive regional identities and connected people with the landscape around them. Now we will jump forward in time a little bit to see which role cults and festivals played in cementing connections also with the Romans, from the moment Rome set foot on Greek soil onwards (ca. 200 BCE).

By now it is commonplace that under the Roman Empire, cults and festivals played an important role in legitimising imperial authority, the imperial cult being the most well-known example. Often overlooked however, are the Greek and Roman cult and festival interactions in the two-hundred years prior to the Empire, when Roman domination over the Eastern Mediterranean was still being contested. It was already during this period that Greek communities started to use the familiar language of cults and festivals to  explore and experiment with their relationship with Rome, which, at the same time, influenced Roman approaches to the Greek speaking world. The result was a dynamic process in which all sorts of new cults and festivals started to appear, to which a significant innovation was added: they were now, in one way or the other, focussed on Rome. Together these cults and festivals played an important role in the anchoring of Roman power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The anchoring of Roman authority through pre-existing cult and festival practices took various forms. One of the ways in which this took shape was through the introduction of a new goddess, Thea Romē, and cults in her honour (see map). As part of this cult complex there also appeared new festivals, the so-called Romaia festivals. In addition, individual Romans (pro-magistrates and other officials) were also being honoured with cults and festivals, and Rome and/or the Romans were honoured collectively (e.g. as Common Benefactors) or through personifications and abstractions (e.g. the Demos Romaion) too.

Cults in honour ofThea Romē

We could interpret these new cult and festival interactions as ‘anchoring processes’. In this process the coming of Rome and the new cults and festivals linked to Roman authority can be seen as the ‘innovation’, and the pre-existing cults and festivals – to which the new Rome-oriented cults and festivals were often linked – as the ‘anchors’, meaning the traditional practices through which Greek communities and Roman agents found a shared field of experience to create common knowledge and to connect the new political developments to familiar frameworks.

A good example of how such anchoring processes worked can be found in Kyme, a city on the Western shore of Asia Minor. Already from classical times onwards this was a prosperous city, benefitting from its coastline location. Kyme’s prosperity continued after the Alexandrian conquest of Asia Minor, and the city’s well-being seems to have been hardly affected by the series of conflicts fought between Alexander’s successors. As a result of these conflicts however, political influence spheres followed each other quickly. First the city was part of the Seleukid Empire. But after the death of Antiochus III in the Battle of Magnesia, an event that had put an end to the Seleukid presence in Western Asia Minor, there followed a brief period of Attalid rule. Not much later Kyme decided to declare itself ally of Rome, and eventually became incorporated in the Roman province of Asia (Plb. 22.27, Liv. 38.39).

That festivals were an important medium for anchoring political change is shown by a rich epigraphic dossier that was found in Kyme, consisting of three documents: a decree containing a letter of Philetairos, the founder of the Attalid dynasty and successor to the Seleukid rulers (SEG 50.1195) dating to 280-278 or circa 270 BCE, a honorary decree for the Attalid official Epigonos dating to around 200 BCE (SEG 29.1216), and a honorary decree for the benefactress Archippe, dating to the 2nd half of the 2nd century BCE (SEG 33.1039), when Rome arrived on the scene. What these inscriptions show first is that festival titles changed in response to shifting political alliances. First of all,  the city’s Dionysia changed from a pre-existing civic festival to the Dionysia and Antiocheia and then, in response to the transitions of rule, to the Dionysia and Attaleia, to be changed back again to the civic Dionysia without any appendage a few decades later. That Kymean festivals reflect political alliances is also shown by the Soteria festival, that changed from the Soteria and the Philetaireia to the Soteria and the Romaia, in the period that Roman power in the region firmly began to manifest itself.[1]

However, the set of Kymean inscriptions not only show that political change is reflected through festival titles. They also provide insight into how festivals and other cultic acts played an active role in the process of anchoring new powers. First of all, it are the inscriptions themselves, set up in highly visible and public places, that were an important tool in communicating shifting political alliances. Secondly, their contents  emphasise the festivals, theatres, and processions as the mass-advertising media par excellence through which to publicly announce the messages of changing political power. Not always however, this needed to be the main subject. Often messages of political power were embedded in wider messages about civic benefactions and civic values. Hereby one made use of a shared field of experience i.e. the festival practices and related beneficiary acts that were already known, to embed the messages of these new political alliances in familiar frameworks.

This naturally raises questions about the specific nature of the anchoring of Roman power through cults and festivals, in the various forms as sketched above. In the next posts we will therefore take a look at other manifestations of early anchoring through which Roman authority gradually became embedded in pre-existing practices.


Further reading:

Ando, Clifford. 2000. Imperial ideology and provincial loyalty in the Roman Empire. Classics and contemporary thought ; 6. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Buraselis, Kostas. 2012. “Appended Festivals: The Coordination and Combination of Traditional Civic and Ruler Cult Festivals in the Hellenistic and Roman East.” Greek and Roman Festivals, Oxford: 247-265.

Mellor, Ronald. 1975. Thea Rōmē : the worship of the goddess Roma in the Greek world. Hypomnemata; 42. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Price, Simon. R.F. 1984. Rituals and power : the Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Sluiter, Ineke. 2017. “Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda.” European Review 25, no. 1: 20–38.

[1] Buraselis (2012).

A Regional Festival Around Mount Pelion

Hello everyone Adam here! Until now we have been talking about festivals and their interactions with Hellenistic kingdoms, but what about the smaller festivals that impact regions? In this post, I am going to focus on a much smaller festival, without sporting events, that helped to shape the identity of people in the Greek region of Thessaly during the Hellenistic period. This helps us understand how groups of people identified within a smaller area and how people connected closely with their surroundings. 

This particular festival was held in the Eastern Thessalian perioikos of Magnesia on Mount Pelion, located next to the Aegean Sea. The name of the festival is unclear, but it is possible it was called the “Chironidai festival”, as the chironidai were the descendants of Chiron who was sacred to the area around Mount Pelion. It was on Mount Pelion that Chiron is said to have trained many heroes such as Achilles so Chiron was of special mythological importance to the region and it is suggested many people worshipped him.

A sanctuary of Zeus Akraios and a cave of Chiron was partially excavated by Apostolos Arvanitopoulos in 1911 on Mount Pelion. Arvanitopoulos mapped out a plan of the site that can be seen below.

Plan of the Sanctuary of Zeus Akraios and Chiron on Mount Pelion (Arvanitopoulos, A. 1911. “Ανασκαφαί και έρευναι εν Θεσσαλία κατά το έτος 1911.” PAE: 307.)

So, what is known about the festival? What we know about this festival comes from a 3rd c. BC literary text of Herakleides Kritikos (originally attributed to Dikaiarchos):

“On the peak of the mountain’s topthere is the cave called the Chironion and a shrine to Zeus Aktaios. At the rising of the Dog Star, the time of greatest heat, the most distinguished of the citizens (of Demetrias) and in the prime of their lives ascend, having been chosen in the presence of the priest, clad in thick new fleeces – so cold is it on the mountain.” (FHG II, fr. 60. 8, pg. 262 = BNJ 369A F2.8)

Interestingly, in this passage, Herakleides refers to the shrine of Zeus Aktaios instead of Akraios. This is generally thought to be a mistake as many inscriptions from the area mention a Zeus Akraios but a Zeus Aktaios is never mentioned.

As there are no other sanctuaries on Pelion’s other peaks, we know that this is referring to the site excavated by Arvanitopoulos, and we know the procession is started at the newly founded city of Demetrias (founded in 294/3 BC by Demetrios Poliorketes). Although material evidence from the site indicates people travelled to the site from around Magnesia from as early as the 5th c. BC, this is the first written evidence that a formal procession occurred every year.

In previous blog posts we have talked about agonistic festivals (festivals with a sporting aspect), but many festivals that happened contained just a religious aspect and that is what we are seeing here. Annually youths dressed up in ram-skins and processed to a sanctuary that was around 30 km away on the top of a mountain. As this sanctuary was located at the top of Mount Pelion, it was an extra-urban sanctuary, meaning it was located outside of a city, and this procession to the sanctuary was a way for sacred space to be crafted as the sanctuary was a symbolic boundary of Magnesian territory. We can see on the map below a possible route to the sanctuary, though the precise route taken is unknown.

Possible route of the procession from the city of Demetrias to the Sanctuary of Zeus Akraios and Chiron. Created on Google Earth.

Regional festivals such as this one had a different purpose than the large Pan-Hellenic festivals like the Great Panathenaia at Athens. They were a way for people within a defined area to connect with one another and they aided in formation of a cohesive identity where people in the area all knew this procession was happening and why they were performing the ritual. The landscape of Mount Pelion was anchored in various myths and Chiron was a central figure. This small festival allowed for people to not only connect with each other, but was a way for people to connect with the landscape around them.

Of course, the fragmentary evidence we have with regard to this festival leads to lots of questions, which I hope to develop further in my research!


Further Reading

Aston, E. 2006. “The Absence of Chiron.” The Classical Quarterly 56(2): 349-362.

—. 2009. “Thetis and Cheiron in Thessaly.” Kernos 22: 83-107.

Gorrini, M.E. 2006. “Healing Heroes in Thessaly: Chiron the Centaur.” AEΘΣΕ 1: 297-309.

Kravaritou, S. 2018. “Cults and Rites of Passage in Ancient Thessaly.” In Βορειοελλαδικά: Tales from the lands of the ethne. Essays in honour of Miltiades B. Hatzopoulos. Eds. M. Kalaitzi, P. Paschidis, C. Antonetti, and A.-M. Guimier-Sorbets. Athens: 377-396.

Royal Competitors – The Great Panathenaia of Athens

Hello again! So far we have looked at festivals founded or sponsored by rulers, but that was not the limit of Hellenistic royal involvement with the agonistic world. Kings, queens and other members of the dynasties frequently entered themselves as competitors in major sporting festivals, continuing a practice of the Makedonian monarchy that dates back to at least the reign of Alexander I (c.498-454 BC).

By the 4th century royalty seem to have restricted themselves to the entering of race-horses and chariot teams. Usually in ancient Greek equestrian events the competitors did not ride or drive their horses in person, with this task being left to slaves. Kings were thus spared the indignity of defeat at the hands of career athletes in the prime of their youth, and could use their great wealth to rear and purchase the very best horses. (Also notable is that this approach allowed royal women to compete in an almost entirely male-dominated setting.) The exemplar of this strategy was Philip II, who garnered much prestige and goodwill among the Greek cities with his three victories at the Olympics.

The importance of these victories to Philip’s self-representation is demonstrated by these tetradrachms, depicting his victorious horse from the 356 BC Olympics.

Royal competitors are not always easy to discern in the historical record, but a number of (more or less fragmentary) victor lists from the 2nd century BC give insight into participation in one major festival – the Athenian Panathenaia. This was the largest agonistic festival held at Athens and, while the contests were not part of the periodos of traditional “Panhellenic” games, Athens’ cultural cachet made put them on a similar level to the Olympics and the Pythia. The penteteric* Great Panathenaia thus attracted competitors from the length and breadth of the Greek world, with athletes from as far afield as Italy and Mesopotamia. Several of these competitors were royal, as laid out here:

Royal Panathenaic Victors

182 BC: Ptolemy V – Victor in a four-horse chariot race (Citizens’)

“the son of Ptolemy, the Makedonian” – Ptolemy V again? – Victor in an unknown Panhellenic event

178 BC: Eumenes II – Victor in a four-horse chariot race (Panhellenic)

Attalos (brother of Eumenes) – Victor in a four-horse chariot race (Panhellenic)

Philetairos (brother of Eumenes) – Victor in a horse race (Panhellenic)

Athenaios (brother of Eumenes) – Victor in a two-horse chariot race (Panhellenic)

170 BC: Attalos (brother of Eumenes) – Victor in a two-horse chariot race (Citizens’)

162 BC: Ptolemy VI – Victor in a two-horse chariot race (Citizens’)

Kleopatra (sister and wife of Ptolemy VI) – Victor in a horse race (Citizens’)

Eumenes II – Victor in a four-horse war-chariot race (Citizens’)

158 BC: Mastanabal, son of the Numidian king Massinissa – Victor in a horse race (Panhellenic)

Ptolemy VI – Victor in a two-horse chariot race (Panhellenic)

150 or 146 BC (date uncertain): Alexander Balas (a claimant to the Seleukid diadem) – Victor in a horse race (Panhellenic) and one unknown event

The Panathenaic stadium, where the Panhellenic events were held. Unfortunately, the spectacular modern reconstruction reflects the marble stadium of the 2nd century AD, rather than its Hellenistic form.

Immediately striking is the variety of royal competitors here – Ptolemies, Attalids, a Seleukid and even a Numidian. A reasonable conclusion to draw would be that competing in the Panathenaia was a strategy of general interest to Hellenistic monarchs, rather than one useful to a particular dynasty. This makes sense, given the number and diversity of participants at the Panathenaia – Athens made a good stage for displays of wealth and power by any ruler around the Mediterranean. We might also infer that these competitors were emulating each other. Once it had been established that winning victories at the Panathenaia brought a dynasty political benefits, other rulers were motivated to contest that victorious position. Particularly important here are the Attalids and Mastanabal, representatives of new powers in the Hellenistic world seeking to show themselves equal to the more established dynasties.

The second feature of this participation that I want to point to is that the class of events entered is also varied. The Great Panathenaia comprised “Panhellenic” contests open to all, and contests restricted to Athenian citizens. During the 3rd century BC, however, the Ptolemaic and Attalid royal families had acquired honorary Athenian citizenship, allowing them to participate in the latter class of races. These two dynasties appear to have switched between the classes in this period, winning victories in both, but why? The open races, taking place in the primary stadium, would have had a larger, more geographically varied audience, and were probably considered more prestigious due to the larger pool of competitors. Yet by competing as citizens these dynasties could demonstrate their special connection to Athens, enhancing the city’s prestige and reaffirming their diplomatic commitment to its welfare. For these dynasties the Panathenaia served both as a means to reach out to the Greek world as a whole, and as a specific connection to a key city in which they desired to promote their influence.

This list raises more questions, of course, and in the next post we will take a look at its most surprising – indeed, unlikely – aspect, the quadruple Attalid victory of 178 BC.


*Taking place every five years as the ancient Greeks counted: every four years by our reckoning. The Panathenaia was an annual festival, but only every four years (the Greater Panathenaia) were contests opened to foreigners.

Further Reading

Habicht, Christian, “Athens and the Attalids in the Second Century BC”, Hesperia 59 (1990), 561-577.

— “Athens and the Ptolemies”, Classical Antiquity 11.1 (1992), 68-90.

Shear, Julia, “Royal Athenians: The Ptolemies and Attalids at the Panathenaia”, in Olgia Palagia and Alkestis Spetsieri-Choremi (eds.) The Panathenaic Games (Oxbow, 2015), 135-145.

The Furthest Festival: An Agōn in the Persian Gulf

Hello again! Having talked about the first royal festival of the Hellenistic period, I’m now going to take a look at one of the most spectacular – not for its size or prestige, but its location, more than 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean. These local contests, held on the island of Failaka at the head of the Persian Gulf, are an excellent example of the use of festivals by Hellenistic rulers to manage their far-flung dominions.

The Persian Gulf in the Hellenistic period, showing major trade routes for South Asian and South Arabian goods. Note that the location, and even the existence, of many of these sites is speculative, and that the head of the Gulf is constantly being filled in by silt from the Tigris and Euphrates – Alexandria/Antiocheia Charax was probably situated on the coastline in this era.

The Persian Gulf was crossed by long-established maritime networks which linked Mesopotamia and southern Iran to southern Arabia and ultimately India, and many pre-Hellenistic states, including the Achaemenid empire, had exerted political influence there in order to benefit from the trade in exotic and luxury goods. The Seleukids proved no exception, as their dedications of incense and spices to Mediterranean temples demonstrate. Building on Alexander’s foundation of a new city, Alexandria Charax, at the head of the Gulf, the third-century kings established a chain of settlements and naval bases stretching at least as far as Bahrain (Greek Tylos), and allowing them to project naval power to the Strait of Hormuz (see Pliny, Natural History VI.28.152).

The small island of Ikaros (modern Failaka) was a link in this chain. Numerous excavations have revealed Hellenistic settlements and sanctuaries on the island, and there are indications of some immigration by Greeks – several potsherds and rough inscriptions in Greek have been found, some of which mention an Athenian, Soteles. Of especial interest to us is a stele discovered near one of the two temples at the evocatively-named Location F5, a fortified sanctuary in the southwest of the island which flourished between c.250 and c.150 BC.

The stele records a letter from a high-ranking Seleukid official, Ikadion, to Anaxarchos, who was probably a governor based at Tylos. After a short covering letter from Anaxarchos to the Ikarians, it reads:

“Ikadion to Anaxarchos. Greetings. The king is concerned about the island of Ikaros, because his forebears also consecrated land there and decided to move the temple of the Saviour Goddess. And they wrote to the officials in charge of the administration (instructing them) to move it. But they, either, [perhaps] because they were prevented, or indeed for some [other] reason  did not move it. But we, when the king wrote to us, moved [it? promptly], and we established […] a contest, both / sporting and [musical,] wishing to carry out the policy of the king and of his forebears.”

SEG 20-411, lines 7-20. Translation adapted from Roueché and Sherwin-White (1985).

Unfortunately the inscription becomes extremely fragmentary after this point, but Ikadion seems to be concerned for the status of land, settlements and trade on Ikaros, particularly with regard to the neōkoroi (temple wardens). The Saviour Goddess is almost certainly a local deity known to the Greeks as Artemis Soteira, and mentioned in several other inscriptions. The date of the letter has provoked much controversy, with suggestions ranging throughout the 3rd century BC – some point in the second half of the century seems most plausible, considering the lifespan of the sanctuary as a whole (on this issue, see Hannestad 2019).

The sanctuary at F5.

It is thus impossible to pin down the exact circumstances under which this agōn was introduced to Ikaros. What is clear, however, is that it was intended to bind the islanders together through a communal ritual centred on one of the island’s most important deities. The text later seems to refer to “encroachment” on land, suggesting a conflict over property rights, and to synoikismos, the gathering of scattered people into a single settlement. As a response to social divisions royal officials turned to a competitive festival as a means to foster a cohesive local identity.

What is particularly notable is the form of the festival – an agōn was very much a Greek cultural institution. Yet while there may have been a sizeable Greek population on Ikaros, there is no sign here that this was an event aimed only at them. Rather it was to involve the whole community, presumably including the neōkoroi, who should perhaps be seen as local priestly elites. As we will see many times when looking at Hellenistic festivals, one’s identity as a Greek was less important than one’s ability to engage with Greek culture and perform its rituals. The aim may have been to tie Ikaros to other regional sites with Greek institutions such as Seleukeia on the Tigris and Antiocheia in Persia, both of which are known to have interacted with agōnes in other cities.

Equally important is that the letter presents the movement of the temple and the establishment of the festival as royal policy. Whether this was indeed a personal initiative of the king is unclear, but the truth is less important than the appearance – that these contests were founded in a system of royal oversight stretching back generations to the time of the king’s forebears. This novel institution is rendered not only a link to the Greek world, but a link to the court, a ceremony in which the people of Ikaros themselves invoked an imperial presence in the reshaping of their community. At the same time, it was one which revolved around a local cult, symbol of a local identity which was now bound a little more closely to the Seleukid dynasty.

The concept of “Hellenisation” remains a somewhat controversial one in modern scholarship, and certainly political projects like the Seleukid did not involve any large-scale efforts to impose a Greek identity on subject populations. What we can see here, however, is the selective promotion of a Greek practice – the agonistic festival – as a means to reinforce social cohesion, create connections between an island settlement and the great urban centres of the kingdom, and position a distant community as explicitly Seleukid in its allegiance, pushing royal authority a little further into the expanses of the Indian Ocean.


Further Reading:

Beaujard, Philippe, The Worlds of the Indian Ocean Vol. I (Berlin, 2019, trans. Tamara Loring, Frances Meadows and Andromeda Tait, originally published 2014), ch. 9.

Hannestad, Lise, “On the Periphery of the Seleucid Kingdom: Failaka Revisited”, in Roland Oetjen (ed.)  New Perspectives in Seleucid History, Archaeology and Numismatics (Berlin, 2019), 312-332.

Petropolou, Maria-Zoe, “A Seleukid Settlement on Failaka”, Epigraphica Anatolica 39 (2000), 139-147.

Roueché, Charlotte and Sherwin-White, Susan, “Some Aspects of the Seleucid Empire: The Greek Inscriptions from Failaka, in the Arabian Gulf”, Chiron 15 (1985), 1-39.

A Festival Interrupted: Antigonos Monopthalmos and the First Royal Agōnes

Hello! As you can see from our information pages, each of us on the project is focusing on a different aspect of Greek festival culture and its transformations from the Hellenistic period onwards. I’m looking at the interactions between festivals and a new, defining feature of that period – the kingdoms that emerged across the eastern Mediterranean (and further east) in the wake of the death of Alexander the Great.

The ruling elites of these states – initially mainly Makedonians – were interested in Greek civic culture to a far greater extent than their precursors in the Achaemenid Persian empire. Their engagement with the network of competitive festivals spanning the Greek world would change it considerably – the institution of the Ptolemaia at Alexandria by Ptolemy II in 280 BC, for example, played a key role in the surge of “Panhellenisation” of festivals in the Hellenistic era. Before diving into the evidential morass of the third century, however, we might consider an intriguing note from the late Hellenistic Sicilian historian Diodorus, describing what could very well be the first “royal” festival ever organised, but one that never even took place. This ghost of a festival throws a certain spectral illumination on one of the key questions our project seeks to answer – what were rulers trying to achieve when sponsoring agōnes?

First, some context: in 306 BC, following a spectacular naval victory off the coast of Cyprus, Antigonos Monopthalmos (“the One-Eyed”) had himself and his son Demetrios crowned as kings. Antigonos was at the time the most powerful of the Makedonian generals who had carved up Alexander’s empire between them, and was the first openly to declare himself a king. Shortly before this he had founded a new city, named Antigoneia, on the Orontes river in northern Syria, which he had controlled since 317. This was a region which had been relatively sparsely populated and lacking in urban centres since the Assyrian terror campaigns of the 8th-7th centuries, and Antigonos planned to create a number of new settlements, granting land in return for tax payments and military service. The settlers were largely drawn from the Greek world – those at Antigoneia were a mixture of Makedonians and Athenians.

In 302 this new city was to play host to a grand festival. Diodorus’ description is worth quoting here:

“Antigonos, who had made preparations to celebrate great games (agōnes) and a festival (panēgyris) in Antigoneia, had collected from all sides the most famous athletes and artists to compete for great prizes and fees. But when he heard of the crossing of Lysimachos [into Anatolia] and the desertion of his own generals, he abandoned the games but distributed to the athletes and artists not less than two hundred talents as compensation.” (Diodorus Siculus, 20.108.1)

This brief note raises many questions. To what god or gods was the festival dedicated? Was it intended to be a regular institution, as was common in Greek cities? Where, exactly, did the competitors come from, and were they satisfied with their abrupt (albeit generously compensated) dismissal? Unfortunately, the campaign to which Antigonos was now called would be his last, and upon his death in battle in 301 northern Syria was seized by Seleukos, one of his rivals. Antigoneia was depopulated and abandoned, with its people and cults transferred to Seleukos’ own new urban foundations. Whatever plans Antigonos had for this festival died with him, and we are left with very little evidence to go on.

Yet, while the festival never amounted to anything more than intentions, intentions themselves are crucial in studying royal policy. In this case, certainly, Antigonos’ publicised decision to hold agōnes at his new foundation would have been just as politically significant as the festival itself. Festive agōnes played an important role in Greek civic culture, binding together worship, civic identity, aristocratic conceptions of human excellence and inter-civic relationships into repeated public rituals. By organising such contests at his eponymous city, Antigonos signalled to the Greek world his willingness to act as a sponsor and benefactor of the Greek cities – his philhellenism. From 319 he had increasingly portrayed himself as a champion of Greek cities against the despotic exactions of his rivals, expelling Makedonian garrisons from occupied poleis and proclaiming their “freedom and autonomy”. The announcement of a festival at Antigoneia mirrored in the cultural sphere the intentions he had already demonstrated in the political, encouraging Greeks concerned about the ramifications of Makedonian hegemony to look to Antigonos as their friend.

Greek civic culture, however, had many easily-replicable elements – why an agonistic festival? The answer here would seem to be connection. Antigoneia had been established as a polis in Greek fashion, populated with Greeks and Makedonians. Yet it lay very much on the margins of the Greek world of the Classical period. A festival which drew competitors “from all sides” (by which Diodorus can only mean from across the Greek Mediterranean, athletics not yet having become popular beyond the Greek world) would create connections between his fledgling city and those competitors’ home poleis. The “great prizes” would be taken away by the victors and displayed across the Mediterranean, establishing Antigoneia firmly as part of a Greek network of competition. It was crucial for Antigonos that this city and the Greek and Makedonian settlers in the surrounding area not feel cut off from the old Greek world, as had the Greek settlers in Iran who had revolted against royal rule in 323. The festival network would not only facilitate Antigonos’ self-representation as a patron of the Greek cities and a respecter of their inter-civic connections, but ensure that his new settlements could benefit from those connections as well.

A final point to note is that these objectives clearly mattered to Antigonos very much. His payment to the disappointed competitors after the cancellation of the festival was extremely large at 200 talents – approximately five tonnes of silver and enough to finance a small fleet for a campaign season. Antigonos was hardly lacking in funds – he took with him a mobile treasury of 3,000 talents for the campaign of 302/1 – but he would not have spent such a sum out of mere embarrassment. Rather he sought to ensure the gratitude of the athletes and artists involved, and to encourage more competitors to travel to any future agōnes he might sponsor. Effectively Antigonos was investing in the competitive festival network as a means of managing his carefully-constructed relationship of benefaction with the Greek cities.

Antigonos’ festival was never celebrated, and nothing is known of it beyond Diodorus’ short passage. Yet it points to some of the themes which we will see recurring throughout the history of royal engagement with festivals – the need for rulers to communicate their power, wealth and philhellenism to the Greek world, and the efficacy of the festival network as a connecting tissue of common institutions and cultural practices that tied together Greek cities across their extensive kingdoms. It’s all pretty fascinating, and we hope you enjoy reading about it as much as we do researching it!


Further Reading

Billows, Richard, Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State (Berkeley, 1990).

Capdetrey, Laurent, Le pouvoir séleucide (Rennes, 2007), esp. pp. 60-76.

Cohen, Getzel, The Hellenistic Settlements in Syria, the Red Sea Basin, and North Africa (Berkeley, 2006), esp. pp. 76-79.

Mann, Christian, “Cash and Crowns: A Network Approach to Greek Athletic Prizes”, in Mirko Canevaro et al (eds.) Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science (Edinburgh, 2018), pp. 293-312.

Connecting the Greeks – Introducing the Project

Chairete! We thought we should start off with an explanation for what we’re trying to do, and for the significance of both festivals and networks in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean.

Agonistic festivals – religious celebrations incorporating competitions of various kinds – were a major feature of socio-religious life among the Greeks from the Archaic period, which saw the creation of such famous contests as the Olympic and Pythian Games. Attracting competitors and spectators from across the Greek world, the largest of these festivals played a crucial role in the very definition of Greek identity.

Less well known, however, are the dramatic changes which affected festival culture in the Hellenistic era. Throughout the Greek world and Asia Minor in particular, old festivals were revived or re-organised, and new ones were founded in large numbers. The popularity and political importance of previously minor, local festivals increased dramatically, and more and more these festivals now operated on different scales at the same time: local, by consolidating the (new) citizenry of the polis; regional, by including surrounding cities in athletic competitions; and ‘global’, by forging links between cities across the extended Greek world. In the early centuries of Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean these trends were again amplified, while becoming bound up inextricably with the experience of Roman rule. The Connecting the Greeks project aims to shed new light on the development of a shared festival culture from the 3rd century BC, anchored in existing Greek traditions, and proposes that festivals were a driving force in the complex processes of connectivity that defined the place of cities, dynasts, leagues, kingdoms and eventually the Roman empire itself in the new Hellenistic world.

Given that one of the most important aspects of the Greek festival was this creation of connectivity, we have found it helpful to conceptualise “festival culture” as a network, with nodes – the festivals – tied together by a variety of mobile agents – athletes, spectators and sacred envoys. The network was the product of, and reflected, the social and political links between individuals and groups throughout the Mediterranean, but at the same time it formed a medium for interaction. We draw these insights from the loose school of thought known as “network theory”, but also intend to employ a more formal methodology: (Social) Network Analysis. This consists of the mathematical representation of networks, allowing us to examine the shape and density of interactions between festivals and to measure the influence and centrality of particular nodes. Naturally, this requires a comprehensive database of all information regarding the agents moving between festivals, which is currently under construction at (link). Ideally we will be able to trace developments over time in the broader festival network or portions of it, and to compare them with social, economic and political trends. We ask: how was the agonistic festival network shaped by the many transformations of the Greek world after Alexander’s death, and how did it in turn influence the thoughts and behaviours of those living in that world?

This website is intended firstly as a place for us to show off snippets of our ongoing research, as well as our thoughts on festival culture, network theory and SNA. Secondly, we wanted a way to let people know about new developments – conferences, workshops, publications – in our somewhat eclectic group of fields, so watch this space for news!