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.