Tom Britton

Connecting the Greeks: Agonistic Festival Networks and Imperial Rule during the Hellenistic Period


The festival culture of the Greek world underwent great change in the Hellenistic period, with the establishment and expansion, sometimes to unprecedented size, of hundreds of sporting festivals across the eastern Mediterranean.  This “agonistic turn”, marked in particular by the establishment and promotion of the Ptolemaia at Alexandria by Ptolemy II, was intimately connected with the upheavals resulting from the destruction of the Achaemenid empire which, at the end of the fourth century, transformed the political landscape of the eastern Mediterranean and much of the Middle East. Agonistic festivals, as socio-religious institutions, were bound up with local, regional and broader cultural identities, but simultaneously the larger festivals were fundamentally international in scope and outlook, drawing competitors and spectators across hundreds of miles.  The festival network of the Hellenistic period thus fostered cooperation and competition between diverse political actors, presenting threats and opportunities which necessarily drew the engagement of the nascent kingdoms, now the most powerful entities in the region.

Royal intervention in what was fundamentally a civic network could take a multitude of forms – direct competition, the sponsoring of both athletes and festivals and the promotion of new or revised agōnes dedicated to kings or other members of royal families. Peaking in the third century, this activity was carried out in close cooperation with civic elites and even federal institutions, but served primarily to further the interests of kingdoms in establishing greater influence over Greek cities and limiting that of their rivals.


My working thesis is that the agonistic festival network, built around civic socio-religious institutions, was not a natural arena for state-building. In connecting poleis and koina across wide distances and territorial boundaries, it in fact offered many opportunities for cooperation against central royal authority. Nonetheless, festivals provided an effective platform from which to promote the normative and political claims of rulers, and the dense network of agōnes allowed for the rapid diffusion of these ideas. Hellenistic dynasties thus employed various strategies to position themselves as integral parts of the festival network and to align it with their interests, either as a whole or by attempting to partition off some sub-network which they could dominate ideologically. I suggest that these efforts were largely unsuccessful, due to the ability of the cities involved to play off rulers against each other and to compel their interventions to reproduce norms of decentralised rule and civic autonomy. Nonetheless, they are crucial to an improved understanding of Hellenistic royal objectives and relationships with regard to Greek cities, and laid the foundations for the far more comprehensive program of the Romans in later centuries.

Theory and Methodology

As will be apparent from the liberal use of “network” above, I will be approaching royal interactions with festivals in part through the lens of network theory. Agonistic festivals were not hierarchically structured, nor were they performed or perceived independently of each other – rather, the social, religious and political connections between them tied them into a web of constant interaction and traffic. More specifically, I intend to apply the mathematical methods of Social Network Analysis (SNA) to determine as far as possible the structural features of the festival network, the impact of diachronic change on that structure and its significance for the position and influence of individual festival nodes. This will naturally require a reworking of some of the approaches most commonly employed in SNA, which are more suitable for networks of individuals than of competitions. It should, however, provide greater insight into the motivations behind both civic and royal interventions in the network, allowing us to trace the real impact of efforts to reshape this key medium of communication for political gain.