Isthmian Amusements

[Part 1]

Borimir Jordan

University of California
Santa Barbara

In Ancient Greece people went to the Panhellenic festivals to fulfill a religious obligation, and also to be entertained. One form of entertainment was watching the athletes compete with each other and thereby pay homage to the gods. A second form of entertainment offered at some festivals was cultural and artistic. At some of the great international festivals the athletic spectacles were more prominent than the cultural, as for instance at Olympia, while at Delphi the opposite seems to have been true. There was yet a third form of amusement, comparable to the socializing at dinners and parties in modern life.

The athletic programs, especially that of the Olympic games, have received much attention from modern scholars. The religious aspects have been somewhat neglected because of the general belief that the Panhellenic festivals were chiefly sports events.[1]  The cultural and artistic features of the festivals, including the Isthmian, have received only minimal attention, as far as I know. The socializing and conviviality, and several other aspects, such as the travel to the festival site and accommodation there, have been largely ignored.

In what follows I have collected as much information as I could (including that already available in the reference works) about the artistic and cultural events and about the more earthy amusements and pleasures that the Isthmian games had to offer, so as to fill out the picture presented by the much better known sports and to provide a fuller account for those who may wish to be better informed about this other, less well known side, of the Isthmian games. The topic is not without interest because the Isthmian games, unlike the Olympic, Pythian, and Nemean games, appear to have been a happy blend of all three forms of amusement: athletic, artistic, and  social.

Our information about the Isthmia has increased in the last fifty years or so thanks to the excavations conducted by the American School and the timely publication of the results. For some topics, however, there is little or no evidence, and so we may attempt occasionally to fill the gaps by ucing parallels from other festivals, chiefly the better known Olympic games. The results obtained in this manner must, of course, remain tentative.



the isthmus as a panhellenic site


The Isthmian games are ranked by some modern scholars as second in importance after the Olympic, and by others in third place, after the Pythian. But the Isthmus, located at the crossroads from north to south by land, and from east to west by sea, surpassed both Olympia and Delphi as a meeting ground of all the Greeks: it was in a very real sense the Panhellenic site par excellence. It is probably no accident that Pindar uses the name  Panhellenes only twice, both times in Isthmian odes. Its central location made the Isthmus a convenient place for the council of Greek allies to assemble there during the Persian Wars in order to plan strategy against Xerxes, to dedicate the spoils from the war there, and to decide the winner of the prize of valor for the battle of Salamis.  Thucydides remarks on the importance of the Isthmus to Corinth, and says that it was one of the Panhellenic sanctuaries, along with Olympia and Delphi, where the Peace of Nicias was published.  In the fourth century the Greek states proclaimed the common peace at the Isthmus, and Alexander received the supreme command for the attack on Persia there. At the end of the century Antigonus and Demetrius were elected leaders of the Panhellenic league at the Isthmus. In 196 b.c. Flamininus proclaimed the liberty of Greece at the Isthmian Games, and in 67 a.d. Nero repeated the proclamation.[2]



popularity of the isthmian games


Situated at the narrowest point of the Isthmus, near the very ancient road from Athens and northern Greece into the Peloponnese, the sanctuary of Poseidon and the Isthmian festival had assumed Panhellenic importance by the time of the Persian Wars.  From that time on the games were very popular and very well attended. The Athenians especially came in large numbers, both because they regarded their national hero, Theseus, as the founder of the games, and also because Corinth was the pleasure city of Greece: the Isthmian festival offered more amusements than the other three great festivals, as will be shown below.  Both Corinth and the Isthmia, moreover, were only a short journey away from Athens and so fairly easy to reach.

As is well known, Solon passed a law that Athenian victors at the Isthmian Games should receive one hundred drachmae from the public treasury, and Thucydides (5.19.2) mentions an Athenian named Isthmionikos.  Plutarch tells us that Aeschylus and Ion attended the Isthmian festival; Plato and Athenaeus say that Socrates, who never went abroad except on military duty, once made an exception and went to see the Isthmian games.[3]


getting there


People from the regions in the immediate vicinity no doubt took the land route, but, as the Isthmia was easily accessible by sea, the least difficult mode of travel, most others came by ship. Once disembarked, visitors had a short way to go by land, compared to the longer routes to Olympia and Nemea and the arduous ascent to Delphi. The islanders naturally took the sea route, as did the visitors from the overseas colonies, among them members of the high nobility and dynasts from  Western Greece, Cyrene, and Ionia. Thucydides (6.3.1) mentions the altar at which the official delegates from Sicily sacrificed to Apollo Archegetes before setting sail for the great Panhellenic festivals in old Greece. Even the Athenians, who practically lived next door, preferred to cross the Saronic Gulf in their theoric ship, rather than travel to the Isthmus by land. Plutarch mentions the ship and says that the official Athenian delegation received as much sitting room in the front rows as the ship?s mainsail could cover. There was, however, one occasion when the Athenians arrived by land and under armed escort. The story as told by an ancient commentator on a speech of Demosthenes has it that at some unknown time the Corinthians invited all the Greeks to the  festivities on the Isthmus, except the Athenians, with whom they were angry. The god-fearing Athenians nevertheless sent the customary offerings for Poseidon to the Isthmus, but they sent them escorted by a detachment of heavily armed hoplites. The hoplites were to see if the Corinthians would allow them to enter the sanctuary and offer the sacrifices, in which case they were to avoid a confrontation and to return home peacefully. When the Corinthians saw the battalion of armed men, they gave the Athenians entry into the sanctuary; the y observed the rites and went back to Athens without having to fight. 

The delegates (theoroi) of whom Thucydides speaks and others like them were officials appointed by the state to represent it. They formed a special group different from the ordinary visitors who went to watch the competitions and to enjoy the festival. The official theoria brought with it the supplies and equipment necessary for its stay and for the ceremonial functions at the festival site. It was thus splendidly equipped, for one of the tasks of sacred embassies was to display the wealth and power of the homeland, to show the flag. After the delegates arrived at the festival site they began the customary religious observances:  they formed a procession and moved to the shrine of the chief deity bearing the various gifts and offerings needed for the performance of  the obligatory sacrifices.[4]



staying there


So many people gathered  in the vicinity of the sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus that the overcrowding became dangerous to their  health. The time of the Isthmian games came to be regarded as a time of illness; the verb isthmiasdein, "staying on the Isthmus", or "celebrating the Isthmian festival",  became a proverbial saying for being ill.

The overcrowding was due to the need to accommodate very many visitors in a very cramped place at the narrowest part of the land bridge. The usual accommodation was tents, which spectators and competitors alike apparently brought with them. In a passage of the Peace (879-880) one of the servants demonstrates to the audience in the usual off-color manner of Aristophanes how he is taking up space (katalambanein) for his tent at the Isthmia for the duration of the games. The scholiast on the passage explains that as the place was very narrow, visitors must reserve space in advance (prokatalambanein) in which to pitch their tents. If people failed to do so, they had no place to stay.  In the play the servant more than hints at certain activities that took place during the festival, to which we will return later; for the moment we may point out that Aristophanes wrote another comedy with the title The Ladies Who Take up Residence in Tents.  More will be said later about this play as well.

Tents were probably the normal accommodation also at Delphi and Nemea. For Olympia we have explicit information. There visitors, including the members of official delegations, stayed in tents on land set aside especially for this purpose in the plain outside the sanctuary.  Pseudo-Andocides (4.30) reports that the Ephesians gave Alcibiades a tent twice as large as that of their own official delegation.  From this we may infer that tents served as the lodging of official delegations to the Isthmian games as well.[5]



two remarks about the sports


i. regattas


The athletic program of the Isthmian Games consisted essentially of the same events as the programs of the other three festivals:  chariot races, horse races, foot races, the pancration, wrestling, boxing, the pentathlon, etc. One more contest should very likely be added to this list.

We can be reasonably certain that a ship race was a part of the program at the Isthmia. In an Isthmian ode (5. 4-5) Pindar speaks of ships and chariots competing (erisdomenai) with each other in fast-swirling races (hamillaisi). Both Greek words, and especially hamilla, are standard words for competing and races, whether with ships, or chariots, or mules. Bury speculated that Pindar is speaking of sea battles and battles with chariots.  But Wilamowitz and Farnell favored regattas,  and in the context of an Isthmian ode regattas are much more plausible: with so many visitors arriving by ship it would not be unnatural to expect a ship race. There is, moreover, explicit ancient evidence for regattas. At the inauguration of the Isthmian games, according to Dio Chrysostom (Orat. 37.15), a regatta was one of the competitions, which the Argo commanded by Jason won.  Jason and the Argo are figures of legend, but there is no reason to doubt the reality of the ship race, as there is no reason to doubt the reality of the Isthmian or Olympic Games, even though their founders are legendary. Plutarch, in a passage explaining that at one time the Isthmian victory crown had been parsley rather than pine, says that the flagship of Antigonus Gonatas once spontaneously sprouted  parsley from its afterdeck. The connection of the victory plant with a ship in this story also suggests that ships raced and won races during the Isthmian games.[6]


ii. horse races


The contests that excited the greatest interest were the chariot and horse races.  Horses were expensive and only the rich could keep them; this must have been especially true of thoroughbred race horses. Although owners from many parts of the Greek world entered their horses in the races, it was the competitors from the more distant regions of Greece itself and from the Greek colonies overseas who won the most victories the Deinomenids and Emmenids from Magna Graecia, for example, and competitors from northern Greece and Cyrene in North Africa. This is easily seen from the countries of the victors in the epinician odes of Pindar and Bacchylides, and it is understandable because the outlying regions also had the best horse-breeding grounds.

It appears to be an unexpressed assumption that competitors from overseas conveyed their horses in ships every time they attended the various games on the mainland. But the transport of horses in ships over long distances seems to have been a difficult and hazardous business. During the Peloponnesian War the Athenians had no difficulty in transporting cavalry to nearby places, such as the Corinthia.  But the attempt to send thirty horses in triremes converted into horse transports to Sicily in 415 b.c. was not successful. The horses never reached their destination; Thucydides says nothing about them later on, and before Syracuse the Athenians had no horses. Their loss prompted Athens afterwards to send only the cavalrymen and to buy horses for them in Sicily.

The risk to the horses that the Athenian experience indicates was also faced by the colonists from overseas traveling to Greece by ship. Their horses were of course fewer, and so more easily transported; on the other hand, they were far more valuable, and had to be carried in slower ships at frequent intervals. Standing in a ship?s hold for long periods of time reduced the animals? muscle mass and so the chances of winning a race. All this suggests that in order to avoid the hazards of sea travel and damage to the horses, competitors from overseas stabled and pastured their race horses in the vicinity of the festival sites, including the Isthmia, as the following considerations suggest.

When Pindar says that Xenocrates of Acragas ?practiced horse-keeping according to Panhellenic custom? (Isthm. 2. 38), his expression may also mean that Xenocrates kept his race horses somewhere in the Panhellenic place (nomoi), i.e. on the Isthmus, where the presiding deity was also the god of horses. We may compare Bacchylides 13. 197-8:  ?he  crowned?at the  games?. This is local and corresponds closely to  the phrase in Pindar where, since the poet wrote nomos without the accent mark, the noun could also mean district, region. Against this reading and meaning are the verses of Euripides (Suppliants 526-7) ?I deem it right to give burial and thereby observe  the custom of all the Greeks? and (Suppliants 671-2) ?wishing to bury, observing the custom of all Greeks?. There was, as a matter of historical fact, a custom common to all Greeks  of burying the dead, be they old or young, rich or poor, Athenians or Thebans. But to say that there was an all-Greek custom of keeping horses, as nomos in the passage  has been taken to mean, would be something of an exaggeration.  Horses were not raised in every region, or by members of all social classes. It was the aristocrats who could afford to keep horses and mostly the older men among them, whose estates had increased with the passing of the years, who entered horses in the races.  The logical consequences of en Panhellanon nomoi (in the Panhellenic district) should perhaps not be pressed too much because in the older literature the name may sometimes be used in the wide sense of ?Greeks?. But even with the plain ethnic sense there is a difference between a Greek custom of horse-breeding and a Greek custom of burying the dead.

The phrase nomisdein nomon (to observe a custom, as in Gorgias Fr. 6 D.-K.) is a figura etymologica.  The expression with nomos as the figure, though less usual, is more original, and for this reason deliberate: Xenocrates was doing the customary thing in the customary place, the original meaning of nomos. The expression calls to mind the ?accustomed places of horses? in  Iliad. 6.511. The assumption that in line 38 the scene is the Isthmus helps explain the presence in the passage of the past tenses which  will be considered in the more appropriate section on banquets below.[7]


forms of entertainment


The athletic contests provided an important part of the entertainment, and they were the main spectacle that people came to see. But there were other attractions too. The various forms of amusement and higher entertainment available to us today take place at different times and in different venues:  sports events usually take place on weekends, parades on holidays. Theaters which we attend at night or at matinées are nowhere near stadiums;  music is performed in concert halls. Religious observances are entirely disconnected from any of these activities. The vague counterpart of the ancient symposium, the cocktail party, is generally a separate affair, as is dining out. But in antiquity all these separate occasions of religious worship, spiritual edification, and social diversion were combined and available to people at one place over a period of several days. At a festival like the Isthmian visitors were offered athletics and culture, drama and dancing, music, poetry and oratory, religion and sociability, ceremony and conviviality. The physical and the intellectual, the visual and the acoustic, the common and the artistic all found expression during the festival.

All this justifies Nietzsche?s observation that in antiquity people expended limitless energy and inventiveness to increase the enjoyment of life by means of festive cults.[8]


processions and parades


Processions and parades had a religious character and were also a part of the visual entertainment at the various games. They certainly took place at the Isthmia: the inscriptions dealing with  the activity of the  artists of  Isthmia and Nemea record poet-composers specializing in the composition of processional songs - sufficient evidence for processions in general at the Isthmian Games. The records of the artists begin in the third century b.c., but we may safely assume that processions were a regular part of the festivities long before that time. 

Upon arrival at the festival site on the Isthmus the official delegation made its way to the temple of the chief deity, Poseidon, in a sacred procession (pomp?).  On entering the sanctuary the members of the procession beheld a scene which, even in the prosaic description of  the traveler Pausanias (2.1.7), was a visual delight: a row of statues representing victorious athletes lined  the sacred way on one side, on the other side a file of pine trees shooting straight up in the air bordered  the road. In the distance beyond were visible the temple, and the theater and stadium, both of which were of white marble in the time of Pausanias.  As they walked along the sacred road the marchers sang  the processional song to the music of lyres or more likely of pipes, the pipe being  regarded as the proper instrument for processions to the temples and altars of the gods.   

We may complete the picture drawn so far by looking at some reports of processions at other festivals. Heliodorus (Aethiopica 3.1-3) gives an account of a procession on its way to Delphi. His narrative is late, seems somewhat embellished, and does not pertain to the Isthmia, but it does give us an impression of the pageantry which the ancient spectators watched. It is quoted strictly exempli  gratia here, to help us visualize what may have been taking place on the Isthmus as well.

At the head of the procession walk the sacrificial animals, a hundred black oxen with horns that are gilded or wound with garlands of flowers. They are led by countrymen dressed in white and holding double axes in their right hands. Behind the oxen follow different kinds of animals destined for sacrifice.  After the animals and the herdsmen come young women wearing their best finery. On their heads they carry baskets filled with fruits and flowers, and sweets and aromatic substances. The train progresses to the accompaniment of flutes and pipes. The women in one group perform dancing movements as they walk along, those in another group sing a hymn in time with their steps.  The rear guard is brought up by horsemen dressed in crimson, white, and blue, riding horses with gold and silver trappings.   

If the practice at other festivals was followed, the musical contests on the Isthmus opened with a procession, headed by a priest, of the entire body of musicians chanting a song especially composed for the occasion.  At Olympia in the fifth century the games officially opened with a procession of the racing chariots entering  the hippodrome headed by the judges, a herald, and a trumpeter. A similar parade may have inaugurated the Isthmian games. Also from Olympia is the report by Pseudo-Andocides (4.29) about a victory parade held by a private person. After his chariot team won the first prize, ?Alcibiades asked the leaders of the Athenian deputation to lend him the processional vessels, alleging that he intended to use them for a celebration of his victory on the day before the sacrifice; he then abused the trust placed in him and refused to return them, as he wanted to use the golden basins and censers next day before Athens did so?. The result of Alcibiades? conduct was that ?the state procession took place after that of Alcibiades,? and Athens became the laughing stock of the assembled visitors. It is not clear whether such private victory parades were customary at all the festivals, or whether Alcibiades? behavior (if it is historical) was another instance of his excesses. There is no evidence for parades by victors at the Isthmia, but no doubt enough processions were held there to add to the visual enjoyment of the visitors.[9] 


the higher entertainment


i. drama


About dramatic performances we are on firmer ground. A theater was built at the Isthmia at the end of the fifth century and replaced by a permanent structure in stone at the end of the fourth.  The presence of a theater is evidence guaranteeing the performance of plays; in the records of the Isthmian guild of festival artists, organized in the third century, we find producers of plays and dramatic actors specializing in tragic and comic roles.  These artists plied their trade independently already in the fourth century, for they are mentioned by Demosthenes (19.192-93) and by Aristotle (Pr. 30.10, 956 b 11), who disapproved of them because he thought many of them depraved. The full name of the new association was the Artists of the Isthmus and Nemea. As their name indicates, the artists performed at the games on the Isthmus; in fact, they became a guild when they first convened to perform there. When the guild began to perform  at Nemea, that name was added to the title.  The guild was independent of any state, and its members did what they were commissioned to do by each place where they performed. Unlike some of the other guilds of this kind, the Isthmian was composed of Greeks from the most diverse regions of Greece and was active in all parts of the country, in many of which it also established branches.  The guild?s association with the Isthmus was more prominent than with Nemea, so that Poland, the author of the most comprehensive studies of this and the other guilds, can routinely call it the Isthmian.

In the records of the guild the actors are outnumbered by practitioners of other performing arts, such as music soloists and choral dancers. Evidently plays were beginning to lose some of their popularity in the third century; already in the previous century Aristotle (Rh. 3.1, 1403 b 33) had remarked that the actors (i.e. the quality of the performances) were becoming more important than the poets (i.e. the creation of original plays). The result in the long term of this change in taste and interest was that eventually some of the classical plays came to be adapted and set to music (see below). Nevertheless, new dramas continued to be written and old ones performed. Audiences at the Isthmian festival could see the new plays, or they could treat themselves to the masterpieces of Attic tragedy and comedy of the preceding centuries, which recreated the old stories and represented the clash of heroic personalities arguing their cases with each other. Spectators could watch the dancing of the dramatic choruses and listen to their chants; they could admire the actors? new costumes the Isthmian guild included costumers and  debate whose was the best; the costumers competed  for prizes like all other artists. In later times they could criticize the paintings on the theatrical backdrops. Every one of these artistic expressions was at the same time a contest between single performers or whole groups of artists competing for the top prizes, a circumstance which made performances doubly interesting and added to the excitement of watching the plays.

One dramatic form maintained itself and even flourished in the centuries after 300 b.c. This was the satyr play. Its continuation in the later Hellenistic age is attested in literature and in art, and it certainly continued to be performed at the Isthmia: there are several poets of satyr plays among the artists of the Isthmian guild. This is of some interest because Aeschylus wrote a satyr play with the title Theoroi or Isthmiastai, i.e. participants in the Isthmian festival. The play was presumably written for the Athenian stage, but the title and the extant fragments plainly show that its mise en scène was the Isthmia at the time of  the games. The plot apparently revolved around the attempt of Dionysus? satyrs to compete as athletes in the games rather than as dancers on the stage (see below). The topical allusions in the fragments suggest that Aeschylus was writing for an audience quite familiar with the Isthmia, as might be expected in view of the popularity of the festival at Athens. The possibility cannot be excluded that Isthmiastai was written for the festival, or at any rate performed on that occasion, even without the convenience of a proper theater, for Aeschylus is known to have written plays for performance abroad.[10] 


ii. dance


That most ancient form of divine worship and human entertainment, the choral dance represented on geometric vases long before the advent of drama, at a very early time became a main feature of the major Panhellenic festivals, where it was performed to music and the chanting of poetry in a manner similar to modern ballet.  Thucydides (3.104), quoting the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo as evidence, says that dancing, performed by women on Delos, was a part of the earliest Ionian festival on the island.  

The fragments of Aeschylus? Isthmiastai tell us that choral dancing was one of the artistic events of the festival in the early fifth century; we may be sure that it was a feature of the presentations long before that.  In the play the satyrs have come to the Isthmus, apparently as members of a sacred embassy, in order to dance in the choruses of their master Dionysus. He calls on the people to attend the performances, and they begin gathering to see ?the double rows of dancers.? But the spectators will be disappointed, for the satyrs have decided to compete in the athletic events and are training their muscles instead of practising their dance steps. Dionysus  scolds them  for  wasting his money;  the satyrs, after escaping from their master for a while, give up their athletic ambitions, return to Dionysus, and presumably dance the dances expected of them.

If in later times Isthmiastai was performed at the festival, along with the other Attic plays, one dance that the audience of visitors got to see was the ?horned owl? dance. It is mentioned in one of the fragments of the play and is explained by later sources: the satyrs twist and wriggle their necks like owls, which perform such movements when they are caught.  A second explanation of the dance was that the dancers gazed into the distance with their hands curved high above their foreheads, thus, apparently, imitating horned owls.  Another dance that the satyrs were supposed to do in the play may have been the dithyramb. This dance was a specialty of theirs, since it represented the adventures of their master Dionysus. It probably was a popular feature at the festival, because the Corinthia and neighboring Sicyon were the birthplaces of the dithyramb. Audiences were thus treated to the spectacle of choruses dancing and singing to the music of lyres and pipes played by virtuosi dressed in the splendid ornamental robes that Herodotus? Arion (1.24.4-5) wore, and which are visible on some of the vase paintings in Bieber.

Dancing retained its popularity for centuries to come. The records of the Isthmian festival artists mention chorus members and chorus directors (didaskaloi). But while during the earlier eras dancing had always been the chief event for which the music was only accompaniment, sometime in the fifth century the music began to predominate over the dance; by the third century b.c. the musicians had entirely replaced the dancers as the main performers in the ensemble.[11]


iii. music and recitations to music


It has often been observed that since they included singing and dancing, the dramatic performances in Greece resembled modern opera more than modern drama. Like the dance and other public performances the recitation of poetry was also accompanied by music. From the archaic age onwards  musical recitals were a feature of  public gatherings such as festivals. The words that the music accompanied were in the main poems by the lyric poets of Greece, although the performing artist was sometimes both the poet and the composer. In the fourth century parts of hexameter poetry, Homer?s for example, and some elegiac verse were also sung. The music to which the singer performed was either that of the lyre or of the pipe (kitharodic and aulodic recitals). Musicians also performed in purely instrumental concerts (kitharistic and auletic recitals). As in the case of the dance, beginning in the fifth century the musical element began to displace the literary text in importance, and by the third century the music was predominant over the words.

The reports that we have about these musical forms and performers suggest in their volume and detail that all four types of recitals had always been popular and widespread. In view of this it seems most unlikely that there were no musical competitions at the Isthmian festival before 300 b.c., and there is some evidence to suggests that instrumental music was an early feature of Isthmian concerts. According to Athenaeus (14.635 a, f), the Hellenistic poet, librarian, and historian of culture Euphorion, who lived in the third century b.c., wrote a treatise ?On the Isthmian Games? in which he discussed the antiquity and names of some string instruments. Presumably he became interested in the topic precisely because instrumental music was an ancient feature of the festival at the Isthmus. Again, one of the fragments of  Aeschylus? Isthmiastai and later explanations of it suggest that in the tragedian?s time audiences may have heard duets played by a lyre player and a piper.

After 300 b.c. visitors had the opportunity to attend competitions of vocalists and instrumentalists, as the records of the Isthmian guild reveal. Artists of both types continued to perform and compete in the following centuries, while the wind instruments, represented by trumpeters in the guild, with their fanfares helped the heralds announce the various events.

The names of two musicians who performed on the Isthmus may be mentioned here. One, Nikokles, son of Aristokles, was a kitharode who won first prize for his performance and was honored for it in an Athenian inscription from the third century b.c. The other, Aristomache of Erythrae, is more interesting, because her example shows not only that women were present at the Isthmia, but also that they were free to participate in the artistic competitions. Aristomache twice won prizes in the singing of epic poetry some time in the third century b.c., or perhaps earlier, and dedicated a golden tablet commemorating her victories in the treasury of the Sicyonians at Delphi. We do not know if the epics she  chanted were her own compositions or the work of others, nor do we know if she was a member of the Isthmian guild.[12] 


iv. oratorical competitions


As international figures welcomed practically everywhere the sophists of the fifth century regularly visited the great festivals and held forth there. For the orators among them the festivals presented an excellent opportunity for displaying their skill. As public speakers they  considered themselves to be performers in the tradition of the rhapsodes, and some even dressed like rhapsodes. Like all other performers at the festivals, the rhetoricians were engaged in contests and competed for prizes. We have a piece of evidence showing that rhetorical disquisitions could be presented at the Isthmian games as early as the fifth century b.c.

According to Diogenes Laertius (6.2), the Cynic philosopher Antisthenes (ca. 450-360 b.c.) once announced his intention to make public speeches alternately criticizing and praising the Athenians, Thebans, and  Spartans. But when he saw that quite a few citizens from each of these countries were present at the Isthmia, he changed his mind and declined to speak. This is a pity, for had Antisthenes had the courage to give them, his orations, and especially the criticism in them, should have held considerable entertainment value for the audience.[13] 


v. painting contests


For the earlier eras we have only references in Latin authors. Pliny says that in the fifth century competitions in painting were instituted at Delphi and at Corinth, by which he presumably means the Isthmian festival.  In the first competition, during the Pythian games, Timagoras of Chalkis defeated Panaenus, the distinguished Athenian painter and relative of Phidias, who may have painted the battle of Marathon in the Stoa Poikile. A few chapters later he mentions another competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two other famous painters of the classical period. Pliny?s reference to an ancient poem by Timagoras relating his victory over Panaenus lends some support to the supposition that the fifth-century painting contests are historical.[14]  Quintilian (Inst. Or. 2.13.13) also mentions painting contests but neither author says what was painted and on what. A painter is recorded in an Isthmian inscription from the Roman Imperial period; for a suggestion about his artistic medium see below.


pleasures of the flesh


i. banquets


Thucydides? Alcibiades (6.16.2) boasts that after winning with his chariots at Olympia he provided everything necessary to celebrate his victory in a manner worthy of it.  What he provided were the feasts that he gave after the contests. The custom of dining and wining many people, and the large amounts of money spent on such occasions, are well attested.  Most of the reports are about Olympia, and the egregious Alcibiades, whose lust for fame and profligacy with money attracted the attention of later writers.

We hear, for instance, that Alcibiades dined and wined the whole gathering, as did another Olympic victor, Leophron. The Ephesians erected a tent for Alcibiades? parties which was twice as large as that of their own official delegation; they also decorated it magnificently. The Chians presented him with many animals for sacrifice, to be roasted on the altars and consumed by his guests, while the Lesbians sent him wine and other provisions for the great parties that he gave to the assembled multitudes. Another great host was Anaxilas, the tyrant of Rhegium. When he dined and wined all the Greeks assembled at Olympia by way of celebrating a victory with his team of mules, someone asked him how he would celebrate if he had won a horse race. There is also a story that Empedocles of Akragas, being a Pythagorean, made an ox from myrrh, frankincense, and other costly spices, and divided it among the people.  

These reports are late, no doubt exaggerated, and perhaps even unhistorical. Still, they suggest that the festivities after a victory were on a grand scale, with the very rich giving the most lavish banquets, as one might expect. We do not know if states matched the extravagance of the wealthy private hosts; all that we can say is that the leaders of the official delegations (architheoroi) were expected to see to it that their theoria was as impressive as possible. The theoroi from Aineia already mentioned brought the wherewithal for the banquets and other social events with them: many head of cattle and other animals, fruit, sweetmeats, flowers etc. The ordinary visitor, too, came in for his share of food and drink; Plutarch (Mor.1102 a) speaks about  the abundance of wine and barbecued meat offered at the festivals.  

It is quite possible that the dinners and other hospitality after a great victory at the Isthmian games were on a similarly grand scale. Pindar (Ol. 8.52) calls Corinth ?famous for its feasts,? and feasting at the Isthmia very likely contributed to that fame. The Attic comic poets occasionally mention food and drink at the Isthmus; the scholiast on the ?Isthmia passage? in the Peace of Aristophanes speaks of the preparation there of a sauce or soup from the beef of the sacrificial animal. If  Xenophanes in Pindar?s  Second Isthmian Ode (lines 37-42) kept his race horses somewhere in the Isthmia, as was suggested above, the hospitality for which the poet praises him also takes place there, for both acts are linked together in the same context of the poem.  ?May I now?, says Pindar in paraphrase, ?prove myself in my song just as much as he [Xenocrates] has proved himself in his conduct at some time in the past. For he then surpassed all men in kindness, and in the company of his fellow citizens was respectful of them. He welcomed all the banquets of the gods, so that the fame of his hospitality reached the ends of the world?.  The poet, in short, is comparing his own performance and Xenocrates? performance, a very large part of which was his hospitality. Several critics assume that the past tenses in this section of the ode indicate that Xenocrates was dead  when the poem was written; this assumption, which is unsupported by evidence, becomes unnecessary if the scene of lines 35-42  is the Isthmus. There is, moreover, an exact parallel for the hospitality of Xenocrates: Plutarch, who himself was entertained at dinner by the chief priest of Poseidon during the Isthmian games, records that during the games the rhetorician Sospis several times gave banquets to his fellow citizens (Mor. 675 d; 723 a ).  It might be added that had the location of Xenocrates? great dinners been Akragas, the poet need not have mentioned the man?s fellow citizens; in his native city Xenocrates was after all always among his fellow citizens. The elaborate nautical metaphor in the passage, evoking the crossing of sea routes, also suggests that the scene is the Isthmia rather than Akragas. There it makes sense to speak of a man being among his fellow townsmen, for the place was full of foreigners from all parts of the Greek world. Finally, it was precisely at the Panhellenic gatherings, as the anecdotes about Alcibiades and other victors show, that private persons, and states as well, liked to show off their generosity with lavish banquets.

The archaeological finds, though incapable of establishing direct connections to specific events, at least do not contradict the literary sources. Quantities of plain and decorated household ware have been found at the festival site in the excavations of the American School. Stronger support for banquets is provided by the two caves in the immediate vicinity of  Poseidon?s precinct, which Broneer uncovered in the course of his investigations. The chambers inside the caves served as dining rooms equipped with couches and tables and a niche for wine jars. A kitchen (perhaps two) located nearby contained cooking pots blackened by fire, ashes, and many other items of kitchenware necessary for the preparation and consumption of food: mortars, large pitchers, a casserole, various jugs, some mixing bowls, and much else of the kind. Facilities for washing dishes, along with drains and pits for the disposal of garbage, were also available on the site.

Broneer believed that the caves, being too small to have been public dining rooms, were used for cult banquets given to devotees of  Dionysus. These could not have been the Isthmian festival artists, because when their guild was formed in the third century, the caves were no longer in use.  Broneer therefore suggested that some other religious brotherhood, perhaps also devoted to Dionysos, dined there. His suggestion may well be right, although other possible users can be imagined. There is no indication that the caves were restricted to religious groups; victorious athletes or the officials running the festival may have held their banquets in them. This was the practice at Olympia. Pausanias (5.15.12) informs us that there the officials feasted the victorious athletes in a special banqueting room, located in the administration building (the prytaneum). It may be that grandees like Alcibiades rented the dining rooms in the caves for their more intimate dinners and symposia, for which these spaces were quite suitable. While the rich and powerful feasted the masses in the huge tents specially erected for the purpose, the ordinary visitor took his regular daily meals in the tent where he stayed.[15]


ii. symposia


It is a natural inference from the festive character of the occasion and from the quantities of wine brought along by the visitors that drinking parties were held at the various games. Pindar alludes to symposia in the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian odes; other sources mention them at Olympia.  Given the level of education and interests of the majority of visitors for whom the sports were the main attraction, more often than not these drinking parties very likely were of the sort that Plato (Prot. 347 c-d) ascribes to the common people frequenting the market place: uneducated folk of earthy tastes who could do without intellectual talk, but not without flute girls, dancing girls, silliness, and jokes. On the other hand, sophists, including Socrates, and playwrights like Aeschylus also attended, as we have seen. No doubt there were also present men like Alcibiades, taking an interest both in  athletic competition and philosophical discussion. In short, there was also an intellectual audience at the games, whose members were capable of elevated talk at a gathering like that in Plato?s Symposium.[16]  


iii. amorous pursuits


Corinth in antiquity was famous for its ladies of easy virtue; it was a sailors? town with two harbors; it was also a site of sacred prostitution. We learn from Athenaeus (13. 574 b) that the prostitutes celebrated their own special festival of Aphrodite.  Pindar (Fr. 130 T.) wrote an encomium for the Corinthian Xenocrates, who had vowed to donate one hundred young women to the goddess to be her servants, if he should be victorious in the Olympic games. The most famous prostitutes were Corinthians, as for instance Lais, and  Corinthian women in general had a reputation for being dissolute. The saying ?it is not for every man to go to Corinth? was a half-serious warning about becoming a victim in sexual encounters, which tells us that some people at any rate did go there for the specific purpose. The work done by the American School has revealed the remains of a tavern to which professional ladies (and perhaps amateurs too) resorted in order to meet admirers. Its excavator, C. H. Morgan, justly remarks that ?the agreeable hospitality of a tavern has been a favored place for such acquaintanceship since history began?. Among the admirers patronizing the tavern may have been visitors to the Isthmian games, including Athenians, who had decided to pay a visit to the great city nearby. This is a plausible assumption because Corinth derived considerable income from the crowds attending the games, and some of this revenue must have been money which visitors to the Isthmia spent in the city itself. What is certain is that the ladies of Corinth and their profession were a favorite topic of Athenian comic poets, a fact implying that the subject held a particular fascination for their audience. This is especially true of Middle Comedy, in which Corinthian prostitution is mentioned most frequently: ?for the sheer number of references to Corinthian prostitution, especially considering its entirely fragmentary condition, Middle Comedy is remarkable?.

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