BMCR 2021.05.33

Les hippodromes et les concours hippiques dans la Grèce antique

, , Les hippodromes et les concours hippiques dans la Grèce antique. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Supplément 62. Athènes: École française d’Athènes, 2019. Pp. 494. ISBN 9782869583139 €50,00.

Open Access
[Authors and titles listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the product of a 2016 conference in Athens and is a most welcome cache of research on the topic of Greek equestrian competition. This area has long received only minimal treatment in the field of Greek sports, in contrast to Roman equestrian events and sites, studied e.g. by Humphrey and Maijer and Walters.[1] The collection is timely in light of recent scholarly advances on the locations of hippodromes, epigraphic evidence, the roles of officials and benefactors, hippotrophy, animal transport, and other aspects. There are here a total of twenty-eight contributions: fourteen in English, eight in French, and six in Modern Greek, each with a resumé in the same language. Of particular importance are the studies locating the sites of hippodromes, those discussing the practical aspects of organization and the varieties of events, and studies offering insights into the literary and inscriptional texts. Illustrations, maps, and tables are amply supplied. We review the work in the order of its four logical divisions of topics, highlighting points of interest.

Hippodromes and Greek Hippic Events
Pre-Greek equestrian events in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly those of the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and pre-8th c. Greeks, are surveyed by the eminent late sport historian Wolfgang Decker. Egypt attests athletic pharaohs, including Tu’tankahmūn and Amenophis II, but no hippic contests as such. Tablets of the Hittities (fl. 1899-1200) evidence the racing of horses for prizes, overseen by the king. Aside from the extended narrative of a horse race in Iliad 23, we can add that images of chariot racing, either at funeral games or other festivals, often depicted on Geometric vases of the 8th c., are not likely to be mythical images, and far outnumber scenes of other sports on vases in that period.[2]

Next come a series of original and important studies on the locations of the hippodromes at major non-Panhellenic sites, namely by D. Romano on Mt. Lykaion, V. Lamprinodakis and E. Kazolias on Epidauros, A. Matthaiou on Athens, J.-C. Moretti on Delos, and P. Themelis on Messene. Mt. Lykaion is the only Greek hippodrome now excavated, established sometime after the 7th c. BCE and flourishing in the 4th–3rd c. BCE, when it was a cult centre for the Arcadian Federation. At Epidauros, archaeologists have found traces of walls and a boundary stone (ca. 400 BCE) at the probable site of the hippodrome, 300 m. long and 118 m. wide, dating from the 5th to 3rd c. BCE. Athens’ Panathenaic hippodrome is located somewhere near the sanctuary of Tetrakomos Herakles in the Piraeus, indicated in part by a reference in Xenophon to a post-race party nearby (Sym. 1.2). On Delos, the long west side of the course, 300 m. by 95 m., is established by a western terrace wall (probably built for Athens’ 5th c. reinstitution of the games), by a well for horses in the likely starting area in the southwest corner, and by a curvilinear northern end. The Delos facility was in a sporting quadrant, bordered by luxurious palaestras to the west, and a gymnasium and seafront stadium to the northeast. The Messenian hippodrome is located south of the stadium and palaestra, where horses were bred and trained for contests and military use, recalling the practice in Athens since the Hellenistic era. In Larisa, at the center of Thessalian horse breeding, there was a Boioun (“cattle pasture”) of Hipparchos, an agora of animals at the edge of the city which served as the hippodrome for festivals, notably the Eleutheria, but was otherwise used as an animal market. Unique festival events included an amphippodromia in which riders leapt from one horse to another at full gallop, and the taurothēria and taurokathapsia, bull-rodeo sports from horseback. The aptly named Hippiatros was a horse veterinarian appointed by the city (IG IX 2, 69).

This section ends with a very useful review by O. Vizienou of the epigraphic testimony for hippodromes and hippic agōnes. It reveals the geographic and chronological extent of the phenomena, a collection of 350 inscriptions in sum dating from the 6th c. BCE to the 7th c. CE, noting 37 reports of hippodromes of various cities. There are few documents for the 6th–5th c. BCE, a significant increase in the 4th c., then a climax in the 3rd–2nd c. BCE, and a sharp reduction in the 1st c. and thereafter. This may reflect inscriptional habits rather than the fluctuation of hippic activity. Hippodromes are attested in many more cities than are treated in detail in other chapters here, including ones in Argos, Pergamum, Boeotia, Ankyra, two in Apollonia of Phrygia, Rhodes, and the “Roman type” in Carthage. The richest known equestrian program is that of the 2nd c. BCE Panathenaia, including a contest of “a chariot with foals who have not yet lost their foal teeth” (polōn abolōn harma; IG II2 2326). Sarrazanas’ later chapter reminds us that at Olympia the task of judging the age of horses was assigned by the Hellanodikai to subordinates (Paus. 5.24.10). The Spartan victory monument of Damonon and his son lists over sixty victories, mostly in hippic events, dated to shortly after 400 BCE. Christesen’s recent monograph authoritatively treats this text.[3]

But where was the Spartan hippodrome? Fuller discussion of the locations of other known hippodromes across the Greek world, e.g., at Byzantium, Antioch, and Aphrodisias, is clearly beyond the scope of this volume. Yet chapter studies of the Panhellenic facilities at Nemea and Isthmia would have been welcome, alongside those afforded Olympia and Delphi.[4]

The Hippodromes of Olympia and Delphi
Relying on an 11th/12th c. CE codex from the Seraglio, W. Petermandl convincingly demonstrates that the Olympic hippodrome was originally four stades long. B. Dimde and C. Flämig propose an ingenious and plausible reconstruction of the hippaphesis (starting gate) for the Olympic hippodrome described at some length by Pausanias, whereby ropes and counterweights release the gates in sequence via the torsion of a hysplex mechanism.

M. Litsa recounts the first steps toward the current search for the Delphic hippodrome by recounting travelers’ first attempts in the 15th to 19th centuries. Might the famous description of a Pythian chariot race in Sophocles’ Electra have prompted this flurry of interest? A. Perrier and A. Chabrol offer an original and enlightening exposition of the literary, epigraphic, topographic and geological evidence for the location of the Delphic hippodrome, which, they argue, points to an area extending 900 m. x 150 m., known as Psylē rachē, or “High Ridge”, situated along the course of an ancient road and with water available. P. Valavanis offers an attractive alternative, namely at a site on the western Cirra plain just north of Itea, where the archaic stadium may have shared the space, arguably the first “hippo-stadium” prior to those in the Roman era. Both essays suggest locations offering sufficient space and a water source for animals, Perrier-Chabrol’s being closer to the sanctuary proper, but Valavanis’ having a carved outcrop for seating, a possible column turning post, and enough additional space for the archaic stadium.

Horse Racing and Horses
This section ranges from literary studies on Pindar (N. Le Meur), drama (N. Manousakis), and Posidippus (C. Mann and F. Cannali de Rossi) to organizational pragmatics. Though Pindar’s eighteen odes to hippic victors constitute over a third of his epinician corpus, few factual details can be gleaned. Interestingly only two odes are for mounted horse racing, and notably none for Spartan victors, despite their many victories at Olympia (Le Meur). Perhaps this reflects a Laconian aversion to kudos for individual victors. Manousakis discusses the narrower theme of agonistic imagery for Orestes in drama; contextualizing this in the wider athletic imagery of drama would be desirable.[5] C. Sarrazanas’ important discussion of those organizing hippic contests observes that the agonothetes, who financed contests, were generally less interested in equestrian events since the sparse and temporary structures offered less visibility for their euergetic efforts. S. Zipprich discusses the logistical requirements of food, water, and boxes for transporting race horses from Sicily to the Olympic Games. A direct sea route could be completed in less than a week (2–3 days sailing, and 2–3 by land) without any particular disadvantages. J.-M. Roubineau’s study of spectator reactions finds little difference between those at hippic and gymnic events, but one misses here a discussion of active spectator engagement in the locus classicus, Iliad 23.

C. Chandezon explores the tension or complementarity between the equine cultures of war horse (hippos polemistērios) and race horse (hippos athlētēs, agōnistēs, hamillētērios). The Peloponnese consistently focused on contests, while Athens and elsewhere adopted cavalries whose practice overlapped with contests. S. A. Fritzilas usefully discusses horse brand marks and analyses an inventory of Athenian cavalry horses on 4th to 3rd c. lead tablets from the Kerameikos and Agora, noting that the same horses had military and agonistic uses.

Of the eighteen epigrams (originally victory inscriptions) in Poseidippos’ Hippika, C. Mann interrogates the intertextuality of three poems with Homer and Pindar, enhancing their literary importance. Poem 71 notes a “double” victory for both horse and owner. The closeness of owners to their animals, at times even buried together, evidences genuine empathy with the equid. Examining Poseidippos’ epigrams honoring single race horses (kelēs), F. Canali De Rossi suggests that they celebrate earlier historical victors, e.g. Eubotas of Cyrene ca. 400 BCE, possibly inscribed on statue bases for horses commemorated much later at their breeding sites in Thessaly or the Peloponnese. S. Scharff traces the differing identity strategies of Ptolemaic, Attalid, and Thessalian hippic victors in Poseidippos’ Hippika.

Victors, Dedications, and Politics
A. Dimopoulou reviews how the wealthy and powerful promoted themselves and their city through equestrian victories, but mixes periods and regions without finer distinctions. Analysing the iconography of a stele base (Ath. N.M. 1464), A. Kosmopoulou importantly identifies it as the likely base for displaying the pinax celebrating Alcibiades’ (in)famous chariot victories of 416 BCE at Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea. I add only that the victor’s self-crowning on the relief is not an unusual self-promotion, but normal practice, e.g., on the “Getty Bronze.” H. Frielinghaus looks for votive dedications of hippic victories on the Athenian Acropolis in the Archaic and Classical periods, but finds very few despite the numerous victories then. No real explanation is offered for the discrepancy. F. G. Romero convincingly reconstructs the Thessalian aphippodromia and prosdromē contests mimicing military flight and pursuit on horseback, events that also advertised local horse breeding.

M. Schäfer pursues a link between Hermes and hippic contests, which is in the end not convincing. The god is often shown with chariots or horses, presumably from his association with transitions. Hermes has the title Hippios only once. He is often associated with agōnes, whence his titles Agōnios or Enagōnios, notably in gymnasia, which I suggest arise from his connection with tychê. The area of the Athenian Agora known as Hermai was a locus of cavalry training, but without agonistic connections. One would rather see here an essay on the closer hippic associations of Poseidon, Athena, and the Dioskouroi.

These fine specialist studies will, one hopes, pave the way for a comprehensive general study of Greek equestrian events and hippodromes.

Authors and titles

Hippodromes et concours hippiques grecs: Histoire de la recherche et nouvelles données
Wolfgang Decker, Documents of horse- and chariot-racing before the Greek agones
David Gilman Romano, The hippodrome and the equestrian contests at the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia
Βασίλης Λαµπρινουδaκης and Ευάγγελος Καζολιaς, Αναζήτηση των ιχνών του ιπποδρόµου του Ασκληπιείου τηςΕπιδαύρου
Ἄγγελος Π. Ματθαιου, Ὁ Ἱππόδροµος τῶν Ἀθηνῶν
Jean-Charles Moretti, L’hippodrome de Délos et ses usages
Πέτρος Γ. Θeµελης, Ιππικοί αγώνες στην αρχαία Μεσσήνη
Bruno Helly, Le « camp de l’hipparque » à Larisa: chevaux d’armes, chevaux de courses et concours hippiques pour les Thessaliens
Ουρανία Βιζυηνοy, Η επιγραφική µαρτυρία για τους ιπποδρόµους και τους ιππικούς αγώνες

Les hippodromes d’Olympie et de Delphes
Werner Petermandl, On the length of the Greek hippodrome
Barbara Dimde and Catharina Flämig, The aphesis of the Olympic hippodrome: Dimensions, design, technology
Myrto Litsa, Αναζητώντας τον ιππόδροµο των Δελφών: µαρτυρίες σεπεριηγητικά κείµενα (15ος-19ος αι.)
Amélie Perrier and Antoine Chabrol, Recherches historiques et géomorphologiques sur la localisation de l’hippodrome de Delphes
Πάνος Βαλαβανης, Ο ιππόδροµος, το αρχαϊκό στάδιο και τα δυτικά όρια της ιεράς χώρας των Δελφών

Les épreuves hippiques et les chevaux
Nadine Le Meur, Les odes hippiques de Pindare
Nikos Manousakis, The stray charioteer: Athletic connotations in the shaping of tragic Orestes
Clément Sarrazanas, Organisateurs de concours et épreuves hippiques
Sandra Zipprich, Logistics and requirements for overseas participants in the Olympic Games: The example of Sicily
Jean-Manuel Roubineau, Spectacle hippique et spectacle gymnique en Grèce ancienne: approche comparée et effet Carpentier
Christophe Chandezon, Le cheval de course: invention zootechnique ou création culturelle?
Stamatis A. Fritzilas, Samphoras and Κoppatias. The brand-name horses of Sikyon and Corinth
Christian Mann, Heroes and hooves: Outstanding horses in Posidippus’ Hippika
Filippo Canali De Rossi, Identification of some winners in the keles race in Posidippus’ epigrams
Sebastian Scharff, Virtual halls of fame. Imagined communities of equestrian victors in the Hellenistic period

Vainqueurs, dédicaces et politique
Athina Dimopoulou, Concours hippiques et politique: un sport d’élite, entre promotion personnelle et intérêt public
Angeliki Kosmopoulou, Too many horses: A dedication by Alcibiades revisited
Heide Frielinghaus, Agones hippikoi and votive offerings
Fernando García Romero, Ἀφιπποδροµά, προσδροµή, ἀφιππολαµπάς et σκοπὸς ἱππέων
Martin Schäfer, Ἑρµῆς Ἵππιος. Hermes and his association with horses


[1] John Humphrey, Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; Fik Meijer and Liz Waters. Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

[2] T. P. J. Perry, 54–56 in P. Christesen and D. Kyle, A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

[3] Paul Christesen, A New Reading of the Damonon Stele, Histos Supplement 10. Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2019.

[4] Nemean hippodrome: S. G. Miller, “Excavations at Nemea, 1997–2001,” Hesperia 84 (2015): 277–353, esp. 344–48.

[5] D. H. J. Larmour, Stage and Stadium: Drama and Athletics in Ancient GreeceNikephoros, Beihefte Band 4. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 1999.