Panhellenism and Athenian Athletics

  Aristopoulos, Christos. “Panhellenism and Athenian Athletics.” CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).

CHS–International Olympic Academy Pre-doc Fellow in Sport and Society 2020–21


The paper explores the athletic festivities of Roman Athens, as they were reorganized by emperor Hadrian and became a part of his Panhellenic policy. After a necessary introduction into the league of Greek cities called the Panhellenion, in Athens 131 AD, the first part of the paper presents the contest of Panhellenia, the program, the participants and the evolution of it until its decline under the Severan dynasty. According to epigraphical evidence it seems as most probable that the Athenian athletics such this were also supported by the ephebes, the young teens of the city. Their rejuvenated training however had a further scope, it prepares them for wartime activities apart from the purely athletic. A brief comparison is made with the also rejuvenated Spartan Agoge and all of them agree with the sources that demonstrate the Panhellenion as a League that promotes Hellenicity by means of propaganda, and even armed force. The second part presents aspects of ephebic education and athletics from the texts of Greek writers of the second century AD. It ends with Pausanias and his views on panhellenism and panhellenic athletic competitions. As for the conclusions, it is supported that the Panhellenia were an imperial initiative for demonstrating Hellenicity and Hellenic lifestyles among the Greeks. This lifestyle is based not only and simply on Greek education, Greek gymnastics but also trains the young elites of the city for new battles against eastern cultures and religions that provoke Rome, Hadrian and his beliefs. 

As I prepared my PhD dissertation on Hadrian’s Panhellenion, I had the chance to gain this excellent and exciting fellowship from the Center for Hellenic Studies. My relation with this institution goes back ten years now, when I first participated in their Symposiums with the International Olympic Academy in Ancient Olympia. Since the main topic of those Symposiums is related to athletics I wished to write a paper that would connect my dissertation and the athletic spirit of this event. The fellowship gave me exactly this opportunity. I explore the actual nature of the Athenian athletic competitions under and after the Hadrianic revival of the city, with a major interest on the event called the Panhellenia, named after the League of Greek cities that was founded by emperor Hadrian in Athens, in the year 131 AD. My results, coming directly from the research paper are the following:

“The Panhellenia and every similar Athenian event were certainly not a spectacle for a few selected guests. They were not even just for the Athenians. Such activities had to be shown and demonstrated to as many spectators as possible. The quintessence of Greek culture, athletic and rhetoric excellence were performed in order to impress, not only “every Greek” but quite certainly and every non-Greek who inhabited the more and more multicultural Greek cities of the post Hellenistic world. Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Sardis, Synnada, Cyrene were not an exception. […]

 It comes as no surprise for modern audiences that athletics can be used for the promotion of ideologies or as a demonstration of one nation’s power. Even under the iron fist or the benevolent Pax of the Roman Empire, notions like national pride and the conflict between opposing cultures never really stopped. […] A cultural renaissance of Greeks is meaningless if it cannot assist to the unity and the empowerment of the state. Since Hadrian was indeed afraid that his eastern, inner provinces, where no legions are to be stationed, are under threat from cults and religions that do not accept his authority, he then needs to keep them under control. He found loyal allies against the Jews and the Christians into his beloved Greeks and decided to reinforce them against what he perceived as a common enemy. Therefore, the performance of those athletics makes even greater sense if it is viewed under this new perspective. On a first level we are able to witness the well-being of Athens, the capital of this endeavor, by the plethora of spectacles. But on a deeper level, the ephebes that are trained in body and mind for participating later into the Panhellenia etc. may also become the new auxiliary forces, the local protectors of loyalism into the cities where radical cults are seemed to grow stronger and stronger. 

 As it was pointed out, athletic festivities and Greek education under the sophists became the two mail pillars of Antoninean Athens, both serving the cause of Hadrian’s Panhellenism. The allure of the Greek past was revived and became relevant again as if the Roman conquest was something like a blessing. The sophists and the rhetors of the city made a great effort to establish this into their speeches. Though the Second Sophistic was a movement before and beyond Hadrian’s philhellenism, nonetheless, it became one of the most useful tools of his policies for promoting and spreading Hellenicity.”

It is vital to understand that in History, even in athletics, everything happens for a reason. This paper reveals a darker and largely unknown side a great philhellene emperor and how his initiative became an instrument of Rome. While modern athletics preach peace, equal respect and love among nations, in the Antiquity, they represented something entirely different. They were frequently associated with the promotion of the military might of the Greek cities and the Greek nation. Those who participated were considered as the bearers of the memory of ancient heroes. As it happened when Greece was free, now again, under Rome, those ideas are weaponized once more and athletics are used against different cultures. I believe that we now have a better aspect on what it used to be the athletic spirit in ancient Greece and especially at an era where the Greeks are overviewed for the sake of their Romans overlords.  

 I want to thank once again the Center for Hellenic Studies and all those who work for it for this fellowship. The access to the electronic database was extremely helpful for my research as it was the grant for purchasing books on this topic. I had an excellent collaboration with every faculty member and the chance to meet wonderful people. Special thanks to my supervisor, professor Maša Ćulumović, to my friend Evangelos Katsarelis and to Marilena Katsadoraki.

Select Bibliography

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Spawforth, A.J. and Walker, S., 1985. The world of the Panhellenion. I. Athens and Eleusis. The Journal of Roman Studies75, pp.78-104.

Swain, S., 1996. Hellenism and empire: language, classicism, and power in the Greek world, AD 50-250. Oxford University Press.Tραυλός Ι. (2005). Πολεοδομική εξέλιξις των Αθηνών.