Archaeology and the Ancient Greek Pythian Games at Delphi

The mountain-top stadium at Delphi, far above the temples/theater below.

The Pythian Games at Delphi were part of the festival of Apollo. The games occurred every four years, with each Pythiad marking the halfway point to the Olympics.

Initially,the contests were musical but in the sixth century BC, athletic and equestrian events were added to the programme. Archaeologists have excavated many of the venues for these events at Delphi, including the stadium and gymnasium. As at Olympia, votive offerings have also been found. These can be used to identify who competed in the Pythian Games.

Ancient Greek Sports at Delphi

The athletic contests and equestrian events added to the programme of the games after 586BC were very similar to those held at Olympia. They included the:

  • Dolichos or long distance foot race
  • Diaulos or boy’s two stade foot race
  • Stade
  • Hoplite race or the race in full armour
  • Tethrippos Dromos or four horse chariot race
  • Synoris or two horse chariot race
  • Keles – a race of mounted riders

The Stadium and Gymnasium of Delphi

Archaeological evidence for the sports venues and training facilities have been found at the highest and lowest point of Delphi. The most complete excavated remains consist of the stadium and the gymnasium.

The stadium: the best preserved in Greece, Delphi’s stadium is situated above the sacred temenos, it is the highest structure at Delphi. Built in the fifth century BC, it was embellished during the second century AD.

The archaeological remains are impressive. In the north were twelve rows of seating, hewn from the natural rock. In the south, space for an additional six rows was constructed. The track is embellished with a line of second century roman arches. In front is the racing area with the starting and finishing lines, complete with the runner’s grooves still in situ.

One interesting feature on the retaining wall of the stadium is a fourth century BC inscription forbidding the drinking of wine in the stadium. A five drachma fine was levied on anyone who broke the rule.

The Gymnasium and Palaestra. Situated below the temenos of Apollo, the gymnasium and Palaestra are situated close to the temple of Athena Pronaia. The remains on site today date to the fourth century BC.

The facilities were used by locals and athletes in training. The complex is spread across two terraces. On the upper terrace were two practice running tracks. The indoor track or xystos had a roofed colonnade to protect athletes from the elements. Next door was an open air paradromis.

Below on the lower terrace was the palaestra which was used for wrestling and the changing areas for the athletes – dressing rooms and a large round pool for bathing.

Victors and Votive Offerings: The Charioteer of Delphi

Prizes for the victors of the Pythian Games were similar to those at Olympia and included gold tripods and crowns of laurel leaves, which were sacred to Apollo. In turn, the winners showed gratitude for their victories by dedicating offerings in the sacred temenos.

Many remaining offerings are preserved in the museum of Delphi. Perhaps the most elaborate and well known is the charioteer of Delphi. Dedicated by Polyzalos, the tyrant of Gela in Sicily, it is the only figure to survive from a larger piece which featured 4 horses and a groom. Dating to the fifth century BC – the early classical period, the charioteer was made by wax casting- then a new technique that gave statues a more lifelike pose. The charioteer’s eyes of white paste with dark stone pupils still remain and seem to follow spectators about the room.

Although Polyzalos named himself as the victor, he was not in fact the driver, only the sponsor. His victorious charioteer was uncommemorated. This is not the case for other competitors.

An inscription which dates to 50AD proves that some of the competitors of the Pythian Games were women. It is possible women may have competed in their own competitions or in the boy’s races. The women in question were three sisters who were winners not only at the Pythian Games but other Pan-Hellenic competitions. They dedicated a set of statues of themselves, now lost, to commemorate their victories. One, Tryphosa, won the stadion at Delphi and the Isthmian games – the first woman to do so according to the plaque. Her sister, Hedea is shown to have won the chariot race.


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