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‘Game-used Equipment’: Reading Inscribed Athletic Objects

Peter J. Miller

University of Winnipeg

Some of the earliest inscribed objects in athletic sanctuaries are athletic equipment. These early dedications come from the “field sports” of the pentathlon: specifically, the discus and the halma (i.e., the haltēres, or jumping weights). These sports were suitable for providing dedications since their equipment was of a semi-permanent nature. Examples of inscribed haltēres and discuses have come to light (e.g., SEG 59-388; SEG 49-346; SEG 40-357; Lazzarini 834, 835; Olympia IV no. 241) and even when not inscribed, discuses might feature illustrations that would have held meaning to ancient viewers (e.g., Attic vase-paintings show discuses decorated with owls [Miller 2004: 61]; a discus in Berlin etched with illustrations of the halma and javelin [Knoepfler 1994: fig. 6]).

In literary sources, athletic dedications are mentioned, though inconsistently. Pausanias describes the Disc of Iphitos, which recorded the Olympic Truce (5.20). Although he does not report the text verbatim, he seems to have handled the disc since he says the inscription runs “in the shape of a circle” (ἐς κύκλου σχῆμα, 5.20.1). Pausanias only mentions haltēres in concert with three statues that hold jumping-weights (5.26.3, 5.27.12, 6.3.10). In other words, Pausanias does not report any dedication of an object by a victorious athlete. Other authors, however, regard dedication of athletic objects as desirable: in Pyth. 5.30-42, for example, Pindar sings of Karrhotos’ dedication of his reins at Delphi; he even specifies the location of the reins – near an apparently famous statue of a Cretan archer (39-42). In this poem, therefore, athletic equipment transforms from mundane accessory to perfect dedication, paralleling Pindar’s own verse which is often characterized as an ornate offering produced by skill (e.g., Ol. 6.87, Nem. 5.42).

Starting from the premise, therefore, that dedications of athletic equipment were not unusual, although perhaps problematic in terms of display and competition for audience, this paper examines the strategies necessary to read inscribed athletic objects and the techniques of ‘graphic display’ used by the authors of inscriptions. In the case of some inscribed objects, we may imagine readers who monopolized the reading of the inscription by holding the object; alternatively, the small size of haltēres and discuses meant that they could be passed from person to person to permit partial readings by semi-literate visitors (on partial readings, see Day 2010). CEG 391, an inscribed discus from Kephallenia and now in the British Museum, requires a reader to hold the discus and turn it, following the direction of the text, in order to read the whole epigram. CEG 355, a sixth century BCE haltēr from Isthmia, is inscribed on two sides and requires a reader to finish one side and turn the haltēr over to complete the epigram.

Other haltēres were inscribed with vantage points in mind: CEG 299 is one of a pair of haltēres that were dedicated and the inscription probably continued onto the second haltēr; three key words, the name of the victor and the phrase “on account of these” (hόνεκα τόδε), are surrounded by three horizontal lines, suggesting that they were to be emphasized. A haltēr in Switzerland, missing its complement, has an inscription that would have continued on the other haltēr and also adds a visual element for emphasis; in this case, the haltēr is etched with an impressive drawing of a cock (Knoepfler 1994). Drilled holes reveal that the haltēres were likely hung and that this hanging position facilitated the reading of the inscription.

These objects, therefore, act, like Pindar’s imagined reins, as powerful displays of athletic excellence imbued with extra meaning from the objects’ participation in the very act of victory. The inscriptions obviate the need for a poet, however, and these objects relate their own story. 

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Graphic Display: Form and Meaning in Greek and Latin Writing

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