Victory was a powerful force in ancient Greece and victory in the prestigious Crown Games brought great honors to successful athletes and elevated them above their countrymen. During the Archaic and Classical periods in ancient Greece, tyrants and would-be tyrants participated in panhellenic athletic festivals both as founder-patrons and as competitors. The regular observance of contests institutionalized victory and its attendant power and glory, allowing the festival’s patron and benefactor to capitalize on the fruits of victory without risking defeat.
Victory in athletic competitions played an important role in determining and glorifying an individual’s aretê. Naturally born virtue, in the minds of aristocracy, indicated and justified an individual’s right to political and social authority. Indeed, according to Aristotle, an individual’s aretê, or the deeds that sprang from aretê, was justification for that person to possess ruling power (Arist. Pol. 1310b). In order to capitalize on the power of athletic victory and to highlight their own aretê, Pheidon of Argos, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, and – perhaps – Peisistratus of Athens all undertook prominent roles in hosting and expanding panhellenic athletic festivals during the Archaic period. As competitors, Cylon in the 630s, and Alcibiades in 415 both attempted to parlay their Olympic successes into political power at Athens, Cylon as a tyrant and Alcibiades as commander in Sicily. The fifth-century tyrants of Sicily augmented their reputations by emphasizing their athletic (equestrian) victories in verse, statues, and on their coins. Similarly, the kings of Macedon, particularly Philip II, recognized the power of athletic victory in justifying and maintaining his hegemonic rule over the Greeks.
Mark Munn has discussed the links between sovereignty and victory, noting that victorious athletes, like kings, were “crowned, paraded, feasted and celebrated in monuments and songs.” While athletes could aspire to elite status through victory in competitions, the institution of athletic contests represented, at least in some cases, attempts “to recreate and participate in the effects of these archetypes of victory.”1 To the Greeks, the power of prestigious athletic victories readily equated to political power, such as tyranny, in both sponsorship and competition.
However, the responses of the Athenian people to both Cylon and Alcibiades indicate that the power of athletic victory was not absolute, nor did it automatically bestow tyrannical power on its possessor. Despite athletic competition’s ability to single out one individual for great acclaim and glory, athletics also, perhaps paradoxically, offered an avenue for more democratic involvement. In theory, any freeborn Greek male could participate in athletic contests and acquire the glorious fruits of victory, although the extent to which ancient Greek athletics were open to all remains a topic of discussion among modern scholars. Nevertheless, there existed a certain inherent equality among competitors in their contests of speed and strength. Stephen Miller has suggested that these “absolute standards” of the competitions constituted a “basic isonomia.”2
This isonomia, however, was limited to the competitors, not the sponsors. To a greater extent than the competitors Cylon and Alcibiades, the patrons and sponsors of prominent Games enjoyed the aretê of athletic victory and its accompanying justification for their rule. Without risking their status against other competitors, those rulers who presided at athletic festivals claimed close associations with victory and used the glory and rewards of victory to their political advantage.
1 Munn, Mark. The Mother of the Gods, Athens, and the Tyranny of Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 22-23.
2 Stephen G. Miller, "Naked Democracy" in Polis and Politics: Studies in Ancient Greek History, ed. Flensted-Jensen et al. (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 278