Friday, April 09, 2010

Alexander I at Olympia (Olympic Games)

Old king Amyntas was a conservative obliged to carry on his traditional local policy and consumed with fear of a new Persian onslaught. While he was alive, his heir Alexander spent his youth more or less in the background. But from the time when he ascended the throne on his father's death he was not slow in showing his deep felt convictions and opening up Greek horizons to Macedonia for the first time by means of direct contact with the Hellenes. The erstwhile youth who had slain the Persian nobles was still apparently alive in him and his heart had not ceased responding to the lure of legends and poetic traditions from his Hellenic schooling as a boy. Despite the fact that his sister lived at the Persian court as wife of a powerful Persian grandee, he felt himself a Greek to the core and was burning with desire to bring Macedonia actively into the orbit of Hellenic life and even more so, to exhibit his pan-Hellenic schoiling. The ambition to visit Olympia and take part in the games is also explained by his family traditions. As a Heracleid he would go on a pilgrimage to the all-Greek sanctuary which, according to the belief of all Greece, Heracles himself had founded. By gaining victories there and receiving a branch of the sacred olive his illustrious ancestor had planted, he would be acclaimed by all the Hellenes and show himself a worthy scion of the legendary hero.

So very shortly after his accession he determined to do what no Macedonian king before him and very few after him until Philip's day had contemplated doing. He made up his mind to visit Greece, to make personal acquaintance with the political and social life of the Greek cities, to sacrifice at the pan-Hellenic shrines and take part in the pan-Hellenic games. History tells us nothing of Alexander I's journey to Greece apart from his.......
sojourn at Olympia and participation in the games. But it is hard to suppose that Alexander, imbued as he was with a pan-Hellenic spirit and inflamed with ambition to know about Greek life and appear as a Greek himself, would undertake such a long and laborious journey from Aegae, his capital, through Thessaly, central Greece, Attica and so to Olympia, without seeing other cities and holy Greek places, particularly Athens and Delphi, even if he went part of the way by sea. As we are going to explain, there are many indications that he did at any rate visit Athens.

When telling of Alexander's appearance at Olympia and the famous incident at which he reveals his Greek descent, of which we shall have more to say later, Herodotus does not mention which Olympiad it was. For this reason there have been differences over dating this Olympiad. Some maintain it was one of the two between the two Persian Wars in Greece, either the 73rd (488 B.C.) or the 74th (484 B.C.); while others claim that it was the 76th, just after the Wars. In fact the 75th (480 B.C.) coincides with Xerxes' great invasion and therefore is ruled out, as Alex¬ander I accompanied the Persian Army then.

We believe that none of these Olympiads was the one in which Alexander started on his travels into Greece and took part in the Olympic games. As we explain below, in the year 492 (72nd Olympiad) there was the great Persian assault on Thrace and Macedonia which resulted in the actual subjection of Macedonia. Consequently, Alexander's journey that year is out of the question as it would imply a long absence and peaceful conditions at home. The 73rd (488 B.C.) and 74th (485 B.C.) Olympiads are equally ruled out in view of the fact that after the expedition of Datis and Artaphernes in 490 B.C. which failed so signally at Marathon, (it was to be a punishment for the help Athens had given to the Ionian cities' revolt and the burning of Sardis), relations between Greeks and Persians had deteriorated and the impending storm of Xerxes' invasion was already visible on the horizon. It would not have been possible for the king of Macedonia to follow anything but a pro-Persian policy in his role of satrap in the vast empire, and he would never have risked a visit to Greece with philhellenic demonstrations, which would have been so very dangerous for him. But even apart from this it is hard to imagine that Alexander I, who throughout his reign showed himself a ruler of great intelligence and political acumen, would contemplate undertaking the long journey to Greece while fearful storms had already come upon his country and new threats of catastrophe were hanging over it.

The 75th Olympiad which was held in 480 B.C. is also out of the question, as Alexander I was following Xerxes in his campaign against Greece. That brings us to the 76th in 476 B.C.; this again is impossible in our view, for a variety of reasons. First of all, in the year 512,18 when Herodotus tells us Alexander slew the Persian nobles, he was between 15 and 18 years old; in 476 he must have been 51 to 54. Such an age does not correspond with Alexander's youthful impulse to enter the ring with young athletes, still less does it tally with the information that he won a race at the Olympic Games; that was an event demanding youthful endurance, hence entirely out of keeping with a person of mature age. Aside from this, as we explain later on Herodotus' information,19 some of the Greeks taking part in the games were amazed at seeing the king of Macedonia contending for victory on the track. They did not know who that person was at all and doubted whether he had the right to take part in those pan-Hellenic games. Such an event seems quite incomprehensible if it occurred in 476 B.C., that is after the Persian Wars, during which Alexander had rendered great services to the Greeks as a Greek, had visited Athens and been received with great honour, being proclaimed a proxenus and public benefactor and generally regarded as a most popular figure throughout Greece. Such an objection would have been deemed most unbecoming and unseemly if meted out in an all-Greek sanctuary to Alexander, already known as "the Phil-hellene",20 and would have aroused the indignation of the public, especially of the Athenians and Spartans present.

It remains for us to go back to the 71st Olympiad in 496 B.C. to date Alexander's first journey to Greece and his participation in the games at Olympia. In our view this year fits in perfectly with a logical examination of the matter. Alexander I had been but a short while on the throne and felt the need, mingled with ambition, to know Greece and be known by the Greeks, to visit the country of his family traditions and Argead legends, to make a pilgrimage to the renowned pan-Hellenic sanctuaries where the gods of his ancestors and Heracles, believed to be his ancestor, were worshipped and lastly to take part in the Olympic games, whose victors were praised in hymns by the greatest poets of Greece. That time was the most favorable because he did not yet feel any tyrannical pressure from the Persians, Macedonia was quiet and he was at liberty to move about and show his affection for the Greeks. At the time of the 71st Olympiad he was fairly young, not more that thirty five. He had clearly been accustomed to Macedonian military drill and cultivated his physical powers, keeping his youthful vigour which fitted him to take part in pan-Hellenic games.

We know of Alexander's journey to Olympia and his participation in the games chiefly from Herodotus, but we can use certain auxiliary facts from later sources. Herodotus narrates this event as something of a digression, having already recounted at length the drama of the boy Alexander slaughtering the Persian nobles.21 The avowed object of his digression is triumphantly to vindicate the Hellenism of the king of Macedonia and as a sort of preliminary justification for his evincing pro-Greek sentiment during the Persian Wars, to be stressed on many subsequent occasions. Here is what Herodotus writes: "That the descendants of Perdiccas are Greeks, as they themselves say, I myself happen to know and will prove it further on in my history. Also the Hellanodicae, who are in charge of contests at Olympia, established that it was so, for when Alexander chose to compete and entered the lists for that purpose, the Greeks who were to run against him were barring him from the race, saying that the contest should be for Greeks and not for barbarians. But as soon as Alexander proved himself to be Argive, he was judged to be a Greek, so he entered the furlong race and ran a dead heat for for the first place." 22

According to this account of Herodotus, Alexander went to Olympia and onto the track where he was going to enter the race. Then certain Greeks competing in this race for the championship wanted to exclude him, questioning his right to enter. As has already been pointed out, the qualification for entry in the pan-Hellenic games was Greek nationality, no foreign participants being permitted. Thus the Macedonian king's right to be called a Greek was challenged. During the Olympic games, objections were settled by the Hellanodicae, who were appointed to see that the contests were properly run with only Greeks competing, and to solve whatever differences arose.23 There is no doubt that by the phrase "proving himself to be an Argead" Herodotus implied the traditional descent of the Macedonian royal house from the Heracleid Temenids of Argos in the Peloponnese, to which he alludes elsewhere,24 and presents Alexander proclaiming this publicly as an indication of his Hellenic origin and consequent right to take part in the Olympic Games.

Obviously anyone suddenly arriving on the track could not sim¬ply enter the contests at his own pleasure. He had to declare his entry, have it accepted and checked by the judges, take the oath, a special test for selection and perform certain religious and other preliminary rites. Especially in the case of the first three track events in the Olympics, (the furlong, double course and long course) the competitors had to be divided into "classes" of four to six athletes, who would run the preliminary heats; only the winners of these qualified for the finals. Perhaps on account of his being a prominent personality such as had possibly never been seen at Olympia before, certain parts of the customary routine, e.g. entering the Stadium preceded by the Judges, were waved in his case. But one imagines it would not have been possible for him to be exempted from the oath which competitors had to swear in the Council Chamber, showing before the statue of Zeus Horkios that they possessed all the rights of a Greek citizen, that they had undergone the requisite trials and that they would comply with all the conditions imposed by Olympia for the games. However well we may note that many of these conditions, known to us from Olympiads after the Persian Wars, had not yet been formulated, there always existed the oath and certain other requirements to be fulfilled before the competitor was allowed to enter, long ahead of his reaching the track on the day of the games.

Alexander was not just an ordinary Greek coming to look on or take part in the games, but a great personage. He was certainly accompanied by a large escort which drew the widest interest and caused a great commotion. Besides, the imposing appearance of the young king, surrounded by the stalwart and strangely armed members of his escort must have aroused general admiration and become the topic of the day for the Greeks who had come to Olympia from the ends of the Hellenic world. Under such circumstances he must have been already well-known to the judges, who would certainly make no objection to his entering the contests. They thus recognized his Greek nationality, without which, as has already been pointed out, it was impossible for him to comply with the preliminary conditions. But if by any chance doubts arose among them, Alexander had to explain his origins before them and must have been already recognized as a Greek.

From the text of Herodotus it appears that the objections arose when Alexander, already accepted as an entrant, entered the lists to be placed in his group for the race. Then, probably at the moment when the heralds (according to the rules of the games), were announcing the name and homeland of each competitor, one or more of the athletes, asked for him to be excluded, questioning his right of entry, as that belonged exclusively to Greeks.

The Greeks congregating at Olympia to take part in the games or watch them came not only from Greece proper but from the Euxine colonies, the cities of Asia Minor, the African coast, Greater Greece, the farther settlements in the Western Mediterranean, in fact from every place where Hellenes were found. The geographical and historical knowledge of many among them was strictly limited; it was natural for some not to know even where Macedonia was at a time when it was cut off beyond Olympus, surrounded by barbarian peoples and in no sort of contact with the southern Greeks. This state of affairs was not in the least odd at the beginning of 5th century, especially before the Persian Wars until which no Macedonian had shown his face at Olympia and there had been no instances of Macedonians at the pan-Hellenic sanctuaries. Given this, it is not in any way surprising that there were persons in this pan-Hellenic company who were ignorant of Macedonia and did not count its king among those of the Greeks entitled to take part in the games. It must not be forgotten that according to Herodotus, those who objected to Alexander's entry were his fellow athletes on the track. Strong feelings were aroused during the games where victory made of the winner a pan-Hellenic figure, sung by the great poets, winning great honours in his birthplace, often including a statue. Consequently the other competitors who were racing with him had every interest in seeking motives to exclude anyone who might place their victory in jeopardy. Alexander could have awaited the answer without emotion, knowing what the judges would reply to the objectors, with whom he must have already discussed the matter. Instead of this, he preferred to announce publicly to all the Greeks assembled at Olympia the tradition of his Temenid ancestors, who had emigrated from Argos in the Peloponnese to Macedonia, building Aegae and creating the kingdom of Macedonia. Thus at this triumphal moment, Alexander did not welcome the opportunity of taking part in the games so much as that of exploiting the chance to proclaim before all Greece his Heracleid Argive ancestry by telling the legend with his own lips.

During the games at Olympia the telling of pan-Hellenic legends recounting some national event, reading of a historical or literary work, recital of poetry, and so forth, were nothing uncommon. On the contrary, these constituted both a form of recreation and the re-baptism of the Greeks who had come together from the ends of the earth. During the 5th century B.C. distinguished men of letters in Greece used to appear at Olympia and gain applause by reciting their works. Tradition has it that Herodotus gave readings from his history, recording Greek triumphs against the barbarians and causing a religious emotion in his audience, while tears rolled down the cheeks of the boy Thucydides, who was present.25 There Gorgias and Lysias and later the sophist Hippias and many others spoke amid the applause of the jubilant Greeks; there too Themistocles was cheered for achieving the triumphant liberation of Greece from the barbarians and Plato honoured as a mighty pan-Hellenic intellect.26 There is no possible doubt that these conditions obtained in the Olympiad shortly before the Persian Wars. It must also be true that as at that time there cannot have been so many distinguished visitors appearing before the public and being applauded by them as there were after the Persian Wars, the King of Macedonia's arrival as an athlete in the sanctuary of Altis, addressing the assembled Greeks on the subject of his Heracleid ancestor, must have seemed a unique occasion and Alexander would have been roundly applauded. The episode would have been recounted quickly when they went home all over Greece and perhaps laid the foundations of the immense popularity which Alexander was later to enjoy throughout the whole of Greece. Certainly it was a marvellous opportunity for the Heracleid king of a country hitherto cut off behind its mountains and so far unknown to most of the Greeks to speak within this pan-Hellenic shrine of Zeus and Heracles announcing his glorious Greek ancestry and proclaiming himself a Heracleid Greek, sprung from Zeus and Heracles himself. It would have shown unpardonable negligence and lack of political sense if he had confined himself to recognizing his right to participate in the games and had not hastened to exploit the chance of mentioning his splendid ancestors to the pan-Hellenic throng. We may even wonder whether he himself did not engineer the episode in order to create the opportunity of speaking at Olympia, for which he had prepared himself.
Herodotus says that Alexander ran the furlong race in the stadium. This was the first contest and the Games at Olympia always began with it as we can discover from all ancient sources.27 Besides, it was the simplest of the races over a distance limited to between the extreme west and the extreme east of the stadium. After it came the double and long courses, races over two and more circuits. It is reasonable to suppose that Alexander took part in these three first races at least. Herodotus clearly states "competing in the furlong" and does not relate his taking part in any other contests. On the other hand, his winning the race was also relative, as he "tied" for the first place ("ran a dead heat for the first place"). If he had happened to run in the other two races, he cannot have won because otherwise it would have bien mentioned. But the probabilities are that his taking part in the Olympic games, in a purely honorary capacity due to his position, was limited by special dispensation of the Judges to the first race in the Olympiad, the furlong, which provided him with the proud satisfaction, greatly sought after throughout the Greek world, of being a winner at Olympia. Undoubtedly, his name would not have been carved on the columns of Olympic victors, because to attain this it was not enough to win a dead heat, but to win a series of victories in a number of events. In this sense, Alexander was not "an Olympic victor" but winner of an Olympic event. But even as a winner of that sort he was sure to have gained applause from the pan-Hellenic crowd watching the games and perhaps he was also privileged in an honorary capacity to have that inexpressible pleasure of receiving from the hands of the judges the "cotinos," or branch of the sacred olive, planted according to tradition by his ancestor Heracles.

The Macedonians, owing to their mountainous territory, their continuous wars and general country life, with exercise and long journeys, were naturally accustomed to running. Alexander, given special training at the Macedonian court in running and other athletics as he must have been since they were regarded as especially befitting a good soldier, surely had all the qualifications necessary for winning if he had to contest the races as an ordinary entrant. But the victory hewon at Olympia must also be looked on as "diplomatic." It would not have been seemly for the King of Macedon to come in behind other ordinary entrants. However, he succeeded in winning without depriving others of also doing so. He was announced the winner along with the other men who would also have been entitled to all the honours due to a champion.

This we only know from Herodotus' history, but certain authors very much later, known to have used other sources than Herodotus, confine themselves to mentioning that Alexander took part in the Olympic games and won, without saying anything about the incident of his right of entry being doubted and his public proclamation of his Argive ancestry.28

This famous tale of Olympia has given rise to a great deal of speculation among modern historians in relation to the origin of the Macedonians. Those who doubt the Hellenism of the ancient Macedonians, while they discard Herodotus' later accounts of Alexander I's showing pro-Greek sentiments during the Persian Wars and especially his help to the Hellenic cause at Tempe and Plataea as imaginary, readily accept the tale of his entry in the Olympic games and of the objections to his doing so, to support the assertion that the ancient Macedonians were not Greek by origin, or at any rate were not considered so by the ancient Greeks.
We will now confine ourselves to the concrete facts presented by Herodotus. He does not say that the Greeks gathered at Olympia or that the chief judges appointed by them questioned Alexander's right to enter the games, looking on him as a barbarian and not a Greek. Only that certain athletes taking part in the furlong race and interested in debarring any competitor likely to contest the victory seriously with them made these complaints. It was only natural, as we have already said, that among athletes and celebrants of every social class and every educational level of Greeks from the farthest confines of the known world, there should have been some who did not know anything about Macedonians cut off beyond Olympus and Pindus, and not yet in any political or other contact with the rest of Hellas. The fact that the chief judges had already accepted Alexander's entry into the lists, since he had already fulfilled the necessary conditions, especially the oath, means that they who followed and knew what was going on in Greece better than anyone raised no objection, knowing in advance that Alexander was Greek, Alexander's preferring to speak, explaining his Argead tradition, instead of relying on their judgement shows not his need of supporting his Hellenic identity but his pride in proclaiming his descent from Zeus and Heracles before the assembled company.

The assertion is then made that Alexander only showed that he was Greek himself and not the Macedonians and that only his own Hellenic identity was recognised. It was Alexander alone who went into the lists to take part in the games and it was only his right to enter that was questioned. Consequently at the moment he alone was concerned and it was not an ethnological discussion concerning the Macedonians. Alexander did not compete at Olympia on a national Macedonian issue, for which besides there was not cause at that time. He confined himself, or rather he seized the opportunity of proclaiming his own Hellenism as well as his title to Hellenic nobility through the Heracleid kings of Macedonia, who must have commanded special honour and admiration at that Panhelle-nic sanctuary of the worship of Zeus and Heracles. We can rather draw the conclusions from this passage of Herodotus as regards the Macedonians in general, based on the overall rules which apply to the lives of peoples. Since the royal house of Macedonia had been recognised as Greek and sprung from Argos in the Peloponnese, the Macedonians had been indirectly recognized as Greeks also. For how could the Greeks assembled at Olympia imagine that a Greek dynasty, which had already ruled a barbarian people for three and a half centuries far from the rest of the Greek world, entirely cut off among their barbarous subjects and never till that moment in any contact with the remaining Greeks, could have preserved its Greek language, traditions and supremely Greek consciousness? It seems strange to any logical view of the matter, foreign to all historical judgement and anyhow would have been quite beyond the understanding of the ancient Greeks.

It may be mentioned that after the Persian Wars, many Macedoni¬ans took part in the Olympic games and are recorded as winning events without any question arising over their eligibility to compete, nor was there ever the slightest doubt in later years of their Greek nationality, which alone entitled them to enter the lists. Thus according to the Latin author Solinus, Alexander's grandson Archelaus competed in the Olympic games and won the four horse chariot race.29 Diodorus too mentions the Macedonian Cleiton, winning the furlong race in the 113rd Olympiad.30

From Philip's time, when the Macedonians came into direct contact with the Greeks from the city democracies and entered Greek territory in large numbers they always went to the sanctuaries as Greeks and took part in the Panhellenic games under that identity. No complaint was ever raised even by the anti-Macedonian orators at Athens, who would have had splendid material for influencing public opinion over the defiling of Hellenic sanctuaries and polluting Greek traditions by barbarians (if this had been a question not of the Argead sovereigns but of common Macedonians), had they believed that the Macedonians were not Greeks.

Alexander's presence at the Olympiad and his victory in the Games must have been the great event of the year, discussed everywhere by the participants on their return home. Alexander thus became known throughout Hellas as coming from a remote country hitherto unknown to most Greeks, as an Olympic victor and also as descendant of the Temenids of Argos. He thus grew very popular and his pro-Greek conduct during the Persian Wars, noised abroad from Athens and Sparta, not only increased his popularity but kept the impression of his Olympic victory warm in the memory of the Greeks.

The recollection of Alexander's contest at Olympia kept alive as a famous Panhellenic occurence doubtless moved Pindar to dedicate marvellous verses to him. The fragments preserved by later writers give some hint of the beauty in that mutilated text.31

One of the ancient writers tells us that Pindar went to stay in Macedonia and was entertained by Alexander.32 Nobody knows whether he wrote his encomium at that time but it can be taken as certain that he wrote it after the Persian Wars and at the time when the king had become a popular figure all over Greece. This is why it is referred to as an "encomium" and not an "ode". All the same, we cannot infer from it that Alexander simply took part in the Olympic Games without being declared a victor, or indeed that this encomium has no reference to his having participated in them. The truth of the matter is that Herodotus confines himself to saying that Alexander tied for the first place in the furlong race without mentioning whether he was proclaimed a winner. But as we have already said, Herodotus recounts the incident not as reporting what happened at Olympia, but as revealing Alexander as a Greek. It would appear that the last three surviring lines leave no room for doubt that the encomium, if indeed it was not in fact an ode, honours the memory of Alexander's victory at Olympia. Otherwise, it being one of Pindar's works, it is impossible to understand what was meant by a feat (καλοϋ έργου) which must be sung in "most beautiful songs" «καλλίσταις άοιδαΐς» to ensure the immortality of his fame.

Actually this encomium of Pindar's did more than anything to give Panhellenic fame to Alexander's entry in the Olympic Games and it seems to have been very well known throughout Greece in later times. In particular it was a feather in the caps of Alexander's descendants of the Macedonian throne and this sacred family legacy must have excited the lively imagination and national pride of Alexander the Great from an early age. Thus later on we find that he had an unbounded admiration for Pindar, not only as a great Greek poet, but because he had honoured his ancestor Alexander I with this ode. Later sources relate that, when ordering Thebes to be razed to the ground, Alexander the Great spared only Pindar's house because the great lyric poet had immortalized his forebear Alexander I.33 It is true that this story is nowhere related by later historians, such as Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus, etc., writing about Alexander the Great. But even if the anecdote is derived from some other vanished source it shows that the tradition of Alexander's feat at Olympia was kept green for centuries by Pindar, that immortal bard of Olympic victories.

Apostolos Daskalakis,
The Hellenism of the Macedonians
Pages 157-163
IMXA, 1963
For fair use only

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