In honor of the modern Olympics being held in Athens this summer, a selection of ancient Greek vases, bronzes, and other works drawn from the permanent collection showcases aspects of games held at Athens in antiquity. Chariot races, foot races, wrestling, and discus throwing are among the events represented through exquisite works of art. This special presentation is augmented by numerous examples of athletic art located throughout the New Greek Galleries.
Athletics were of major importance in the life of the ancient Greeks. The Olympic games, inaugurated in 776 B.C., were established at Olympia in the Peloponnesos. Held thereafter every four years in honor of the god Zeus, the Olympic games endured for more than one thousand years. By the sixth century B.C., panhellenic—from pan, or "all," and hellenikos, or "Greek"—games were held at Delphi, Nemea, Isthmia, and Olympia, and were called periodos or "circuit" games. Many local games, such as those at Athens, were modeled on these four.
The Greeks esteemed the human body as the most beautiful of forms and they tried, through exercise, to make their own bodies perfect. They felt that their love for athletics was something that distinguished them from barbarians, and only Greek citizens were allowed to compete in the games. For the ancient Greeks, whose fiercely independent city-states were often at war with one another, athletic contests became a unifying, peacemaking force. During the Olympic games, all hostilities were suspended. City-states sent their best athletes to compete. Victors brought honor to themselves, their families, and their hometowns, and were given public honors—statues were dedicated to them and victory poems were written to commemorate their feats.
This exhibition highlights the Panathenaic games, the most important games held at Athens in antiquity, which were considered sacred to the goddess Athena. Most prominent in the presentation are nine large Panathenaic prize amphorae, dating from the middle of the sixth century B.C. to the second quarter of the fourth century B.C. On one side of these impressive vases are illustrations of various competitions, including four-horse chariot races, sprinting and long-distance running events, and wrestling. On the other side, the goddess Athena is generally shown striding between two columns with the inscription "one of the prizes from Athens." On display is one of the earliest extant Panathenaic vases, signed by Nikias and made in the sixth century B.C. Another exceptionally well-preserved example from the fourth century B.C. still has its lid. It illustrates the development of the vase shape as well as the conservatism of the decoration, which retained the use of the black-figure technique long after red-figure had become the preferred method for painting Athenian vases. Each Panathenaic amphora was filled with some thirty-eight liters of olive oil harvested from the sacred olive groves of Athena. As many as one hundred and forty Panathenaic amphorae were awarded to the winners of the chariot races and lesser numbers for competitors who were victorious in other events.
Four outstanding bronze statuettes from various regions of the Greek world are also on view, depicting athletes in the midst of competition and at rest.
Related works that are currently on view in the Museum's Greek Galleries—including marble sculptures, Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases, and silver coins—remain in their usual settings. During the presentation of this exhibition, these related works carry special labeling so that visitors can identify them easily in the galleries, as well as descriptive text with additional information on the theme of Greek athletics and the Panathenaic games.