Just like the Roman leaders before him, Augustus organised gladiatorial games and wild animal hunts in Rome. These were enormous spectacles, with thousands of participants, including a naval battle on a lake dug out especially for the occasion. But Augustus was also interested in Greek athletics. Athletics were known to the Romans for over a century now, but in Rome they were merely one component of the triumphal celebrations. Augustus took new initiatives to promote Greek sport and found inspiration in the Olympic games. Augustus issued a law on public games, de lex Iulia theatralis, by which he forbade women to attend athletic games, as it was at Olympia.

After his victory against Antony and Cleopatra in de naval battle at Actium (Sept. 31 BC) he built Nikopolis ('victory city') on the Greek west coast, where every four years Greek games were organised in honor of his personal protector god Apollo. These Actian games belonged to the top events in the festival circuit, as is clear from the more than thirty copycat Actia all over the East. Augustus built a festival quarter in the new town, with a stadion, gymnasion, theater, hippodrome and baths. In 2 BC the Sebasta ('emperor games') were founded in Naples, a Greek city in southern Italy. The city Napels organized them in honour of the emperor.

The emperor supported Greek athletics at Olympia and in the eastern provinces, by buildings and subsidies. He was honored for this by statues in and near the stadia. Two members of the imperial family, Tiberius and Germanicus, even won the chariot races at Olympia. The Greek games, which had badly suffered from the civil wars in the first century BC, revived thanks to the pax Romana and government sponsoring. Augustus also cultivated his relationship with the athletic guild by extending the privileges of the athletes. Augustus is rightly considered a crucial factor in setting off the second bloom of Greek athletics.

© KU Leuven, 2012