Ancient records

Today the time of running contests or the distance of jumps or throws is recorded up to a hundredst of a second or to a millimeter. Winning brings great fame to the athletes, but a record can be even more important.

In Antiquity, there were no means to measure time accurately. Distances could be measured, but every city had other units of length. Comparing was therefore difficult. The Greeks did not measure the distance of a jump or throw, they only watched whether it was further than the others. The jump ‘beyond the pit’ of Phayllos of Kroton is one of the few jumps of which we know the length. Therefore, ancient Greeks knew no records as we know them. The only thing that mattered was winning over direct competitors. The Greeks did not compare the result with other contests.

But the Greeks too strove for that little bit more that distinguished one victor from the other. It was very honourable to have done something as the ‘first’ or - still better - as the ‘only’ one. Athletes recorded such a record proudly. Kyniska, for example, bragged that she was the only female victor of the Olympic horse races. Alkibiades proclaimed proudly that he was the only one who had ever sent seven four-horse chariots to Olympia and had become at the same time first, second and fourth. The Ptolemies praised themselves for having, as the first and only royal family, three victors in the Olympic horse races.

Also less extraordinary achievements could be formulated as a ‘record’. In honorific inscriptions athletes are often praised for a ‘national record’ (i.e. first citizen of the city to do something) or for a certain combination of victories. Theagenes was the first to win the boxing and the pankration at Olympia in a single day. Thryphosa was the first girl to win the stadion in both the Pythian games as the following Isthmian games.

© KU Leuven, 2012