Political propaganda at the games

Because of the large number of spectators, the games formed the ideal stage for citizens and cities to place themselves in the international limelight. This started already in the archaic period, when the treasuries at Olympia and Delphi displayed the splendor and wealth of the cities which had erected them.

From the classical period on, many politicians visited the games to maintain their PR, for example by winning a prestigious victory. Several Sicilian tyrants and the Athenian politician Alkibiades won victories in the horse races. This was the most expensive and therefore also the most prestigious sport and, moreover, the only sport that could be combined with other occupations. In the Hellenistic period king Philip of Macedonia and members of the Ptolemaic royal family did the same. All made sure that as many people as possible knew about their victory: several tyrants ordered a victory ode from Pindarus, Alkibiades offered a drink to all spectators present and asked Euripides to write a poem, king Philip built the tholos at Olympia and commemorated his victory with a special coin, whereas the Ptolemies ordered poems from Poseidippos. The Roman emperor Nero even made a grand tour of all the major games and was proclaimed victorious everywhere.

The games were also an occasion to make important political decisions publicly known. Alexander the Great’s decree, which allowed all exiles to return to their homes, was proclaimed in 324 BC at Olympia. The Roman general T. Quinctius Flamininus declared at the Isthmian games of 196 BC that the Roman senate restored the freedom of all Greek cities.

Moreover, athletes could use the glory acquired with their performances in sport to start a political career.

© KU Leuven, 2012