Inscriptions on stone

With a victory at the games an athlete acquired glory: the herald proclaimed his name, the name of his father and his city, and the president of the games offered him a victory crown. At his homecoming, he was celebrated again and he received a reward. Such fame was only temporary, but there were ways to perpetuate it. One possibility (mainly in the fifth century BC) was the distribution of a victory song. Because of their high literary quality, the victory songs by Pindar or Bacchylides were still read centuries after they were written. Victorious athletes were also immortalize with statues in bronze or stone and with inscriptions, on the base of a statue or on a separate slab.

These inscriptions on stone are nowadays of the most important sources for ancient athletics. Thousands of them have been preserved, on the locations of the games, e.g. at Olympia, and in the home towns of the celebrated athletes. Some inscriptions commemorate one particular celebration of the games, listing the victors of all age-categories and events. Most, however, honour one athlete for his whole career until the day the inscription was erected. The structure of these texts is usually simple: the victor is identified and his victories are listed, often in order of importance (with the Olympic games first) or in chronological order (from 'boy' to 'man'). Special titles or records were mentioned as well. (bv. ) Sometimes the victories were symbolized by different crowns, with the name of the games written inside each crown.

Some of these inscriptions were written as a poem, however. These poems, called 'epigrams', can be really ingenious, with all the famous achievements of an athlete condensed in a few lines, in the rigid rhythm of homeric verses. In the Hellenistic period, these short victory poems became an independent literary genre: the most beautiful poems did not have to be engraved on stone, but were collected in poetry books. (bv. ) Some of these poems were actually parodies, for example those of Lucillius, which use the format of epigrams to make fun of athletics.

© KU Leuven, 2012