Religious Life



The Panathenaea (‘all-Athenian festival') was Athens' most important festival and one of the grandest in the entire Greek world.  Except for slaves, all inhabitants of the city and suburbs could take part in the festival.  The Panathenaea was one of those occasions when women could get out of the house and take an active role in a public function.  Even metics (resident aliens) and freed slaves could participate (up to a certain point).   The holiday fell on the 28th day of the month called Hekatombaion,1 roughly equivalent to last ˝ of July and first ˝ of August, and the first month of the Athenian year.  This holiday was believed to be an observance of Athena's birthday and honored the goddess as the city's patron divinity: Athena Polias ('Athena of the city').  In 566 BC, at the initiative of Pisistratus (soon to become tyrant of Athens),  this festival was extended every four years over a number of days with many public events (Great Panathenaea).  The following discussion will concentrate on this more splendid  form of the festival, which lasted for a number of days, consisted of three elements: contests, procession, and sacrifices. 

It is not known with any certainty how many days the Great Panathenaea lasted, but here is one modern reconstruction, which posits an eight day festival:2 

  1. musical and rhapsodic contests

  2. athletic contests for boys and youths

  3. athletic contests for men

  4. equestrian contests

  5. tribal contests

  6. torch race and pannychos (nocturnal ritual): procession and sacrifice

  7. apobatęs and boat races

  8. awarding of prizes: feasting and celebration   

Athletic Contests

Athletic contests included foot races, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), pentathlon (five-event contest: stade race, javelin-throw, discus throw, long jump, and wrestling), four-horse chariot and two-horse chariot races, horseback race, javelin-throw from horseback, apobatęs race, pyrrhic dancing,3 euandria (physical fitness or beauty contest), torch relay race (about which more later), and boat race.  All these events, except for the torch and boat races, were held in each of three age categories: boys (12-16), ageneios (16-20), and men (20+) and took place in the Agora until 330 B.C. when a stadium was built in the outskirts of Athens.

Boat races were not typically part of Greek athletic festivals, but they may have found a place in the Panathenaic festival because of Athena's connection with boat-building (cf. her participation in the building of the Argo).  Pyrrhic dancing, physical fitness, torch relay race, and boat races were tribal competitions restricted to Athenian citizens, whereas even non-Athenians took part in the track and field and equestrian events.  Except for the four last-named contests,4  the prizes (for first and second place only)  were varying numbers of amphoras filled with olive oil. The olive tree and its fruit were sacred to Athena and the oil was a very valuable commodity in the ancient world.  It could be used like butter for cooking, as soap, and as fuel in lamps.  The winning athletes normally sold their prize oil for cash. Besides the everyday usefulness mentioned above, olive oil was in great demand by administrators of the numerous athletic festivals throughout the Greek world.  Athletes rubbed themselves with olive oil before competition and scraped it off afterwards with a metal device called a stlengis.

As an indication of value, in the fourth century B.C. the prize for the victor in the stade race (a 600 ft. long foot race) in the men's category was 100 amphoras of olive oil.  In terms of today's dollar, the olive oil would be worth at a minimum $39,000 and the amphoras, which held the oil, about $1600.  Greeks from other cities were allowed to compete in all the athletic contests among individuals.  The competitions among tribes were limited to Athenians.

The two-mile torch relay race with four runners from each of the ten Athenian tribes was run from the altar of Eros outside the Dipylon gate to the Acropolis.  The object was to win the race without causing the torch to go out.  The winning tribe received a bull and 100 drachmas.  The fire of the winning torch was used to light the sacrificial fire on the great altar of Athena on the Acropolis.  The torch race was part of an all-night (pannychos) celebration also involving music and dancing on the night before the most important day of the festival when the procession and sacrifice took place. The apobatęs race and the boat race closed out the festival contests. 

Music Contests

Three musical contests involved singers accompanying themselves on kithara (kitharôidos), singers accompanied by an aulos (a reed wind instrument similar to a clarinet or oboe), and aulos players.  The prizes for these contests were crowns (for first place winners only) and cash.  For example, the first prize for the kithara-singer was an olive crown in gold worth 1,000 drachmas (at least $32,000 and 500 silver drachmas (at least $16000).5 

Rhapsodic Contest

Reciters called rhapsodes (literally, 'stitchers of song') competed at public festivals in the recitation of epic poetry, in particular the Homeric poems and other poems belonging to the Epic Cycle.  They performed without musical accompaniment.  Prizes are unknown.

 According to pseudo-Platonic dialogue called Hipparchos: Hipparchus, a son of the tyrant Pisistratus, and brother of Hippias, who succeeded his father as tyrant “... first brought the poems of Homer to this land [Athens] and compelled rhapsodes to go through them in order, each taking up the cue, as they do now.”  This statement suggests that before Hipparchus established this rule, rhapsodes recited only isolated selections from Homer, like funeral games for Patroclus, the embassy, the ransom of Hector’s body and other favorite scenes from the Epic Cycle.   

The claim that Hipparchus "first brought the poems of Homer to this land" probably means that he, with the help of experts (like the Homeridai on the island of Chios, believed to be the birthplace of Homer) established the standard texts of these poems, which the rhapsodes now had to adhere to and to recite as a whole, not just favorite parts.  It is believed that the Homeric texts used by the rhapsodes are the ancestors of Homeric poems that we have inherited.


The procession assembled before dawn at the Dipylon gate in the northern sector of the city.  Here is a suggested lineup of the procession:6 The frieze that runs around the inner chamber of the Parthenon is generally believed7 to represent the Panathenaic procession, although it is clear that all the following are not represented in the surviving sections.  Where possible, links  to the actual sculpture or drawings of the relevant sections of the frieze appear in the following list.  

  1. four little girls carrying a peplos8 for the life-size statue of Athena Polias

  2. priestesses of Athena and Athenian women carrying gifts

  3. sacrificial animals (cows and sheep)

  4. metics (resident aliens), wearing purple robes and carrying on trays cakes and honeycombs for offerings

  5. musicians playing the aulos and the kithara.

  6. a colossal peplos (for Athena Parthenos) hung on the mast of a ship on wheels

  7. old men carrying olive branches9

  8. four-horse chariots with a charioteer and fully armed man (apobatęs)

  9. craftswomen (ergastinai - weavers of peplos)

  10. infantry and cavalry

  11. victors in the games

  12. ordinary Athenians arranged by deme

The procession made its way on the Panathenaic Way through the Agora towards the Acropolis.   Some sacrifices were offered on the Areopagus and in front of the temple of Athena Nikę (Athena Victory) next to the Propylaea ('Gateway').  Only Athenian citizens10 were allowed to pass through the Propylaea  and enter the Acropolis. The procession passed the Parthenon and stopped at the great altar of Athena in front of the Erechtheum.  Each year a newly woven peplos (female garment) was taken by the craftswomen (ergastinai) into the Erechtheum and placed on a life-size old wooden statue of Athena Polias ('Guardian of the City'), while every four years in the Great Panathenaea, an enormous peplos was taken to the Acropolis for Athena Parthenos ('virgin') in the Parthenon.11 

Since it would have been virtually impossible to put this peplos on a 39 ft. high statue,  perhaps the dress was merely hung in the Parthenon.  This peplos was so large that it was carried on the mast of a ship on wheels (like a float in a modern parade).  The connection between the ship and Athena is unknown, but the use of a ship to carry the peplos must have seem appropriate in the fifth century after Athens had built the great fleet with which it dominated a large part of the Aegean world. Finally, there was a huge animal sacrifice at the Athena's altar and representatives from each deme in Attica, chosen by lot, enjoyed a meat banquet along with bread and cakes.


1. Every Greek city had different names for their months (the names of our months are inherited from the Romans).  Hekatombaion (literally, an offering of 100 oxen) was probably given as a name to this Athenian month because of the sacrifice of large numbers of cows to the goddess in the Panathenaea.  Return to text.

2. Jennifer Neils, "The Panathenaea: An Introduction" in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens, ed. by Jenifer Neils (Princeton 1992), 15.  The athletic events took place in the Agora until a stadium was built on the outskirts of Athens in 330 B.C.  Return to text.

3. The event involved dances in full armor.  Legend has it that Athena did this dance after the Olympian gods' victory over the Giants. Return to text.

4. In pyrrhic dancing, physical fitness, torch relay race, and boat race, the competition was among the ten Athenian tribes and not individuals.  The prizes for these contests consisted of a bull plus a cash reward.  No doubt the winning tribal contestants sacrificed the bull and enjoyed a good beef meal.  Return to text.

5. The kithara-singers contest  was unusual in that there were prizes for first through sixth place.  Normally only the first and second place finishers got prizes in other contests (as in the aulos player & singer and aulos-player contests).  The value of the prize for the first place kithara-singer (1000 drachmas) would have taken the average worker almost two years to earn. Return to text.

6. P. Connolly and H. Dodge, The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens & Rome (Oxford, 1998), p. 87.  Return to text.

7. The discussion of the Panathenaic procession above is based on the premise that the Parthenon frieze depicts this event.  There are, however, some problems with this assumption and recently a theory was proposed by Joan Connelly ("Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze," AJA, January 1996, pp. 53-80) that the frieze represented the sacrifice of one of Erechtheus' daughters.  Return to text.

8. A peplos was the typical garment worn by women in the archaic period and was a traditional gift to Athena as early as the Iliad (6.302-04).  Return to text.

9. Xenophon has one of his characters in the Symposium (4.17.4 - 4.18.1) say: "For they choose handsome old men as olive-shoot bearers for Athena [in the Panathenaic procession], because beauty accompanies every age." Return to text.

10. Metics (resident aliens), barbarians (non-Greeks), and freed slaves who had marched in the procession up to this point had to stay behind. Return to text.

11.  Both peploi were decorated with an embroidered depiction of the Olympian gods' victory over  the Giants, in which Athena played a leading role.  Return to text


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