Sport in Art in Ancient Greece

Ancient runnerHeinrich is a special kind of guide. A trained archaeologist with the appropriate eye for detail and a professional guide, used to dealing with people and armed with a quirky sense of humour that betrays the various strands of his roots.

Born and bred in Germany, Heinrich spent nine years at University College, Dublin before moving to Athens to head up the Irish Institute. When his term was over, he remained in Athens, parking his slippers in a corner of the lively Exarchia district and his pipe (metaphorically speaking) in a cracking little bar called Archondia on the platea.

I first met him at the Irish Institute around about 2005. I forget why I went along or who the speaker was but I do remember spending some time taking beer with Heinrich. I forced him to come on to my radio show to talk archaeological sites and he duly became a weekly fixture, always enlightening and amusing about different sites in Attica which may be of interest to the passing tourist.

Heinrich hall
German football expert (and occasional archaeologist) Heinrich Hall in the studios of Athens International Radio during Euro 2008

His knowledge of football also came in handy during Euro 2008 when I hosted a daily show which blended the comings and goings in Austria and Switzerland – in Greece’s case it was mainly goings – with a splash of appropriate cultural chatter.

Heinrich often slipped into the studio to be my expert on the German team. We watched the final together in the James Joyce pub, not a good evening for Heinrich as it marked the start of the reign of Spain.

Archondia is little more than a smallish room with about six tables. I have never seen it full. The landlady – also called Archondia, yes she named the bar after herself – brushes back her red hair and greets everyone as if she has known them for at least 20 years which in most cases is probably about right.

Ten years after the EU banned smoking in public places, it is all but obligatory to roll a cigarette and puff away in full sight of the law. I have been an irregular regular there, sipping the Kaiser beer which always seems a suitable choice of beverage for Heinrich.

The last few times I have been to Athens, Heinrich was away, probably on some fancy yacht guiding dollar-rich tourists through the ancient sites of the Aegean. I am not jealous. Honest.

Anyway, the point I am making is that whenever you head to one of the world’s major museums, it is good to have a guide like Heinrich.

The disputed death mask of Agamemnon (By Xuan Che)

He was keen, eager even, when I informed him I was coming to Athens and determined to do something I had never managed in my near 20-year association with the city: visit the National Archaeological Museum.

“I don’t want to do the whole lot Heinrich,” I said. “I am too old for that. I will have forgotten room one by the time we get to the toilets. Just give me ten things that I should see.”

“Ten things. Yes, we can do that. Maybe we can find you some sport….”

Well I am not going to give you ten things, I am not even going to mention Agamemnon’s golden death mask, mainly because although it is golden and quite arresting and comes from the ancient palace at Mycenae, it is not Agamemnon. At least not according to Heinrich.

“Agamemnon, if he existed, would have lived around 1200 BC but the mask is more like 1550 BC,” he says with great vigour.

So let’s just focus on the sport.



The only place you can start is with the king daddy himself. Zeus. He is the reason that the Olympic Games came into being in 776 BC.

The honour of being the Ancient Greek Baron Pierre de Coubertin lies with King Iphitos of Elis, who is said to have visited the oracle at Delphi in a bid to bring an end to the civil wars that were plaguing Greece. The priestess advised that he should restore the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus.

According to the Greek historian Pausanias, meanwhile, writing in the 2nd century AD, the dactyl Iraklis (not to be confused with he of the 12 Labours) and four of his brothers raced at Olympia to entertain the newborn Zeus. This is very possibly fake news, or myth as it was once known, but it is a good tale.

For sure we know that Zeus was the main man at Olympia. There was a massive statue of him (not the one below) in the temple at Olympia, made from ivory and gold, standing over 10 metres tall created by Phidias around 430 BC. It is believed to have been destroyed in a fire in the 5th century AD. Hundreds of cows were slaughtered in his name for the feasts that were part and parcel of the Games.

Ancient Zeus

The bronze statue we find here of Zeus was probably made around the same time, after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC when Athens became a hive of creativity. It then appears to have been claimed by the Romans and in the 2nd century BC shipped off towards Pergamon. But it never got there as the vessel that was transporting it sprung a leak and sank to the bottom of the Aegean at Cape Artemision in northern Euboea. It was only discovered  in the 1920s.

There is some debate about whether it is Zeus or Poseidon, depending on whether you think he is gripping a thunderbolt or a trident. It seems that the archaeologists now favour Zeus and I tend to agree with them, partly because his downward look suggests a throw from on high and partly because it fits better with this particular article. When I write about the America’s Cup or the Boat Race I may change my mind.

What is glorious about the statue though is the musculation. Whether it is Zeus or Poseidon, this is the body of an athlete with a beautifully observed flex of the bicep and a six-pack that could have been modelled by the younger Heinrich. The sculptor has captured a feeling of power, calm, focus and motion, all vital elements for any athlete.

You can read more about the Ancient Games at Olympia here



Ancient horse1First stop after Zeus is our link with equestrian sports for no other reason than that this roughly lifesize statue of the boy on the horse was found at the same time as Zeus at Cape Artemision. Imagine being the fellow delivering the news of that loss at sea.

“Well guv’nor, we had a bit of weather and the ship went down.”


“Yeah well guv’nor, the crew all drowned.”

“Just as well. If any had dared to survive, they would be swinging now from a gibbet with their guts feeding the crows. Anything else?”

“Er, well, the whole cargo went down too.”

“By Jupiter, that’s bad. The bronzes?”

“All gone, guv.”

“Guards! String this traitor up!”


There were three horse racing events at Olympia, two with chariots and one with a rider. Could this be an Olympic winner? It is a magical piece of work which dates from around 140 BC. The details in the horse (even though the middle section of the body was never found) and in the boy rider whose clenched muscles, gripping the reins and whip which are now lost, low lean and eager visual intensity suggest a real desire to win the race.

The position of the horse, resting on its back legs, is full of movement and speed.

I had seen pictures of this statue many times but nothing prepared me for its impact when I came face to be face. I stopped and stared for many minutes, prompted to leave only by Heinrich’s promise of some further surprises.



Ancient oil scrape
Athlete using a stlegida (Pic: Barney Spender)

The track and field events at the Hellenic Games were much the same as today with running races, long jump, javelin and discus.

Of the runners the name Leonidas of Rhodes stands out as the finest, his achievements eclipsing those of modern legends such as Carl Lewis, Mo Farrah and Usain Bolt.

Between 164 and 152 BC, Leonidas won all three running events at each of the four Olympiads. This consisted of the short distance race called the stade-race, which was one length of the stadium, the diaulos, which was two lengths of the stadium and the dolichos, a long-distance race covering around 24 lengths of the stadium. Not a bad effort when you remember that all three events were run on the same day.

The figurine above, found in Myrina in Attica and dating from the 1st century AD, shows an athlete using a stlegida to scrape the olive oil from his body after competing.

The athletes would compete naked – no women were allowed in to watch – and the oil was used to loosen the muscles in the way of Deep Heat. There are suggestions that it was also used for aesthetic purposes so as to make the athletes glisten in the sun. By the end of the race, the oil would have mixed with the sweat and the dirt to create a greasy film which the athletes would scrape off.


Above left we have a pot from Attica using black figure skyphos to depict a foot race  apparently made by a fellow known as the Camel Painter around 540 BC. Note the pointy penises. As I mentioned earlier, the athletes used to compete naked but there were some laws of etiquette to observe. One of these demanded that the runners conceal the gland at the end of the penis. To expose it was definitely not the done thing.

So the athletes used a kynodesme, a “dog tie”, a cord or leather strap that they looped around their foreskin – Heinrich tells me there was no circumcision in Ancient Greece. Apart from good manners, this also had the added benefit of keeping the penis clean. The last thing a chap needs is a grain of grit or sand under the old foreskin. Devilish irritating.

The final image of the three pots from the 4th century BC show three separate athletes, two of them looking a bit fagged out and certainly reminiscent of my good self (without the kynodesme) after I have been out for a morning run with Doggo. The third athlete appears to be taking part in a torch relay. Fortunately the British didn’t get to compete so no nasty accidents caused by dropping the torch.



Ancient keepy-uppyThis was an astonishing discovery: they played football of some sort in Ancient Greece. Heinrich led me to this funeral stele, only part of which still exists. It is the important part as it clearly shows “a nude youth practicing with a ball in the palaestra”.

This was found in Piraeus so presumably he is the earliest Olympiakos fan on record and evidently he is pretty handy at the keepy-uppy.

“It reminds me of a young Beckenbauer,” murmured a rather dreamy Heinrich.

As we gazed at the stele, wondering how much this round ball legend achieved that he should have such a fancy gravestone and just what was his relationship to the young lad on the left, the museum guide dashed towards us and pushed his phone to our noses.

There we saw a picture of Cristiano Ronaldo kissing the Euro trophy after Portugal’s win in 2016. On the trophy…the same image. I have never been slow in dismissing UEFA as a bunch of fatcat charlatans but for this they actually deserve some credit for reaching back into history.

Ronaldo trophy




As with the football this not only surprised me but shocked me into silence. I always thought hockey was yet another 19th century offspring of the British Empire. It appears I was wrong. This looks for all the world like two players bullying-off at the start of a hockey match, albeit the sticks are upside down. Anyone who started playing hockey after 1981 might need to look that last bit up.

There only appear to be two players taking part although in the full frieze which dates from 510 BC there are two other figures watching on so it may well have been a one-on-one game. Or maybe it was early hurling. Who knows?

Ancient hockey



Fighting was a staple part of the Ancient Games, coming in the forms of boxing, wrestling and pankrateon.

Boxing, as a sport, is reckoned to go back to Minoan and Mycenaean times while the Greeks like to think that Apollo beat Ares in the first ever boxing contest at Olympia.

When it came to mortals fighting, the rule books, which did exist, seem to have gone out of the window. Almost any type of blow with the hand was allowed although eye-gouging was not permitted. Some bouts lasted hours and the only way to end these was for the two fighters to slug it out by taking it in turns to take an undefended punch at the other man.

Ancient boxerIn one case at the Nemean Games a lad called Damoxenos jabbed his opponent Kreogas under the ribs with outstretched fingers so violently that he pierced his flesh and tore out Kreogas’ guts. It was a phyrric victory for Damoxenes; in accordance with the customs of the time victory was awarded posthumously to Kreogas while Damoxenes collected a lifetime ban from the stadium.

What we have here, though, is a remarkable bronze bust of a boxer found at Olympia. It is extremely well preserved with wonderful facial details such as cauliflower ears and flattened nose. We can also see that he has been crowned with a kotinos, the olive wreath awarded to winners of the Olympic Games, although only the stem remains. That, though, has allowed historians to dip into their Rothmans Yearbooks and work out who this is.

The answer is Satyros of Elis – the same neck of the woods as King Iphitos who is said to have started the Olympic Games – who won numerous titles at the Games in Nemea, Olympia and Pythia. He may have commissioned this himself or it may have been done via public subscription. In either case it was made by the Athenian bronze sculptor Silanion between 330 and 320 BC.

I wonder if the infamous statue of Cristiano Ronaldo will also enjoy such longevity.



Ancient malaka

Officially this is Antikythera Youth, a bronze statue of a young man that was found in 1900 by sponge-divers in the area of an ancient shipwreck off the island of  Antikythera.

Unofficially he is Hellenic Ultra, notable for the salute he is offering to the judges.

I enjoyed many sporting events in Greece none more heated or electric or thrilling than the derby matches between the Athens-based Panathinaikos and their fiercest rivals from just down the road in Piraeus, Olympiakos. Even when away fans were banned, which was always, there would be street battles in the lead-up to kick-off and this went for football, basketball, volleyball, handball, water polo, tavli, the lot.

At one game in Leoforos Alexandrou I witnessed Panathinaikos fans fighting among themselves presumably because one of them had a great aunt who once upon a time took a ferry from Piraeus.

When they aren’t fighting each other, the fans, often stripped to the waist in the middle of winter, usually take out their rage on the referee. This is signified with the sign of the mούντζα (mountza), a five finger spread on an outstretched arm which is then wobbled rapidly as if to signify a shakey floor. And here he is, the original Greek Ultra.

Heinrich Hall works as a guide for Peter Sommer Travels – you can read his archaeological insights here

©Barney Spender 2019