Chariot racing in Greek sources

Homer Hesiod Sophocles Demosthenes Theokritos Pausanias Nonnos

Homer, Iliad: Chariot race at the funeral games for Patroklos

(before 6th century BC)

When they’d made the mound,
they started to return. But Achilles checked them,
keeping soldiers there. He asked them to sit down
in a wide group. Then he brought prizes from his ship—
cauldrons, tripods, horses, mules, powerful oxen,
as well as fine-dressed women and grey iron.

First, he set out prizes for swift charioteers—
for the winner, a woman skilled in fine handicrafts
and a tripod with handles holding twenty measures.
For second place he led out a mare six years old,
unbroken and with a mule foal in her womb.
For the man who came in third, he set out a cauldron
untouched by fire, a fine piece which held four measures.
For fourth place he set a prize of two gold talents,
while the fifth-place prize was a two-handled bowl,
not yet put on the fire. Then Achilles stood up
and spoke directly to the Argives:

“Sons of Atreus,
you other well-armed Achaean warriors,
these prizes lie set out here for a contest
among the charioteers. If Achaeans
were now hosting these games for someone else,
then I myself would surely win first prize
and take it to my hut, since, as you know,
my horses are far better than the rest,
for they’re immortal, Poseidon’s gift
to Peleus, my father, who gave them to me.
But I and my sure-footed horses now
will stand down, for they’ve lost their charioteer,
a strong, brave man, so kind he’d often pour
soft oil all through their manes, while washing them
in clean water. They stand there mourning him,
manes trailing on the ground. So they won’t race.
Their hearts feel too much grief. But you others,
get yourselves prepared all through the camp,
any Achaean who has faith in his own horses
and his well-made chariot.”

Once Achilles finished speaking,
swift charioteers rushed into action. First to move,
well before the rest, was Eumelus, king of men,
dear son of Admetus and excellent with horses.
After him came forward mighty Diomedes,
son of Tydeus, driving those yoked horses
from Tros’ herd, which he’d just taken from Aeneas,
though Apollo had snatched away their owner.
After Diomedes came fair-haired Menelaus,
royal son of Atreus, driving a yoked team,
two fast creatures—his own horse Podargus
and Agamemnon’s mare Aethe, which Echepolus,
Anchises’ son, had given to Agamemnon
as a gift, so he wouldn’t have to go with him
to wind-swept Ilion, but could remain at home,
enjoying himself, for Zeus had given him great wealth.
He lived in spacious Sicyon. This was the mare
Menelaus now led up in harness, a racehorse
filled with a desire to run. The fourth contestant,
Antilochus, got his fair-maned horses ready.
He was a noble son of proud king Nestor,
son of Neleus. Swift-footed horses bred at Pylos
pulled his chariot. His father came up to him
to give him practical advice, a wise man speaking
to one who could appreciate another’s skill:

“Antilochus, you may still be quite young,
but Zeus and Poseidon have been fond of you.
They’ve taught you all sorts of things with horses,
so there’s no need to issue you instructions.
You understand well how to wheel around
beside the turning post. But your horses
are the slowest in the race, and so I think
you’ve got some problems here to deal with.
The others’ horses may be faster runners,
but the drivers are no better skilled than you.
So, dear boy, fix your mind on all that skill,
so those prizes don’t elude you. You know,
skill in a woodsman matters more than strength.
It’s skill that lets a helmsman steer his course,
guiding his swift ship straight on wine-dark seas.
And it’s skill, too, that makes one charioteer
go faster than another. Some racing drivers,
trusting their chariot and horses, drive them
carelessly, moving back and forth, weaving
on the course. They don’t control their horses.
But a cunning man, though he’s got worse horses,
keeps his eye on that turning point, cutting
the pillar close. Such a man also understands
how to urge his horses on, right at the start,
using leather reins. But he keeps control.
His mind doesn’t wander, always watching
the man in front. Now I’ll tell you something—
there’s a marker, so clear you cannot miss it.
It’s a dry stump of oak or pine standing
about six feet high. Rain hasn’t rotted it.
On both sides of that stump, two white stones
are firmly fixed against it. At that spot
the race course narrows, but the ground is smooth,
so a team can wheel around that stump.
It may be a memorial to some man
long dead, or perhaps men placed it there
to serve as a racing post in earlier times.
Swift-footed lord Achilles has made that stump
his turning point. You need to shave that post,
drive in really close as you wheel around
your chariot and horses. You should lean out
from that well-sprung platform, to your horses’ left,
giving the right-hand horse the lash, calling
to him with a shout, while with your hands
you let him take the reins. The inside horse
must graze the post, so the well-built wheel hub
seems to scrape the pillar. But be careful—
don’t touch the stone, because if you do,
you’ll hurt the horses, you’ll smash the chariot,
which will delight the others but shame you.
So, dear boy, take care and pay attention.
If you can pass them by as you catch up
right by the turning post, then none of them
will reach you with a sudden burst of speed,
much less overtake you, no, not even
if he were driving godlike Arion
behind you, that swift horse of Adrestus,
from heavenly stock, or the very horses
of king Laomedon, the finest ones bred here.”

Nestor, Neleus’ son, spoke and sat down in his place,
once he’d gone over all the details with his son.
Then Meriones, the fifth contestant in the race,
harnessed his fine-maned horses, and all the racers
climbed in their chariots. They gathered up the lots,
which Achilles shook. The first to tumble out
was for Antilochus, Nestor’s son. Mighty Eumelus
was next, then came spearman Menelaus,
son of Atreus. After him, Meriones
drew his place. Last of all, and by far the best,
Tydeus’ son drew for his horses’ lane.
They took their places in a line. Then Achilles
showed them the turning point far out on the plain.
Beside it he’d placed an umpire, godlike Phoenix,
his father’s follower, to observe the racing
and report back truthfully. Then all together,
they raised their whips above their horses, lashed them
with the reins, and shouted words of encouragement
to urge them forward. The horses raced off quickly,
galloping swiftly from the ships. Under their chests
dust came up, hanging there like storm clouds in a whirlwind.
In the rushing air their manes streamed back. The chariots,
at one moment, would skim across the nourishing earth,
then, at another, would bounce high in the air.
Their drivers stood up in the chariots, hearts pounding,
as they strove for victory. Each man shouted out,
calling his horses, as they flew along that dusty plain.
When the swift horses were starting the last stretch,
racing back to the grey sea, their pace grew strained.
Then the drivers each revealed his quality.
The swift-footed horses of Eumelus raced ahead,
followed by Diomedes’ team from Tros’ breed
not far behind—really close, almost as if they’d charge
right up the back of Eumelus’ chariot.
Their breath felt hot on his broad shoulders and his back,
for, as they ran ahead, they leaned right into him.
Now Tydeus’ son would have passed Eumelus,
or made the issue doubtful, if Phoebus Apollo,
angry at him, hadn’t struck the shining whip
out of his hand. Then from Diomedes’ eyes
tears of rage streamed out, once he saw Eumelus’ team
running even faster than before, while his own
were at a disadvantage, running with no whip.
But Athena had observed Apollo as he fouled
the son of Tydeus. She came running at top speed
after that shepherd of his people, then gave back
his whip, putting strength into his horses.
Then, in anger, she went after the son of Admetus.
The goddess snapped his chariot yoke. The horses swerved,
running all around the course. The shaft dropped down
and hit the ground—this threw Eumelus from the chariot
beside the wheel. On his elbows, mouth, and nose
the skin was badly scraped. Above his eyebrows,
his forehead had a bruise. His two eyes filled with tears,
his strong voice failed him. Tydeus’ son swerved aside,
then drove his sure-footed horses far ahead,
outdistancing the rest, for Athena had put strength
into his team, to give Diomedes glory.
Behind him came Atreus’ son, fair-haired Menelaus.
But then Antilochus called to his father’s horses:

“Get going, you two. Push yourselves. Move up now,
as fast as you can go. I’m not asking you
to try to beat those horses up ahead,
the team of that warlike son of Tydeus,
whom Athena has just helped run faster
to give their driver glory. But overtake
those horses of the son of Atreus—
quick now—don’t let them get too far ahead.
You don’t want to suffer shame from Aethe,
who’s just a mare. Why are you falling back,
you strong horses? Let me tell you something
which is sure to happen—if you slack off now
and I win some inferior prize, then Nestor,
his people’s shepherd, will stop feeding you.
He’ll take out his sharp bronze and kill you both,
here and now. So keep on after them.
Pick up the pace—as fast as you can run!
My task will be to think of something,
devise a way of getting past them there,
where the road narrows. I won’t miss my chance.”

Antilochus finished. His horses, frightened
by their master’s threat, ran faster for a stretch.
Suddenly brave Antilochus saw up ahead
a place where the road was hollowed out and narrow,
with a channel in the ground where winter rains
had backed the water up, washing out some of the road
and making all the ground subside. Menelaus
was coming to this spot, leaving no space at all
for a second chariot to move along beside him.
But Antilochus guided his sure-footed horses
off the track, charging up a little to one side.
Atreus’ son, alarmed, shouted at Antilochus:

“Antilochus, you’re driving like an idiot!
Pull your horses back! The road’s too narrow.
It gets wider soon—you can pass me there!
Watch you don’t hit me. You’ll make us crash!”

Menelaus shouted, but Antilochus kept going,
moving even faster and laying on the whip,
as if he hadn’t heard. They raced on like this
about as far as a discus flies when tossed
with a shoulder swing by a powerful young man
testing his strength. But then the son of Atreus’ team
slowed down and fell behind, reined in deliberately,
in case the sure-footed teams somehow collided
and overturned their well-sprung chariots in the road,
leaving their drivers, for all their eagerness to win,
sprawling in the dust. Then fair-haired Menelaus,
in anger at Antilochus, yelled out:

you’re more reckless than any man alive!
Damn you! Achaeans were all wrong to think
you were a man with some intelligence.
But even so, you still may not win the prize,
without the need to swear you won it fairly.”

Menelaus yelled this, then called out to his horses:

“Don’t slow down or stand there sad at heart.
Their feet and limbs will tire before yours do,
for those two horses are no longer young.”

Menelaus spoke. Excited by their master’s shout,
his horses ran on even faster.

Meanwhile, the Argives,
sitting all together, kept watching for the horses
racing on the dusty plain. The first to spot them
was Idomeneus, leader of the Cretans.
He sat some distance from the crowd, in a higher spot,
a fine lookout. The man in front was still far off,
but when he called his horses, Idomeneus
recognized his voice and could see quite clearly
the horse in front—it was all brown, with a mark
as round and white as a full moon on his forehead.
Idomeneus stood up and called out to the Argives:

“My friends, leaders and rulers of Argives,
am I the only one to see those horses,
or can you glimpse them, too? It seems to me
that another team is now in front,
with another charioteer approaching.
Going out, Eumelus’ mares were in the lead,
but they must have run into some trouble
out there, somewhere on the plain. I saw them
wheeling round the turning post in front.
Now I can’t see them anywhere, though my eyes
keep searching the entire Trojan plain.
Perhaps the charioteer let go the reins
and couldn’t guide his chariot round the post
and failed to make the turn. I think he fell
out there somewhere and smashed his chariot.
His horses must have panicked in their hearts
and run away. But stand up. Look for yourselves.
I can’t see all that clearly, but the man
seems to be of Aetolian descent,
an Argive king, mighty Diomedes,
son of horse-taming Tydeus.”

At that point,
swift Ajax, son of Oileus, mocked Idomeneus
with these insulting words:

why are you always nattering? Those prancing mares
are still far distant, with a lot more ground
to race across. And of all the Argives here
you’re not the youngest—those eyes in your head
don’t have the keenest vision. But for all that,
you still chatter on. You don’t need to babble,
when there are better men than you around.
Those same mares as before are out in front,
Eumelus’ team, and he’s standing there, as well,
holding the reins.”

The leader of the Cretans,
furious with Ajax, then replied:

“You’re great at insults,
Ajax, but really stupid. In everything,
you’re the most useless Argive of them all,
because your mind is dull. Come on then,
let’s bet a tripod or a cauldron on it—
which horses are in front—so you’ll learn
by having to pay up. As our umpire,
let’s have Agamemnon, son of Atreus.”

At Idomeneus’ words, swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
jumped up at once, in a rage, ready to answer
with more angry words. At that point, their quarrel
might have got much worse, but Achilles himself
stood up and said:

“No more of this,
Idomeneus and Ajax, no more angry words,
no more insults—that’s not appropriate.
You’d both feel angry if another man
behaved this way. So sit down with the group
and watch for horses. It won’t be long
before their eagerness to win brings them here.
Then you can both see the Argive horses,
who’s in the lead and who’s behind.”

As Achilles spoke, Tydeus’ son came charging in
really close to them. He kept swinging his whip
down from the shoulder, so his horses raced ahead,
raising their hooves up high as they ran the course.
Clouds of dust kept falling on the charioteer,
as his chariot made of gold and tin raced on,
drawn by swift-running horses, who left behind
only a slight trace of wheel rims in the dust,
as the team flew speeding by. Diomedes pulled up
right in the middle of the crowd. Streams of sweat
dripped from the horses’ necks and chests onto the ground.
He jumped down from his gleaming chariot, leaning the whip
against the yoke. Strong Sthenelus didn’t wait for long
to get the prizes—he retrieved them right away,
giving the woman to his proud comrades to lead off
and the two-handled tripod to carry with them.
Then he untied the horses from their harnesses.

Next in came the horses driven by Antilochus,
grandson of Neleus, who just beat Menelaus—
he won by cunning, not by his horses’ speed.
But Menelaus was bringing his swift horses in
very close behind. The space between the two
was as far as a horse is from the chariot wheel,
when it strains to pull its master fast across the plain—
its tail ends touch the spinning wheels behind it—
there’s not much space between them, as they move
at top speed on the plain—that’s about how far
Menelaus lagged behind noble Antilochus.
At first, he’d been about a discus throw behind,
but he was quickly catching up, for the spirit
in Agamemnon’s mare, the fair-maned Aethe,
kept getting stronger. Had the course been longer
for both contestants, he’d have surely passed him,
without leaving the result in doubt. The next one in
was Meriones, Idomeneus’ brave attendant,
a spear-throw length behind splendid Menelaus.
His horses were the slowest, and he himself
had the least skill at driving in a chariot race.
Last one in was Admetus’ son, well behind the rest,
driving his horses in front of him and pulling
his chariot behind. Seeing Eumelus coming in,
swift-footed lord Achilles felt sorry for him.
Standing among Argives, he spoke his words had wings:

“The best man brings up his sure-footed horses
in last place. Come, let’s give him a prize,
as seems fitting—the award for second place.
Let Diomedes take the first-place prize.”

Achilles spoke. They all agreed with his suggestion.
So now he would have given Eumelus the mare,
as Achaeans had agreed, but Antilochus,
great-hearted Nestor’s son, stood up to claim his right.
Addressing Achilles, son of Peleus, he said:

“Achilles, I’ll be angry with you,
if you carry out what you’ve proposed.
For you want to rob me of my prize,
claiming that his chariot and swift horses
ran into trouble—as he did himself,
though he’s an excellent charioteer.
But he should have prayed to the immortals—
in the race he would not have finished last.
If you’re feeling sorry for Eumelus,
if he’s someone your heart is fond of,
in your hut there’s lots of gold. You’ve got bronze,
sheep, women slaves, and sure-footed horses.
Why not take some of that and then give him
an even greater prize sometime later on?
Or do it now. Achaeans will applaud you.
But I won’t give up the mare. If someone
wants her, let him try doing battle with me,
hand to hand.”

Antilochus finished speaking.
Swift-footed, god-like Achilles smiled, delighted
with Antilochus, who was a close companion.
In reply, he spoke these winged words:

if you’re telling me to give Eumelus
some other prize inside my huts, I’ll do it.
I’ll give him the breastplate I took away
from Asteropaeus. It’s made of bronze,
with a casting of bright tin around it.
For Eumelus it will have great value.”

After saying this, Achilles ordered Automedon,
his close companion, to fetch the breastplate from the hut.
He went and brought it back and gave it to Eumelus,
who was delighted to receive the armour.
But then Menelaus stood up before them all.
His heart was bitter with unremitting anger
against Antilochus. A herald put the sceptre
in Menelaus’ hand, then shouted out for silence
among the Argives. God-like Menelaus spoke:

“Antilochus, you used to have good sense,
before all this. Now look at what you’ve done.
You’ve brought my skills here into disrepute,
fouling my horses when you hurled your team
in front of me out there, that team of yours
which is far inferior to mine. Come now,
you leaders and rulers of the Argives,
judge between the two of us—and fairly,
so Achaeans armed in bronze will never say,

‘Menelaus beat Antilochus with lies,
when he received that mare. Though his horses
were much slower, he used his influence,
his rank and power.’

In fact, I myself
will judge the case, and no Danaan,
I claim, will find fault with me in any way,
for justice will be done. Antilochus,
come here, my lord, and, as our customs state,
stand there before your chariot and horses,
holding that thin whip you used before.
With your hand on your horses, swear an oath,
by the god who surrounds and shakes the earth,
that you didn’t mean to block my chariot
with some trick.”

Antilochus, a prudent man, replied:

“Don’t let me offend you, king Menelaus.
I’m a younger man than you—you’re my senior
and my better. You know how a young man
can do foolish things. His mind works quickly,
but his judgment’s suspect. So be patient
in your heart. That mare I was awarded
I freely give you. And if you requested
something greater from my own possessions,
I’d want to give it to you right away,
rather than lose your good will, my lord,
for ever and offend against the gods.”

The son of great-hearted Nestor finished speaking.
He led out the horse, then placed it in the hands
of Menelaus, whose heart melted like the dew
on ripening ears of corn, when fields are bristling
with the crop—that’s how, Menelaus, your heart
softened in your chest. He spoke to Antilochus—
his words had wings:

“Now, indeed, Antilochus,
I’ll give up my anger with you. Before now,
you haven’t been too reckless or a fool.
This time your youth overcame your judgement.
In future, you shouldn’t try to do such tricks
against your betters. Another Achaean
would not have won me over quite so fast.
But you’ve worked very hard, endured a lot—
you, your noble father, and your brother—
in my cause. So I’ll agree to your request.
What’s more, though she’s mine, I’ll give you the mare,
so all these people here will recognize
my heart’s not arrogant or unyielding.”

Saying this, Menelaus gave the mare to Noëmon,
a comrade of Antilochus, to lead away.
Menelaus carried off the shining cauldron.
Meriones then collected the two talents
for his fourth-place finish. But the prize for fifth place,
the two-handled jar, went unclaimed. So Achilles
awarded it to Nestor. Carrying the prize
into the crowd of Argives, he stood beside him.
Then Achilles said:

“Take this now, old man.
Let it be your treasure, in memory
of Patroclus’ burial. For you’ll see him
no more among the Argives. This prize
I’m giving you without a contest.
For you won’t be competing as a boxer,
or in wrestling, or the spear throw.
Nor will you be running in the foot race.
For old age now has you in its cruel grip.”

With these words, Achilles placed the jar in Nestor’s hands.
He was happy to accept it. Then Nestor spoke,
saying these winged words to Achilles:

“Indeed, my son, you’ve made a valid point.
For my limbs and feet are no longer firm,
my friend. Nor do I find it as easy
to extend my arms out from my shoulders,
as I did before. Would that I were young,
my strength as firm, as it was that day
Epeians buried lord Amarynceus
at Bouprasium. His sons awarded prizes
in honour of their king. No man could match me,
none of the Epeians, my own Pylians,
nor any of the brave Aetolians.
In boxing I defeated Clytomedes,
Enops’ son, in wrestling Ancaeus,
from Pleuron, who fought against me.
In the footrace, I outran Iphicles,
who was outstanding, and in the spear throw,
I beat Phyleus and Polydorus.
I was beaten only in the chariot race
by the two sons of Actor. They pushed ahead,
for there were two of them, both really keen
to win, because they’d set the greatest prize
for that particular race. They were two twins.
One always held the reins—he was the driver.
The other used the whip. That’s the man I was,
back then, but now let younger men compete
in events like these. For I must follow
the dictates of a cruel old age these days,
though as a warrior I once excelled.
But come, you must continue with these games
to honour your companion. As for this gift,
I accept it gladly. It delights my heart
that you think of me always as your friend.
You don’t forget the honours due to me
among Achaeans. May the gods grant you,
as a reward for that, your heart’s desires.”

Nestor finished. Once he’d heard all of Nestor’s story,
Peleus’ son moved through the large Achaean crowd.

Homer, The Iliad, XXIII.257-652; transl. by Ian Johnston

Homer, Odyssey: The ship of the Phaeacians

(before 6th century BC)

Just as four stallions yoked together charge ahead
across the plain, all running underneath the lash,
and jump high as they gallop quickly on their way,
that’s how the stern of that ship leapt up on high,
while in her wake the dark waves of the roaring sea
were churned to a great foam, as she sped on her path,
safe and secure. Not even a wheeling hawk,
the swiftest of all flying things, could match her speed,
as she raced ahead, slicing through the ocean waves,
carrying a man whose mind was like a god’s.

Homer, The Odyssey, XIII.81–89; transl. by Ian Johnston

Hesiod, Shield of Herakles: Chariot racing scene depicted on the shield

(before 6th century BC)

Beside them, horsemen had hard work, and about a prize
they had a fight and toil. On well-plaited chariots
drivers stood and sent on swift horses
slackening the reins, and they rattled and flew,
the well-jointed chariots, as wheel hubs screeched loudly at it.
So they had hard work everlasting, and never for them
was victory achieved, but they had a contest undecided.
A great tripod was set out for them within the course,
a golden one, splendid work of prudent Hephaestus.

Hesiod, Shield of Herakles, 305–313; transl. by James Huddleston

Sophocles, Electra: Chariot race at the Pythian Games at Delphi

(5th century BC)

I was sent to tell you what took place,
and I will give you the entire story.
Orestes travelled to that famous shrine
at Delphi, whose glory all Greeks share,
to compete for prizes at the games held there.
When he heard the loud cry of the herald
for the first event, a foot race, he moved
onto the track, a splendid looking youth,
who won the admiration of the crowd.
He raced once around the track and finished first,
winning the honour of a glorious prize.
As for his other feats that day, let me say this:
I do not know any man who could have matched
his strength and skill. And one thing you should know—
in every contest which those judges called
he won first prize, and all those there agreed
he was a fortunate young man each time
the heralds shouted out he was an Argive
called Orestes, son of Agamemnon,
who once commanded Greece’s famous army.1
That’s how things began for him that day.
But when a god decides to harm someone,
there’s no escape, not even for the strong.
One day soon afterwards at sunrise,
Orestes took part in a chariot race,
with many others—one was from Achaea,
one from Sparta, and two from Libya,
both very skilled at racing chariots.
Orestes was the fifth man in the race
with his Thessalian mares. The sixth,
with chestnut colts, was from Aetolia,
the seventh a driver from Magnesia.
An Aenian man, whose team was white,
was eighth, and ninth a man from Athens.
The tenth and final man was a Boeotian.
Special judges chose each starting place
by drawing lots, and then the teams moved up
to their assigned positions. A trumpet blared,
and they raced off, shouting at their horses
and brandishing the reins. The entire track
was filled with the din of clattering chariots,
stirring up the dust. In the mass confusion
no one spared the whip, as each man strove
to push on and get past his rival’s wheels
and the snorting nostrils of his horses.
The foaming slobber of the panting teams
fell across their backs and chariot wheels.
Each time Orestes swung past the turning post
he let the trace horse on the right run wide
and kept the reins taut on the left-hand side.
He came so close he almost grazed his wheels.2
So far the chariots had all been running well,
but then the Aenian’s hard-mouthed horses
lost control and bolted, as they were ending
their sixth lap and starting on the seventh,
smashing headlong into a Libyian chariot.
The pile up caused a number of collisions,
as racing teams crashed into one another
and broke apart. The racing course at Crisa
was full of shattered chariots. Seeing this,
the man from Athens, a skilful driver,
pulled aside, reining in his horses,
to let the mass of chariots behind him
rush past and crash into the wreckage.
Orestes was holding back his horses,
counting on a fast sprint at the finish.
But when he noticed the Athenian
was the only chariot left in the race,
he raised a cry that pierced his horses’ ears
and set out after him. They drew level.
As the chariots raced on, first one of them
would surge ahead and then the other,
the horses straining neck-and-neck to win.
So far poor Orestes had kept his poise,
standing balanced in the upright chariot,
and moving safely past the turning posts.
But then, as his team made the final turn,
quite inadvertently he slackened off
the left-hand rein and struck the pillar,
breaking his axle box. He pitched forward,
across the rail, and got tangled in the reins.
As he fell down, his team of horses panicked,
bolting all around the middle of the track.
When people saw he’d fallen from his chariot,
they cried out with pity that such a youth,
who’d achieved so much, was so unlucky.
He was dragged along the ground and tossed
into the air feet first, until the charioteers
with difficulty rounded up his horses
and cut him loose, covered in so much blood
that even a friend would not have recognized
his mangled corpse. They quickly built a pyre
and burned the body. Chosen men from Phocis
are bringing here in a small urn made of bronze
his mighty body, now nothing but ash,
so he may have the burial he deserves
in his ancestral home. That ends my story.
The words are sad enough, but for those of us
who saw it, it was the greatest of all sorrows,
the most painful sight that we have ever seen.

1 Following the lead of many other translators, I omit line 691 in the Greek, which lists the contests (single lap race, double lap race, and pentathlon). Jebb suggests it is a later interpolation and discusses the difficulties it presents.

2 In the chariot race, each competitor drove a four-horse team, two yoked horses in the middle and two trace horses on the outside. The drivers raced a number of laps counter clockwise around a course marked with a pillar at each end (the turning post). A key moment was the turn around the pillar, when a good rider guided his left trace horse as close to the pillar as possible, without having his wheel hit it. That meant that the driver had to keep a tight control on the left-hand trace horse, the one nearest the pillar. The right-hand horse was left to run as hard as it could.

Sophocles, Electra, 680–763; transl. and annotated by Ian Johnston

Demosthenes, Erotic Essay: Apobates race

(4th century BC)

Turning now to courage—for it will not do to omit this either, not because I would intimate that your character does not still admit of great development nor that the future will fail to furnish richer material for eulogy to those who wish to praise you, but rather that words of praise mean most at your age when to do no wrong is the best hope for other lads—your courage a man might extol on many other grounds but especially because of your training for athletic sports, of which you have a multitude of witnesses. And perhaps it is in place first to say that you have done well in choosing this kind of contest. For to judge rightly when one is young what line of action one should pursue1 is the token of an honest soul and of sound judgement alike, and on neither ground would it be right to omit praise of your choice.

You, therefore, being well aware that slaves and aliens share in the other sports but that dismounting is open only to citizens and that the best men aspire to it, have eagerly applied yourself to this sport.2 Discerning, moreover, that those who train for the foot-races add nothing to their courage nor to their morale either, and that those who practise boxing and the like ruin their minds as well as their bodies, you have singled out the noblest and grandest of competitive exercises and the one most in harmony with your natural gifts, one which approximates to the realities of warfare through the habituation to martial weapons and the laborious effort of running, in the magnificence and majesty of the equipment simulates the might of the gods,3 presents besides the most delectable spectacle, embraces the largest number and the greatest variety of features and has been deemed worthy of the most valuable prizes. For, apart from those offered, getting the drill and practice in such exercises itself will possess glamour as no paltry prize in the eyes of those who are even moderately ambitious for excellence. The best evidence for this may be found in the poetry of Homer, in which he represents the Greeks and barbarians warring against one another with this equipment.4 I may add that even now it is customary to employ it in contests in Greek cities, and not in the meanest cities but in the greatest.5

So admirable is your choice of sport and so approved among all men. Believing also, as you do, that it is futile to desire the things most worth while, or yet to be physically endowed for all sorts of feats, unless the soul has been prepared for an ambitious career, at the very outset you exhibited diligence in the training grounds, nor in the real tests were you disappointing, but you gave extraordinary proof of the distinction of your natural gifts and particularly of the courage of your soul in the games. I hesitate to begin treating this topic for fear words may fail me in the description of what took place on that occasion, but nevertheless I shall not pass it over; for it is a shame to refuse a report of what enthralls us as spectators.

Were I to describe all the contests an unseemly length would perhaps accrue to this essay,6 but by recalling a single example in which you especially distinguished yourself I shall demonstrate the same truth and be found to make a more reasonable use of the patience of my hearers. When the teams had been started and some had leaped to the fore and some were being reined in, you, prevailing over both, first one and then the other,7 in proper style, seized the victory, winning that envied crown in such fashion that, glorious as it was to win it, it seemed the more glorious and astounding that you came off safely. For when the chariot of your opponents was bearing down upon you head-on and all thought the momentum of your horses beyond checking, you, aware that some drivers, though no danger should threaten, become overanxious for their own safety, not only did not lose your head or your nerve, but by your courage got control of the impetus of your team and by your speed passed even those contenders whose luck had suffered no setback. What is more, you caused such a revolution in men’s minds that, though many keep insisting that nothing in equestrian contests affords such delight as a crash, and seem to speak the truth, in your case all the spectators, on the contrary, were afraid that some such accident might befall you. Such goodwill and eagerness for your success did your personality awaken in them.

1 Blass notes a similarity in the Funeral Speech 17; not impressive.

2 The contestants were called “apobates,” desultores, i.e. “dismounters.” The drivers seem to have dismounted at times and raced with the teams. Dionysius of Halicarn., Roman Antiq. vii. 73; E. Norman Gardiner, Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals, pp. 237–239.

3 Certain gods were represented as using chariots, particularly Ares and Poseidon.

4 Homeric warriors employed charioteers, dashed recklessly among the foe to spread dismay, and finally dismounted to engage in single combat: Iliad xvi., especially 712–867.

5 Athens and Thebes.

6 Blass notes the expression of a similar fear in the Funeral Speech 6 and in Isocr. Panegyr. 66, but surely it is a commonplace.

7 Blass notes the same phrase in Isocr. Panegyr. 72; it may have been technical in the language of ancient sport.

Demosthenes, Erotic Essay, 22–29. Transl. and annotated by Norman Wentworth DeWitt.

Theokritos, Idylls: The childhood of Heracles

(3rd century BC)

But the art of driving chariot horses, and how to round the
Turning-post in safety, and not to graze the wheel’s hub, Amphitryon
Taught his son with loving care; he himself had won many a prize in the
Swift races at Argos, nurturer of horses, and the chariots he had driven
Had survived intact, except that time had ruined their leather reins.

Theocritus, Idylls, 24.119-123; transl. by Anthony Verity

Pausanias, Description of Greece: Hippodrome at Olympia

(2nd century AD)

When you have passed beyond the stadium, at the point where the umpires sit, is a place set apart for the horse-races, and also the starting-place for the horses. The starting-place is in the shape of the prow of a ship, and its prow is turned towards the course. At the point where the prow adjoins the porch of Agnaptus it broadens and a bronze dolphin on a rod has been made at the very point of the ram.

Each side of the starting-place is more than four hundred feet in length, and in the sides are built stalls. These stalls are assigned by lot to those who enter for the races. Before the chariots or race-horses is stretched a cord as a barrier. An altar of unburnt brick, plastered on the outside, is made at every Festival as near as possible to the center of the prow, and a bronze eagle stands on the altar with his wings stretched out to the fullest extent. The man appointed to start the racing sets in motion the mechanism in the altar, and then the eagle has been made to jump upwards, so as to become visible to the spectators, while the dolphin falls to the ground.

First on either side the barriers are withdrawn by the porch of Agnaptus, and the horses standing thereby run off first. As they run they reach those to whom the second station has been allotted, and then are withdrawn the barriers at the second station. The same thing happens to all the horses in turn, until at the ram of the prow they are all abreast. After this it is left to the charioteers to display their skill and the horses their speed.

It was Cleoetas who originally devised the method of starting, and he appears to have been proud of the discovery, as on the statue at Athens he wrote the inscription:

Who first invented the method of starting the horses at Olympia,
He made me, Cleoetas the son of Aristocles.

It is said that after Cleoetas some further device was added to the mechanism by Aristeides.

The race-course has one side longer than the other, and on the longer side, which is a bank, there stands, at the passage through the bank, Taraxippus, the terror of the horses. It has the shape of a round altar, and as they run along the horses are seized, as soon as they reach this point, by a great fear without any apparent reason. The fear leads to disorder; the chariots generally crash and the charioteers are injured. Consequently the charioteers offer sacrifice, and pray that Taraxippus may show himself propitious to them.

The Greeks differ in their view of Taraxippus. Some hold that it is the tomb of an original inhabitant who was skilled in horsemanship; they call him Olenius, and say that after him was named the Olenian rock in the land of Elis. Others say that Dameon, son of Phlius, who took part in the expedition of Heracles against Augeas and the Eleans, was killed along with his charger by Cteatus the son of Actor, and that man and horse were buried in the same tomb.

There is also a story that Pelops made here an empty mound in honor of Myrtilus, and sacrificed to him in an effort to calm the anger of the murdered man, naming the mound Taraxippus (Frightener of horses) because the mares of Oenomaus were frightened by the trick of Myrtilus. Some say that it is Oenomaus himself who harms the racers in the course. I have also heard some attach the blame to Alcathus, the son of Porthaon. Killed by Oenomaus because he wooed Hippodameia, Alcathus, they say, here got his portion of earth; having been unsuccessful on the course, he is a spiteful and hostile deity to chariot-drivers.

A man of Egypt said that Pelops received something from Amphion the Theban and buried it where is what they call Taraxippus, adding that it was the buried thing which frightened the mares of Oenomaus, as well as those of every charioteer since. This Egyptian thought that Amphion and the Thracian Orpheus were clever magicians, and that it was through their enchantments that the beasts came to Orpheus, and the stones came to Amphion for the building of the wall. The most probable of the stories in my opinion makes Taraxippus a surname of Horse Poseidon.

There is another Taraxippus at the Isthmus, namely Glaucus, the son of Sisyphus. They say that he was killed by his horses, when Acastus held his contests in honor of his father. At Nemea of the Argives there was no hero who harmed the horses, but above the turning-point of the chariots rose a rock, red in color, and the flash from it terrified the horses, just as though it had been fire. But the Taraxippus at Olympia is much worse for terrifying the horses.

On one turning-post is a bronze statue of Hippodameia carrying a ribbon, and about to crown Pelops with it for his victory.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, VI.20.10–19; transl. by W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod

Nonnos of Panopolis, Dionysiaca: Chariot race at the funeral games for Opheltes

(late 5th century AD)

Then the god of the vine brought the funeral prizes. He kept the people there, and marked out a wide space for games with the goal for a chariot-race. There was on the ground a stone of a fathom’s width, rounded into a half-circle, like the moon, well smoothed on its two sides, such as an old craftsman has fashioned and rounded with industrious hands wishing to make the statue of a god. A giant Cyclops lifted this in his hands and set it in the earth for a stone turning-post, and fixed another like it at the opposite end. There were various prizes, cauldron, tripod, shields, horses, silver, Indian jewels, cattle, Pactolian silt.1

The god offered prizes of victory for the charioteers. For the first, a bow and Amazonian quiver, a demilune buckler, and one of those warlike women, whom once as he walked on the banks of Thermodon he had taken while bathing and brought to the Indian city. For the second, a bay mare swift as the north wind, with long mane overshadowing her neck, still in foal and gone half her time and her belly swollen with the burden her mate had begotten. For the third, a corselet, and a shield for the fourth. This was a masterpiece made on the Lemnian anvil2 and adorned with gold patterns; the round boss in the middle was wrought with silver ornaments. For the fifth, two ingots, treasure from the banks of Pactolos. Then he stood up and encouraged the drivers:

“My friends, whom Ares has taught citystorming war, to whom Seabluehair has given the racer’s horsemanship! You whom I urge are men not unacquainted with hardship, but used to heavy toils; for our warriors hold dear all sorts of manly prowess. If one is of Lydian birth from Tmolos, he will do deeds worthy of the victorious racing of Pelops. If one comes from the land of Pisa, nurse of horses, a man of Elis with its fine chariots, a countryman of Oinomaos, he knows the sprigs of Olympian wild olive: but this is not the race of Oinomaos, our drivers here have not the goad of a marriage fatal to strangers—this is a race for honour and free from the Foamborn. If one has the land of Aonia or the blood of Phocis, he knows the Pythian contest honoured by Apollo. If he holds Marathon, rich in olives, the home of artists, he knows those jars teeming with rich juice. If one is a habitant of the fruitful land of Achaia, he has learnt of Pellene, where men wage a shivery contest for the welcome prize of a woollen cloak, a coat to huddle up their cold limbs in winter. If he has grown up to live in seagirdled Corinth, he knows the Isthmian contest of our Palaimon.”3

He spoke, and the leaders came hastening up and ran round each to his chariot. First Erechtheus brought his horse Bayard under the yoke, and fastened in his mare Swiftfoot; both sired by Northwind Boreas in winged coupling when he dragged a stormfoot Sithonian Harpy to himself, and the Wind gave them as loveprice to his goodfather Erechtheus when he stole Attic Oreithyia for his bride.4

Second, Actaion swung his Ismenian5 lash. Third was speedyfoal Scelmis, offspring of Earthshaker lord of the wet, who often cut the water of the sea driving the car of his father Poseidon. Fourth Phaunos lept up, who came into assembly alone bearing the semblance of his mother’s father,6 with four horses under his yoke like Helios; and fifth Achates mounted his Sicilian chariot, one insatiable for horsmenship, full of the passion which belongs to the river that feeds the olivetrees of Pisa. For he lived in the land of the nymph loved by hapless Alpheios, who brings to Arethusa as a gift of love his garlanded waters untainted by the brine.7

Bold Actaion was led away from the crowd by his father, who addressed these loving injunctions to his eager son:

“My son, your father Aristaios has more experience than you. I know you have strength enough, that in you the bloom of youth is joined with courage; for you have in you the blood of Apollo my father, and our Arcadian mares are stronger than any for the race. But all this is in vain, neither strength nor running horses know how to win, as much as the driver’s brains. Cunning, only cunning you want; for horseracing needs a smart clever man to drive.

“Then listen to your father, and I will teach you too all the tricks of the horsy art which time has taught me, and they are many and various. Do your best, my boy, to honour your father by your successes. Horseracing brings as great a repute as a war; do your best to honour me on the racecourse as well as the battlefield. You have won a victory in war, now win another, that I may call you prizewinner as well as spearman. My dear boy, do something worthy of Dionysos your kinsman, worthy both of Phoibos and of skilful Cyrene, and outdo the labours of your father Aristaios. Show your horsemastery, win your event like an artist, by your own sharp wits; for without instruction one pulls the car off the course in the middle of a race, it wanders all over the place, and the obstinate horses in their unsteady progress are not driven by the whip or obedient to the bit, the driver as he turns back misses the post,8 he loses control, the horses run away and carry him back where they will. But one who is a master of arts and tricks, the driver with his wits about him, even with inferior horses, keeps straight and watches the man in front, keeps a course ever close to the post, wheels his car round without ever scratching the mark. Keep your eyes open, please, and tighten the guiding rein swinging the whole near horse about and just clearing the post, throwing your weight sideways to make the car tilt, guide your course by needful measure, watch until as your car turns the hub of the wheel seems almost to touch the surface of the mark with the near-circling wheel. Come very near without touching; but take care of the stone, or you may strike the post with the axle against the turning-post and wreck both horses and car together. As you guide your team this way and that way on the course, act like a steersman; ply the prick, scold and threaten the whip without sparing, press the off horse, lift him to a spurt, slacken the hold of the bit and don’t let it irk him. Manage your car like a good steerman; guide your car on a straight course, for the driver’s mind is like a car’s rudder if he drives with his head.”

With this advice, he turned away and retired, having taught his son the various tricks of his trade as a horseman, which he knew so well himself.

One after another as usual each put a blind hand into the helmet,9 turning away his face, and hoping to get the uncertain lot in his favour, as one who shakes his fingers for a throw of the doubtful dice far from him. So the leaders in turn took their lots. Horsemad Phaunos, offspring of the famous blood of Phaëthon, was first by lot, and Achates was second, next came the brother of Damnamenes,10 and next to him Actaion; but the best racer of all got the last lot, horsewhipper Erechtheus.

Then the drivers lifted their leather whips, and stood in a row each in his chariot. The umpire was honest Aiacos; his duty was to view the crown-eager drivers turning the post, and to watch with unerring eyes how the horses ran. He was the witness of truth, to settle quarrels and differences.

The race started from the barrier. Off they went—one leading in the course, one trying to catch him as he raced in front, another chasing the one between, and the last ran close to the latter of these two and strove to graze his chariot. As they got farther on driver caught driver and ran car against car, then shaking the reins forced off the horses with the jagged bit. Another neck and neck with a speeding rival ran level in the doubtful race, now crouching sideways, now stretching himself, now upright when he could not help it, with bent hips urging the willing horse, just a touch of the master’s hand and a light flick of the whip. Again and again he would turn and look back for fear of the car of the driver coming on behind: or as he made speed, the horse’s hoof in the spring of his prancing feet would be slipping into a somersault, had not the driver checked his still hurrying pace and so held back the car which pressed him behind. Again, one in front with another driver following behind would change his course to counter the rival car, moving from side to side uncertainly so as to bar the way to the other who pressed him close. And Scelmis, offspring of the Earthshaker, swung Poseidon’s seawhip and drove his father’s team bred in the sea; not Pegasos flying on high so quickly cut the air on his long wings, as the feet of the seabred horses covered their course on land unapproachable.

The people collected together sat in rows on a high hill, to see the race, and watched from a distance the course of the galloping horses. One stood anxious, another shook a finger and beckoned to a driver to hurry. Another possessed with the fever of horses’ rivalry, felt a mad heart galloping along with his favourite driver; another who saw a man running ahead of his favourite, clapt his hands and shouted in melancholy tones, cheering on, laughing, trembling, warning the driver.

The fine chariots, faster than the furious Bear,11 now flew high aloft, now skimmed the earth scarcely touching the surface of dust. The track of the car dashing straight on with quick circling wheel scratched the sandy soil as it passed. Then there was a confused struggle; the dust also was stirred and rose to the horses’ chestst, their manes shook in the airy breezes, the busy drivers shouted all with one voice together louder than their cracking whips.

Now they were on the last lap. Scelmis with a swift leap was first of all pressing on his seachariot. Erechtheus was close upon him whipping up his team, and you might almost say you saw the second car ready to climb aboard the car of the maritime Telchis; for the spirited stallion of Erechtheus was up in the air, panting and snorting with both nostrils, so as to warm the back of the other charioteer. The eyes of Scelmis were turned back again and again on the other driver, and he might have pulled Erechtheus’ horse by the mane, and the foaming stallion might have shaken his jaw with a quick jerk and spat out the bit; but Erechtheus checked the car, and turned it to one side with a vigorous pull at the stout reins, wrenching the horses’ jaws slowly towards himself. Then again he drove close, having escaped the disaster of a horse without bit and bridle. And Scelmis when he saw him making for his car shouted in threatening tones—

“That will do now! It’s of no use to run a match with horses of the sea! Pelops long ago driving another car of my father’s12 beat in a race the unconquered horses of Oinomaos. As guide of my horsemanship I will call on the Horse God of the deep: you, my friend the horse flogger, direct all your hope to Athena the Perfect Webster. I do not want your paltry olive13; I’ll carry off a different garland, a vinewreath and not your trumpery olive.”

Erechtheus was a hasty man, and these words of Scelmis made him angrier than before, and his quick intelligent mind began at once to weave plots and plans. His hands went on with his driving, but in his heart he uttered a quick prayer to Athena the queen of his own city in his own country language, to crave help in his horsemanship:

“Lady of Cecropia, horsemistress, Pallas unmothered! As thou didst conquer Poseidon in thy contest,14 so may Erechtheus thy subject, who drives a horse of Marathon, conquer Poseidon’s son!”

With this appeal he touched up the flanks of his colts and brought up level car to car and yoke to yoke, and with his left hand caught at the mouth of his rival’s horse, and pulled at the heavy grip of the bit, forcing back by the bridle the car running by his side15; with his right hand he lashed his own highnecked steeds putting on a spurt. So he took the place of Scelmis on the course, and made that charioteer fall behind. Then he looked back with a laughing countenance on the son of Poseidon, and mocked him in his turn with raillery, the words tumbling over his shoulder in a stream—

“Scelmis, you’re beaten! Erechtheus is a better man than you, for my old ambling mare Swiftfoot has beaten your Piebald, with Zephyros for sire, a horse too, and a young one, and one that can run on the sea without getting wet! If you are so proud of the skill of Pelops and praise the seacoursing car of your father, it was Myrtilos16 who contrived that cheating victory, with his clever invention, when he made a wax model of an axle to deceive his master. If you are haughty because of your father Earthshaker, the Horse God as you call him, who rides in the chariot of the deep, himself lord of the sea and master of the trident, Athena, a female, has beaten your backer, the male!”

As he said this, the man of Athena’s town ran past the Telchis. Next after him came Phaunos flogging his fourhorse team. Fourth was Actaion the cunning and artful, who had not forgotten his father’s good advice; and the last was Tyrsenian Achates.

Now bold Actaion thought of a cunning plan. His car was just behind Phaunos and catching him up, when with a sharper cut of the whip, he turned his horses aside and drove them up level, slipping by the driver and getting a little in front, then pressing his knees against the rail, he scraped the rival car with his own crossing car and scratched the horse’s legs with his running wheel. The car was upset, and over the wreckage three of the horses lay fallen on the ground, one on the flank, one on the belly, one on the neck. But one kept clear by a swerve and remained standing, his feet firmly rooted on the earth, shaking his trembling neck; he supported the whole leg of the horse yoked next to him, and lifting the yokeband pulled the car up again. There they were in a mess on the ground; the driver rolled in the dirt beside his wheel, close to the car, the skin of his forehead barked, his chin soiled, his arm stretched out in the dust and the elbow torn by the ground. The driver leapt up quickly, and in a moment he was standing beside his wrecked car, dragging up the prostrate horse with shamed hand and flogging the discomfited beast with quick lash. Bold Actaion watched Phaunos in difficulties beside his car, and made merry at his plight:

“That will do now! It’s of no use to press your unwilling horses. That will do, it’s all of no use! I shall be there first, and I will inform Dionysos that Phaunos will let all the other drivers pass, and he will come in last dragging his own car. Spare your whip. It really makes me sorry to see your poor horses torn like that with a fleshcutting prick!”

Phaunos was furious to hear these words, as the speaker drove his team quickly on with speeding whip. He pulled at the thick tails of the horses lying on the ground, and with great difficulty made the beasts get up from the dust. One colt which had struggled out of the untied yokestrap he brought back again and fastened into the bridle. He put the feet of the struggling horses into their places on both sides, and mounted the car, taking his stand firmly in it, then once more whipt up the team with his terrible lash. Harder than ever Phaunos drove and urged on his galloping horses, quicker than ever he pursued the driver in front of him—and he caught up the team ahead, for horsegod Earthshaker put spirit into the horses to honour his bold son. Then seeing a narrow pass by a beetling cliff, he wove a tangled web of deceitful artifice, to catch Achates and pass him by skilful driving.

There was a deep ravine, which the errant flood of rain pouring from the sky had torn by the side of the course under the wintry scourge of Zeus; the torrent of rain confined there had cut away a strip of earth and hollowed the ground so as to form a narrow ridge. Achates when he got there had unwillingly checked his car, to avoid a collision with the approching driver; and as Phaunos galloped upon him, he called out in a trembling voice—

“Your dress is dirty still, foolish Phaunos! the tips of your harness are still covered with sand! You have not yet dusted your untidy horses! Clean off your dirt! What’s the good of all the driving? I fear I may see you tumbling and struggling again! Take care of that bold Actaion, or he may catch you and flick your back with his leather thong and shoot you headlong into the dust again. You still show scratches on your round cheeks. Why do you still rage, Phaunos, bringing disgrace alike on Poseidon your father and Helios your gaffer? Pray have respect for the mocking throat of the Satyrs—beware of the Seilenoi and the attendants of Dionysos, or they may laugh at your dirty car! Where are your herbs and your plants, where all the drugs of Circe? All have left you, all, as soon as you began this race. Who will tell your proud mother the tale of a tumbling chariot and a filthy whip?”

Such were the proud words that Achates shouted in mockery, but Nemesis recorded that big speech. Now Phaunos came close and drove alongside. Chariot struck chariot, and hitting the middle bolt with his axle he broke it with his rolling wheel—the other wheel rolled off by itself and fell twisting on the ground, as with the chariot of Oinomaos, when the wax of the false axle melted in Phaëthon’s heat and ended the horsemanship of that furious driver. Achates remained in the narrow way, while Phaunos in his car, leaning over the rail of his four-in-hand, passed him with speeding whip as if he did not hear; he lifted his lash more than ever, flogging the necks of the galloping horses beyond pursuit. Now he was next behind Actaion, as far as the long throw of a hurtling quoit when some stout lad casts it with strong hand.

The spectators were mad with excitement, all quarrelling and betting upon the uncertain victory that was not yet. They lay their wagers on the stormfoot horses—tripod or cauldron or sword or shield; native quarrelled with native, friend with comrade, old with old and young with young, man with man. All took sides shouting in confusion, one praised up Achates, a second would prove Phaunos the worse, for falling to the ground from his upset car; another maintained that Erechtheus was second behind Telchis the driver from the sea; another would have it that the resourceful man of Athens was visible close by, that his team was in front and he had won after passing Scelmis the leading driver.

The quarrel had not ended when Erechtheus came in first, a near thing! unceasingly lashing his horses right and left down from the shoulders. Sweat ran in rivers over the horses’ necks and hairy chests, their driver was sprinkled with plentiful dry spatterings of dust; the car was running hard on the horses’ footsteps amid rising whirls, and the undisturbed surface of the light dust was disturbed by the rolling tyres. After this flying race, he came into their midst in his car. He wiped off with his dress the sweat which poured from his wet brow, and quickly got out of the car. He rested his long whip against the fine yoke, and his groom Amphidamas unloosed the horses. Then quickly with happy hand he lifted the first prize of victory, quiver and bow and helmeted woman, and shook the flat half-shield with the boss in the middle.

Scelmis came second in his chariot from the sea—for he drove Poseidon’s car from the sea, as far behind as the round wheel is behind the running horse—as he gallops, the hairy tip of his long waving tail just touches the tyre. He took the second prize, the mare in foal, and gave her in charge to Damnamenes, offering her with jealous hand.

Third Actaion lifted his token of victory, the corselet shining with gold, the gorgeous work of Olympos.

Next came Phaunos, and there checked his car. He lifted the shield with rounded silver boss, and he still showed those relics of the dirty dust.

When Achates arrived despondent beside his slowrolling car, a Sicilian groom displayed two ingots of gold, a consolation from his kind friend the splendid Dionysos.

1 i.e. gold.

2 Therefore presumably by Hephaistos.

3 In this passage, Nonnos takes occasion to exploit his knowledge of the mythology of athletic contests. Dionysos’s men include Lydians; but Pelops (137) was son of Tantalos the Lydian, so they may take example from his defeat of Oinomaos {cf. xix. 152). But this is one of the many mythical origins of the games at Olympia, so if they come from Pisa (the nearest town to the precinct of Zeus where the games were held) that may encourage them, especially as this is to be a clean and fair contest, with no tricks such as Pelops played for the sake of his love of Hippodameia (141–143; the Foamborn is Aphrodite). Or if they are from the regions near Delphi (144), they are neighbours of the Pythian Games (that these were not founded till centuries later does not seem to trouble Nonnos). If they are from the Isthmus of Corinth (152–153) they are to remember that the Games there are in honour of Palaimon (cf. ix. 90). Apparently a chronological scruple prevents him naming the Nemean Games, said to have been founded by the Seven champions on their way to Thebes. Of the minor Games, the prizes for which were not wreaths but objects of value, he mentions (146) the (Heracleia at) Marathon, but obviously confuses them with the Panathenaia, for the Marathonian prizes were silver goblets (schol. Pind. Ol. xiii. 110), oil being the prize of the Panathenaia. In 148–149 the allusion is to the Hermaia at Pellene in Achaia, where the prize was a woollen cloak. Probably he had his information from Pindar and his scholiast.

4 Cf. ii. 688; Oreithyia was daughter of Erechtheus (or Pandion) king of Athens.

5 Theban, from the river Ismenos (properly Hismenos), near Thebes.

6 The genealogy is Helios–Circe–Faunus, cf. xxxvii. 13.

7 The story of how Alpheios, the river of Elis, loved Arethusa, the fountain of Syracuse (among other places), and consequently his waters flow under the sea without mingling with the salt water, to join hers, is told a hundred times in ancient authors, e.g., in Strabo vi. 2. 4. The epithet στεφανηφόρον probably means that if a garland is thrown into Alpheios it will reappear in Arethusa; elsewhere it is a silver cup, or dirt of some kind, or generally anything that may be thrown into the river which gives this proof of the story. But it may simply refer to the garlands given as prizes at Olympia.

8 Not the goal, but the mark at the end of the track where the cars were to turn; it was a point of horsemanship to come as near as possible without actually hitting it.

9 They drew lots to see which should drive nearest the inside of the track.

10 Scelmis.

11 Moving faster than Ursa Maior, otherwise the Waggon (άμαξα), travels around the pole.

12 Pelops got from Poseidon the team with which he carried off Hippodameia, Pind. Ol. i. 87.

13 μορία, a sacred olive, espcially watched over by Zeus and Athena, Soph. O.C. 705-706.

14 For possession of Attica, cf. xxxvi. 126.

15 Apparently a good deal of fouling was tolerated in ancient racing.

16 Oinomaos’s charioteer.

Nonnos, Dionysiaca, 37.103–484; transl. and annotated by W. H. D. Rouse. The verse numbers in footnotes refer to the Greek text given in the Loeb edition.


4 June 2021 – 25 February 2023