Amphora from 490 BCE [Object of the Day #30]

July 27, 2012

Amphora from 490 BCE, Possible Olympic Victory Prize
Amphora from 490 BCE

This Attic red figure amphora was made around 490 BCE in the Greek city of Athens.  It was exported to the Etruscan city of Vulci (north of Rome), where it was found in the early 19th century CE.  Athens (and the surrounding region, Attica) was known for  iron-rich clay that was used in its characteristic Attic black- and red-figure pottery.  The amphora is the work of the well-known artist of the early 5th century BCE known as the Berlin Painter.

A winged Nike hovers above a border of meanders and crosses, and she holds a thymiaterion (an incense burner) in her left hand and a floral spray in her right. On the reverse, a young man wears a long cloak and holds a staff in his right hand. He wears a wreath which may signify that he is an athlete; he might also be a trainer.

The shape of the amphora is similar to those awarded to athletes in the Panathenaic Games at Athens.  The vase lacks the striding Athena and depiction of an athletic contest that are characteristic of the Panathenaic prize amphorae, however,  so it cannot have been a prize at the Games.

Penn Museum Object #31-36-11.

See this object and others like it on Penn Museum’s Collection Database.

Did women participate in the ancient Olympics?

The Roman traveler Pausanias tells us that married women were prohibited from watching the mens’ and boys’ contests of the Olympic Games. Even though attendance was mainly limited to men and boys, unmarried girls, presumably virgins, had a separate festival at Olympia in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus. This separate festival was organized and run by women and consisted of foot races and dances. Married women were not allowed to participate in the athletic contests of the Hera festival, and were banned on penalty of death from the Sanctuary of Zeus when the men and boys were competing. We don’t know whether or not the women allowed the men to watch the girls’ competitions.

A winged Nike (goddess of victory) hovers above the ground, holding a flowering tendril and a smoking censer.
A winged Nike (goddess of victory) hovers above the ground, holding a flowering tendril and a smoking censer.

What prizes were awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympics?

Athletic prizes included bronze tripods, shields, woolen cloaks, and olive oil; However, at the most prestigious athletic festivals (the Pan-Hellenic Festivals), the only prizes given were wreaths of leaves.

According to the Roman author Plutarch, an Olympic victor who was a citizen of Athens around 600 BCE could expect to receive  a cash award of 500 drachmai, or silver coins. In other words, they would be set for life. 

From an Athenian inscription of the 5th century BCE, we learn that Athenian Olympic victors received a free meal in the City Hall every day for the rest of their lives.

The tradition of awarding victors with the gold, silver, and bronze medals started with the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Read more about the Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games or more about Ancient Greek Pottery.