The nine hippic contests in the Hellenic Olympics

Founded 10-Oct-2011
Last update 10-Oct-2011

Theodore G. Antikas, Olympica Hippica


Hippic contests in both horse and chariot races were prominent features of all four Pan-Hellenic festivals (Olympia, Pythia, Isthmia, Nemea) and also at the Panathenaia. They were introduced at Olympia as early as 680 BCE, and by 400 BCE the Olympic program was the richest of all. [...] Hippic events held elsewhere, such as at the Panathenaia, are beyond the scope of this book. In Athens, boy riders threw the javelin at a target [ephippos stochastikos akontismos], men rode horses at carousels [anthippasia] or drove chariots with a companion who had to run on foot [apobatai] - an old military sport also practiced in the neighboring cities of Thebai and distant ones in Thessaly. [...] The taurotheria [bull chasing], for example, was a sport similar to the Minoan taurokathapsia [bull touching]. The taurotheria was held at Larissa, in the Thessalian plains, and was a rodeo-like event in which the competitors leapt from their horses to grapple galloping bulls into submission.

The evolution of the Olympic program was straightforward. Unsurprisingly, the most ancient event was the tethrippon dating from 680 BCE or earlier, and the youngest was the keles polon (flat race for colts), introduced in 256 BCE. Two out of nine events, the apene (mule-cart race) and the kalpe (race for trotting mares) were dropped two generations after their introduction by decision of the Eleans [...] The fact is that Greeks held nine equestrian contests (see below) as early as 27 centuries before our times. In contrast, the modern Olympics accommodate three rather meagre competitions of which only one, the Three-Day Event, is worthy of our history.

A. Horse-and-Chariot Races

1. Tethrippon teleion
  [tethr=four, hippos=horse; teleion=adult; adult horse quadriga]

Intended for teams of four horses yoked to a two-wheel chariot [...], it is the most ancient equestrian sport, introduced at the 25thOlympia (680 BCE) and won by Pagondas of Thebai. According to Pindar, a tethrippon race was held as early as 740 BCE and the victor was Samos of Mantineia. The chariot had its roots in the war-like tradition of the Achaians and preserved its ‘aristocratic’ status throughout the classical period. The hippodrome became gradually a showcase for wealth and political power and many distinguished Hellenes took part in this spectacular event at Olympia and other Greek hippodromes.

The chariot was a small wooden vehicle, wide enough to hold two standing men and open in the back. It rested on an axle, to the ends of which were fastened two strong wooden wheels with four spokes. The horses were yoked in a single line, with two in the middle, [zygioi, yoke-horses]; and two on the outside [seiraphoroi, trace-horses]. The fastest, bravest horse was normally yoked on the right-hand side [dexioseiros], a position requiring the most intelligent or fastest horse when the track turns to the left. [...] In Homeric times, chariots were driven by their owners, but in the contests at Olympia charioteers were usually hired professionals.

The designated length of the race was a dodekagnamptos [dodeka = twelve, gnamptos = turn] according to Pindar. Since each lap of the racetrack measured about 1150 m, the actual length of a tethrippon race was around 14 km (9 miles). The hippodrome itself was 212 m wide, and the distance between the start and finish lines was 193 m. More than ten thousand spectators could sit or stand on the slopes of the Kronion hill alongside the track. [...]

2. Synoris teleia
  [two adult horse biga]

For teams of two adult horses, this discipline was introduced into Olympia later than the tethrippon, at the 93rdOlympia (408 BCE). The first synoris race was won by Evagoras of Elis. The distance run by two-horse chariots was shorter by three laps, i.e., nine laps, or a total length of nine km (six miles). In the 4th to the 3rd centuries BCE, from Pella to Egypt, the synoris and tethrippon were the most revered hippic contests, since King Philip’s victory [...]

As Plutarch describes in his Phokion, the quasi-synoris race of apobatai [dismounters], was run over twelve laps of the hippodrome. This race reproduced a battle simulation by requiring the charioteer to drive the synoris while his armed companion had to dismount and run the last lap of the race to the finish.

3. Tethrippon Polon
  [polos=colt, filly; four colt quadriga]

Whereas the proper or teleion tethrippon used four adult horses, the polos [colt, filly] used colts or fillies under the age of two. The contest was introduced at the 102ndOlympia (372 BCE) and was won by the Elean judge Troilos [...] Like the synoris, the distance run by the colt-yoked tethrippa was nine km (6 miles).

4. Synoris Polon
  [two colt biga]

Colts and fillies were used instead of adult horses in this race, introduced at the 128thOlympia of 268 BCE. The first race was won by Belistiche of Macedon, one of the few female owners ever to be crowned at Olympia [...] The distance run was 3.5 km (two miles). [...]

Qualification for the teleion tethrippon or teleia synoris for adult stallions or mares only, and the tethrippon or synoris polon for colts and fillies were conducted at a dokimasia [trial] under the supervision of Elean judges preceding the races. The Hellanodikai settled or resolved disputes regarding the proper classification of horses, mares, colts or fillies, and were aided by paid assistants. [...]

We have presented the four chariot races here in chronological order, according to the date at which each was established as an Olympic contest. The tethrippon race was the oldest and most prestigious. A victory in this event carried as much merit as the honors attached to the gymnika. Historically, the Athenian Alkmaionidai family had the longest tradition in breeding champion horses, its members having won one victory at Olympia, five at Corinth and two at Delphi.

5. Dekapolon Harma
  [Ten-Colt Chariot]

As in the case of the flat kalpe, this contest was held only once thanks to emperor Nero (Pausanias V.12.8, 25.8, 26.3). [...] Nero’s best idea, however, was to postpone the 211thOlympia from 65 to 67 CE to allow him time to train his teams of horses so that he himself might win. He moved to Greece and built a villa near the Altis, south of the Echo building. He obviously thought he could better train in situ, preparing two tethrippa and one specially constructed ten-colt chariot during a planned holiday.

A sewage pipe recently found bearing the inscription Neronis Augustus under a splendid villa at the Altis reflects the state of Nero’s mind – and substantiates the sources. Nero actually took part in the 211thOlympiad’s tethrippon event, driving his unique ten-colt chariot, but only to be thrown off during the race. He was helped back onto the chariot by spectators, but failed to finish, most likely because his horses became over-excited. They threw him off again at the taraxippos turn! Interestingly, he was proclaimed victor by the Hellanodikai apparently on the basis of ‘offical complaints’ which Nero submitted, claiming he would have been victorious had he had been able to finish the race. [...]

B. Flat Horse Races

6. Keles

The name of this flat race stems from an ancient Greek meaning ‘a horse which races and cannot be yoked in a chariot’. In modern Greece the same term stands for geldings (castrated horses). This race was an ordinary flat dodekagnamptos [twelve-round race], identical to that of the tethrippon race. Its distance measured ca. 14 km (9 miles). Ancient races were more demanding than those of our times. By internationally established standards, the distance run in flat races today never exceeds 1½ miles. [...]

The keles was first introduced at the 33rd Olympia (648 BCE) won by the Thessalian Krauxidas from Krannon, the second biggest Thessalian city after Larissa, south of Mt. Olympos. We do not know for sure whether ancient jockeys always rode bareback or sometimes used a saddlecloth. [...] One theory is that the saddlecloth was used by warriors only, and that in competition contestants eschewed cloth, saddle and stirrups. The same rule applied to the ‘team flat race’, which was made famous in the renowned Parthenon frieze, the anthippasia [...] This contest was held only at the Panathenaia, where the ten Athenean tribes each rode as a group. No such team events were held at Olympia or anywhere else.

7. Keles Polon

The keles polon was identical to the ‘regular’ keles teleios, except for the fact that it was run by colts rather than adult horses. The first keles polon was introduced some four centuries later, at the 131stOlympia (256 BCE), and was won by a Thessalian known as Hippocrates. The colt’s owner at this first race was appropriately named and certainly deserved the victory, his name meaning ‘horse authority’ or ‘horse leader’.

8. Kalpe

The kalpe was a rather curious flat race since it was probably run at a trot. It was run by mares and rarely by adult horses. The event was first introduced in the 71stOlympia (496 BCE) won by Pataikos of Dyme, a city in the northwestern Peloponnese. We also know that in the last lap of this race the riders dismounted and, while holding the reins, ran beside their horses to the finish post. [...] I have been unable to discover the name of any other victor in the lists of Olympic champions, the event being discontinued at about the same time as the apene mule-cart race, before the 84thOlympia (444 BCE). The kalpe probably originated in the cavalry, possibly after the Trojan war, because the speed and agility needed to dismount and remount are essential for horsemen in battle. [...]

C. Mule-Cart Races

9. The Apene

The apene must be the most bizarre equestrian event in history, since it involved chariot racing for an equine sub-species or hybrid rather than horses [...] This contest was introduced at the 70thOlympia (500 BCE), but sadly it was discontinued fourteen Olympia later (in 444 BCE) along with the kalpe race. Unlike the kalpe, however, where only one victor is known, the apene’s fifty-six year history is full of famous mule-cart drivers, both from the Greek mainland and its colonies in Magna Graecia. Some of them were commemorated on coins, some had their statues dedicated at Olympia, and others were the subjects of famous epinicean odes written by Pindar or Simonides. The prestige and fame attributed to the apene contest was surely due to the extraordinary wealth of the victors (many of which were tyrants), and the excellent mule breeding in several Greek colonies, particularly those in southern Italy and Sicily.

The mule cart differed from the horse chariot in a number of ways: its wheels were larger, the cart had a high sitting board, and the driver always sat during the race [...] Thus, the apene easily qualifies as the ancient predecessor of modern trotting (France) or pacing events (USA) in which the drivers also take a seated position. [...]

Finally, where equestrian sports are concerned, it should be remembered that they are unique. Compared to other ‘individual’ events (such as track and field, skiing, cycling, tennis, skating, etc.), equestrian competitions are necessarily team affairs, victory requiring harmonious collaboration between man and beast. In the case of the apene, such collaboration must have been considerably more difficult to achieve. Modern horsemen and women should admire and hold in deep respect their colleagues from the ancient past.

Theodore G. Antikas, Olympica Hippica. Horses, Men and Women in the Ancient Olympics, pp. 117-128
(Editions “Euandros”, Athens, 2004)



The original text is shortened and illustrations are omitted.