Panathenaic amphorae: Vessels given as prizes at the Panathenaic Games from 566 BC

Verica Sitnik
Musical competition, pseudo-Panathenaic amphora (500–485 BC)

A Panathenaic amphora is a type of container that was specially made to be given as a prize during the Panathenaic Games in ancient Greece. The vessel was primarily made to contain olive oil derived from the sacred grove of Athena at Akademia.

Akademia was a land that lay on the Cephissus near the ancient city of Athens and was owned by Akademos. It was sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and had plantations of olives and oriental plane trees. Olive oil produced from these sacred groves was decanted into a distinctive style of amphora and given as a prize to the winners in the Panathenaic Games, which is how these ceramic containers came to be called Panathenaic amphorae.

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The Panathenaic Games included cultural events and ceremonies, religious festivals dedicated to the gods, as well as athletic competitions. There was a great variety of athletic events, so the games continued for over a week. According to experts, each day featured a different challenge for the competitors; for example, a tribal contest one day and a boat race the next day. The competitors were split into three age categories: men older than 20 years, youths aged from 16 to 20, and boys not younger than 12 years.

Panathenaic amphora dedicated to the Goddess Athena. Author: Ricardo André Frantz. CC BY-SA 3.0

Some days would have an athletic contest for men, while the athletic competitions for youths and boys would be held on other days. One of the most famous ancient Greek sports was chariot racing, which women were permitted to watch, unlike many other games where the audience was composed of male spectators only. Chariot racing was a hazardous and sometimes deadly game for both the drivers and the horses, but nevertheless was very popular with audiences. There was another form of chariot racing performed at the Panathenaic Games known as the apobatai, in which the participants wore armor.

The last day of the Panathenaic Games was dedicated to the prizegiving ceremony, which was when the Panathenaic amphorae were given as prizes. The winner of the chariot race was awarded a hundred and forty amphorae filled with olive oil, which was a very precious commodity in ancient times. All of these athletic events were performed at the Panathenaic Stadium, which is in use even in the present day.

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Panathenaic amphora with music contest details decoration, 500–485 BC.

Panathenaic amphora had a slender neck and narrow base. Some of these vessels had a cover on the top. Usually, they were large ceramic amphora, some stood as tall as 28 inches and could carry up to ten gallons of olive oil. Also, the vessels had sturdy handles on either side of the neck.

A description of the event for which the amphora was given as a prize appears on the back of each Panathenaic amphora, and in later examples also the name of that year’s political leader. The decorations on the front were expressed in carefully chosen details and symbols, made using the black-figure technique. On some vessels, roosters are shown on top, but their significance is not understood today. Many of them were dedicated to gods, mostly to the goddess Athena.

A miniature vase with portraits of Poseidon and Athena, 4th century BC.

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The state commissioned the Panathenaic amphorae for the games, and every four years around 1450 vases were given as prizes. Some of the amphorae were buried in graves with family members of the athletes, while others were sold or dedicated to sanctuaries.

The Burgon vase, which dates back to 560 BC, is the oldest known Panathenaic amphora. It was found in 1813 in Athens by Thomas Burgon, who brought it to England. The vessel is 24 inches high with a short neck, a broad, rounded body, a small foot base, and small, narrow handles. The Burgon vase is typically decorated in black-figure style, displaying a picture of the goddess Athena.

The Burgon Vase.

The profile of Athena is represented facing to the left, with a flat-crested helmet, dressed in a long sleeveless dress that is belted at the waist. In her left hand she holds a spear and above her head there is a flying siren. In her right arm she carries a shield. The amphora is inscribed with ΤΟΝΑΘΕΝEΘΕΝΑΘΛΟΝ. Today the Burgon vase stands in the British Museum, who translate the inscription as “One of the prizes from Athens”.