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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc

A Brief History of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens

What is the Panathenaic Stadium?

The Panathenaic Stadium is a restored ancient athletics stadium constructed in the 4th century BC, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Panathenaic Stadium in Athens

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Panathenaic Stadium History

The most important festival of ancient Athens was the Greater Panathenaea, a celebration held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena’s birthday. A series of contests (almost exclusively for the citizens of Athens) formed a significant part of the festival. These included musical performance and dancing, as well as equestrian and athletic events (where the contestants would compete naked). Unlike other ancient festivals, the Olympic Games for example, which offered prizes of no monetary value, the Panathenaic Games could be immensely lucrative for the athletes. Victory gifts included gold crowns, large amounts of silver and gold, and even enormous jars containing prized Athenian olive oil (in some cases over 2,000 litres for the winner)!

In the early days of the festival, many of the contests took place in the Agora (the ancient city centre). However in the 4th century BC, a natural ravine between two hills was chosen for the site of a new stadium. (In fact, the word ‘stadium’ derives from the Greek stadion, a prestigious ancient running event of around 190 metres that would have been held here.) An Athenian statesman called Lycurgus oversaw the construction of an impressive new limestone enclosure that was similar to many others built in Greece around that time.

Panathenaic Stadium seating

However, it was in the Roman Period that the stadium became a true landmark of the ancient city, and this was thanks to one of Athens’ greatest benefactors, Herodes Atticus, an Athenian millionaire and Roman consul. When the Athenians honoured him by allowing him to organise the celebration of the Panathenaea, he promised that he would renovate their stadium and refashion it in Pentelic marble, the same shiny rock from which the Parthenon was constructed.

In the 2nd century AD, the Athenians were awed by their gigantic new stadium with seats made from the finest local white marble. It’s said that Herodes used so much for the stadium that he depleted the reserves of Mount Penteli. The Athenians could not have been prouder and they were right to be. There was nothing else like this in the Roman world. After his death, Herodes was reputed to be buried near the entrance to the stadium and for centuries afterwards, until the arrival of Christianity, his tomb remained visible to those attending the games.

Panathenaic Stadium old tunnel

In the 4th century, Emperor Theodosius forbade all pagan ceremonies and games, and the Panathenaic Stadium fell into disuse. The site was for the most part forgotten until the 19th century when excavations uncovered traces of the ancient stadium, as well as the herms, the elaborate marble statues which marked the beginning and end of the racecourse. Further excavations uncovered Herodes’ once glorious structure, which was then restored to its former magnificence. In 1870 and ’75, the Zappas Olympics were held in the renovated stadium. These were some of the first attempts to revive the ancient Olympic Games, named after their sponsor, the wealthy Greek businessman Evangelis Zappas. In 1896, the first modern Olympics were held in Athens, and the stadium was refurbished so as to accommodate the games. During the 2004 Olympics, the stadium hosted the archery competition and served as the finishing point for the men’s and women’s Marathon.

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