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The Augustan Games of Naples April 30, 2008
by Malin Banyasz and Mark Rose

A look at one of the ancient world's most prestigious competitions, held in honor of one of the ancient world's biggest sports fans


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Augustus: The Sebasta were celebrated in his honor

Even as all eyes turn to Beijing and the 2008 Olympics, archaeologists are examining newly found Greek inscriptions for clues to the Sebasta, one of the classical world's most important competitions. The discovery, made during excavations in advance of subway construction in Naples (ancient Neapolis), is providing the first new information about the Sebasta since an inscription describing the games was found at Olympia more than a century ago. Scholars are excited by the prospect of learning more about these competitions, which, according to the first-century A.D. geographer Strabo, "rivaled the most famous games of Greece."

Founded at Naples in A.D. 2, the Sebasta were held in honor of the emperor Augustus (sebastos is Greek for augustus). The inscription from Olympia gives their full name as the Italic Roman Augustan Isolympic Games and Festivals. It sets out rules for the Sebasta and establishes that the athletic events were held under the same regulations as those at Olympics, hence the term "isolympic" or "equivalent to the Olympics." Later additions to the Sebasta, probably after the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, included musical and dramatic contests and a sacrifice to him.


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Julius Caesar: Multi-tasked during games, alienating sports fans

It's not surprising that the emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) would be honored in this way. Augustus cultivated his image as a "regular guy." In part this was calculated to ensure he was seen as head of the greater Roman family, the leader of a society based on traditional Roman family values with his own family as an example for all to see and imitate. But it was also genuine, reflecting the emperor's own character and interests. He reformed the gladiatorial games, and his hobbies included fishing. In short, he was passionate about sports. Had bowling been invented, he might well have joined a league.

In a telling passage, the Roman biographer Suetonius recorded both the emperor's real love for competitions and a concern that he not be seen as an elitist, aloof from the common people as his granduncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar had been:

Once in his seat...he watched the proceedings intently; either to avoid the bad reputation earned by Julius Caesar for reading letters or petitions, and answering them, during such performances, or just to enjoy the fun, as he frankly admitted doing. ...His chief delight was to watch boxing, particularly when the fighters were Italians--and not merely professional bouts, in which he often used to pit Italians against Greeks, but slogging matches between untrained roughs in narrow city alleys.

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Claudius: Produced a play at the Sebasta written by his brother

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Nero: Performed in Naples many times, possibly at the Sebasta

Still a sports fan in his late seventies, Augustus himself attended the Sebasta in A.D. 14, shortly before his death: "he next crossed over to Naples, although his stomach was weak...and watched an athletic competition which was held in his honor" (Suetonius). Later emperors continued to patronize the games. In A.D. 42, Claudius (A.D. 41-54) presided over the games and produced a Greek comedy written by his deceased brother Germanicus, who had been wildly popular with the Roman people and army. The play, of course, won.

Claudius' successor Nero (A.D. 54-68) performed for the first time at Naples according to Suetonius:

His first stage appearance was at Naples where, disregarding an earthquake, which shook the theater, he sang his piece through to the end. He often performed at Naples, for several consecutive days, too; and even while giving his voice a brief rest, could not stay away from the theater, but went to dine in the orchestra where he promise the crowd in Greek that, when he had downed a drink or two, he would give them something to make their ears ring.

Though the date of Nero's first appearance, A.D. 64, doesn't match with a year in which the Sebasta was held, it is possible that he competed in A.D. 66.

Nero's performances were legendary, and not for the right reasons. No one was allowed to leave the theater and the gates were kept locked. There are stories of women giving birth in the audience and men being so bored that they would sneak out by jumping off the wall at the back of the theater or by playing dead so that they would be carried out.

In A.D. 67, Nero went to Greece on what scholars refer to as his "concert tour." He won 1,808 victories at various festivals, and concluded "The Greeks alone are worthy of my genius; they really listen to music."

The emperor's return to Italy, as described by Suetonius, emphasized the Greek character of Naples and the Sebasta: "Nero disembarked at Naples, where he had made his debut as a singer, and ordered part of the city wall to be razed--which is the Greek custom whenever the victor in any of the Sacred Games comes home."


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Titus: Attended the Sebasta when his father Vespasian ruled

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Domitian: Created the Capitoline Games in A.D. 86

After a period of contention following Nero's assassination, the general Vespasian won the struggle for the throne in A.D. 69. His son and successor Titus (79-81) showed a continued interest in the Sebasta, probably presiding there in 74 and 78 before he became emperor. It was only in 86, when Titus' brother Domitian (A.D. 81-96) established the Capitoline Games in Rome, that the Sebasta lost its place as the premiere games of the western Mediterranean.

Until now, the main evidence we had for the Sebasta was the inscription found at Olympia, supplemented by a few gleanings from ancient authors such as Strabo and Suetonius. But archaeologist Beatrice Roncella, while excavating at the Piazza Nicolo Amore in advance of subway construction, found inscriptions that read "we are the Roman Augustan games equal to the [games] in Olympia." Roncella realized that the inscription referred to the Sebasta and came from a temple of "Divus Augustus," the divine emperor Augustus. In all, Roncella recovered more than 400 pieces of Greek inscribed marble panels that once covered the walls of a large portico, at least 40 feet long and more than nine feet high, in front of a temple of Augustus. Of the temple itself, the podium, pavement, architectural fragments, and column pieces have now been found. The temple's portico inscriptions will undoubtedly add much more to our knowledge of the Sebasta.

According to Roncella, the dramatic and musical contests of the Sebasta must have taken place in a theater, likely the one whose remains can now be seen of the Via dell'Anticaglia, and the equestrian events in the hippodrome in Piazza Garibaldi. That the inscriptions relating to the winners of the games are found near Piazza Nicola Amore suggests to Roncella that the procession of the winners must have ended at the temple.

How did the Sebasta fit in the overall history and cultural context of games in the ancient world? The modern Olympics were inspired by the games held every four years at Olympia in Greece, but there were many athletic competitions throughout the classical world. Most were small affairs in which only local citizens could participate, but there were four major, international ones known as the Sacred Games. In addition to the Olympics, these included the Pythian Games, held at Delphi every four years, and games held every two years at Nemea in southern Greece and at Isthmia near Corinth. Victors at these games received wreaths or crowns, for example made of olive leaves at Olympia, celery at Nemea, and pine at Isthmia. Of the games held by individual cities, the most prominent was the Panathenaic Games staged by Athens.

The Hellenistic period, from the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. until the expansion of Rome, saw a proliferation of games as cities in the Greek world tried to convert what had been local competitions into international ones. Some were modeled on the Olympics and were called "isolympic" (equal to the Olympics), others followed the Pythian Games ("isopythian"), and so forth. Hosting such games--like hosting the Olympics today--was a source of civic pride and could be an economic windfall if they attracted large crowds from outside.


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Remains of the Temple of Augustus were uncovered during excavation ahead of subway construction in Naples. (Pasquale Sorrentino)

Augustus followed this pattern when, in commemoration of his victory over the fleet of Antony and Cleopatra off the coast of northwestern Greece at Actium in 31 B.C., he established Nikopolis ("Victory City") and, according to Strabo, expanded existing local games dedicated to the god Apollo to international status. First probably held in 27 B.C., the Aktia took place every five years and included athletic and equestrian events and were considered isolympic, but also had musical competitions. The institution of other games, by Herod, is recorded by Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities. When he completed his new capital, Caesarea Sebaste in 10 B.C., Herod initiated games with athletic, equestrian, and musical competitions for which victors were crowned, plus gladiatorial events. Held every four years, the games, also called the Sebasta, were dedicated to Augustus.

So, the Sebasta in Naples reflect both the proliferation of games in the classical world as well as the association of Augustus with such festivals, either as patron or as honoree.

The Olympia inscription, our main source for the Sebasta, sets out the rules of the competition, and may have been intended both to publicize them and establish that the competitions were indeed "isolympic." In 1935, the scholar Russel Mortimer Geer published an analysis of the evidence that has for lack of any new evidence, been the final word on the Sebasta, and the following summary of the inscription is based on his study.

The Olympia inscription gives eligibility rules: "let no one younger than 17 take part in the Italian Isolympic games. Let those athletes aged 17 to 20 participate in the boys events, those others in the men's events." It then mentions the prizes awarded for the athletic competitions, crowns of wheat for men and of now unknown material for boys. Contestants were given an allowance of 1 drachma per day beginning 30 days before the competition, which was raised to 2 drachmae for boys and 3 for men in the days just before the games. The registration deadline was 30 days before the start of the games, when contestants had to appear at the gymnasium. Geer notes that, "Late registration was permitted only if excused by illness, highway robbery, or shipwreck. Failure to give the correct name was punished by fine or beating."

The inscription indicates that the Sebasta had standard Olympic events. The foot races were the stadion (on a track of about 190 meters), diaulos (two laps of the track), and a race in which runners wore a helmet and shin guards and carried a shield. There was boxing and wrestling, as well as the pancration (a sort of extreme fighting). The pentathlon was another standard event. More unusual was a race, the apobatai, which was known also in the Panathenaic Games. In it, in which two men started in a chariot but one got out and finished on foot. Horse races and two- and four-horse chariot races are mentioned next on the inscription.


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Newly found inscriptions record winners at the Sebasta. (Pasquale Sorrentino)

According to the inscription, the athletic events were followed by musical and dramatic contests, each taking a day. These competitions were not part of the Olympic Games and winners were awarded cash prizes rather than honorary crowns. Trumpeters, lyre players, and flutists, as well as comic and tragic actors, received 3,000 drachmae. Pantomine dancers were awarded 4,000 drachmae. A prize was also given for the best musical and dramatic performance. The inscription ends, and perhaps the games closed with, equestrian events including races for colts and horses.

Geer summarizes the games, as laid out in the Olympia inscription: "[they] seem to have consisted of two distinct parts, the first athletic and equestrian with crowns as prizes, the second, musical and dramatic with money prizes followed by more equestrian events and that each part was preceded by its own sacrifices, those before the second part including sacrifice to Augustus."

It seems likely, as Geer noted in 1935, that the Sebasta changed after the death of Augustus. Both Suetonius (noted above) and the historian Velleius Paterculus refer only to athletic events in describing the events Augustus saw in A.D. 14:

Augustus Caesar...was on the point of sending his son Tiberius to Illyricum.... With the double purpose of escorting him on his way, and of being present at an athletic contest that the Neapolitans had established in his honor, he set out for Campania. Although he had already experienced symptoms of growing weakness and of a change in his health for the worse, his strong will resisted infirmity and he accompanied his son.

But the description by Strabo, whose Geography records events that took place almost a decade after Augustus' death, is different: "At the present time they celebrate...public games for music and gymnastic exercises during many days, which rival the most famous games of Greece." If the musical and dramatic events were added then, it may that the sacrifice to Augustus, who was deified after his death, was added at the same time.

For games that were so significant in the classical world, we know very little about the Sebasta, despite the list of regulations from the inscription found at Olympia. But the new-found texts might add valuable insights. There are already some initial results, and the panels, a catalogue of the names and hometowns of the winners, have given archaeologists two surprises. "First, we did not know that so many of the athletes were from Asia Minor, which may tell us something about the makeup of the city in the first and second centuries A.D.," says Beatrice Roncella. The second major surprise, she notes, was that "contrary to our beliefs, women were winning prizes on equal footing with men," noting especially one Thalassia, a female competitor from Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. Before now, it was known only that there was a race for daughters of magistrates at the Sebasta.

Naples' new subway has brought the Sebasta back from the brink of total obscurity outside the small number of scholars who have studied ancient athletics. Not that the Italic Roman Augustan Isolympic Games and Festivals are going to be a hot conversation topic this summer as the events in Beijing unfold. But as you watch the Olympics this year--something Augustus would approve of--don't forget the Sebasta!

Malin Banyasz is ARCHAEOLOGY's editorial assistant. Mark Rose is AIA online editorial director. Portions of this article appeared in slightly different form in Jarrett Lobell and Marco Merola's "Naples Underground" in the May/June 2008 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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