Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: “The apobatic moment”: An interaction between an athletic event and a heroic experience – Essay 9

2022.12.26 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 9. “The apobatic moment”: An interaction between an athletic event and a heroic experience

9§0. At ancient Greek festivals, as we have just seen, there were seasonally recurring competitions in performances of poetry and song, not only in athletic events. And now we will see how these two kinds of competition could interact within the framework of a festival. I will focus on one particular event of athletic competition, featured at the festival of the Great Panathenaia, and show how this event interacted with the traditions of competition in performing Homeric poetry at that same festival. In the case of the athletic event that we are about to consider, there was a direct link between the event itself, as experienced by competing athletes, and the corresponding experiences of heroes engaged in performing their own deeds as narrated in poetry and song. The linking was direct because the heroic experiences were being narrated by rhapsodes, that is, by performers of epic poetry who were competing with each other at the same festival where the athletes were competing with each other in the athletic event that I am about to describe.

9§1. This event of athletic competition was known as the apobatōn agōn, which means ‘competition of the apobatai’ (I list the ancient sources in the Note below). The word apobatai referred to athletes who competed in a special kind of chariot race, and the competition of these apobatai was a major event in the ritualized athletic program of the seasonally recurring festival of the Great Panathenaia in Athens. A large-scale version of this Athenian festival, formerly known simply as the Panathenaia, was in operation ever since 566 BCE in the late summer of every fourth year, in rivalry with the four-year cycle of the older festival of the Olympics—though the smaller-scale and older version of the Panathenaia continued to be celebrated in the late summer of the other three years. I repeat this well-known fact because it is important for me to correlate it with a second fact, less well known but verified by references in Athenian inscriptions. The fact is, the competition of the apobatai took place only at the Great Panathenaia, not in the other three summers. And I also need to correlate these two facts with a third fact: only native Athenian men could qualify as contestants in the competition of the apobatai. The correlation of these three facts becomes evident from a reading of a most thoroughly-researched book about the Panathenaia by Julia Shear (2021), who draws special attention to the second of these two facts, namely, the exclusion of non-Athenians as contestants in the competition of the apobatai. And this tradition of exclusion in Athens is parallel to another tradition: no citizen of cities other than Athens was allowed to compete in another major event of the Panathenaia, a spectacular war dance called the purrikhē, which re-enacted the victory of the goddess Athena over the Giants in the cosmic Battle of Gods and Giants. I will have more to say in a moment about the purrikhē and its relevance, but for now I simply draw attention to the significance of this double tradition of excluding non-Athenians, and I find it most apt to quote in this context a wry comment by Shear (2021::57): “Being Athenian, consequently, meant not only competing in the pyrriche, but also racing in the apobatic contest, while individuals from other cities sat and watched the contest.” So, the pride taken by Athenians in their Athenian identity was blatantly shown off in two most spectacular events, one of which was their very own war dance, the purrikhē, and the other of which was their very own chariot race, the event of the apobatai.

Note. The ancient sources: Photius Lexicon α 2449, 2450; Suda α 3250; Harpocration, under the entry ἀποβάτης, with reference to Theophrastus Laws F 15, ed. Szegedy-Maszák 1981; [Eratosthenes] Katasterismoi 1.13; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 7.73.2-3. About the sources, more from Shear 2021:53n55.

9§2. I reconstruct here, partly on the basis of the ancient sources I listed in the Note for §1, the essentials of the chariot race of the apobatai. In this competition, held at the Great Panathenaia, athletes wearing full battle gear and standing next to their charioteers on the platforms of their speeding chariots would suddenly leap to the ground—the word apobatēs means literally ‘one who steps off’—and then race with each other, presumably toward a finish line. In the apobatic moment, as I call it, of ‘stepping off’, the athlete would be ritually re-enacting the leaps executed by warriors in the battle narratives of the epic as performed by rhapsodes competing with each other at the same festival of the Panathenaia.

9§3. Over the years, I have gone though many phases in my reconstructing the act of ‘stepping off’ in apobatic chariot racing as a spectacular sudden-death feat of athletic bravura. I still basically agree with what I said here in an earlier phase of my reconstructions (Nagy 2010|2009:172 at II§91):

We can imagine all eyes focused on the action that leads up to that moment when the competing athlete, riding on the platform of a four-horse chariot driven at full gallop by his charioteer, suddenly leaps to the ground from the speeding chariot.

Another aspect of this chariot racing, I should add, is that the apobatai could leap into as well as out of their speeding chariots (Etymologicum magnum p. 124 lines 31-34 and Photius Lexicon α 2450), but the timing of a leap back into the chariot is not made clear by the ancient sources. [H24H 7b§2]

9§4. Highlights of apobatic chariot racing are depicted in the relief sculptures of the Panathenaic Frieze of the Parthenon, created in the 440s BCE, where we see twenty-one apobatic chariot teams on display, with eleven featured on the north side (North XI-XXVIII) and ten on the south side (South XXV-XXXV); the apobatic teams consist of four horses, a driver, and an apobatēs (Shear 2001:304-305; also 2021:347). The apobatai themselves are shown in a variety of poses: stepping into the chariot, riding in the chariot, stepping out of the chariot, and running alongside the chariot (Shear 2001:746); in two cases, the apobatai are evidently wearing a full set of armor (again, Shear p. 746). I must add here that I resist the conventional use of the term “Panathenaic Procession” with reference to the sum total of events being represented on the Panathenaic Frieze. In the case of the sections that show apobatic chariot teams, for example, I think that the stop-motion pictures capture not only moments when these teams are participating in the Panathenaic Procession but also moments of actual engagement in apobatic chariot racing. [H24H 7b§3]

9§5. What makes the feat of leaping into or out of a speeding chariot so commandingly distinctive is that the apobatēs executes his leap in the mode of an epic warrior. While the fellow athlete who drives the chariot is standing on the right side of the vehicle and wearing the full-length gown of a charioteer, the apobatēs standing on the left side wears armor, including a shield. I focus here on the critical moment when the apobatic athlete, holding on to the shield on his left arm, loosens the grip of his right hand on the left rail of the speeding chariot (about this pose: Shear 2001:303, 305), and he then swivels to his left, suddenly leaping to the ground (Nagy 2010|2009:172):

Weighted down by his hoplite armor, the apobatēs must literally hit the ground running as he lands on his feet in his high-speed leap from the platform of his chariot. If his run is not broken in a fall, he continues to run down the length of the racecourse in competition with the other running apobatai, who have made their own leaps from their own chariots. [H24H 7b§4]

9§6. I focus on the sheer spectacle of seeing an apobatēs step off and then run alongside his speeding chariot at the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia in Athens. We find an eyewitness description of this spectacle in a work that may or may not have been composed by Demosthenes; in any case, the work is contemporaneous with Demosthenes, dated to the fourth century BCE (“pseudo-” Demosthenes 61.22-29). The speaker in this passage refers to the athletic event of the apobatai as an agōn, ‘competition’, which is highlighted by the act of apobainein, ‘stepping down’ (τοῦ δ’ ἀποβαίνειν … ἐπὶ τοῦτον τὸν ἀγῶν[α] 61.23). This athletic event of ‘stepping down’ from a speeding chariot is singled out as the most similar, among all agōnismata, ‘forms of competition’, to the experiences of warriors in the life-and-death struggles of combat warfare (61.24). As a spectacle, the event of the apobatai is described as matching most closely the grandeur of the gods themselves (61.24-25), and thus it is deserving of the greatest of all āthla, ‘prizes won in contests’ (μεγίστων δ’ ἄθλων ἠξιωμένον 61.25). The speaker views this kind of competition as the closest thing not only to combat warfare in general but also, in particular, to the scenes of heroic combat as narrated in Homeric poetry: as the speaker says explicitly, ‘one could adduce, as the greatest proof, the poetry of Homer’ (τεκμήριον δὲ μέγιστον ἄν τις ποιήσαιτο τὴν Ὁμήρου ποίησιν 61.25). That is why, the speaker then says, only the greatest cities of the Hellenic world, such as Athens, preserve the tradition of such agōnes, ‘competitions’ (61.25-26).  [H24H 7b§8]

9§7. Then the speaker goes on to tell about a spectacular feat once performed by the athlete he is praising (“pseudo-” Demosthenes 61.27-29). Though it is difficult to reconstruct the details of this compressed narration, it appears that our athlete, having leapt from his speeding chariot and running with all his might, was almost run over from behind and trampled to death by horses drawing the chariot of a rival team that was heading full speed toward him.  [H24H 7b§9]

9§8. I now highlight the critical moment, “the apobatic moment,” in the narration of the speaker himself, where he in turn highlights “the apobatic moment” in the apobatic competition that he is narrating. Instead of losing his nerve, our athlete somehow managed to surpass the momentum of the oncoming chariot team that almost ran over him. That is what we are about to read at the critical moment of the speaker’s narration about the apobatic chariot race held at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens. I now quote the original Greek text of that climactic moment. In this quotation, we hear the speaker directly addressing as ‘you’ the young athlete whose glorious athletic feat is now being brought back to life in the present time of the narration:

τῶν γὰρ ζευγῶν ἀφεθέντων, καὶ τῶν μὲν προορμησάντων, τῶν δ’ ὑφηνιοχουμένων, ἀμφοτέρων περιγενόμενος ὡς ἑκατέρων προσῆκε, τὴν νίκην ἔλαβες, τοιούτου στεφάνου τυχὼν ἐφ’ ᾧ, καίπερ καλοῦ τοῦ νικᾶν ὄντος, κάλλιον ἐδόκει καὶ παραλογώτερον εἶναι τὸ σωθῆναι. φερομένου γὰρ ἐναντίου μέν σοι τοῦ τῶν ἀντιπάλων ἅρματος, ἁπάντων δ’ ἀνυπόστατον οἰομένων εἶναι τὴν τῶν ἵππων δύναμιν, ὁρῶν αὐτῶν ἐνίους καὶ μηδενὸς δεινοῦ παρόντος ὑπερηγωνιακότας, οὐχ ὅπως ἐξεπλάγης ἢ κατεδειλίασας, ἀλλὰ τῇ μὲν ἀνδρείᾳ καὶ τῆς τοῦ ζεύγους ὁρμῆς κρείττων ἐγένου, τῷ δὲ τάχει καὶ τοὺς διηυτυχηκότας τῶν ἀνταγωνιστῶν παρῆλθες.

This passage has been translated by N. J. DeWitt (London 1949). I offer revisions, highlighting with strikethrough / italics the wording that I have subtracted / added:

When the [chariot] teams had been started and some had leaped rushed to the fore and some were being reined in, you, prevailing over both [the faster and the slower teams], first one and then the other, in proper style [surpassing each team] in a way that was most appropriate [for each situation], seized the victory, winning that envied crown garland in such fashion that, glorious as it was to win it, it seemed the more glorious and astounding that you came off safely. For when the chariot of your opponents was bearing down upon you head-on and all thought the momentum of your their horses beyond checking, you, aware that some drivers [runners], though even when no danger should threatens, become overanxious for their own safety, not only did not lose your head or your nerve, but by your courage got control of overcame the impetus of your their [chariot] team and by your speed passed even those contenders [= the other runners] whose luck had suffered no setback.

Here, then, is the revised version:

When the [chariot] teams had started and some had rushed ahead while some were being reined in, you, prevailing over both [the faster and the slower chariot teams], first one and then the other, [surpassing each chariot team] in a way that was most suited [for each situation], seized the victory, winning that envied garland in such a way that, even though it was glorious enough to win, it seemed even more glorious and dazzling that you came out of it safely. For when the chariot of your opponents was speeding toward [enantion] you and everyone thought that the momentum of their horses could not be resisted, you, aware that some [runners], even when no danger threatens, become overanxious for their own safety, not only did not lose your head or your nerve, but by your courage overcame the impetus of their [chariot] team and by your speed [as a runner] passed even those contenders [= the other runners] whose luck had not yet had any setbacks.

“pseudo-” Demosthenes 61.28

Note for this paragraph.

As my translation shows, I disagree with those like Crowther 1992 who think that the athlete is the driver, not the runner.  [H24H 7b§10]

9§9. This athletic event of the apobatai at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens was in one way more conservative—about re-enacting the heroic experience of charioteering—than was the athletic event of the chariot race as held at the Funeral Games for Patroklos in Iliad 23. In that chariot race, there were only chariot drivers, without chariot riders accompanying them. Further, in the athletic event of the chariot race at the Funeral Games of Patroklos as depicted on the “François Krater,” we see that the heroes driving their racing chariots are wearing the ankle-length costume of professional chariot drivers, not the full armor of apobatic chariot fighters. By contrast, there was a chariot rider standing to the left of each chariot driver on the platform of the speeding four-horse chariot in the Panathenaic chariot race of the apobatai, and this chariot rider or apobatēs would then leap out of the speeding chariot and back into it in death-defying maneuvers. What is being re-enacted here is not really chariot racing in the mythical past: it is chariot fighting in that same mythical past. After all, you would not need both a chariot driver and a chariot rider in a chariot race, even in the mythical past. All you would need, for an exclusively athletic event, even in the mythical past, was a driver. But the modeling for the competition of the apobatai in the earliest imaginable time of a mythical past was not exclusively chariot racing: it was also chariot fighting. [H24H 7b§11]

9§10. The ritualized moments of apobatic leaps executed by athletes riding on speeding chariots in chariot races held at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens were thought to be re-enacting a supreme mythologized moment of a corresponding leap executed by the goddess Athena herself as the embodiment of Athens. As we read in ancient sources reporting on the relevant local Athenian myth, Athena was the prototypical patroness and founder of the entire festival of the Panathenaia—along with her male protégé, the hero Erikhthonios. [Note 1] These sources indicate that the goddess and the hero were not only the founders of the Panathenaia: they were also the founders of the seasonally recurring apobatic chariot races that took place at this festival of the Panathenaia. Moreover, the goddess and the hero were even the first participants in the first apobatic chariot race ever held at the Panathenaia. At that chariot race, Erikhthonios drove the chariot while Athena made the first apobatic leap ever made. [Note 2]

Note 1. The sources… See especially lines 1-3 of the Parian Marble (inscribed 264/3 BCE), IG XII 5 444 = FGH 239A, where the foundation of the Panathenaia is dated at 1505/4 BCE. See also Harpocration, under the entry Παναθήναια, drawing on Hellanicus FGH 323a F 2 and Androtion FGH 324 F 2; scholia for Aelius Aristides 1.362; [Eratosthenes] Katasterismoi 1.13; Apollodorus Library 3.14.6; scholia for Plato Parmenides 127a.

Note 2. Of particular interest is a picture painted on a vase produced in Athens around 510 BCE (oinokhoe: Painter of Oxford 224; National Museum, Copenhagen; Chr. VIII, 340; Beazley ABV 435, no. 1): it shows Athena as an apobatic athlete riding on a chariot driven by a male figure who is evidently Erikhthonios. See Shear 2001:305, 529; at pp. 46-48 she analyzes [Eratosthenes] Katasterismoi 1.13 lines 19-22, showing that the apobatic figure described as wearing a helmet with three plumes must be Athena.  [H24H 7c§1]

9§11. And this first leap of Athena was not only the leap of an apobatic athlete. It was also the leap of an apobatic fighter. According to local Athenian mythmaking, the goddess Athena was the prototypical apobatic warrior: it happened on the day of her birth, when she emerged fully formed and fully armed from the head of Zeus and immediately joined the other Olympians in their primordial battle with the Giants. [Note 1] This battle, envisioned as a primal scene of apobatic chariot warfare, was spearheaded by the goddess herself as the ultimate apobatic chariot fighter. [Note 2] In terms of Athenian mythmaking, the apobatic leap of the goddess in the Battle of the Olympians and Giants was the same leap that she made as the founder of the apobatic chariot race at the Panathenaia. Her action as a prototypical apobatic fighter thus became a model for all apobatic athletes.

Note 1. The basic narrative about the birth of Athena, which happens immediately before the “Gigantomachy,” can be found in the Hesiodic Theogony (verses 886-900, 924-926) and in the Homeric Hymn (28) to Athena (verses 4-6). More on Athena and the Gigantomachy in Nagy 2009|2008 4§217.

Note 2. Shear 2001:50-52 analyzes vase paintings that show a conflation of [1] scenes featuring Athena as an apobatic fighter in the Gigantomachy and [2] scenes featuring her as an apobatic athlete. In one painting (British Museum, London, B676, = Beazley ABV 555 no. 425), a turning post for chariot racing is positioned in the middle of the cosmic battle scene.  [H24H 7c§2]

9§12. The Athenian myth about Athena as an apobatic model brings into sharper focus the wording of the speaker in the speech I analyzed a moment ago concerning the athlete who won first prize in an apobatic race held at the Panathenaia (“pseudo-” Demosthenes 61). The speaker, as we saw, described the athletic competition of the apobatai as an event that matched most closely the grandeur of the gods themselves (61.24-25); and he went on to say that a victory at this event was deserving of the greatest of all āthla, ‘prizes won in contests’ (μεγίστων δ’ ἄθλων ἠξιωμένον 61.25). In that same speech, moreover, the speaker described the athletic competition of apobatai as the closest thing not only to combat warfare in general but also, in particular, to the scenes of heroic combat as narrated in Homeric poetry. I repeat here his wording: ‘one could adduce, as the greatest proof, the poetry of Homer’ (τεκμήριον δὲ μέγιστον ἄν τις ποιήσαιτο τὴν Ὁμήρου ποίησιν 61.25). [H24H 7c§3]

9§13. Having noted that the ritualized moments of apobatic leaps executed by athletes riding on speeding chariots in chariot races held at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens correspond to the mythologized moment of a prototypical apobatic leap made by the goddess Athena, I will now go on to show that such ritualized moments correspond also to mythologized moments of apobatic leaps made by heroes fighting in chariot warfare as narrated in Homeric poetry. As we will see from the passages I am about to quote from this poetry, such heroic leaps happen at climactic moments in the epic narrative. [H24H 7c§4]

9§14. Before I show the relevant Homeric examples, however, I show two other examples I found in forms of poetry that are not Homeric and not even epic. The first of these two examples is a particularly revealing passage I found in the songs of the fifth-century lyric poet Pindar. In this passage, we are about to see the hero Achilles himself in the act of leaping out of his chariot and running furiously toward his mortal enemy, the hero Memnon:

καὶ ἐς Αἰθίοπας | Μέμνονος οὐκ ἂν ἀπονοστή|σαντος ἔπαλτο· βαρὺ δέ σφιν | νεῖκος Ἀχιλεὺς | ἔμπεσε χαμαὶ καταβαὶς ἀφ’ ἁρμάτων, | φαεννᾶς υἱὸν εὖτ’ ἐνάριξεν Ἀόος ἀκμᾷ | ἔγχεος ζακότοιο.

And it [= the name of the lineage of the Aiakidai, especially the name of Achilles] leapt at the Aethiopians, now that Memnon would not be coming back safely [to his troops]. Heavy combat fell upon them [= the Aethiopians] in the person of Achilles hitting the ground as he stepped-down [kata-bainein] from his chariot. That was when he killed [Memnon] the son of the luminous dawn-goddess, with the tip of his raging spear.

Pindar Nemean 6.48-53

[H24H 7c§5]

9§15. The second example comes from a passage narrating the mortal combat in chariot fighting between the heroes Hēraklēs and Kyknos as attested in the Hesiodic Shield of Herakles, where we see that both these heroes leap to the ground from their chariots and then run at full speed toward each other (verses 370-371). I highlight a detail: both combatants leap from their speeding chariots (θόρον, from the verb thrōiskein, ‘leap, jump’, verse 370). Meanwhile, the charioteers driving the chariots of the combatants drive on, keeping as close as possible to the combatants running on the ground (ἔμπλην, ‘closely’, verse 372).  [H24H 7c§6]

9§16. With these two non-Homeric examples in place, I now proceed to the Homeric examples. In each example, we see a hero leaping to the ground from the platform of his chariot, but, unlike what we have seen in the non-Homeric examples, there are Homeric contexts where the chariot of the hero is not necessarily in motion, let alone speeding ahead. Still, it is clear that in other contexts, as we will see, there is indeed motion, violent motion. And it is also clear that even in contexts where the chariot is standing, the leap of the hero will signal a climactic moment in chariot warfare—and in the narrative about such warfare. Here is an example:

Ἕκτωρ δ’ ἐξ ὀχέων σὺν τεύχεσιν ἆλτο χαμᾶζε

Hector leapt out of his chariot, armor and all, hitting the ground.

Iliad 11.211

In other climactic moments as well, Hector is described as leaping out of his chariot:

αὐτίκα δ’ ἐξ ὀχέων σὺν τεύχεσιν ἆλτο χαμᾶζε

Straightaway he leapt out of his chariot, armor and all, hitting the ground.

Iliad 5.494, 6.103, 12.81, 13.749

Four other warriors are described in comparable wording at moments when they too leap out of their chariots: Menelaos (Iliad 3.29), Diomedes (4.419), Sarpedon (16.426), and Patroklos (16.427). In the case of Menelaos (3.29), he leaps out of his chariot and hits the ground running as he rushes toward Paris to fight him in mortal combat on foot. Paris does not meet him head on but keeps backing up until he melts into a crowd of footsoldiers who are massed behind him (3.30-37). In the case of Diomedes (4.419), he leaps off his chariot as he hits the ground running, while his bronze breastplate makes a huge clanging sound upon impact as he rushes toward the enemy, who all shrink back to avoid encountering him in mortal combat on foot (4.420-421). Similarly, in a scene already cited (12.81), Hector leaps out of his chariot and hits the ground running as he rushes to fight the enemy on foot, and, in this case, his fellow chariot fighters follow his lead and dismount from their chariots, since they too are now ready to fight on foot (12.82-87). In some of these examples, I repeat, it is not clear whether the hero is leaping out of a chariot that is actually speeding at the time, or at least moving. So, to that extent, at least some of the apobatic scenes in the Iliad are blurred. But there are other scenes where the movement of the chariot, even its speed, is very much implied. In the case of Sarpedon and Patroklos, for example, we see these two heroes simultaneously leaping out of their chariots and hitting the ground running as they rush toward each other to fight one-on-one in mortal combat on foot—a combat that is won here by Patroklos (16.428-507). Later on, when Patroklos is about to engage in mortal combat with Hector, he once again leaps out of his chariot:

Πάτροκλος δ’ ἑτέρωθεν ἀφ’ ἵππων ἆλτο χαμᾶζε

Then Patroklos, from one side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.

Iliad 16.733

What happens next is that Patroklos throws a rock at Kebriones, the charioteer of Hector, which hits Kebriones on the forehead, smashing his skull (Iliad 16.734-754). Meanwhile, Hector leaps out of his chariot:

Ἕκτωρ δ’ αὖθ’ ἑτέρωθεν ἀφ’ ἵππων ἆλτο χαμᾶζε.

Then Hector, from the other side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.

Iliad 16.755

Patroklos and Hector proceed to fight one-on-one in mortal combat on foot—a combat that is won here by Hector, who kills Patroklos (16.756-863).  [H24H 7c§7]

9§17. From this collection of apobatic moments in the Iliad, it is evident that Hector is featured far more often than any other Homeric hero in the act of leaping out of his chariot to fight in mortal combat on foot. It can be argued, then, that Hector’s virtuosity in feats of apobatic bravura is relevant to the fact that this hero is exceptionally described as having a four-horse chariot (Iliad 8.185). It is relevant to note here again, as already noted in Essay 5§7, that four-horse chariots are more suitable for racing than for warfare (Scanlon 2004:67). And we know for a fact that the athletic event of apobatic racing at the Panathenaia involved four-horse chariots (Shear 2001:48, 55, 301, 303, 309; 2021:344–350, 351–356). A prime illustration, as I have already noted, comes from the representation of the Panathenaic Procession on the Panathenaic Frieze of the Parthenon, where we see twenty-one apobatic chariot teams on display, with eleven chariots featured on the north side (North XI-XXVIII) and ten on the south side (South XXV-XXXV); in each case, the chariot is shown with four horses, a driver, and an apobatēs (Shear 2001:304-305; also 2021:347).

 



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