The Prize-Crowns of Philippopolis: How Caracalla in 214 AD established Pythian Games for the Apollo of Delphi in Philippopolis
Do you know how athletes were honored during the era of the Roman Empire? This podcast deals with price crowns, trophy money and professionals who made big money due to their talent.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Philippopolis, modern-day Plovdiv. We are in the years between 218 and 222 AD.
Sometimes, ancient coins depict the strangest things. This object doesn’t look like anything we know from our every-day life. It looks like some kind of a large basket with two long twigs sticking out.
If it weren’t for other images depicting similar objects we would not know what purpose these large baskets once served.
This is an example from Hierapolis from roughly the same time.
And here we see several of these objects.
Only this mosaic from the second half of the 4th century, however, provides us with a real clue. It shows an agonistic table, a table to be surmounted by the prizes for victors in a competition. A number of baskets are lying on this table, each containing two long twigs. And do you see what lies underneath the table? Two little bags whose label informs us that they contain a considerable amount of money. It already was no longer about honor but money back then.
Thus, our basket-like objects are the ancient equivalent of the prize cups and medals we decorate our victors with today. Numismatists call these objects prize crowns. No specimen has come down to us, presumably because they were entirely made of a perishable material.
The two twigs they contain may likewise be interpreted as trophies. Philip II had a victorious horse with his jockey depicted on his tetradrachms. As token of his victory, the jockey there holds a palm branch in his right hand.
More than half a millennium separates the coin of Philipp II from the coinage of the city of Philippopolis under Elagabalus.
Much had changed through the centuries. But people stayed the same. They still loved fast races, brutal martial arts and infectious music, as heard during the contests held in honor of Apollo. There was no better means to calm the masses.
To attract the best athletes to their town, the politicians outdid each other regarding the prize money they offered for a victory. Here is one example: The winner of the cithara contest of Aphrodisias, located in modern Turkey, for instance, brought 3.250 denarii home. That was a lot of money for a humble man, matching nearly the monthly salary of a Roman prefect. No wonder that more and more gifted athletes became professionals. They travelled from place to place to win as much prize money as possible.
The competition that was held in Philippopolis is depicted on our coin. It exhibits an inscription on the prize crown. Pi, Ypsilon, Theta, I and A. Pythia.
Pythia – that was the name of the contests held at Delphi, in honor of Apollo. They were part of the big, quadrennial games of almost international reputation, by the standards of the time. Just like the Olympic Games in honor of Olympian Zeus, the Isthmian Games in honor of Poseidon at Corinth and the Nemean Games in honor of Zeus of Nemea. In Roman times, they were complemented by the Actaia at Nicopolis, the Heraia at Argos and the Capitolia at Rome.
Anyone hosting such games possessed a first-class tourist magnet. Sport fans gathered from throughout the Roman Empire and spent money on accommodation, provisions and souvenirs.
What could a city like Philippopolis do, lacking long-standing games? Well, very simple, it waited patiently for a fortunate coincidence.
People in Philippopolis worshipped a Thracian god called Kendrisos who had already merged with Apollo in Greek times. His temple is shown on this coin.
When Caracalla passed Philippopolis in 214, during his campaign against the Parthians, the citizens asked him to grant them the privilege to conduct games modeled on the Pythian Games held at Delphi.
Strictly speaking, it would have been up to the priests at Delphi to ascertain the wish of the god and to initiate an elaborate ritual procedure in order to transfer the cult which was connected with the games.
Things were much less complicated in 214. The emperor agreed, Delphi received a nominal fee and Philippopolis finally had its games which would attract, hopefully, people from all parts of the province.
Philippopolis proudly celebrated its new games on coins. And the leading politicians most likely have spent as much money on the organization of the games as a modern city in its application for the Olympic Games nowadays.
Some figures inform us about the probable costs of such an event. A politician had donated the lavish sum of 120,000 denarii for a small, local contest at Aphrodisias, whose quadrennial revenues added up to 32,000 denarii which could be spent for the games. And the Satyricon mentions casually that 100,000 denarii was a rather common sum to be spent on a three-day festival in the 1st century AD.
We may be sure that Philippopolis invested many times that sum. It was nothing unusual that a city, or a businessman, ran into debts as host of magnificent games. The emperor sometimes assisted a city plunged in debts and accommodated with money. Today, it is not that different though.
Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.