New Trains & Old Olympics
THE ISOLYMPIC GAMES
The somewhat less than irresistible force of underground train construction in Naples has once again run into the immovable (but not indestructible) object of an ancient Roman archaeological site. So far it’s a tie, but I suspect than when the dust has cleared, the new Duomo metro station at Piazza Nicola Amore will incorporate (as the metro has done elsewhere) at least part of the old ruins, in this case, the monument complex of the Isolympic Augustan Roman Italic Games. Construction now seems to have picked up again, and a lot of archaeological pieces have been moved to the small metro-museum beneath the main National Archaeological Museum.
Wall display in the metro-museum
The prefix iso- means “same as” and thus proclaims the importance of the games by declaring them equal to those of the Greeks. Indeed, archaeologists have actually found the inscription, "We are the Roman Augustan games equal to the [games] in Olympia." The inscription was one of 400 pieces of Greek-inscribed marble recovered from in front of the temple of Augustus.
Augustus chose the very Hellenic town
of Neapolis for the games. They were
held every four years and featured equestrian, athletic,
and musical contests. The equestrian contests included
horseback races, and races of chariots drawn by teams of
two and four horses. The athletic contests included
stadium races, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, pancratium
(mixed—anything goes—combat), an armed race (I’m afraid
to ask!), and acrobatics. The athletes, who came from
all over the Mediterranean, competed
in their age groups. Women also took part in the
The winners in the athletic contests
received a wheat-stalk wreath, but there were also
prizes in money for the musical and theater contests,
which included flute, kithara (or ‘cithara,’ a
seven-stringed lyre; the name is the origin of the word
‘guitar’), poetry, comedy, tragedy, and pantomime. The
Isolympic games were still being celebrated in the
second half of the third century AD, when the temple and
the portico were renovated for the last time.
There are three slabs on display in the
museum (photo, above) and date from the late first
century AD and bear lists of winners of several editions
of the games. The winners came from Asia Minor and Egypt. The only Neapolitan
winner may have been one Julius Valerianus —“from
Neapolis” (although other towns named Neapolis existed
in the Greek and Roman world).
On the first slab, one can still read
the year in which the games were held (94 AD) and the
names of the agonothetai (the
presidents and organizers of the games). The second slab
lists winners of athletic games. The program includes,
as well, a female contest. On the third slab, the name
of the reigning emperor (Domitian?) stands out in a list
of authors of eulogies to Augustus and his successors.