Isthmian games

Isthmian games

Isthmian games, athletic events organized c.581 B.C. They were held at Corinth in the spring of the first and third years of the Olympiad, and they honored Palaemon as well as Poseidon. The contests were generally like the Olympic games, but they were conducted on a smaller scale; the many added amusements and the convenient journey from Athens made the Isthmian games popular. The victor's prize was a crown of wild celery, but after Corinth was destroyed (146 B.C.) by the Romans and restored (44 B.C.) by Julius Caesar, the Isthmian games were reestablished for a time with a crown of fir as the victor's prize.
The Isthmian Games or Isthmia (ancient Greek Ἴσθμια) were one of the Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece, and were named after the isthmus of Corinth, where they were held. As with the Nemean Games, the Isthmian Games were held both the year before and the year after the Olympic Games (the second and fourth years of an Olympiad), while the Pythian Games were held in the third year of the Olympiad cycle.


The Games were reputed to have originated as funeral games for Melicertes (also known as Palaemon), instituted by Sisyphus, legendary founder and king of Corinth, who discovered the dead body and buried it subsequently on the Isthmus. In Roman times, Melicertes was worshipped in the region.

Theseus, legendary king of Athens, expanded Melicertes' funeral games from a closed nightly rite into fully-fledged athletic-games event which was dedicated to Poseidon, open to all Greeks, and was at a suitable level of advancement and popularity to rival those in Olympia, which were founded by Herakles. Theseus arranged with the Corinthians for any Athenian visitors to the Isthmian games to be granted the privilege of front seats (prohedria, Ancient Greek προεδρία). Another version states that Kypselos, tyrant of Corinth in the 7th century BC, returned to the Games their old splendour

If we are to accept the traditional date of the first Olympic Games (776 BC), we can say that the first Isthmian Games would have been held in 582 BC.

At least until the 5th century BC (Pindar's time) the winners of the Isthmian games received a wreath of celery; later, the wreath was altered such that it consisted of pine leaves. Victors could also be honored with a statue or an ode. Besides these prizes of honor, the city of Athens awarded victorious Athenians with an extra 100 drachmas.


From 228 BC or 229 BC onwards the Romans were allowed to take part in the games.

The Games of 196 BC were used by Titus Quinctius Flamininus to proclaim the freedom of the Greek states from Macedonian rule.

Since the games' inception, Corinth had always been in control of them. When Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, the Isthmian games continued, but were now administered by Sicyon. Corinth was rebuilt by Caesar in 44 BC. Corinth recovered ownership of the Games at some point between 7 BC and AD 3. The Isthmian Games thereafter flourished until Theodosius I suppressed them as a pagan ritual.


Comparable to the Olympic games. Among other competitions were:

  • Chariot races
  • Pankration
  • Wrestling
  • Musical and poetical contests, in which there is evidence women were allowed to compete.

Famous victors

In 216 BC: Cleitomachus of Thebes (won wrestling, boxing and pankration on the same day).

Isthmian truce

Before the games began, a truce was declared by Corinth to grant athletes safe passage through Greece. In 412 BC, even though Athens and Corinth were at war, the Athenians were invited to the games as usual.

See also



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