People who like ancient monuments should definitely visit the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. This massive stadium is one of the most important ancient sites in Athens. These days it’s used for various events, and it’s also open to visit.
The Panathenaic Games in Athens
You may know that the ancient Greeks were keen on all sorts of cultural events. Several artistic and athletic events took place all around the Hellenic world, throughout the year. There were Panhellenic Games, such as the Olympic Games, and regional Games.
The most important regional event in Athens were the Panathenaic Games, also known as the Panathenaia. They were dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.
It is not exactly clear when the first Panathenaia were held. Perhaps it was the mythical King, Thesseus, who established the games. It is known for certain that the games were held in Athens as early as 566-565 BC.
There were two versions of the Panathenaia. The Great Panathenaia took place every four years, while the lesser Panathenaia happened on an annual basis.
The Great Panathenaic Games lasted for several days. Their highlight was a ceremonial procession, starting from Kerameikos cemetery and ending in the Acropolis. During this impressive ceremony, a supersized veil was transported all around the city. Eventually, it was offered to the chryselephantine statue of Athena, which was inside the Parthenon.
The Games included several types of contests and events. There were athletic events for different age groups, including equestrian games and boat races. Additionally, musical and artistic competitions took place.
Only men and boys participated in the Panathenaia. There were various prizes, and the award-winning ceremony was followed by celebrations.
History of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens
In 338 BC, the orator Lycurgus was appointed to monitor the finances of Athens. It was his decision to build a new stadium, to host the future Panathenaic Games.
The stadium was built between two hills, Ardettos and Agra, on the banks of Ilissos River. It is likely that a lot of land was removed, in order for the surface to be flat enough for a stadium.
The new stadium was originally rectangular, and mostly made out of limestone, with wooden seats. The first Great Panathenaia were held in the new stadium in 330/29 BC.
During the Roman era, the stadium was restored and reconstructed. Important works were commissioned by Herodes of Atticus, the affluent orator who also built the Herodion theatre.
As a result, the stadium acquired a new horseshoe shape, and white Pentelic marble was used liberally. It is believed that the new, magnificent stadium could fit up to 50,000 people. Gladiatorial fights and other popular events were held in the subsequent years.
In the centuries that followed, Christianity took over the ancient world. Eventually, these “barbaric” celebrations slowly ceased to exist. Like all other ancient monuments, the Panathenaic Stadium lost its former glory. The beautiful marbles were gradually detached and used elsewhere in Athens.
Excavations around the Panathenaic Stadium began in the 19th century. At the time, all the marble was gone, and Ilissos River was still flowing in Athens. Yes – like most European capitals, Athens had a river, not too long ago. In the early 1960s the river was filled in, and new avenues were constructed on top.
Revival of the Olympic Games
So how did the Panathenaic Stadium regain its former glory? In the late 19th century, there was a lot of interest in reviving the ancient Olympic Games. The original Games had started in Olympia, in the Peloponnese. However, the Greek capital was deemed more suitable for the modern Olympic Games.
A number of people were involved in the revival of the Olympic Games. The first major influencer was the Greek benefactor Vangelis Zappas. In an attempt to revive the concept of the ancient Games, he organized the first so-called Olympia Games in 1859. These were held in Omonia square, and were meant to be the first of a series of Games.
Unfortunately, Zappas died in 1865, leaving a large sum to be used for subsequent Games. After his passing, a committee was appointed to continue his work. In 1870, the second Olympia was organized in the Panathenaic Stadium, which had been refurbished following Zappas’ wishes.
In 1894, the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin organized an International Olympic Conference in Paris. During the conference, it was decided to organize the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, in 1896.
The reconstruction of the stadium was made possible due to the famous Greek benefactor, Georgios Averoff. Like in ancient times, white Pentelic marble was used once again. For this reason, a new name was given to the stadium, Kallimarmaron, indicating the beauty of the marbles.
The stadium was restored according to its shape during the Roman Era. Its new capacity was over 60,000 people, and it was ready to welcome the modern Olympic Games.
The Panathenaic Stadium today
The first big Games to be held in the Stadium were the Olympic Games in March / April 1896. There appears to be no consensus over how many athletes participated, or how many countries were represented. As it is expected, the majority of athletes were of Greek origin.
The highlight of the Games was when Spyros Louis, representing Greece, won the Marathon race. As you can imagine, the audience went wild, and apparently carried Louis all the way up to the king’s seat.
Since then, the stadium has been used for various celebrations and opening or closing ceremonies of athletic events. Concerts and other events have also been hosted here. The small museum showcases memorabilia from previous Olympics, ceremonies and other events.
The annual Athens Marathon, happening in our capital every November, finishes at the Panathenaic Stadium. This 42.2 km route begins in the ancient Marathon, and ends right inside the Kallimarmaron.
Every four years, before the official Olympic Games begin, the Olympic Flame ceremony takes place. This symbolic ceremony begins in Ancient Olympia, where a prayer to Apollo, the God of Light, is read out.
The flame leaves Olympia and passes by several Greek cities on its way to Athens, where it stops at the Panathenaic Stadium. Afterwards, it sets off to the next Olympic city. For the 2020 Olympics, the Flame will pass by Athens on 19th March.
Fun facts about the Panathenaic Stadium
There are many fun facts related to this amazing stadium!
- It is the only stadium in the world where three Olympic Games have taken place three times – in 1896, 1906 and 2004
- It was the first ancient stadium to be used in modern times
- The Kallimarmaron is the only stadium in the world made out of Pentelic marble
- It was home to the biggest basketball game audience ever, in 1968. The Greek team called AEK defeated Slavia Praha (89-82). An estimated 80,000 people were inside the stadium, with another 40,000 standing right outside!
Visiting the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens
I’ll be honest – I hadn’t appreciated how impressive the Panathenaic Stadium is, until we actually visited and walked around. It was a winter day so we were there with low temperature, but some very welcome sunlight.
The stadium is really huge, and as we were pretty much the only people there it seemed even bigger. When we walked up the top, close to Archimidous street, the view was really awesome.
We even discovered a secret entrance up there. Apparently, early morning joggers use this entrance to enter the stadium. Yes, you can actually go jogging in the Stadium if you want, but only until 9 am!
Additionally, you can go through the vaulted passage and visit a cool exhibition with memorabilia from past Olympic Games. I loved this poster from the 1968 Mexico Games!
All in all, we spent a couple of hours in the stadium, but we took our time. You can probably visit in less time if you are in a rush. Note that the toilets are located outside the stadium and they cost 50 cents.
How to visit the Panathenaic Stadium
Getting to the Panathenaic Stadium is quite straightforward. The most pleasant way is to begin from Syntagma metro station and stroll through the National Gardens>. Then you can cross over to the Stadium. If you are staying close to the Acropolis, it’s walking distance.
Opening hours in summer (March – October) are 8 am to 7 pm, while in winter the stadium closes at 5 pm. In summer, it’s best to visit outside the afternoon hours, as the marbles are reflecting the strong sunlight!
General admission tickets cost 5 euro, students and seniors pay 2.50 euro and children under 6 enjoy free entrance. You can get a free audio guide with your ticket, explaining more about the stadium. Entrance is free on 18 April, International Day for Monuments and Sites.
Note that the Panathenaic Stadium is not included in the combined ticket to the ancient sites in Athens.
Have you been to the Panathenaic Stadium?
Have you been to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens? What did you think to it? Let us know in the comments!
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