The stadium (Gk., stadion), a thoroughly Greek institution, was a unit of measure, 600 ancient feet in length (between 177 and 192 meters depending on the length of the local foot at each site), that gave its name to a footrace of that length. According to ancient tradition, the first footrace was held at Olympia, where the winner of the stadion race gave his name to the full four years, or Olympiad, of his victory. The track itself, originally called the dromos, gradually acquired seats for spectators, forming what was originally called the theatron, and the name stadion (Roman stadium) then came to be applied to the whole complex.

Although the Olympic games began in 776 BCE, and the Panhellenic cycle of games (see below) was established by 573 BCE, the earliest extant stadium dates from the middle of the fifth century BCE. Located at Isthmia, it featured an intricate starting mechanism with gates at each lane and no permanent seats. This starting mechanism was short-lived and appears not to have been successful. By about 300 BCE the standard form of the stadium had evolved. It had stone starting lines (Gk., balbis; pl., balbides) across both ends of the tracks (all races ended at the same line in a stadium, but some began at the end line and returned there, whereas others began at the opposite line). These stone lines were embedded in the earthern track. Their upper surfaces contained double grooves for the runners' feet and posts that marked individual lanes. The hysplex, the mechanism that started the race, has been understood recently as a development from the technology of the ancient catapult; a vertical post like the arm of the catapult that carried with it the barriers that held the runners back and then, by its fall, released them, was hurled to the ground by a torsion spring. The long sides of the track were delineated by stone channels that brought fresh water into the stadium. By this time, stadiums were typically equipped with vaulted entrances for use by the judges and athletes; the far end of such tunnels connected with a dressing room for the athletes. The theatron evolved from simple grassy slopes (c. 350 BCE) to a combination of such slopes with some stone seats (c. 300 BCE) to a track completely surrounded by stone seats for spectators (in the Roman period).

The stadium was used for athletic competition, the gymnikos agon, that included footraces of various lengths, boxing, wrestling, the pankration, and the pentathlon. It is to be distinguished from other facilities that hosted their own competitions: the theater for the mousikos agon and the hippodrome (Roman circus) for the hippikos agon. The former's semicircular shape and the latter's much greater size and the central barrier in the track are the simplest means of differentiating them from the stadium.

The stadium came to the Near East with Alexander the Great, whose generals carried athletic gear with them wherever they went. Indeed, it was Alexander's custom to stage athletic competitions at resting points on his march. We are told specifically by Arrian (Anabasis) of games at, for example, Soli (2.5.8), Tyre (2.24.6 and 3.6.1), Memphis (3.1.4 and 3.5.2), Susa (3.16.9 and, apparently, 8.42.6–8), Zadracarta (3.24.1), Alexandria Ultima (4.4.1), Taxila (5.3.6 and 5.8.3), and on the banks of both the Hydaspes (5.20.1) and the Hyphasis Rivers (5.29.2). In every competition mentioned by Arrian, Alexander staged a gymnikos agon, sometimes accompanied by a mousikos agon, and sometimes by a hippikos agon, but never by both. Although each competition implies the existence of a stadium—however temporary—it is only at Ecbatana that one is expressly mentioned (7.14.1). These competitions also imply the presence in Alexander's rain of professional athletes, musicians, and charioteers; the funeral games for Hephaistion included three thousand such competitors.

The spread of Hellenism and of Greek athletics in the Near East continued after Alexander, and many new competitions were established in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, some modeled expressly on the old Panhellenic festivals at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. The terms isolympic, isopythian, and isonemean are frequently used to describe the age categories and victory prizes for these new games. It is then natural to find that stadiums are extant throughout the Near East, at sites like Adana, Cibyra, and Marathos, and at Salamis on Cyprus. It is also natural that these stadiums are concentrated in areas where there was a relatively strong Hellenic influence. For some sites, such as Alexandria in Egypt and Tiberias in ancient Palestine, although the existence of a stadium is stated in the literary sources, one has not been identified on the ground.

Archaeological investigation has been sufficient at some sites to suggest that no stadium ever existed. Thus, for example, the Sebasteia games established by King Herod at Caesarea in 10/9 BCE demand the existence of a stadium, but no traces of it have ever been identified. This and similar examples have led to the assumption that at such sites the hippodrome, or circus, might have hosted both the hippikos and the gymnikos agon. This theory has led to confusion: today the word stadium is sometimes casually applied to hippodromes, as if the two words were interchangeable, as at Gerasa and Samaria. The confusion is not ancient.

Alternatively it has been suggested that the gymnikos agon of the Augustan/Claudian Olympic games at Antioch on the Orontes might actually have been hosted in a stadium at nearby Daphne because no trace of a stadium has been discovered at Antioch itself. This may also have been the case elsewhere: Josephus consistently and uniquely refers to a stadium at Tiberias (War 2.618; Life 92.2 and 331.2), but equally consistently to a hippodrome at Tarichaeae (War 2.599; Life 132 and 138) some 5 km (3 mi.) to the north. These two structures could easily have served as parts of a single competition complex.

Once established, a stadium might be used for popular assemblies, frequently of a disruptive type. For example, Josephus was attacked by the crowd in the stadium at Tiberias (loc. cit.), and the stadium at Alexandria was the site of violent anti- Agathoclean demonstrations (Polybius 15.30–33). Such use of the stadium apparently was unusual, however.

According to ancient sources, the stadium was never used for physical exercise. Such a function belonged in the palaestra- gymnasium, where education in general—physical and intellectual—and the ephebic training that led to citizenship in the Greek polis took place. It is that training for Greek citizenship to which Maccabees (1.1.14; 2.4.9–14) refers, and not to any connection with the stadium. Maccabees is clear on this point (as is Josephus, Antiq. 12.241), even though modern translations have sometimes confused the gymnasium with the stadium.

Bibliography

  • Aupert, Pierre. Fouilles de Delphes, vol. 2, Le stade. Paris, 1979.
    Detailed presentation of the stadium at Delphi, with an appended extensive, but incomplete, list of stadiums in the whole of the ancient world including the Near East
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  • Humphrey, John H. Roman Circuses. London, 1986.
    Thorough study of the form and function of the circus, and of its places of appearance throughout the Roman world
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  • Romano, David Gilman, and Stephen G. Miller. Nemea, vol. 2, The Stadium. Berkeley, 1996.
    Detailed presentation of the remains of the stadium at Nemea compared to other extant examples with a discussion of the significance of the addition of stone seats, vaulted entrance, and locker room for understanding the role of athletics against the background of ancient societies
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  • Valavanis, Panos D. Hysplex, The Starting Mechanism in Ancient Stadia. Athens, 1996.
    Study of the origins and development of the starting device used in Greek stadia in Greece and the Near East during the late Classical and Hellenistic periods
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Stephen G. Miller